Review by Crofty

"Astounded by Naughty Dog. Again."

If there was a game that has taken me by surprise in the past few years it would definitely be Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. I had a rough idea what the game was about and its intended genre before playing, but I sort-of always expected it to be a standard affair - akin to Tomb Raider in its design; enjoyable enough to play, but generally unremarkable... you know, 7/10 stuff. However, after getting to grasps with the solid combat, platforming, puzzles, and seeing the most realistically rendered rainforest in a game ever, Uncharted soon had me in a state of shock.

Playing as Nathan Drake as he made his way around forests and ancient structures offered some of highest enjoyment I've ever encountered in my many years of gaming. Even the story, which was - by most means - shallow, somehow managed to win me over and allowed me to find each of the three heroes entirely likeable (a rare feat for a film, let alone a game). At the game's end I was entirely convinced that Naughty Dog had it all figured out, and that anything else from them would surely be excellent. And, to be sure, as they announced Uncharted 2 with all the expected updates and improvements I was nodding away to the prospect of yet another fantastic title. But then, the bombshell dropped, and they announced multi-player.

After Capcom's complete balls-up of game in Resident Evil 5, it would be fair to think Uncharted 2 could also suffer a similar fate. After all, Capcom were the guys behind a single-player Resident Evil 4, a fantastic game, much like Uncharted, and yet even with those same talented minds behind the sequel, they somehow managed to pump out one of the most disappointing titles in recent years.

On-top of that, the original Uncharted had certain incentives to keep the price-tag and length of the story-mode justifiable. There were in-game medals that - when earned - unlocked features such as weapons, infinite ammo, character skins, concept art, behind the scenes movies, and even screen filters. If Naughty Dog were now to plow their development time into multi-player, would everything we came to enjoy in the original game be lost forever?

Uncharted 2 kicks off with a half-dead Nathan Drake clawing about in the snow. He's bleeding heavily, but he has no choice but to keep going and we eventually find out why, as the game takes us back to events that happened prior to the current scenario. Nate is drinking in bar placed at some exotic location, where he is approached by two other adventurers who require his help in solving mysteries left behind by Marco Polo. Of course, the premise isn't as straight forward as that, and in usual Uncharted fashion the story takes a few twists and turns (some involving old faces), and while the scale and depth is a lot heavier than the original game, the sense of simplicity and innocence is still very much the theme.

In any case, the story sees Drake explore environments with a lot of variation this time, and even though I could never grow tired of the original's rainforest, it's very pleasing to see locations like Istanbul and Nepal, and especially to see the game's fantastic visuals being used to huge effect. There's no doubt in my mind that Uncharted 2 is, technically at least, currently the best looking game on any console. The backdrops are especially magnificent, though players will soon realise that themselves as they spend far too long gazing at the mountain ranges instead of shooting enemies in the face.

Naughty Dog's often quoted words stated that the original Uncharted only used so much of the PlayStation 3's power (30%), while Uncharted 2 would pretty much go all out and push the console as much as possible. I wouldn't necessarily say Uncharted 2 looks that much better than the original, but that's a compliment in itself, since what was achieved in the original game was already masterful. The fact that they have managed to improve the visuals at all astounds me, but what's better is that they've managed to do so without loss of performance in most areas, for example, screen-tear wasn't noticeable at all for me, and neither was texture-build, even on initial loading (both of which happened frequently in the original).

But as beautiful and as undoubtedly impressive as the visuals are, they're not quite polished enough; I encountered several areas where the graphics messed up. One example was when Drake was dangling from a window ledge in Istanbul - two completely different exterior textures loaded in a bizarre fashion. Another occurred whilst I was exploring a jungle camp - the lighting would go from extremely bright to very dark depending on where I was stood. Both these examples, and the many others I encountered, went some way to pull me out of the experience, but by the end they were of little concern since the overall display and performance of the game was of the highest magnitude.

