Review by c_rake

Reviewed: 09/06/11

Vastly improving on its predecessor, Uncharted 2 delivers a rapturous good time, both online and off

It's common for a sequel to build vastly upon the foundations of their predecessors, but to do so on such an immaculate degree... not so much. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves happens to be one of those games, addressing every problem from its predecessor and then improves upon its improvements. Where the last game's gunplay was weak, Uncharted 2's is powerful, satisfying. Where the story of its predecessor had a few under-developed beats, Uncharted 2 achieves complete cohesion, peppering in more variety and action. It's a truly great sequel, and an even better game.

This time around sees treasure hunter Nathan Drake searching for lost fleet of Marco Polo, after an old friend approaches Drake with a job that sets him on the trail. Not long after, he finds evidence that suggests Marco Polo found Shangri-La. He follows the trail to Nepal, where a dangerous man by the name of Lazarevic is tearing the city apart as he, too, searches for Shangri-La, hoping to get his hands on the fabled Cintamani stone, which is said to bestow great power to he who holds it.

The cast is wonderfully developed. Nate goes about all the deft-defying trouble he faces with that same happy-go-lucky nature he exhibited in the last game, amusingly dismayed at every horrible situation he encounters, often echoing the reactions of the player. His new partner and love interest, Chloe, is more calm and collected, having a bit more foresight than Drake, who just sort of stumbles his way through everything making up plans as he goes. Her presence offers up some playful banter between the two. Jovial dialog makes up most of the character's interactions with each other, actually. Despite being constantly in the thick of danger, the core cast always remains lighthearted, cracking jokes about their current situation. That's not to say the game doesn't deliver on drama -- because it does -- only that the game keeps its spirits high throughout.

Gameplay hasn't changed much from its predecessor. Uncharted is still a third-person, cover-based shooter at heart, the gunplay having seen some minor tweaks to satisfying effect. Before, firing the assortment of assault rifles, shotguns, pistols, and grenade and rocket launchers was unsatisfying and dull. They lacked punch, sounded weak and harmless. Not so, here. Guns now sound like the destructive, ferocious tools they are, roaring viciously, ripping foes to shreds effortlessly. Gunfire drowns all other noise out, the bombastic, orchestral beats of music just barely surfacing above the deafening hail of gunfire. Enemies' health has decreased significantly, which means you don't have to pour what feels like half a clip to take down a single foe anymore (excluding soldiers with layers of body armor, that is). Guns no longer feel like they're barely making a dent, foes now staggering at every shot sustained, making each shot fired feel significant. These small tweaks go a long way toward giving the guns a profound sense of brawn.

With better gunplay in hand, the intense atmosphere of battle becomes excitedly more engaging. Uncharted uses the same pop-and-shoot style of combat that today's third-person shooters do. Makeshift cover-spots litter every inch of Uncharted 2's landscape. Look around at any point in the game and you'll be able to identify every cover-spot in a matter of seconds. They're easy to spot -- large slabs of stone or crumbled brick walls being the obvious. Moving between spots isn't always a smooth action, Drake sometimes positioning himself on the wrong side right in the line of fire, which can be incredibly vexing. Things work swell for the better part of it, though, jumping from place to place being a snappy, effortless task. Once battle kicks off, you don't get much time to spend thinking about cover..

Soldiers flood in from all sides, both high and low, wielding all manner of firearms. Rockets, grenades, and regular ol' bullets -- all stream through the battlefield aiming to take you down. It's an intense atmosphere, the minor support your few allies bring doing little to even the odds. (They do still hold their own, though, regularly dispatching foes.) Skirmishes aren't easily won. Fire rains down from all sides almost constantly, your adversaries slowly advancing toward you under the protection of cover. The artificial intelligence on these guys is attentive and adept at battle. They aren't master tacticians -- they're incapable of flanking, for instance -- but they aren't stupid. Foes will throw grenades to your position regularly when you've been behind cover for too long to flush you out. They keep a constant stream of suppressive fire on your position, lending little chance for you to retaliate unharmed. When it's only you against a small army of these guys, the challenge really sets in.

