Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has a lot to live up to.
The original Naughty Dog-developed third-person shooter was one of the crown jewels of the Playstation 3 launch, its critical success highlighting the technical prowess of Sony's new console and the storytelling chops of the game's creators.
Now nearly two years later, Uncharted 2 has not only to live up to the game's growing expectation but to improve upon those few areas in which reviewers found fault in the original.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves puts players back in control of Nathan Drake a few years after the events of the original game. This time around Drake is on the hunt for Marco Polo's lost ships and the treasure they may hide. The story eventually leads Drake on a search for Shangri-La somewhere in the Himalayas.
Page Turner: There really aren't many surprises tucked away in Uncharted 2's workable plot. But the delivery and character development help make the story something worth reliving. The strongest element is how the writers managed to create a story that has you pushing through the game at an unforgiving pace. Like a good book, each chapter ends in a way that makes you want to continue playing to see what happens next. Before you know it, the story comes to a perfectly-proportioned ending.
Dialogue : While the story in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has plenty going for it, the thing that really drives home its strengths is the clever back and forth among the main characters. Unlike a movie, a video game doesn't tell its story over a few hours. There are, in all video games, hours and hours of trial and error, repeated performances and sudden deaths. This forced repetition is one of the things that handicaps the medium. Naughty Dog does an amazing job of filling that typically bland space with sharp conversations that help to build the rapport between the lead, love interests, friends and enemies.
Amazing Moments: Planted throughout this solid adventure title are the sorts of moments that you'll want to talk about with your friends. Some involve plot points, others amazing backdrops and still more, cleverly crafted fighting scenes. They come timed to elevate the game's potentially slow points, ridding it of any valleys and instead making Uncharted 2 an upward journey across a series of peaks.
Camera Framing: More than most games, Uncharted 2 looks like a movie. And I don't mean that just as a compliment to the graphics, but also because so much care was put into the way we see those colorful pixels.
This is something tricky to do in a third-person shooter when the gamer has almost total control of the camera. But the default view, the place the camera drifts to at the beginning of a scene and as you play, was obviously crafted with care. I found my attention drawn to the game's beautifully detailed scenery and unusual settings not just because they were so unique, but because of the way the camera framed them.
Ending: My biggest complaint with the first Uncharted was with its ending. After delivering a fairly stunning and rather original journey to gamers, Uncharted fell back onto bad habits, forcing players to confront a final boss that was redundant and anti-climatic.
Lesson learned, it seems, for Naughty Dog because this time around the ending feels like the reward it should be. The conclusion neatly wraps up all of the loose plot lines into a tightly woven climax and then slows down the story just enough to allow the emotional impact of the final scene to wash over gamers.
Free climbing: A bit heavier on the climbing this time around, Uncharted 2 gives Nathan Drake the ability to free climb up and around objects. Not everything is climbable, Drake will still have to hunt out fingerholds. But there's enough there to give gamers different ways to tackle obstacles, in particular the gun-wielding obstacles.
Melee: Hand-to-hand combat this time around feels much more fleshed out than it did in the original Uncharted. You can perform a number of savage, but silent take-downs on unsuspecting enemies and even slip effortlessly between gunplay and melee without losing the pace of an encounter.
The biggest improvement is the need for gamers to use both melee buttons when facing certain enemies to dodge attacks and perform counters. This relatively simple addition adds a very welcome facet to what had been a borderline mundane mechanic.
Mechanics: The best of games can be brought low by faulty controls. Fortunately for Uncharted 2, the game's controls are as solid as the rest of the title. The familiar controls make it equally easy to stealth you way through a level, climb up and over enemies or just seek cover and blow everyone away.
Multiplayer: Featuring both cooperative and competitive multiplayer modes, what really sets the online play in Uncharted 2 apart is that much of the single-player mechanics have made their way into the game. That means free climbing, scrambling up to cover and hanging from a wall or railing and plunking enemies.
I've only played online with developers on a private network, so I can't address how stable a loaded and public server will be. But the experience, lag-free, is an amazing multiplayer adaptation of Uncharted 2.
Twitter: The ability to have Uncharted 2 automatically send out updates about your gameplay to your Twitter account is a neat idea, on paper. But, as Naughty Dog quickly realized, being the recipient of a tidal wave of updates sent from a friend can become old quite quickly. And dread the thought of having several friends play the game.
Naughty Dog realized it was a bad idea and officially disabled it even before the game was released, promising a patch that would limit progress updates when it comes back. While the ability to notify friends of online sessions and awards earned remains, it's apparent that this wasn't the best concept for any otherwise nearly flawless title.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves succeeds in as many ways as possible: It had me telling myself "just one more chapter" from the first to the 26th. It made me laugh at jokes and mutter in annoyance at characters. And for a moment at the end, touched me.
I'm not one to say something is the best ever or to dole out perfect scores, and Uncharted 2 does have its share of trivial issues, but to date, Naughty Dog's second adventure with Nathan Drake appears to be the best experience hitting a console this fall.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony Computer Entertainment for the Playstation 3 on Oct. 13. Retails for $59.99 USD. Played entire campaign mode on normal difficulty. Tested hard difficulty. Played several sessions of multiplayer with the game's developers on a private network.
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