It's also fair to say that, with the visuals, Naughty Dog have also put an equal amount of effort into improving the combat mechanics. Where-as I felt the original game had solid combat, I wouldn't have compared it to the more shoot 'em up focused games such as Gears of War, but this time I can quite happily say that Naughty Dog have managed to offer a combat component that can stand toe-to-toe with most shooters available. The different use of cover, improved blind fire, and vast array of weapons are a few of the features that make the game feel more focused, while enemy types have increased dramatically. There's a much clear emphasis on the level of difficulty an enemy will pose, and several attack groups will come with one or two guys armoured to the teeth and sporting weapons that would seem a million miles away from what Drake was firing in the original game. I thought I had wandered into Killzone 2 by accident when I saw a huge chain-gun laid on the floor, and was also a little surprised to see guys walking around with riot shields. Of course, I expected new weapons to be a standard feature of the game, and by and large they all work, look, and sound perfectly, with the balance remaining pretty good throughout. I did get a general feeling from these weapons, though - a feeling I would associate with multi-player, since most of the core changes made to Uncharted's combat do indeed feel like they were made for multi-player purpose. Fortunately, the changes do work undoubtedly well for the single-player mode, so it's not really something I would level any criticism towards at this point.

I also can't really fully criticise another prominent and noticeable feature of Uncharted 2, and that's the notion that you will spend roughly 80% of the story mode with at least one other AI controlled player. While Resident Evil 5 made mandatory co-op essentially kill the game in single-player, the way it is used in Uncharted 2 is somewhat weird; kinda like Naughty Dog intended for the whole game to be played in co-op via multi-player, but instead decided to slice it up separately, and leave the AI to handle it for the offline mode. There are many times where Drake will need to boost up his friend to knock down ladders or obstacles, but from a single-player standpoint they seem somewhat out-of-place and worlds away from the original game, where fighting alongside the AI featured in short sequences. The AI also doesn't seem to have the capacity to die at any point, nor do they go far to help you fend off enemies, it's like they're there just for the sake of it. The game would likely feel more epic if Drake was left to his own devices (it certainly worked out okay for the original, at least), but as it is you'll spend a lot of time being followed by friends, but not really noticing their usefulness aside from the times when you spot an out-of-reach ladder.

The main positive to being accompanied throughout the game, though, is hearing the interaction between Nate and whomever is with him at the time. Once again Naughty Dog have selected a great cast of voice actors, and kept the writing so that the dialogue always hits the intended target (the animation of the character models only serves to help this; yet another area where the visuals shine). The music is also fantastic, and the different locations you visit are accompanied by a score with equal variation in its execution. The way the music seems to flow and remain consistent actually enriches the game overall, especially to the point where I feel it's worth praising anyway.

The content is pretty consistent too, much like the original game. Again, it's a blend of combat and platforming, mixed with the occasional puzzle. The combat alone is enjoyable enough to do its part, and the platforming is solid enough, if still somewhat unresponsive and frustrating in a few areas (and when I say few, I mean few). But considering I had some pretty big worries about how multi-player would affect the overall length of the offline mode, I was more than pleased to see the game offering a great deal of content to get through, even to the extent that the game offered more different experiences than the original. By the end I felt satisfied and happy with what the game gave me, and felt that each section of the game's story mostly offered enough time to enjoy it (the jungle in Borneo probably could have offered a bit more, but it's nothing I would massively highlight). There's even a section of the game that takes a risk, of sorts, by not offering much in the way of combat for a long period of time, but this ultimately pays off since - if anything - it offers respite from a barrage of action orientated events, and subsequently makes you enjoy firefights all the more when they inevitably return.

The puzzles are, again, mostly straight forward. Using Drake's journal paves the way to solve some of the more grand puzzles (the journal itself highlights how much attention to detail Naughty Dog put into their games; make sure you flick through it for some chuckles), while in-game tips and hints are available to those not too keen on using much brainpower. The puzzles could easily be criticised for being too easy, but I choose to look at them as ways to keep the game from getting too constrained by shooting. They're not complex enough to stump you for long enough to get angry or frustrated but they're satisfying and short enough to allow you to enjoy the pace of the game overall.

As it is, the blend and pacing of Uncharted 2's gameplay elements is done to excellent effect. When you're just about to get bored of climbing, along comes an area littered with enemies, and then there's the challenge of picking them off by stealth attacks (which, by the way, has been advanced quite a lot from the original), or going in all-guns-blazing, depending on your mood. When you're just about sick of fighting (which, to be fair, you probably won't ever be) up comes a puzzle to get your teeth into. It's a consistent and solid execution of adventure and action gameplay, and of course the story going alongside your experiences adds that extra incentive on the road ahead. In fact, both Uncharted games pack more in the way of thrills and experiences than Tomb Raider has in its entire series, which defines just how much Naughty Dog have done with the games. I'd be almost tempted to say that they've completely mastered how to create the perfect gaming experience, but they're not quite at that level yet.

