Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Review
Uncharted 2 is a great sequel that improves in just about all areas over the original.
Uncharted 2 features the return of Nathan Drake, the adaptable hero who has all the characteristics of a young Indiana Jones. It tells the story of the race to find the Cintamani Stone, between Nate and the war criminal Zoran Lazarevic, using the secrets of Marco Polo's lost fleet. The game will take you through Nepal and Borneo with old allies Elena and Sullivan returning. There are a few story twists right up until the end with some great cut scenes that really flesh out the characters. The combat is smooth, open and challenging with a nice amount of optional stealth thrown in. The AI for friend and foe has been well implemented and does't interrupt the action or seem out of place. The platforming is relatively free flowing and natural without being difficult. There are not many frustrating sections due to a more frequent checkpoint save system bringing you right back to the action. The game provides complementary visual and audio treats that do look and sound a bit better than the original although not leaps above. This presentation extends to the complex and very impressive set pieces helping lift the action to higher levels. The multiplayer is also a successful component with some great co-op action comprising of some single player levels extracted and refined and some standard multiplayer modes. Indeed Uncharted 2 has all the features to make it fantastic follow up effort from Naughty Dog. The satisfaction begins with some great combat and stealth execution.
Impressive vistas and solid combat are just the beginning
The combat in Uncharted 2 is a well refined version of the original game with some excellent simplistic stealth implementation. Weapons seem far better balanced, especially pistols, and you will be changing weapons quite often as the ammo counts run low. Significantly the combat sequences introduce enough variety so it doesn't get predictable or stale even with long play sessions. One sequence featured Nate holding onto a signpost and moving from one side to another as he took out mercenaries in the buildings above using a pistol. Another featured a much more open snow covered hillside amidst an intensifying blizzard; in this sequence stealth became a great way to quickly reduce the numbers of enemies but you could also use sniper rifles from a distance. Stealth isn't a forced condition however, Nate takes up a crunched over position when in stealth mode and can instantly kill normal enemies from behind with a melee attack. It's not just about moving between small patrols but also about hiding below ledges or behind obstacles. In these positions Nate can grab the mercenary in one foul swoop and kill them without alerting guards nearby. Grabbing an enemy from below hanging on a ledge and pulling him over proves very satisfying. The first time you encounter stealth is a heist mission and this is the only time where being spotted results in an alarm and checkpoint reset purely as a tutorial. Apart from this most of the time you don’t even have to use stealth, you can just start firing away if you enjoy weapon combat that much.
There are obvious advantages to using stealth to take out a few enemies quickly but it’s not a requirement. Mercenaries do remember where they last saw you, so moving behind obstacles unseen to flank them as they move towards your last known position becomes very valuable. Enemies will also flank you during combat; this is evident very early on during a battle in the jungle. In an open shack you are defenceless should the mercenaries get up close enough, they will circle you and cause heavy damage to your health. It’s important to make sure none of these guys are moving in a position to get a clear shot at you from the side or behind. Up close you are free to use the fist combat, simplified from the first, a simple attack button will start Nate punching away. If the mercenary has low enough health it will be over quickly, otherwise they will counter your punches and you are given a brief time to block their counters and finish them off. You can change grenade throw power with tilt but it's off by default, this was possibly done to shift focus back towards melee and weapon combat. This great action is well broken up with some interesting puzzles and platforming sections to serve to rest the player.
Platforming occurs well spaced out between the action segments and is never too frustrating. These elements might simply be finding an alternative route to unlock a door for your ally or climbing up a huge sword blade to reach some mirrors above you. The hardest parts of the platforming sections seemed to be finding the first step as the rest are usually straightforward following on from one another. The reason the first step is tricky is because the climbing rocks or ledges can sometimes blend in quite well with the background. It also might be that in the previous chapters red ledges were the platform points, but now they are yellow coloured. Once you are standing there or running around looking for this first step a hint message will pop up after a short time. You can ignore it or ask for the game to help, where it will zoom in and tell you using some brief text what your next course of action should be. An opportunity was here to use the allies to give you a hint instead, with for example Elena moving near to the first step and pointing or saying something to the effect to get your mind or eyes working. Unfortunately this was never used in such a way and only during some sections did the AI give you a little bit of directional guidance. It’s not easy to die during these sections either, Nate won’t leap left or right unless there is a ledge, and falling from an edge will just make him grab it unless you jump directly off it.
There was the occasional issue with the camera, sometimes when it was fixed it would be hard to determine correct orientation for Nate’s movements. A few times the camera got stuck for me, often in a set piece which either meant I lost Nate for a little while or I was viewing from underneath a mountain requiring checkpoint restart. In general platforming plays a secondary role to combat because it’s used more to give the player a rest. But that doesn’t mean it’s a neglected element, it’s still very impressive at times helps set a good pace. Puzzles also are mainly used to link the story to the game world, and also to break up the combat. There are a few puzzles in Uncharted 2 and they seem a little bit more involving than the first game, which is a welcome improvement. You can use some of these basic platforming elements during combat also. Because many of the action sections seem more open than the first game you can climb above or around your enemies. Using ledges or ladders and hanging from mid air to attack with a pistol or grenades. It was quite common for me to finish up a combat section and scout for ammo observing some more ways around to attack than I previously used, adding some replay value. The much improved part of the platforming and action is the checkpoint save system. To put it simply it saves more often so you won’t have to repeat many long sections which might interrupt game flow. The platforming elements are greatly improved by the overall presentation of the game.
