Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

A spoiler-free review of the spoils.

May we ever hold up Among Thieves as an example of storytelling in gaming, a shining beacon for outsiders and insiders alike. Naughty Dog is not not only delivering a great game, they are self-assuredly moving the industry forward, raising the bar on our expectations. Chapter after chapter, you play the lead in a movie acting out all of the good stuff. What could easily be written off as action-packed fluff wisely injects a few of those uncomfortable moments that will have you wondering how good a guy our hero really is. Deep, not really, so forget that for now and unquestioningly accept Drake’s superhuman strength, free-running abilities and jeans that make the sisterhood’s traveling pants so last season – all the while enjoying the view from the peak of a very attractive love triangle.

There will be some familiar territory in Uncharted 2, and you can be assured Drake will quip about it, but don’t you dare think less of a game for doing something well. Among Thieves increases the emphasis on stealth and improved the melee, and some players with itchy trigger fingers may object to the early chapters. Shame on them. Methodical, beautiful, tense and rife with all the anticipation of a story you have yet to fully experience these chapters are masterful.

Your arsenal is modestly expanded and complemented with things like exploding gas canisters and riot shields. The combat is exciting and I appreciate visual subtleties like playing with the depth of field as you take aim and fire. The tougher more mysterious baddies will have you on the edge of your seat. There are moments of desperation when you are looking for an escape, and you can’t figure out if you can make the jump. Part of me, the part that doesn’t want to die because I am 72 kills into the 75 kills Survivor Trophy is annoyed, but another part of me realizes this is part of the magic. You, and Drake, don’t know if you can make that jump, but you better try!

The puzzles are fun if not remarkably innovative, and they do give you good reason to flip through Drake’s journal which is a treat in itself. Watch it change as the story progresses, and be sure to check out the Scare-o-Meter (For those readers done with the game, he was so at an 8). There are plenty of other little things to delight in, from petting yaks to going for a swim, Naughty Dog is earnest in their desire for you to have fun.

Other than being completely superhuman, Drake is pretty darn relatable. With all sorts of idealized features and noble intent, he’s still a very real guy just saying exactly what we hope we’d say in the same situation. More than just a dude with admirable Ninja Warrior skills, Drake has smarts, something Among Thieves doesn’t let you forget. With all his wanton heroics, Drake can suffer some serious wear and tear. Sure, he seems to recover pretty quickly, or at least soldier on with more fortitude than I care to ever have to attempt, but he will look downright hurt and make you feel like a jerk as you seek out treasure while he stumbles around injured – but hey, that’s what Drake would do.

Drake even has little bits of dialog for headshotting a guy and scraping his head, though sadly not one for sliding and downing a guy by punching him in his man parts. The voice acting is fantastic, and Uncharted 2 is a very quotable game. Among Thieves isn’t as good as a movie. No, movies wish that could be as fun as this game. Beyond the mo-cap enabled realism, how could a movie even compare to actually playing through the action. Punctuated with brief cut-scenes and lengthier ones to advance the story, the game is rich in dialog. The only scripted elements that started to seem a little worn cropped up when Drake jumped and grabbed for something. It would break and trigger an “oh, crap!” scene a few times too many.

The action in Uncharted 2 is exciting and varied. Even while you are encountering similar enemies across levels, each play field is so unique that it’s a great time just figuring out how to tackle the opposition. Combat is extra fun with stealth options that allow you to pull enemies right off ledges and into the chasm below – which always earns a giggle from me. Verticality in levels is a big part of the fun, giving you more environment to play around in – and be attacked from. Your spritely leaps, bounds and ability to nimbly hang from just about anything makes for lively combat scenarios.

The environments here are far more varied than those of Drake’s Fortune, though conveniently most of them also feature even more scalable detritus. The characteristic climbing and monkeying around is intuitive, both in the controls and the visual cues Naughty Dog uses to gently steer you in the right direction. Gameplay is god, but graphics are a very powerful deity in the Uncharted 2 universe. The level design, textures and landscapes are more than just a playground, they will stop you dead as you soak them up. Oftentimes the camera is pulling out, moving around and generally tweaking itself to direct your gaze and give you a sense of location, drama and sheer scale.

Spread across twenty-six chapters is a story as playful and worthwhile as the gameplay. I’m not saying you will find the ending unexpected, or even that some of the developments along the way will shake you – a good story isn’t good because it surprises you. The game’s villain is pretty darn villainous, but rather than critique this one-dimensionality I’m happy to accept that sometimes grade-a sociopathic murdering villains are, in fact, kinda single-minded. The use of mo-cap with the characters makes for realistic dialog and voice acting that is a joy as well as beautiful moments that have NPCs responding to the scene like true participants. That said, the NPCs aren’t overly useful in combat, but since the hordes can be taken out by Drake where’s the fun on Chloe beating you to the kill every time?

The online multi-player is a blast, and the co-operative missions are a really cool. While the latter are story-based and will have you and up to two others trying to achieve an objective, the former offers ten different game types sure to have the Uncharted 2 addict coming back for more.

Throughout the game are some tidbits for the franchise fans to soak up (look for that Relic!), but by and large new players can approach Among Thieves without prior experience and only risk missing out on a good game like Drake’s Fortune. Treasures are more of a blast to find this time around, with some really cleverly hidden ones that are incredibly rewarding once you finally track them down. I love the inclusion of purchasable weapons and unlockables like infinite ammo; they make nabbing Trophies into fun romps (rather than soul-crushing repetition). On a Normal play through, the average player not seeking out treasures will likely wrap things up in twelve hours time. Playing on Hard and hitting 98 treasures on the first run, I clocked closer to fifteen.

Indiana Jones can hang up his hat. Lara Croft can wrangle her ample bosom into a sports bra. Drake has it covered.

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