Review by Suprak the Stud
Honor Among Sequels
I had a hard time getting particularly excited for the sequels for Uncharted. I had always heard good things about them, but the Uncharted series always reminded me of the videogame equivalent of a frat guy: loud, brash, and kind of immature. I knew one of the multiplayer taunts was a hip thrust, which you would only include in a videogame if your target audience was made up of the kind of people that find spousal abuse funny. Thus, when Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was released, I didn't have particularly high hopes. The first title was already so derivative in terms of gameplay and story that I assumed a sequel would have all the originality of a photocopy of a photocopy, with all the things that made the original concepts appealing too blurred to be remotely recognizable. However, the game took my concerns, put them in a headlock and stole their lunch money by being too awesome for my meager imagination. The single player campaign certainly has its moments of awe, featuring some amazing scenes and great pacing with fun, varied gameplay. And to top it off, Uncharted 2 boasts some legitimately great multiplayer, with a lot of variety in modes and arenas. Even if it copies a lot from other titles and games, Uncharted 2 is genuinely fun and worth a look if you're looking for a good PS3 title.
Uncharted 2 has you reprising the role of Nathan Drake, fresh from his tour of the Hair Gel and Handsome Factory. The game centers around Drake as he searches for an artifact that has half of its concept based in history, and the other half based in Professor Crazy's Fake-a-Torium. He finds himself competing against an adversary that is comically evil and extremely European on a globe trotting adventure until monsters show up for no reason and you begin to think that a few pages of the wrong script got put into this one by mistake and oh, you know what? I'm sorry, that was my summary for the first Uncharted. Geez, how embarrassing. Let me start again. Uncharted 2 centers around Drake as he searches for an artifact that is half historical, half complete crazy juice, and he finds himself competing against a comically evil and extremely European adversary on a globe trotting adventure until random monsters show up and wait this is exactly the same thing, isn't it? The story of the first two games plays out like two things scripted from the same Mad Libs story with the words filled in by two different people. Even if it wasn't following the plot of the first game so closely that they're leaving the same shadow, a lot of the story would still feel somewhat redundant anyway, as they both borrow heavily from the Indiana Jones and National Treasure franchises, and about halfway through you should be able to figure out how things are going to wrap up because you've definitely seen this show before.
While the story itself might be somewhat generic, it doesn't mean the plot as a whole is bad. It is at least interesting enough to drive the action forward, even if it adheres to every action movie trope that has ever been used. The cohesive plot as a whole might be a little disappointing, but there are certainly numerous scenes that are thoroughly enjoyable. Granted, the script for most of these scenes typically reads "EXPLOSION KABOOM BLAM BLAM-O", but the game is clearly going for a high octane action vibe, so if you were expecting anything more cerebral than that you are playing the wrong game (and most likely aren't that bright, since explosions and kaboom blam blam-o's are featured all over the box art). At times it does feel a bit like the locations are driving the plot, and not the other way around, with significant time and budget being used to design gorgeous backdrops and the plot really just strung around them as they pop up. The concept of finding some ancient artifact or treasure has been done thousands of times in the past, and some portions towards the end of the game border on silly and almost stupid. Still, as a vehicle to drive the action forward, it gets the job done, and videogame plots have certainly been worse.
