By Marty Mulrooney
Before I review what is surely the biggest release of the month (if not the year), I must first set the scene. Although the PC is where I started as a gamer, it was the Playstation where I ultimately ended up, at least 90% of the time anyway. I have never strayed to other consoles (although I did dabble with the GameCube somewhat), and nowadays my Playstation 3 is a constant daily source of entertainment for me, echoing backwards through the gaming years of my PS2 and PS1 days.
Every single successful gaming console has risen or fallen based on not only the quality of the games on offer, but the level of brand recognition afforded by first party developers. Sega had Sonic, Nintendo had Mario, Microsoft had Master Chief. Playstation had several potential candidates, ranging from Crash Bandicoot to Solid Snake. Yet I would argue it was only with the PS3’s launch, and ‘the little game that could’ known as Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, that we finally got a mascot that screamed exclusivity, immense production values and genuine charm.
Nathan Drake, portrayed by voice actor Nolan North, really raised what was otherwise a pretty run of the mill adventure/ platforming game into something special. People may hate me for saying that, or scream abuse to the contrary, but I stand by it. (This is coming from a massive Playstation fan as well.) The first game was fantastic, with good controls, fantastic graphics and great fun factor. It was also quite short, had a lightweight story and basically repeated the same thing over and over again. Namely; Drake enters an area, clears it of enemies, more enemies spawn in, rinse and repeat. What pulled me through the endless firefights was Drake himself, a fantastic, identifiable protagonist.
So was it fun? Totally! Would the same game repackaged 2 years later be enough? Not at all. So when the 10 out of 10’s started rolling in from other sites and magazines, I was happy that this was probably not going to be the case. But I also knew that the hype would make some reviewers simply throw praise all over it even if they would otherwise not have done so. Therefore, this review is going to be the most balanced and fair representation of my time with the game I can commit to your screens possible. I hope it reads that way and you can come away afterwards with more than just a heap of bandwagon-style praise dripping out of your ears. Here we go!
So onto the game itself! Right from the opening scene, the graphics grab you and won’t let go. I am not exaggerating here, I have literally never seen another game throw out such consistently great graphics. Killzone 2 may have looked good, but it was really drab and lacked variety overall. In contrast, Uncharted 2 is a constant assault on the senses. From a dangling train wreck in the snowy mountains of the Himalayas, to the war-torn streets of Nepal, this game really delivers. The first game was exclusively on one island, namely in the jungle. It speaks volumes therefore to state that the jungle scenes presented in Uncharted 2 were some of the weakest for me.
In a linear game, a vast area such as jungle feels slightly silly when the trees are packed together at the side of the path so densely, leaving only the obvious path to progress. The game does give different ways to progress sometimes, but never anything vastly innovative. Luckily, the aforementioned streets of Nepal and other areas such as hidden underground temples lend themselves far better to the game’s linear nature, feeling a lot more organic and real in their portrayal than the jungle ever did.
This is not to say the game’s new locations are all on a stuck path per se. Drake has some great new moves this time round, and it works wonders by adding some much-needed variety to the combat. Nathan can now fire his guns ANYWHERE. Think about what this now means. Dangling from a street sign and about to be spotted by a patrolling solider below? Just pull out your pistol and shoot him in the skull, before quickly leaping to a nearby ledge and pulling another guard over the rail. Now jump over quickly and take cover on the roof. From this new vantage point, you have a much better chance of taking out the remaining guards who have come running, attracted by the gunfire but unsure where the intruding assailant has gone… The diversity in such scenes really makes things a lot more fun than just taking cover and shooting endless bad guys.
Grenades are also a doddle to use now. Naughty Dog have gotten rid of all Sixaxis controls, tightening things up in the process. Whilst I miss the old ‘balance-on-a-beam’ trick, it does make sense overall. Everything is just so much smoother now, with grenade throwing being a highlight. Tap L2 to launch one in the general direction you are facing (without having to un-equip your current weapon) or hold it down to get a nice little arc to show the trajectory the grenade will take when you release.
Stealth makes an appearance for the first time in the franchise fairly early on in Uncharted 2, something I was really worried about to be brutally honest. The first game was more about fast paced shoot-outs than Solid Snake style espionage. I needn’t have worried. Instead, the stealth is entirely optional (apart from a pretty cool museum break-in near the beginning) and very easy to use. Before enemies see Drake, nudging the left stick gently will make him sneak around. A tap of the punch button dynamically snaps guards necks, or sucker punches their lights out. You can even take cover behind a nearby wall, wait until a guard comes close, and then pull him around to you, cracking his head into a pillar in the process. Once a guard spots you, it is business as usual, but the stealth is really fun while it lasts and can often tip the odds in Drake’s favour enough to make it all worthwhile in the end. You can even circle around in a fight and pick the searching enemies off from behind silently!
