Uncharted 2 is a game I was initially skeptical of. The emulation of film prevents games from reaching their full potential as an unique art form and no series embodies this philosophy of design more than Uncharted. I picked up the game for Christmas to see what the hype was about and I was pleasantly surprised to find that its cinematic nature wasn’t a bad thing.
Story and Presentation
Uncharted 2’s story is derivative, predictable and a retread of ideas found in practically any of the films that it is so inspired by (Angels and Demons, Indiana Jones, National Treasure). That said, the impressively developed cutscenes, beautiful animation and incredible voice acting make the narrative more entertaining than it has any right to be. While I would easily predict every betrayal, plot twist and character arc, having watched the many films Uncharted aspires to emulate, I still found myself entertained by Drake’s quest and was interested throughout.
So what exactly is Uncharted 2 about? Well, Nathan Drake, a “treasure hunter” (READ: thief) wakes up with a bloody abdomen in a collapsing train as it perilously hangs off a Siberian cliff. Cue a series of flashbacks explaining how he came to be in such a hellhole and we learn of Drake’s quest to prevent the mythical Cintimani Stone from falling into the hands of Zoran Lazaravic. Its nothing we haven’t seen before in film, but this type of plot is new to gaming, and while Uncharted might be generic when compared to movies, its unique when compared to other games. The characters fall into classic action-movie archetypes but retain their charm, and while Nathan Drake might look visually similar to any number of video-game protagonists, his personality makes him stand out when compared to others in his medium.
Typically, I hate cutscenes in my games. Historically, they have interrupted the flow of gameplay too abruptly and dragged on narratives in non-interactive sequences, removing the uniqueness of the interactive medium. Surprisingly enough, while Uncharted 2 has a lot of cutscenes (about a full movie’s worth), the pacing of the game never makes the interruption of gameplay an abrupt experience. Cinematic moments typically reserved for cutscenes cede full control to the player. As a result, we are in control of Drake through set-piece moments such as the memorable collapse of a building, seeing the furniture thrown to-and-fro the room as it grows perilously close to the ground. Throughout this moment, we are fighting enemies also affected by the crumbling floor. When gameplay is actually interrupted when Drake jumps through an adjacent window to escape the falling tower, the transition to non-interactivity is so smooth that the frequent cutscenes are not a problem. Action appropriately crescendos and crashes in ways that make a break in action warmly welcome.
While Uncharted does a multitude of things right in its storytelling, originality clearly isn’t one of them. This extends to the gameplay, which is an amalgam of systems we’ve seen done better in other games. The third-person, cover-based shooting is a dead ringer for Gears of War, the stiff platforming harkens to the days of a certain fresh Prince of Persia, stealth is a simplified Splinter Cell and puzzles are designed in a way reminiscent of classic adventure games. On their own, none of these elements stand out, but it is the marriage of these disparate elements that makes Uncharted 2 much more than the sum of its parts. The perfect pacing of which these mechanics phase in and out of the stage is totally believable and prevents each section of gameplay from overstaying its welcome. The amount of tactical freedom afforded to the player embodies a unique “wide linear” approach to play.
Uncharted 2’s third person shooting is challenging and fun. While Drake’s health regenerates, he cannot survive a hail of gunfire. Thus, in order to survive and win encounters, he must adopt a “stop and pop” approach to fighting. Popping in and out of cover to return fire and whittling down the game’s strong enemies. Brilliant enemy AI makes the battles constantly exhilarating, enemies will use suppressive fire to pin Drake down while armor-clad shotgunners flank him and grenadiers force him to abandon his cover to run straight into the shotgunner’s line of fire. Strategy is needed in the game’s multilayered environments and sneaking into a tactically advantageous position before opening fire is key to victory. Should an enemy come too close, Drake can engage him in a hand-to-hand minigame, which gives the player only two basic moves: attack and counter. Its a fun and wonderfully animated system on its own, but given that enemies come in waves, it is nearly impossible to fight an enemy in this way lest several others shoot you to shreds. Some set pieces, such as a cliffside chase through a convoy of trucks, forcing Drake to jump to and fro the rooftops of flatbeds, push the limits of what is possible in gaming. Nonetheless, there are quite a few annoying enemy types, such as charging brutes that force the player to abandon the strategic cover mechanic.