The cast of Uncharted 2 is fairly solid, primarily because the most interesting components were lifted directly from the first game. Nathan Drake is pretty much your generic action hero, and if he was an ice cream flavor he would be plain. He does your generic action hero-y stuff, and at least does have something of a personality and can communicate in things other than grunts and skull crushing. He has this self deprecating and sort of sarcastic attitude that causes him to comment on his situation whenever things start looking tough, but after hours of him piping up whenever he decided the atmosphere needed to be ruined I just sort of wished he would shut up a bit. He actually ends up ruining the mood in some scenes with his desire to offer what is supposed to be witty banter after every single gunshot or jump. There is one scene at the very beginning of the game where you need to climb up a train which is dangling over a cliff and try to find your way to some semblance of safety in the middle of a train wreck and a blizzard. When you play it in the into scene, in order to prevent any spoilers for later in the story, Drake is relatively silent barring some occasional grunts and moans, giving the appearance he is actually in trouble and creating an atmosphere of tension. Later though, when you replay the scene, Drake is now free to give his usual three or four witty quips a minute, completely ruining any attempt at atmosphere the scene might have had. It is like someone trying to make a moving scene about the brutality of war, but your main actor is a clown that keeps honking his nose whenever things start to get too quiet. You suspect at some point in Drake's life, someone told him that if it stays quiet for too long, goblins will rise out of the floor and eat his feet, because I can think of no other reason for him to constantly try and ruin the mood and yell things out when sometimes silence would be more effective. You get the impression that the atmosphere is trying desperately at times to create a certain mood, but it keeps getting distracted because Drake is in the corner busy making armpit farts. He isn't a terrible lead, and his quips are entertaining every once in a while, but he is pretty much the stock heroic handsome male lead that comes with in the picture frame when you buy it.
Beyond Drake, the game does a fairly nice job of setting up a supporting cast. The script is fairly decent, and the characters manage to play off of each other nicely. The main improvement over the first game is in the role of villain, because the villains in this game do more than show up like twice and then die. There is a bit more depth here, and while the motivations do reside strictly in the realm of comically evil, the villains at least fill this role well. They have some memorable scenes, and are at least threatening and imposing enough to be somewhat memorable. Beyond that, if you like the cast from the first game you should like it here as well, as they have mostly been lifted entirely intact. There is a new love interest, but she is quickly replaced by the old love interest, in what appears to be an effort to create one of the laziest love triangles in videogames. This is less of a love triangle and more of a love line, with one of the participants showing almost no interest in the other. Despite this, the two female characters ended up being my favorite part of the cast, primarily because they aren't afraid to tell Drake that he is an idiot. Sully also returns in his role of cranky, somewhat creepy old man that serves as a kind of mentor figure that everyone seems to love in these sort of plots, and he is at least somewhat interesting for the scenes he is in. The rest of the cast play pretty minor roles, and although they do a good enough job to push the action along, none of them are particularly noteworthy or memorable.
Uncharted 2 uses the same combination of cover based shooting and platforming segments that Uncharted borrowed from pretty much any shooter released in the past five years and Tomb Raider, but improves upon the general concept. The cover based shooting works well, and the controls are pretty responsive even if Drake sometimes has a hard time deciding which wall he wants to jump behind. The weapon variety and combat is improved slightly, allowing for a bit more strategy than hiding behind walls and popping up to shoot an enemy before repeating the process another fifty times to get to the next portion of the game, where the same thing is repeated. The action in this game is always moving forward, and while that might not sound like a real improvement it prevents you from getting bogged down in samey gun battles for extended periods of time. There are also some minor additions, like a riot shield that provides moving cover and stealth attacks that vary up the gameplay enough that it has a noticeable improvement on the quality of the game. Even the enemy type is improved, and you end up fighting more than just the same two guys over and over again. To top it off, there is an actual final boss fight that isn't just a quick time event put together because the developers realized at the last minute they forgot to put in an ending. It is pretty much just an improved version of the gameplay featured in Uncharted, which is more than enough to make the game enjoyable.
This doesn't mean that the gameplay is perfect, however, as it still has some issues that at times seems to arise because the game might be trying to do too much. The platforming segments, while they do provide a nice deviation from the action sequences, are typically extremely straightforward and seem more utilized to highlight the amazing backdrops than to provide any sort of real, quality entertainment. While you will be jumping in between lavish buildings, or crumbling wreckage as you try to make your way to a higher level, the path you must take never reaches the complexity or impressiveness of the surroundings themselves. It is nothing more than a straight line, made to look more complex because of all the dangly pretty things they put around it. Uncharted 2 also has the same problem as the first game, in that climbable and usable ledges are differentiated than non-climbable and only there to fill out the background type ledges by absolutely nothing. I had far more deaths caused by trying to explore on what I though was climbable ledges but turned out to be non-climbable death traps than due to the actual combat or actions sequences. I understand the need to fill the game out, but Drake is far too picky as to what he will and won't touch to climb up on.