The fact that all of this can occur during the numerous set-pieces is what really blew me away. A moving train weaves its way through the Himalayan mountains, with you running over the roof, dangling off the sides, fighting enemies all the time… this really is some cool stuff. Sure, it is still linear, but who cares? Naughty Dog told a few porkies in the sense that they said the train is moving through a real level. This is true, yet you still need to move forward to trigger any real progress journey-wise. For example, you will always reach a tunnel at the exact same carriage. You will always fall through the roof of another carriage at exactly the same time, with the cutscene showing clear blue skies (odd for me as I naughtily timed it so I was on a bridge with girders above me when the scene played!) These are only minor annoyances though, and overall the seams are nearly invisible.
It was only after I finished the game and went back before this review that I started to break stuff on purpose. I realised that the developers cleverly shut off doorways etc so you cannot backtrack. Slightly annoying when I went through a carriage door on the train, getting shot at, I jumped back and the doors were shut! This hardly ever happened though anywhere else, and again I can see why it was done. Another time, I had three non-player characters following me. I ran ahead really fast and climbed up a drain pipe into an open window. Turning around and angling the camera down (again, very naughty of me and not exactly fair) I saw the other characters zoom in at warp speed to begin their assent up the pipe behind me. I basically just witnessed the NPC tethering system which should have been invisible (it is during normal play.) I mention this though not to criticise! The computer controlled allies do a great job of following you, fighting alongside you, and never getting in the way.
I mentioned the tethering glitch because it basically sums the NPC’s up to a tee; they look good, chat away to hilarious effect, and join in during the battles with reckless abandon. However, I did not ever really see an NPC take down an enemy without my help, and the game would often cheat to keep them nearby. (I prefer this to them getting stuck on the environment though like in some other games!) Overall they looked good and did the job better than 99% of games I have played in the past, but don’t expect them to be doing anything too dynamic or cool… that is all left up to the player!
The music is fantastic, much better and more memorable for me than the last time around, although very similar in some key areas (similar tunes crop back up for older fans and there are some remixes from the first game). It may seem odd but I thought I would mention it; there were parts of the score that reminded me of the main theme in the film Saw! I am not a huge horror (or Saw) fan so I may be mistaken, but nevertheless the music is on par with any feature film and is very epic indeed.
The storyline does a good job of getting us back involved with Nathan Drake. Nolan North is incredible as Drake. This is the type of voice work usually only afforded to the adventure games of old; to hear this kind of thing in a shooting game is hugely exciting and bodes well for the future of the medium! Even during play, Drake dynamically speaks to accompany what is happening around him. I loved his action quips and little touches such as whispering ‘boom’ just before I blew up some explosive barrels.
Newcomer Chloe Frazer is voiced to perfection by Claudia Black, and her interactions with Drake and old flame Elena are electric. The story is also told out-of-order; nothing new but it adds plenty to the experience, especially after seeing the explosive beginning.
Elena and Sully from Drake’s Fortune make re-appearances here to great effect, although I still had problems with both; Sully is criminally underused (but what little time there is with him rocks so I hope to see him again next time round) and Elena was in my eyes shoehorned into the narrative a little clumsily. I guess the story is supposed to be told in a big budget hollywood style though, I mean how else could a guy in a t-shirt and jeans take on swarms of trained soldiers and live to tell the tale?
Thinking of it in this light, the chance hook-up with Elena (she is reporting a story on the exact guy Drake is after) isn’t too bad and fits in with the overall style. The bad-guys are typically evil cut-outs but did their job well and added some much needed antagonism to the game; I don’t even really remember the human baddies from the first time round! *Minor Spoiler Alert!* (There is another more un-human element shown, but at least it works better in Among Thieves than the mutants of Drake’s Fortune!) *Spoiler Over!* This is stuff we have seen before, but never as polished and refined. For films it would be pretty cookie-cutter but in a video game, it is somewhat of a revelation. This applies to everything in the game and players will only get the most out of it if they just go along for the ride.
