Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)
Late in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, all the gunplay and Tomb Raidering and calculated snappy banter about Chloe's ass suddenly stop. The hero strolls through a serene village. Along the way, he can pet the livestock, play with children, and watch the women go about their work. They don't speak English and he doesn't speak their language. There is no direct communication, and the game knows better than to provide subtitles. It's pure character. A village, its people and this newcomer, all bemused at each other. It's an example of how expressive Uncharted can be when it trusts its characters.
The village will shortly turn into a scripted Hollywood SpectacleTM in which you have to run from a tank until you get to the magically spawning RPG. You'll have done this a few times already in Uncharted 2 with helicopters -- not to mention all those Call of Duty games you've played -- so it'll be familiar territory. It's an example of how derivative Uncharted can be when it veers off into gameplay.
I don't want to be that guy holding forth about how the original was better, but the original was better. There's a certain loss of innocence in Uncharted 2. It's a good game, to be sure. In fact, when it comes to pure gunplay, it's the PlayStation 3's best exclusive shooter. But as a follow-up to Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, as a story about Nathan Drake, as a romantic adventure, as a series of set pieces, as a story, it's merely fair. The original game was a revelation. Uncharted 2 is a sophomore effort.
The geometry of romance
The game attempts a new dynamic among the characters, referenced in the "Among Thieves" subtitle. The first Uncharted was a straight-up and effective "Raiders of the Lost Ark"/"Romancing the Stone" trio of a charming rogue, his plucky love interest and his loyal sidekick. But now we have a couple of clumsily drawn love triangles (a love quadrilateral?) with a side of betrayal and intrigue that never quite makes sense. Your villain today will be a bald space-marine genocider with a scarred face who surprises no one when he shoots his own henchman. Bet you didn't see that one coming! Oh, you did? Really? You can imagine how that boss fight is going to go.
Nate and Elena were memorable characters brought to life by the alchemy of Naughty Dog's uncanny animation, Amy Hennig's script and an unmistakable chemistry between voice actors Nolan North and Emily Rose. The animation is still top-notch. But Hennig's script casts too wide a net, stirring into the mix a generic hawt chick and skeezy dude. Elena doesn?t arrive until about a third of the way through the game, at which point the story gets a much-needed boost. Emily Rose's voice work is unparalleled. She manages to convey an amazing amount of emotion in her voice.
The original Uncharted didn't globetrot, like many adventures do. But for all the distance this sequel attempts, it doesn't get very far. It basically goes from a jungle to a jungle by way of a snowy train ride. It is a great train ride, as far as videogame train rides go. But the final setting, which should have been spectacular, is as familiar as the tank and helicopter battles you fought to get there. And while I don't miss the first game's jet-ski sequences, I'm surprised the only replacement is a carefully staged "Raiders of the Lost Ark" convoy chase.
Like the original game, Uncharted 2 is a collection of discrete types of gameplay. You have a gunfight; then you do some Tomb Raidering. Then you have a gunfight. Then you do more Tomb Raidering. The Tomb Raidering is really getting long in the tooth. Nathan Drake climbs around on unstable edifices with crumbling ledges and loosely bolted pipes. On a few occasions, he pulls a lever. Late in the game, he has to solve a few puzzles. Well, "puzzles." Like the climbing, these are mostly busywork. In fact, all the Tomb Raidering in Uncharted feels like busywork. You know Nate isn't going to fall. You know he's going to make that jump. You know his path is fixed. It's built to be a fait accompli that Nate will reach that far ledge and walk through that doorway to his next gunfight. This is not gameplay anymore, no matter how good the animation, no matter how elaborate the textures, now matter how epic the level geometry, and no matter how faux perilous the handholds along the way. It's filler.
Fortunately, the gunfight through that doorway picks up the slack for the Tomb Raidering. Uncharted is a variation on the Gears of War model: third-person; based on a cover system; enemies soak up a lot of damage; grenades and headshots; scrounging for ammo; changing weapons more often than socks. A couple of new guns add a splash of variety, but this is still very much a game about an AK-47 in one slot and a 9mm pistol in the other.
The escalating enemy difficulty gets a bit annoying by the time the game is over. It combines enemies that are tough for no other reason than it being later in the game with corridors that are long and narrow because it makes the tough enemies tougher. This means a lot of replaying, often with the goal of remembering where a guy is going to go and taking him out first. For instance, that guy with the grenade launcher keeps killing me, so the first thing I want to do is kill him after I stealth-kill these two guys here. Then there are the new enemies at the end that will make you long for the zombies from the original Uncharted. Did Naughty Dog hire the developers of the original Far Cry?
The real innovation in this Uncharted is the amount of detail in the settings. The gunfights that really stand out are fought in ruined cityscapes and small villages. This is a gorgeous engine, pressed into service for some incredibly detailed level design. The city levels are put to particularly good use in the some of the multiplayer maps, where it seems like none of the detail has been sacrificed.
The multiplayer is surprisingly solid, considering this is developer Naughty Dog's first foray into online gaming (should we bother counting the Jak racing game for the PlayStation 2?). Uncharted 2 has a wide variety of modes, ranging from the usual deathmatch to team battles over capture points to co-op, including its own version of Gears' Horde mode and Halo 3: ODST's Firefight. Although it doesn't have the varied weapons and enemies from those games, the co-op has more variety, with a plunder mode (grab treasure and bring it back to your base while artificial-intelligence bad guys spawn) and full-blown co-op scenarios based on the single-player game.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang?
It's too bad that the main appeal of Uncharted 2 is merely as a shooter. Having played through the story once, I have no desire to revisit it. There are too few memorable moments and not enough meaningful character interaction. The dramatic tension is strictly artificial, based on a gunshot wound being critical or a grenade being lethal simply because the story calls for it. I just spent 10 hours shrugging off bullets and shrapnel, and now they matter because you want me to think a character might die? Sorry, Uncharted 2, but I'm not falling for it.
Early in the game, Nate and Chloe reach the top of a shattered hotel in a war-torn city. There's a swimming pool up there, still full of water. Naughty Dog knows you're going to jump into the pool. They handle it beautifully, with a childish playfulness guaranteed to make you smile. And then you get dumped into a scripted bit where you run from a helicopter until you get to the magically spawning RPG. Oh, Uncharted 2. I don't mean to be so hard on you, but it's not 2007 anymore. If you want to tell me a story about your characters and tie it into the gameplay, you're going to have to do it in a world that gave us Batman: Arkham Asylum, Brütal Legend and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.