Another nagging issue is the fact that the puzzles appear to have been designed as tools to test if someone is currently suffering the after effects of a concussion instead of any actual wit or intellectual fortitude. Whenever you get to a puzzle, Drake whips out the solution manual he downloaded from GameFAQs that basically gives you the answer. He has a diary, that for some reason has the solution to every puzzle in the game, and really all you need to do is open it up and do what it says. These puzzles really only pop up maybe five times in the entire game, so it isn't like it weakens the game by any means, but it does sort of kill the flow when they do show up. The really don't end up testing anything other than if your select button is working to bring up the menu. While the game has plenty of methods it utilizes to change the pace of the game, I would not necessarily be adverse to another one if it had been implemented properly. Instead, all it really does is get in the way of better, more entertaining scenes when they show up because you have to waste a couple of minutes getting whatever shockingly functional ancient puzzle in front of you to mirror the solution you see in the manual. With how well everything else was implemented into gameplay, it would have been nice if they spent an extra couple of hours developing these puzzles to refine them somewhat and make them more complex than just copying the solution from your CliffsNotes.
Something this game understands better than almost any other shooter I've played is the concept of pacing. In the first Uncharted, you would hide behind a wall and shoot a platoon of enemies that kept trying to hide in the same five or six spots, and if you were lucky, you would have the chance to climb around on a couple walls until you ran into the next battalion who shared the same affinity for wall hugging as the last one. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune seemed content to lazily guide you from conflict to conflict, sitting against some chest high cover and doing crossword puzzles while you spent half an hour killing the same guy a hundred times. Uncharted 2 saw this, and decided to start pelvic thrusting in the first game's face while calling in another helicopter battle. If Uncharted 2 ever caught you yawning, it would stick an adrenaline needle into your heart and scream in your face until all the boredom and urine evacuated your body. Most levels still feature the same mix of puzzle platforming, cover based shooting, and rudimentary puzzles, but everything is much more streamlined than in the first game. The game never seems to drag, moving between action scenes and platforming seamlessly and never draws out anything too long so it becomes routine.
It isn't just the pacing, as Uncharted 2 features some of the best action sequences I've ever encountered in a game. There a number of scenes that stand out as unbelievably cinematic, and look like they could have been pulled from any of the big actions films released around the summer. I know there are people who would immediately scoff at this, rolling their eyes and murmuring how gameplay should always take precedence over cutscenes, or they would say that if they could the words between their incessant sobs caused by their crippling loneliness. Uncharted 2 takes these criticisms head on, laughing in the faces of these critics while hitting on their girlfriends. Most action games seem to want to pen the gameplay and the story sequences on opposite sides of an electric fence, and if they ever get too close to each other, they release a pack of hounds to chase them back to their respective sides. While Uncharted 2 does have its share of cutscenes, for most of the truly memorable scenes, the game strongarms the director and lets you take control yourself. You will actually be in control of Drake as he makes his way through a train that is being blown up compartment by compartment by a helicopter until you locate a tank and shoot it down yourself and if that didn't pique your interest by itself, then I suggest you call a doctor because you might already be dead. Another portion of the game has you fighting enemies in a collapsing building, having you jump off at the last second to an adjacent building, in what appears to be an effort to cater directly to the "OH MY GOD DID YOU JUST SEE THAT" demographic. Uncharted 2 does a fantastic job merging the cinematic quality of big budget action films with actual gameplay, making the scenes themselves all the more impressive because you are actually interacting with them in a more significant way than "push x to do something awesome".