For example, I could moan how there are explosive canisters just littered around everywhere. I could moan about how Drake jumps and climbs bare-handed over ice and snow, sometimes several feet upwards, grabbing with one hand. In fact, there were several times characters would quite happily run towards Drake and jump, hoping to be caught with one hand. But that would be besides the point. The whole game is one big budget B movie, and in that sense the story and the script totally succeed. If I had one complaint, it would be what you can’t do. Sometimes I would go for a jump the developers didn’t want me to, and die as a result. Jumps that were far smaller than some of the ones they did allow me to make. Again though, this is a linear game that works overtime to provide a fun experience, and Naughty Dog are to be applauded for hiding the seams as well as they have done.
To conclude, Indiana Jones 4 struggled to do it, and the new Tomb Raider game just didn’t have the heart. But Uncharted 2 has just re-written the rule book on what an adventure experience is all about. Sure, I have complaints, but I still think this is in not only my top 10 PS3 games, but top 10 games period. I disagree with the way some reviewers hail this game as the second coming: it isn’t, but it is extremely good and a must buy for every single Playstation 3 gamer.
I do find it is important to illustrate the faults so that the achievements of the game stand out as even more impressive. Fans of open word, ‘do what you want’ games are not going to get what the fuss is all about, but I think any gamer will struggle to not be impressed on at least a technical level (especially now that Havok Physics are in play to add even more to the prettiness).
This is just the most fun I have had in a long time, and rather than the small faults I will remember this scene the most; standing up to my knees in a wildly flowing stream, surrounded by ancient ruins of glistening damp stone. Rain patters down all around me, every drop impacting the surface of the water. Ahead, two soldiers with assault rifles approach, a helmeted shotgun wielding friend of theirs juddering in front of me as I pump round after round into his torso, thunder crashing above, lightening illuminating the scene in a suitably eerie fashion. I take cover behind a nearby wall as they attempt to retaliate for the death of their fallen ally, bullets leaving smoke trails in the air. By the time they reach my position, I will have circled round them, pistol trained on the nearest soldier’s skull. Play this game.
Uncharted 2 also adds multiplayer to the mix, as if the single player wasn’t enough! Deathmeath, team-based, co-op missions and more! The matches are plentiful as of this review, and from my time so far I can confirm it is a total blast. Upgrades can be bought with money earned through playing for both single and multiplayer, and coupled with full trophy support, replay value is immense. There is even twitter support so all your friends can see your achievements!
Multiplayer allows you to do everything the main game does, minus the hand to hand combat (the cool slow-downy counter effect would have never worked here, so instead we get the standard pistol whip, 2 hits and you are history!) As an extra that many didn’t even expect, this game as an overall package is extraordinary.
I cannot give Uncharted 2: Among Thieves a perfect 10 out of 10, as I still wish certain things had been done differently. (Personal preference!) It is important to remember that every review is a personal opinion. For many, this is a 10 no doubt. For me, it gets the score below. After you finish the game, come back and read my extra thoughts. If you still think my score is harsh after reading that, then just add the extra 0.5 for me in the comments section, okay?
9.5 OUT OF 10
Extra thoughts (Minor qualms). *Spoilers Ahead!*
- Chloe was great but I was disappointed that she turned out to actually be a good guy overall at the end! This is no doubt so she can return in future, but come on! I really wanted her and Elena to fight!
- Clipping is a problem in many games, and Uncharted 2 is no different. It isn’t a huge deal, but it’s there.
- The ending boss fight felt kind of formulaic to me, and although it fits in with the B movie vibe, I wanted more back story on Lazarević.
- The jungle scenes felt a little flat compared to the rest of the game for me, odd as they didn’t feel quite so restricted in Drake’s Fortune!
- Naughty Dog mentioned in several pre-release videos that we get to know more about Nathan as a character. I am not so sure really. I still think there is plenty of potential to take him to darker places. I would also love to see him in the real world as opposed to just the combat situations. But hey, Uncharted 3 has room to grow now doesn’t it!
- The quick-time event buttons looked a little cheap to me for some reason and only appeared in the bottom left hand corner of the screen, rather than dynamically. They were very forgiving though, I don’t think I failed them even once!
- Did anyone else find the death of Elena’s cameraman Jeff a little bit rushed and detached? I want more drama next time! Same goes for Elena’s supposed near death… I never felt worried at all, I knew she would be fine!
- Anyone else wonder why Shamballah hadn’t been discovered years earlier by helicopter from above?!
- And finally, for the record, if I had reviewed Drake’s Fortune upon release I would have given it a 9 out of 10. (Bearing in mind the time of release!)
Agree/ disagree with this review? Let us know at Alternative Magazine Online in the comments section!
Read our recent faceoff article between Uncharted 2 and Brutal Legend here!