Platforming plays an important role in combat during the game
The great presentation exists not only from a visual standpoint but the audio proves effective throughout the game. The weapon sounds have a good punch to them and are usually distinctive helping you quickly identify potential upgrades or favourite weapons. Voice work is as the previous game, outstanding, with Nate leading the way not only with funny lines but lines that were extremely relevant and many times similar to my own thoughts. Ambient sounds like fans, water or generators help set the mood of some of the low action areas. The game’s world is also more detailed than the original, better use of level of detail systems and fog allow for more items to be shown in the foreground. The animation has also improved, mainly for the mercenaries who fall believably or react naturally to gun fire. This crosses over to the fairly smooth melee combat which although simplistic proves satisfying. Water was a visual treat in the first game and although it’s used in a few places snow seems to have replaced it. You will leave footprints and kick up lines of snow as you walk through it, and you clothes will be covered with ice if you roll into it.
Along the campaign you will come across some complex visual set pieces, which are often associated with or around high action sections. One of these visual pieces early in the game featured a helicopter that was taunting Nate around a city. In one of the high rise buildings you enter to escape, the helicopter let go a flurry of rockets structurally crippling the building. This then caused the floor below you to tilt slowly as the building began to fall over while you were engaging in some combat. Another set piece took place on a moving train which involved both platforming and action sequences for quite some distance along the tracks. These complex scenes really help the action segments feel more important and dangerous. The AI also manages to keep up with Nate, both during platforming and action sequences. Part of the reason for this is they don’t get in your way, don’t do anything stupid and seem smart enough to follow you up most obstacles. The AI can’t be killed directly in combat which prevents a lot of frustration but they do occasionally help dispose of enemies and they will help you reach ledges and ladders. The story and cut scenes have also lifted a notch, there seems to be much more work invested into them. There are quite a number of cut scenes which fill out character backgrounds and current story threads. During the game much of the time you will be with one or more allies, and they will talk with you from time to time about things you are doing or upcoming problems. This is quite nice when it happens, sometimes surprisingly, but more would have been even better as it seems to occur less often during later parts of the game. The presentation and polish extends into the online portion of Uncharted 2.
Multiplayer is a big part of Uncharted 2 and for good reason, it seems like a pretty good package. There are standard deathmatch modes on open maps but also treasure hunt and king of the hill modes. In a team you usually spawn near or close to allies making the action flow in a semi-circular pattern around the map. There are some maps taken almost directly from the single player campaign, but there are others that were built just for multiplayer either based on the locations you saw during the campaign or just brand new ones. Larger co-op maps are directly taken from the single player albeit with big changes to the enemy placement. This essentially gives you a taste of some single player co-op without some of the slower story or platforming sections in between, focusing just on the better action sequences against mercenaries and optimized for two players. The melee combat works a bit differently in coop to the single player game here. Most melee attacks dispose of mercenaries quickly but you are also susceptible to being grabbed from behind. If you aren’t paying attention you will be grabbed and cannot attack or move. You must wait for your partner to come and save you with a melee attack or from weapon fire. Once you have taken enough damage you are then also incapacitated and will die unless your partner comes over to revive you whilst being under threat. These are minor changes but they create a more interesting dynamic in the co-op, giving you a good reason to stay close or at least within eye sight.
Multiplayer games do involve some platforming, but it’s mostly climbing ladders to get in a good vantage point above the action or access to different weapons. The multiplayer generally runs fairly well although it can take a few minutes to find a group. If your connection is poor it will result in your character freezing still, completely unable to attack but they can easily be killed. There is no other visual indication that there is a problem with your connection and other players will continue to run around fighting. It did take a few minutes to find a good matchmaking group sometimes. Most of the time I was grouped with American players or even non-English speaking players and the quality of the connection seemed inconsistent at times. Despite this the multiplayer, mainly the two player co-op, caps off the game package and makes it a fantastic sequel.
Running and gunning is an option, but a risky one
When all of the combat, stealth, platforming, puzzles, presentation and multiplayer sections are combined so well in this way there isn’t a lot to dislike about Uncharted 2. You get an amazing single player experience that is very hard to put down, something hard to achieve. The great humour and believable characters make the game stand out over many rivals, presenting a movie like experience with some great action gameplay in between. The game paces itself with good rest sections, many moments of levity and even some emotional parts towards the later stages of the game. The game seems even more rewarding on a second playthrough as there are little story hints that will become obvious once you know the final outcome. Most problems I had with the game were minor issues that only really required a few more months of testing to fix and they generally didn’t have a big impact on the overall quality of the experience, especially from a single player standpoint. Uncharted 2 is better than the original simply because it has eliminated some of the little flaws while expanding on the great features of the first game. I strongly recommend Uncharted 2: Among Thieves to all action fans. The flow of the single player is enough to make it a high quality game on its own and when you include the great co-op multiplayer it’s hard to pass up.