Uncharted 2 also features a legitimately fun multiplayer mode that adds substantially to the game's replay value. Typically, when developers try to insert some multiplayer functionality into a videogame, they do it with all the finesse of a fat man trying to see how many jelly beans he can cram into his gullet. The multiplayer in Uncharted 2 seems to have actually been designed by a team aware of how to design a fun, compelling multiplayer experience, which gives it a different feel than most games featuring multiplayer, which feel like they've been designed by a group of people who think this is a waste of time they could be spending on something else. The variety of gameplay offered by the multiplayer is staggering, and is sure to offer something for everyone that even has the slightest interest in playing with more people than just themselves and isn't completely socially inept. The main draw here are the competitive modes, which include a variety of different versus set ups to quench your bloodlust. The competitive matches are pretty much the standard set of modes that come with any game featuring multiplayer options in the past ten years. The standard death match, where you and your teammates must reach a certain kill limit, is the default setup that most people will be playing, but there are other modes including a one life elimination style death match and modes where you must capture a specific object or area. First impressions of multiplayer are likely to be that you are playing generic modes with generic weapons common to pretty much any of the shooter multiplayer games, leading you to question if all the praise for the multiplayer is strictly based on Chloe's caboose.
The parts of the multiplayer that really make the game fun are not so much the modes or weapons, which get used so much in games today that it seems developers hate innovation as much as they love money, but instead the great level design which really emphasizes the good parts of the gameplay and succeeds in making the versus modes fun to play through pretty much endlessly. Each of the maps usually has multiple levels to it, giving you reason to explore and climb other than making Drake look like a monkey. The levels are all just really well designed, each one giving you multiple vantage points and locations to use as cover, in such a way that it helps keep pushing the action without making it too simplistic or banal. The gameplay is fairly well varied to suit your style as well, allowing you to hide and shoot from afar with a sniper rifle, duel it out in close quarters with a pistol, or even engage in fisticuffs or one hit kill sneak attacks if you manage to get the jump on somebody. The level design and gameplay styles complement each other nicely, and despite the fairly standard set of guns and modes, Uncharted 2 still offers one of the best competitive multiplayer experiences out there.
But let's say, just for the sake of argument, that you hate playing games online with ten year olds that are waiting to blow you up, even if they are on your team, just so they can stand over you and flex in your face to prove they take home the gold medal in online jerkiness. If for some reason you don't like little kids yelling garbled racial epitaphs at you for managing to kill them while they were aiming the sniper rifle at you from a foot away, Uncharted 2 includes a bunch of coop gameplay options that ensure that you will only have racial epitaphs hurled your direction if you accidentally manage to steal one of their kills. The game features coop objectives, where you must hold a certain area, kill a bunch of enemies or collect treasure while being shot at by some of the most difficult enemies from the single player game. Additionally, there are also three separate coop missions that have adapted different areas in the single player campaign by altering enemy locations and types and throwing wave upon wave of enemies at you until you reach the end of the level or one of your teammates gets bored and quits. You have a maximum of three attempts before the game kicks you out and makes you start over from the beginning, which is mildly annoying at times especially if you make it all the way to the end and are forced to start over from the beginning. Luckily, if you are incompetent and like sticking your head in front of enemy bullets, your teammates can revive you by running over, patting you on the back, and telling you everything will be alright. It is somewhat bizarre that you can be revived by the power of your teammates whispering sweet nothings in your ear, because it seems like Drake should ditch the body armor in the future and instead start charging into battle shielded by positive thoughts and friendship. Despite this somewhat odd mechanic, everything works well, and the coop maps are as impressive and enjoyable as anything versus offers. The game has somehow managed to execute both competitive and cooperative multiplayer gameplay in a way that is fun to not only play through once, but multiple times. The only real complaint about the cooperative multiplayer I have is that I wish there was more of it, and with only three areas things start to repeat themselves too quickly.