As I stated at the start of the review, the inclusion of multi-player in Uncharted 2 echoed within me past experiences with games that have took the plunge and made the core single-player experience lessened due to the developer's choice. It stands to reason: if a developer, of a previously offline-only single-player focused game, decides to add multi-player to their next project, development time is ultimately going to be shortened on the main offline content. I stated how the original game had unlockables that kept game-time lengthened, and as such I expected Uncharted 2 to do away with such concepts. But I was, ultimately, wrong.

The story mode feels and plays fine, and it lasts as long as it needs to. The unlockables are now replaced with an in-game store, where you buy the likes of character skins, weapons and such, with money you've earned by collecting medals. For example, there is a medal to defeat so many enemies with hand-to-hand techniques, or to blow three enemies up with one grenade, and so on. Some of these medals equate to Trophies, which I feel I have to praise, since all of them are obtainable offline aside from two which can easily be gotten by merely taking part in two multi-player games. Even the concept art and making-of movies are here again, so I really can't complain about lack of content and incentives. I'm just astounded that Naughty Dog actually managed to fit in a fully functional multi-player component on-top of the content already featured.

Even more astounded I was at how competent and downright enjoyable the multi-player actually turned out, then. Connecting to online and finding a match wasn't half as annoying as I thought it would be, especially since I am privileged with Bungie's/Halo's online match-making; I don't take too kindly to having to deal with cumbersome online interfaces. I've managed to find matches and get into games in a straight forward manner, and found the experience to be glorious fun. There's plenty of gametypes available, from typical deathmatch and capture the flag (with Uncharted's own tint, of course) to co-op orientated games where upto 3 of you can battle it out against AI enemies in order to achieve certain objectives. From my experiences, the latency and performance of the game remain just as smooth as the offline component, and the ability to rank up and buy perks from the game store keeps the multi-player from becoming tiresome after playing every map and gametype.

The only real issue with the multi-player is the lack of any split-screen support, which instantly hurts the game in a bad way. As good, solid and as smooth as the online play is, Uncharted 2 cannot carry the baton for the PS3 as a major multi-player alternative to Halo 3 and Gears of War 2 gamers, since any game wishing to battle for multi-player gamer attention needs to come with some form of an offline function. There's an argument that Uncharted 2 is better as online only, since split-screen would lessen the technical performance - this may be true, but if Bungie and Epic are willing to put the option for split-screen in their games, regardless of performance (and I should say - both Gears and Halo work fine in split-screen), shouldn't Naughty Dog? And if people who choose to play in split-screen are okay with technical reductions, surely that's reason enough to include it?

As it is, Naughty Dog are already alienating a large portion of their audience by not including split-screen support. Sure, playing online may be free on the PS3 - and that's great - but there are still plenty of gamers out there without internet-enabled consoles, and more yet who still prefer to play games in a social environment; with their friends on the same console. If Naughty Dog are to fully pursue multi-player as a main component of Uncharted, or any future games, they need to make sure to cater to all gamers, and not just the online ones.

With that aside, both aspects of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves are worthy of high praise. You could even call Uncharted 2 the ultimate package, since if you intend to buy it for single-player, multi-player, or both, you're in for a real treat, and should feel like you're getting your money's worth. However, there is an underlying feeling that the inclusion of multi-player has ultimately affected what Uncharted is about; the game no longer feels as isolated and therefore adventurous, and the use of weapons and enemies is definitely an indication that Naughty Dog are aiming for their game to be compared more to the likes of Gears of War, rather than Tomb Raider. But, in the end, this is not necessarily a bad thing; it merely means Uncharted has become more broader in its scope.

Conclusion

Naughty Dog have definitely made Uncharted 2 feel significantly different from the original game, but in doing so they have also, thankfully, maintained all components that made the original such a memorable experience. As a passionate follower of the original Uncharted, and dubious on-looker to the sequel, I am happy that my end experience with Uncharted 2 has been mainly positive.

I've had little to complain about with this game, and like finding myself stunned by how blown away I was by Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, I've once again allowed myself to be taken aback by Naughty Dog's talents. There's certainly some transitional issues that erupt in Uncharted 2 due to multi-player inclusion, but compared to my initial worries they've proven to be nothing but minor hiccups. Once again Naughty Dog have proven their talent, and once again they've created a magnificent game. As it is, Among Thieves is a must own for any PS3 owner.


Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 10/26/09

Game Release: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (Limited Edition Collector's Box) (EU, 10/16/09)


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