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Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PlayStation 3) artwork

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PlayStation 3) review

"If I learned anything from playing BioShock, it’s to be suspicious of any game that receives overwhelming praise for reasons that seem entirely unrelated to gameplay itself. Call Uncharted 2: Among Thieves a “cinematic” experience all you want, but that alone never would have sold it to me, because a game needs to function as a game to be worth my time. Let’s also take into consideration that the first Uncharted was – let’s face it – nothing special. I enjoyed it, sur..."

If I learned anything from playing BioShock, it’s to be suspicious of any game that receives overwhelming praise for reasons that seem entirely unrelated to gameplay itself. Call Uncharted 2: Among Thieves a “cinematic” experience all you want, but that alone never would have sold it to me, because a game needs to function as a game to be worth my time. Let’s also take into consideration that the first Uncharted was – let’s face it – nothing special. I enjoyed it, sure, but I also found it homogenous with nearly everything else on the market today, and the trouble with mimicking other games is that the resulting product only stays in the player’s mind until they get their hands on something better. I suppose the game’s saving grace was that it was on a different console than Gears of War. Had it seen the light of day on Xbox 360 instead, I suspect it’d have gone largely ignored by the gaming populace, and a sequel never would have been born.

Had you asked me at the time, I would have been fine with that. But Uncharted 2, as if compelled to turn my expectations upside-down right out of the gate, opens with a scene in which main character Nathan Drake is forced to climb out of a train that’s hanging from a cliff while suffering from a fresh gunshot wound to the gut. The platforming escapades that follow are very Prince of Persia-like in practice, but the sense of peril derived from navigating through a tattered and wrecked locomotive that’s dangling off the side of a mountain is so strong that I nevertheless silently remarked to myself, “Wow, I’ve never done anything like this before.” I typically leave it to more pretentious reviewers to differentiate the game from the “experience,” but god damn.

Uncharted 2 is so full of such water cooler moments that you’ll want to make sure a friend is playing the game at the same time you are, just so you can gush over your favorite sequences with someone else. In fact, I’ll just go ahead and use the popular keyword: It’s cinematic. It feels like you’re piloting your own action movie, particularly of the Indiana Jones variety. The voice acting is the best I’ve ever heard in a game, and the writing is tight, funny and natural (one might even say improvised-sounding). What’s more, characters often exchange dialog in-game, and many of Uncharted 2’s most jaw-dropping theatrical moments occur while the player is in full control. Movies and video games will never be held to the same standards seeing as how they’re entirely different mediums, but Uncharted 2 helps to bridge the gap between cutscenes and playtime more seamlessly than anything before it.

The game’s piece de resistance is a much-talked-about sequence aboard a moving train, and the hype is accurate. It arrives halfway through the campaign and lasts two whole chapters, and every second is mind-blowing. It goes without saying at this point that Uncharted 2 is utterly gorgeous, and the constantly-shifting environments – the ride starts in a lush forest and eventually winds up in a snowy mountain range – paints a more convincing image of a running locomotive than any previous game that’s tried something similar. “Convincing” is the keyword there, because navigating across the sides and rooftops of train cars is only perilous if it really feels like we’re aboard a train that’s moving at, say, eighty miles per hour. That we’re forced to contend with legions of gun-toting henchmen and a very persistent helicopter, all the while admiring the sort of technology it would take to pull this off as seamlessly as Naughty Dog have, means this level more singularly defines “exhilarating” than anything else I played in 2009.

But while the train sequence easily steals the show, plenty of Uncharted 2’s less-publicized moments come damn close to topping it. I’d love to tell you about them, but believe me: You’re better off not knowing what you’re in for. Like, there’s this one part where you’re being chased across rooftops by a helicopter and… well, no, I don’t want to ruin that. And there’s another scene where you’re climbing a wall in an icy cave when suddenly… wait, nope, I can’t spoil that one, either. What you need to know is that Uncharted 2 is as bombastic and unpredictable as the best action movie you’ve ever seen, and it demands that you play a direct role in everything that unfolds before you.

I could easily say that Uncharted 2 would be on the level of its good-but-not-great predecessor were it not for its sensational presentational values, but that would be inaccurate. The original aimed to strike a balance between several genres but was an outright shooter – one with platforming elements, sure, but the consistency of combat in that game negated claims that the two mechanics were in any way balanced. Uncharted 2, on the other hand, can actually be called varied. There’s still plenty of familiar duck-and-cover gunplay, but the exploration and puzzle-solving elements are given fair time to shine, and often work hand-in-hand with the action itself. Furthermore, a museum heist level at the beginning of the game establishes stealth and melee combat as viable options in the heat of battle, and players are granted numerous opportunities to engage in both. With so much going on, Uncharted 2 is a game in which it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen next, and that’s a good thing.

The question of whether or not Uncharted 2 could survive without its theatricality is perhaps answered during the campaign’s underwhelming finale, when the game has clearly run out of steam but keeps going anyway. Naughty Dog had the ingredients for an exhaustingly entertaining eight-hour adventure and wanted to see if they could stretch it to ten, and as a result, the last few chapters of Uncharted 2 lack the punch of everything that came beforehand. It’s disappointing, because when you consider the standards the game sets for itself, you expect Naughty Dog to be saving something huge for the grand finale, but instead the game just sort of slowly dies down following an excellent sequence aboard a truck convoy. That the final boss is so trite and unimaginative certainly doesn’t help matters, and ensures that the campaign ends with a whimper, rather than the colossal bang you’d anticipate.

The thing about Uncharted 2 is that its mechanics are sufficient but not outstanding; they serve the purpose of moving us from one incredible set piece to the next, and we’re too busy having our minds blown to worry about any minor inadequacies in the controls. Take away the game’s selling point – its theatricality – and suddenly we’re forced to compare Uncharted 2 to the games it imitates. It’s during the last couple of hours that you start to notice that the gunplay isn’t quite as tight as it is in Gears of War, that the platforming isn’t quite as fluid as it was in the Prince of Persia games. If Naughty Dog really have exhausted all of the ideas that gave this series its moment in the limelight, then I suppose Uncharted 3 will disappoint a lot of people. In the meantime, enjoy gaming at its most cinematic. Considering what the developers were going for, I couldn’t possibly bestow higher praise upon the game than that.

Suskie's avatar
Featured community review by Suskie (January 10, 2010)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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Masters posted January 15, 2010:

Wicked review, Mike.
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CoarseDragon posted January 15, 2010:

Exciting review but I missed your telling us the game's story line.
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Suskie posted January 19, 2010:

Thanks Masters, always appreciated. Sorry I missed this one.

CD: Uh, heh, good point, actually. I guess I should clarify that the story itself is nothing out of the ordinary -- young guy hunts for treasure and a bunch of people want to stop him -- but it's the dialog, the set pieces, etc. that really make it spring to life. So yeah, I really should have mentioned that.
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randxian posted January 19, 2010:

Good review, but you don't really get a chicken dinner.

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