There are a couple of minor hiccups, like the fact that while the core multiplayer feels like it was put together by a team of professionals, the matchmaking feels like it was set up by their children or possibly even their dogs. For the cooperative maps, you have an option of selecting which difficulty you would like to play on, and then the game takes that into account, laughs in your face, and just sticks it on whichever setting is easiest amongst the random people you get partnered up with. You might want to play on crushing because you're a grown man and want grown man difficulty, and you might find that match once every fifty random searches, with all the other matches being on easy because you have been partnered up with an elementary school kid with a head injury and who wets himself if the enemies are more challenging than the Estonian Olympic basketball team. You also only have minimal control over the specifics of your individual matches, meaning if you want to play a specific map or one of the cooperative arena modes, you'll have to hope that it comes up randomly as your of your two options, and then that the people you're playing with happen to have the same opinion. And then you have the problems that a lot of multiplayer games have, in that certain members of the community seem to have had all of their social interaction from behind a wall of glass that scientists are standing behind as they futilely smash their face against the wall and yell out why they hate Catholics. You have the typical game ruiners, like glitchers, team killers, and other assorted dunces that would rather ruin other people's fun than try to have some of their own. Still, this isn't unique or more pronounced to Uncharted 2, and is something you pretty much just have to deal with if you want to play multiplayer. A split screen option would have been nice, especially for coop, and I don't understand why so few new games opt to include this feature. The multiplayer isn't perfect, but the majority of my complaints are fairly trivial, and it feels like I'm complaining about Brooklyn Decker because one of her toes is a little too long.
And speaking of things that are fun to stare at, the visuals in Uncharted 2 are spectacular. I realize that visual presentation is something that really doesn't distinguish many games anymore, but the detailing in the game really is fantastic. The developers did a fantastic job integrating many different set pieces, meaning that nothing really starts to feel redundant or gives you the impression this is something you have already seen in the game. You travel through a lavish museum, icy caverns, a village in the middle of a warzone, and a crumbling ancient monastery, each environment being incredibly detailed and entirely unique to the other environments in the game. The superior graphics and the well designed levels and areas make Uncharted 2 one of the best looking games of any console generation. The other bells and whistles are there as well, as the voice acting and sound effects all complement the game nicely. Neither is particularly award winning, but it certainly does not detract from the game at all and even some of the less well voiced characters still aren't that bad. A lot of time went into the various production values in this game, and it clearly shows.
Uncharted 2 is one of those rare things: a sequel that is genuinely superior to the original. In nearly every facet, from the gameplay to the presentation, Uncharted 2 builds upon the foundation of the first game. Most importantly though, the game is simply fun. Single player is enjoyable to play through, with well varied levels and great pacing punctuated with some of the more spectacular scenes you will encounter in a game. Additionally, the multiplayer is actually very enjoyable, with excellent gameplay and level design. Considering the low bar I have for sequels, the game was surprisingly good and exceeding any expectations I had. There are some minor issues that do mar the game somewhat, from a fairly average plot to some scenes that drag out a bit too far. But, in the end, I'm really only complaining about minor issues. I like the book, but didn't like the font on the cover. I enjoyed the steak, but the parsley garnish was soggy. What I'm trying to say, is that Uncharted 2 is a genuinely fun game, minor grievances aside. I have a hard time not recommending it to fans of the genre, and even people who aren't typically big shooter fans might want to check it out. Things do feel a bit generic at times, but those nagging feelings tend to dissipate after the game gives you a grenade launcher and sets you out to explode helicopters, tanks, and your face. Give Uncharted 2 a shot, and don't be surprised if you have the sudden urge to hip thrust in celebration after you start enjoying them game.
Among Thieves (THE GOOD):
+Some of the most awe inspiring action scenes ever featured in a game
+Fun, engaging gameplay helped by brilliant pacing
+Core gameplay is solid, and all of the mechanics control nicely
+Enjoyable multiplayer with some excellently designed areas
+Fantastic design overall, and levels are impressive from a visual and functional standpoint
+Fairly decent cast and somewhat enjoyable dialogue
Among Murderers (THE BAD):
-Platforming segments tend to be a bit forgettable
-Puzzles in the game are always brainless and are not integrated well
-Some bizarre decisions for multiplayer matchmaking make things more frustrating than they need to be
-Taken by itself, the story is not remarkable in any way and it feels like the set pieces are driving the narrative and not the other way around
Among Jaywalkers (THE UGLY): One of the multiplayer skins is a engorged version of Nathan Drake called "Doughnut Drake" who looks like Drake's older brother who has been living the past four years off of nothing but bacon grease and neighborhood children he can catch. He will be the only character in the multiplayer games to die of natural causes.
THE VERDICT: 8.00/10.00
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (US, 10/13/09)
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