More than any other game to date, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune seems to define the PlayStation 3. Naughty Dog's 2007 jungle romp starring the one and only Nathan Drake gave gamers a taste of what it would be like to play as an acrobatically-inclined Indiana Jones. With stunning visuals (that still rank amongst the best in gaming today), a fantastically told story, great puzzles and high-octane gunplay, it's easily one of the best titles of this console generation.
Now Naughty Dog returns to the spotlight with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Both expectedly and amazingly, Naughty Dog has indeed bested Nate's first adventure and has created a sequel that is not only bigger and better in practically every way, but also packs a multiplayer component that could be released as its own separate, full-priced game and people would stand in line to hand over their cash.
Yes, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is fantastic.
Trying to remain as spoiler-free as possible, I'll just say that the story starts off about a year or so after the events of the first game and begins with Nate and a few fellow thieves working on finding Marco Polo's lost treasure fleet. Of course, things aren't quite that simple and the cast winds up going on a much grander adventure, one that takes them half-way around the world.
That's about as far as I want to go with the storyline, though some of the trailers out there actually reveal a little more than that. The important part here though is that this game doesn't just take place on a single island and instead changes locales a handful of times over the course of the adventure. The result is that the pacing feels better and faster, and even though you're technically doing the same sort of shooting, climbing and puzzle solving throughout the game, the different ways the scenes are presented gives Among Thieves a greater sense of gameplay variety than the original.
The great storytelling extends to the character development, which has been turned up a good notch or two. Almost everyone with more than two lines of dialogue has an interesting reason for doing what they're doing (though the main bad guy is just bad), and the way that everyone interacts with one another is realistic and interesting. Almost every character is unpredictable in some way, but not in a forced or unnatural manner.
The story itself twists and turns throughout the course of the game, as you might expect, and for the most part it's a solid tale. Nate and his pals go through a lot, so it does a good job of reeling you in and keeping you hooked until the end.
While I'd say the story is quite good overall, I wouldn't say that it's perfect. Without giving anything away, while most of the story has solid footing in real-world lore and legend, it does start to veer away from this at some point in a way that could have been handled better. Still, it's told very, very well through the use of fantastic cutscenes and acting, and will keep you guessing at what'll happen until the very end.
As for the gameplay itself, Uncharted 2 -- like the original Drake's Fortune -- tasks you with gunfights, environmental navigation or puzzle solving. While a lot of the mechanics are identical to the first title, everything has been blended together a little better, especially the combat and navigation.
This is in large part due to the settings that you'll fight in. Whereas the first game generally had you walk into an area with lots of cover, set up behind a wall and then take guys out as best you could, Uncharted 2 offers a lot more variety and options in how these sequences play out thanks to the fantastic level design. Rather than fighting on flat ground, almost every battle scene features multiple levels and areas to use to your advantage. If you want to stay on the ground and take guys out the old fashioned way, you're more than welcome to. But you can also climb to higher ground and use height to your advantage, or flank the enemy by moving from cover to cover and changing your tactics as the battle unfolds around you. While the game is still very much a linear tale, taking you from point to specific point, you're offered many more options in how you approach and deal with battles.
One thing that plays a big part in this is that stealth is a much more prominent element of the game, and it's actually a very useful tactic to take advantage of when you approach a situation. If an enemy doesn't see you and you attack him, you'll perform a silent stealth takedown. While you could do similar things in the original game, the way that it's implemented and the way sections are set up allow you to actually use it well. There are a couple spots in the game where I took down four or five enemies before the gunfire starting whizzing around, greatly improving my chances of survival. It's even possible to avoid a big fight entirely if you can clear an area of enemies silently as there won't be anyone around to call in for reinforcements.