Platforming is Uncharted’s weakest aspect and plays like a more realistic Prince of Persia. Drake must search environments for usable handholds to get him across environments. Typically, this comes down to trial and error as the player attempts to distinguish usable platforms from the background, typically dying when he falls into the abyss for making a jump outside of exactly what the game wants him to take. Its not much fun and sometimes frustrating.
Stealth comes devoid of silenced weapons and the high-tech gadgets that have defined other franchises in the genre. As a result, the only way to accomplish this approach to combat is to strategically count out the enemies in an encounter and eliminate them methodically through Drake’s awesome stealth-takedowns. There is a good amount of variety to these context-sensitive animations, allowing him to pull enemies off ledges, pull them out of cover, push them off cliffs or simply snap their necks. While taking a stealthy approach to combat is challenging, the feeling of accomplishment when entire sections are completed with finesse and skill is unparalleled.
Puzzles are infrequent and simple, typically married with platforming. They often forcing Drake to use his jo urnal to interact with ancient defense mechanisms questionable in their historical veracity by pressing triangle in certain positions to make a certain statue match the clues in his journal. They are infrequent enough and provide a stimulating intellectual challenge and a welcome break from the combat.
Multiplayer, while fun, is dead. After a lengthy setup process, it is a shame to see that very few of the playlists were active. It took over ten minutes to find a full game, which was unfortunate, since the interesting gametypes made the experience rather fresh. Excellent objective-based co-op was reminiscent of the single-player campaign and the classic “horde mode” was in full force here. What I saw of the game’s multiplayer suite was impressive, it is too bad that such modes are mostly inaccessible nearly three years after launch.
Graphics and Audio
Uncharted 2 is unparalleled from an audiovisual perspective. Naughty Dog has created a spectacular engine capable of some amazing scripted sequences and beautiful vistas. While the first Uncharted game was renowned for realistically behaving water, Uncharted 2’s main claim to fame is incredibly realistic snow. Snow crunches below Nathan’s feet and moves about, piles up, and is scratched away in a believable manner. However, to get lost in the details is a disservice to Naughty Dog’s also amazing art team. Each environment is a memorable, grounded and believable place filled with more colors in a single screen than most other games have through their entire campaign. Particularly memorable is a mid-game walk through a remote Tibetan village, in which the player is left to do nothing but walk through the town and soak up the atmospheric detail: prayer flags dance about in the wind, village children kick about soccer balls and sunlight peers over the Himalayas. While I believe that graphics don’t matter in games, Uncharted 2’s visuals are a legitimate part of the game’s appeal.
Uncharted 2 benefits from perfect sound design and animation. Unique sound effects are tied to every aspect of the game’s physics and world and music frames the emotional goal of each scene. Excellent writing and voice acting lies leagues beyond other such games, and the tangible relationship between characters makes them relatable, sympathetic and lifelike. The denizens of Uncharted’s worlds aren’t simply animated mannequins, but rather realized and complete people who existed before the events of the game, and will continue to exist long after it. Nolan North leads the cast as Drake, whose mocap performance outdoes much of contemporary film.
Perhaps the reason why I hated the idea of the “cinematic action game” in the first place is because every predecessor of Uncharted 2 unanimously sucked with awful writing, unbelievable worlds and stupid voice acting. Uncharted 2, in spite of its derivative story and borrowed gameplay mechanics, succeeds where its predecessors failed: it unites game and film in a seamless, uninterrupted way. While the presentation and pacing is indeed immaculate, some frustrating platforming controls and the fact that none of the individual gameplay elements stand out alone, drag down one of the better single-player games to be released this console generation. 4.25/5