Review by discoinferno84

"My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon, I will return again..."

Something happened to Marco Polo. After spending two decades in the court of Kublai Khan, he left for his homeland in 1292. He had over a dozen ships and hundreds of passengers under his command. But when he arrived in Persia, he was down to a single vessel with only eighteen crewmen. He never explained what happened to the rest of his envoy. Any reasons and motives have been lost to time, hidden deep within the frozen reaches of the Eurasian continent…until now. Nathan Drake has come across a clue that not only leads him to Polo's missing fleet, but to something far greater: the mythical city of Shambhala. This revelation is thanks to Harry Flynn and Chloe Frazier, professional treasure hunters whose skills rival Nathan's own. But what starts as grand expedition quickly turns into something far deadlier, and nothing is what it seems. When you're among thieves, honor can be hard to come by.

It's especially difficult for Nathan. He starts the game in media res clinging to a wrecked train car dangling over an icy abyss. Such an introduction not only provides a great tutorial for the basic platforming mechanics, but it immediately grabs the audience's attention and gets them wondering about the story. As the game progresses, it gradually unveils the shady dealings between the main characters and how it affects the adventure. In Drake's Fortune, Nathan had questionable motives at best; despite his humor and likability, he was never completely trustworthy. When Among Thieves takes that personality and contrasts it with those of Flynn and Chloe, Nathan seems far more heroic. Flynn is basically the same person, but without the intelligence and morality. Chloe is much more complicated; she's focused and goal-oriented, but you never know which side she's on or if she's just playing the rest of the cast for fools. Such dynamics make the characters' interactions much more compelling, and they make the story engaging throughout.

Despite having new characters, Among Thieves retains what made its predecessor so memorable: the platforming. Thanks to years of treasure hunting and adventuring, Nathan is capable of pulling off lengthy jumps and using random objects as handholds. Door frames, old bill boards, the ruins of a gutted building, a row of flagpoles, loose bricks, priceless statues, and all kinds of other things can be used as a makeshift platform. There's always pathway hidden somewhere in the background, and it's just a matter of finding it. The mechanics are practically identical to those of Drake's Fortune, for both the good and bad. Nathan can make some insanely long leaps as long as they're on the predetermined path. If they aren't, our hero will feebly hop forward, grab nothing but air, and scream as he plummets to his doom. Such inconsistent physics hinder you from being fully immersed in the game. However, Among Thieves remedies this in a few ways. It occasionally gives you more complex and open areas to traverse, thus providing a better sense of exploration. It also does a much better job of highlighting the platforms and handhold; thanks to the cinematic camera and clever lighting effects, you'll rarely ever have to look hard for the next step along the way. Most importantly, it takes those predetermined paths and makes them absolutely stunning. In the introduction, you're slowly, painful climbing up the underside of a train. You don't just crawl up the side; you're getting knocked around by debris, pieces of railing bend and fall off if you stay on them too long, and sometimes you'll have to slip into the interior and leap up from the rickety chairs. The routes may be predictable, but they're done with style.

That goes double for the combat sequences. Whenever you're not jumping around rooms, you're mercilessly slaughtering generic mercenaries. What they lack in character, they more than make up in intelligence; these guys know how to use terrain and positioning far better than their Drake's Fortune predecessors. Combat usually boils down to ducking behind a wall or obstacle, letting out a few short bursts of gunfire, ducking back down, and repeating the process until everything that moves is dead. Or you could smack everyone into submission with Nathan's newly-expanded arsenal of punches and stealthy takedowns.The weapons haven't changed much; you'll get to wield an assortment of bland pistols, rifles, grenades, and rocket launchers. Since you can only carry two guns at once, you'll have to constantly raid the bodies of your victims and switch the weapons around until you can find something with a decent amount of bullets or stopping power. It's an annoying holdover from the previous installment, and it could have been easily fixed. The game makes up for it by varying the locations of the gunfights and throwing tons of enemies your way. You'll fight through the jungles of Borneo, defend a small town, and escape a burning city while being hopelessly outgunned. There's a particularly awesome sequence involving you boarding a speeding train, clinging to the windowsills and rooftops, and shooting hordes of baddies, all while narrowly dodging overhanging signs, posts, and a particularly nasty helicopter. The battles may be kind of repetitive, but settings make them incredibly entertaining.

That goes for the rest of the game as well. Considering how much of the gameplay involves you looking around a room to find the next platform or clue, the heavy emphasis on detail is not surprising. While Drake's Fortune set the early standard for the graphical content of PS3 titles, Among Thieves trumps it in every possible way. The characters are far more physically fleshed out and have more fluidity in their movements. Just watch the subtle changes in Nathan's outfit as he runs, or the way his shirt dampens and sticks to his chest whenever he gets wet. The stages themselves are much better scaled and seem more believable. There's an often-overlooked scene that involves you climbing up a ruined hotel. Not only do you start from the crumbling walls and rickety signs of a war-torn street, but you'll occasionally get glimpses of the surrounding area as you make your way further up. By the time you reach the roof, you'll be able to gaze at the immense city that was previously hidden from view. That's aside from all of the fast-paced action sequences; there's nothing quite as awesome as fighting your way through a building as it collapses in a hail of bullets and explosions. The constant stream of incredible imagery and intense gameplay make for one of the most memorable games on the PS3.

It's kind of funny, in a way. No one ever expects a sequel to be better than the original. Such a thing rarely happens; it either doesn't improve upon its predecessor, or the immense amount of hype building up to its release inevitably results in disappointment. Among Thieves averts all of this by taking the formula established in Drake's Fortune and improves upon it in almost every way. The story is offers a fascinating look in Nathan's work, and the underlying theme of trust is present throughout. The platforming, while still flawed and limited, benefits from some complex and well-crafted designs. The combat remains mostly unchanged, but the boring and repetitive nature of the fighting is alleviated with the rich variety of battlefields and clever AI. The most drastic improvement, however, comes with the presentation; the sheer variety of locales, scale and scope of the stages, little details of the character designs, unrelenting pace and intensity make this so much more than just another video game. There may be not honor among thieves, but there is tons of fun.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 11/07/11

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

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