Of course, you don't have to use any stealth at all if you just want to start popping caps when you roll into a fight. Well, that is except for a sequence near the start of the game where you have to be stealthy as you're not allowed to be seen or outright kill anyone. The problem here is that your route isn't as obvious as it could be and you only need to, and perhaps are even realistically able to, take down three or four guys out of a room packed to the gills with guards. If you don't do things in a fairly specific order, you'll fail and have to restart. The most problematic bit here is that two enemies that you can take down are in tricky spots. One that you have to take down hangs out near a banister that's only a little higher than you stand. You can't just grab him because he's too high up, and half the time that I'd jump up to grab the ledge I would wind up startling him. If you know exactly what you're doing here then you could get through this sequence in about a minute or so, but due to its trial-and-error nature, I was probably stuck here for a good 15 or 20 minutes before moving on.
But fortunately, everything after this is smooth sailing. In fact, this is one of those rare games that keeps getting better and better as it goes on. The first half felt like a nice -- if somewhat subtle -- improvement in the gameplay department over the original, but once you hit the half-way point, everything kicks into full swing and you start getting into jaw-dropping sequences.
However, one complaint that we had with the first game is still present here: you'll get to rooms of enemies where soldiers just keep on coming, wave after wave. Now, from a design and technical standpoint this solution makes sense because if you started in a room with 30 guys already present, you'd never have an opening to fire back as you would just be pelted with constant gunfire. But, it's still a little aggravating to get into a fight, clear the room and then have a half-dozen more guys walk in and start shooting up the place. Perhaps if the battles weren't as concentrated in single rooms and you would have to continue to fight as you moved down hallways this would feel a little more realistic, but it is what it is.
So, aside from that, the combat is improved and nicely makes use of your climbing abilities. Similarly, though the mechanics are essentially unchanged, the bits of the game where you have to scale the environment are taken up a level as well. The sequences where you're solely focused on navigating the world are usually visually stunning, and some even incorporate moving bits that make you think about where you're going. It's hard to explain why it's better than the original title without spoiling anything, but suffice it to say that during a number of these segments, even though I'd be doing essentially the same stuff that I did in the last game, I found myself in awe of what and where I was climbing. Great stuff.
My only real complaint, which is a forced one that I'm just mentioning to put it out there, is that the climbing paths are still very linear, and from what I was able to tell, there's only one way through most every section. If you're somewhere and there isn't a door, you know that you need to look around for something that you can grab to begin climbing. It's sort of a, "well, I don't know where this'll take me, but it's the only thing I can do" sort of scenario. Again, this isn't really a complaint that I'm knocking the game for, but in the future it would be nice to either have multiple ways to get somewhere, or a more sensible reason for climbing up bricks that I can just happen to scale.
The third piece of the Uncharted puzzle is, well, puzzles. The first title blended action, climbing and puzzle solving in great fashion, and though it's handled differently this time around, Naughty Dog has solved the equation perfectly again. Whereas it seems to me like there are less puzzles this time, the ones that you do come across are complicated and very involved. Instead of peppering small interactive quizzes throughout the game, you'll come to roomfuls of things to solve, many of which are multi-staged puzzles. What's cool is that instead of having Sir Francis Drake's journal, Nate keeps his own this time around that you can freely flip through. And you'll need to, as some puzzles require multiple pages of clues.
One in particular referenced a good four or five pages of the book, so you need to look at what's going on, flip through the book, do some stuff and then go back to the book again. It doesn't feel forced, and due to the intricacies therein, I felt more accomplished when I passed them. Great stuff here.
One thing that I didn't touch on when I was talking about combat was the AI. Those of you who played the original (and if you haven't, head to the store ASAP) know that Nate was up against some very smart foes. They'd take cover, use grenades well and were generally fun to fight because of this. For better or worse, things are about the same this time around. Honestly, I didn't really expect an obvious improvement because they were already so good, so that's actually praise rather than a complaint. I will say though that the AI continues to make great use of the environment even though it's generally way more complicated this time around, which is great.