Moving about cover, popping off shots, trying to avoid the constant hail of gunfire is already hard enough even with support. On your own, it, at times, feels almost insurmountable. The overwhelming odds make it difficult to combat each and every foe effectively. Assault rifle and pistol wielding foes always stay in your direct line of sight, drawing your attention away from their slower, stronger backup. Shotgun touting soldiers can easily sneak up behind you and take you down with a single shot because you were too preoccupied to notice his approach. And even if you do, once they're in range, all it takes is a couple of shots to best you. Staying aware of enemy advancements is far from manageable when under constant fire. It's a lot to take in, but enthralling to take part in.

Luckily, Uncharted 2 lends plenty of chances to even the odds. Stealth attacks were technically present in the last game, but they were barely acknowledged. Throughout Uncharted 2 you'll be given numerous chances to employ stealth to lower the enemy ranks. Never forced upon you, stealth always remains an optional tactic. The incentive of dwindling enemy numbers greatly before engaging them serves as an ample hook to at least try employing stealth, the act of sneaking up on them simple. Learning patrols takes only a minute or two tops. They barely cover their backs, seldom gazing in your direction, rendering detection anxiety-free. Once you've gotten behind them, a simple press of the square button initiates a stealth take-down, the animation depicting Drake knocking them out or breaking their necks. Avoiding foes entirely never becomes an option, dispatching all foes a strict requisite before pressing onward.

The linear forward paves itself with all-manner of physical challenges. Traversal plays a more pivotal role in Uncharted 2. In the last game, platforming only made up a small portion of game's content. It felt like an afterthought, only there to bring a touch of variety between shoot-outs. Here, it's an even split. Exploration takes on a greater sense of scale and dynamics. The locales you clamber around see elaborate structures to climb. In one instance around the middle of the story, Drake's taken to a sprawling temple hidden deep in the icy mountains of Tibet. Inside, massive clockwork machinery acts as the only means of pressing onward, all the easy ways having already crumbled. He moves around the complex network of machinery naturally, if ungracefully. He tosses himself about with the amount of dexterity you'd expect from someone with amateur level of experience in acrobatics. The animations are smooth, of course, the game heavily using motion capture. In one other instance, he jumps onto a moving train to rescue an ally, fighting his way to front car, avoiding arches and checkpoints threatening to knock him off all the while. Even a helicopter surfaces eventually, destroying train cars in its pursuit to snuff out Drake, forcing him to scramble to have any hope of survival. Grandiose set-pieces like those deliver the greatest thrills available in Uncharted.

The rest can be found in the multiplayer component. Still bustling with players eager for competition or cooperation, Uncharted's multiplayer makes finding a match easy despite the game's age. The usual suite of modes populate Uncharted's play-lists, placing you in team deathmatch, capture the flag, and king of the hill variants on the competitive end, while co-op sees two modes: a round based arena mode where you and two others fight off increasingly difficult waves of foes, and a mission construct that places the three of you in levels right out of the campaign to complete objectives, the occasional cutscene lending a touch of narrative to the proceedings. Intricate, symmetrical maps serve as the battlegrounds in competitive play, putting players on the hunt for each other but never extensively. The size hits a perfect balance, granting large enough fields to give some breathing room, while still ensuring that firefights occur regularly. Only a few can be played without purchase of the game's downloadable content add-ons, where many more maps lay locked from view.

Few modes see traffic as well, objective-based games like plunder (the aforementioned capture the flag variant) getting very little in terms of player-numbers. Deathmatch and the cooperative game types see large player numbers constantly. The barren landscape on the rest of the play-lists limits what you can play through matchmaking with random folks, forcing you to get some friends together if you want to play a very specific mode.

Uncharted 2 is a massive step-up from its predecessor. Every little tweak made improves the game for the better. Gunplay no longer feels cheap, the excitement of participating in battle doubling. Traversal feels natural, with a greater scale and sense of dynamics fueling it. Multiplayer even proves itself as a worthy addition, with a healthy player-base that still plays it religiously. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves delivers a complete package of thrills.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

Product Release: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (US, 10/13/09)

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