Now, while the opponent AI was already impressive, your companion AI is absolutely phenomenal. You're almost always with someone else this time around, which was something that I was a little concerned about when I had originally heard this as friendly AI almost always gets in the way. Not here, and not ever.
It really feels like they're with you rather than in your way, thinking for themselves and doing stuff that real people would do. If there are climbing sequences, the computer will either quickly go ahead or stay back and wait for you to pass it first. If there's a gunfight, it'll find its own cover, take care of itself and stay out of your way. The only time in the game that I thought the AI did something that I wasn't pleased with was once when I came to a room where two factions where fighting, we were hidden in cover and I wanted to wait the battle out. After staying quiet for about 30 seconds and playing along, Chloe popped up and joined the battle, dragging me into it as well. That's it. During the other ten hours of the adventure, of which a good eight-plus is spent with someone at your side, they were always complementary rather than hurtful and often actually very helpful.
It's impossible to talk about Uncharted 2 without mentioning its visuals. I've already touched on the fantastic presentation in the cutscenes, but there are some scenes that you'll play in that will have your jaw on the floor. The world is packed with bits of detail that do nothing for gameplay, but do a lot to draw you into the world and make you feel like this is a real place. The texture detail is astounding, the amount of random stuff everywhere is mind boggling, the lighting is some of the best we've ever seen and the overall art direction is phenomenal. And of course, let me not forget to mention the amazing animation, killer explosions and pretty much every other pixel on the screen.
It's kind of amazing to say this, but the actual gameplay oftentimes looks better than the cutscenes. This is truly one of the best looking games that I've ever seen, and you could easily argue that it's the best overall on the PlayStation 3 (when you can argue that against the likes of Killzone 2 and Metal Gear Solid 4, well, that's saying something).
So that's Uncharted 2: Among Thieves in a large nutshell. Or is it? Yes indeed, this time around Naughty Dog went out of its way to include an online component, one that features both versus and cooperative gameplay. To say that the multiplayer is fun would be a massive understatement. For my money, this is one of the best multiplayer experiences that you'll find in any game around, and considering that the single-player portion alone is enough to easily warrant your $60, well, this almost feels like Naughty Dog has given us an extra game for free.
The list of options and features here is immense. For competitive play you get a good variety of modes including stuff like team deathmatch, elimination, capture the flag (or treasure in this case), a zone control mode and more. You can gain ranks, which then in turn allows you to buy perks (like the ability to hold more ammo or reload faster) with money that you earn while playing. Levels here are scenes adapted from the single-player game, so you're getting the same fantastic design elements with lots of spots to take advantage of, places to hide and use for cover, and so on and so forth.
.For the cooperative stuff, you have a handful of options here. A survival mode is exactly what it sounds like - you and a couple friends hole up in a spot and take out wave after wave of enemies that get progressively tougher for as long as you can. It's fun and very challenging, but for my money the meat here is the co-op mode. Rather than playing through the entire game with a couple friends, you instead jump into specific scenarios that have you save some folks, grab a treasure or something straightforward like that. However, it's quite a bit different than what you'll come across in the single-player game as enemies don't just pop up in front of you, they come from everywhere, quickly and in large numbers. You absolutely must communicate here (using a headset is key to winning) and you have to constantly check your surroundings lest you be shot point-blank in the back of the head with a shotgun.
There's a lot to the strategy for every mode of multiplayer offered in Uncharted 2, but I don't really need to delve into any of that because it all plays exactly like the single-player game, which is fantastic news. For a game that relies so much on environmental traversal to be able to offer the same exact mechanics while playing online, Naughty Dog has really tied everything together brilliantly.
If you like to get up high and drop down on your opponents in the single-player game, you can do that online. If you like to stealthily flank guys online and take them out silently, you can do that in the single-player game. The multiplayer is both a massive and natural extension of the single-player experience, and the fact that Naughty Dog was able to pull it off so seamlessly is applause-worthy.