Uncharted 2: Among Thieves PS3 (normal) PS4 (HD remaster) Developed by Naughty Dog Released in 2009
The 7th generation of console games is often mocked nowadays, and even at the time, for prioritizing making things look pretty over creating functional, engaging games. While Uncharted started out with a somewhat mediocre game fitting this description perfectly, it had some merits that I hoped a sequel would expand upon. Sadly, Naughty Dog did not seem to agree with me in that regard.
A Band of a Thieves
While developing this game Naughty Dog discovered in medias res storytelling and so Uncharted 2 kicks off with Nathan Drake almost dying in a trainwreck, whereupon we flash back to him sitting in a bar meeting with two expert thieves, former lover Chloe and a guy called Harry Flynn. The two of them are plotting to steal a relic from a museum in Istanbul and need Drake’s help to pull it off. Drake soon realizes that in actuality Harry and his employer are after the legendary lost fleet of Marco Polo and the treasures it contained, but he ends up being double crossed and left in a Turkish prison.
After breaking out he once again teams up with Sully and other old friends to chase after the treasure anyway. To be fair, I enjoy the dynamic this time around, with Drake having to catch up to another team that has a huge lead on him and figure puzzles out before they can. It’s not entirely unlike the plot of the first game, yet new enough to not feel like basically the same thing again, and the new characters accompanying you are a nice change of pace as well. At least, they are when they actually get some screen time. Large portions of the cast disappear for several hours at a time, weakening the story telling overall.
Also detrimental to the plot is just how tediously long it feels. While the game is only slightly longer than the rest of the series, it feels like the game drags on for much longer due to how flimsy plot justifications are. There is this whole section where Drake goes spelunking in an ice cave that leads to an ancient, mechanical gauntlet, all of which takes hours to get through and just serves to give Drake one clue he could have gotten from the guy that send him there to begin with. Likewise I feel most of the time spend in the city could have been shortened and I found myself begging for the game to just start the boss fight already throughout the entirety of the final two areas.
An unrelated matter, but I made a big point of me disliking the characters in Uncharted because I found it weird how everyday people just turn into killing machines at a moment’s notice. By this point I have sort of accepted this peculiarity in Naughty Dog’s writing, yet what did bother me about Drake himself was this one, giant slip up. In a stealth mission he repeatedly makes a point of refusing to use guns or otherwise kill the security guards, because for some reason we want to both make him a thief and keep him on some bizarre mutation of the chaotic good morality at the same time. Then comes one bit where you are asked to make a stealth move and Drake grabs a guy, one of the many he has refused to kill multiple times that day, and tosses him over the edge of a building, several stories down, into the sea. Good writing Naughty Dog. Very consistent.
Story score: 3/10
GRAB! THAT! LEDGE!
The gameplay of Uncharted 1 was mostly fine; a simplistic third-person shooter that had some weird ideas about how puzzles and platforming sections work, but was for the most part a fun game that was easy to just pick up and play. The sequel leaves this core gameplay untouched and my hope was that it would do just that, only while also improving the platforming segments and maybe thinking up some better puzzles. What we got are worse platforming segments, bordering on the unplayable sometimes, terrible puzzles, and some questionable add-ons to the bits where you shoot people.
New to the game are stealth segments, or rather, one stealth segment where you have no other choice, and stealth as an option the rest of the time. This I actually like because it’s fun to see how much of an enemy horde you can knock out with quick take-down moves before you even need to draw a gun. Even when combat does break out you can still use these take-down moves in fun ways to gain a tactical advantage, and many shoot-outs take place in large, open areas where you have enough room to create opportunities for yourself. While the initial stealth segment in Istanbul is a tad frustrating because getting spotted sets you back far, this is a mechanic that really redeems itself and lends an extra dimension to Uncharted‘s enjoyable gameplay.
So, why the harsh opening to this segment then? Well, while gun battles are prevalent, you tend to spend more of your time in this game on the platforming and puzzles. In terms of platforming Uncharted 2 makes little attempt at improving the problems that haunted the last game. It’s still unforgivably unclear what ledges Drake can interact with and which ones he can’t, so much so that I at one point believed the game to be broken: I was hanging on a ledge and moving to the right, when suddenly Drake just stopped halfway across the ledge. There was nothing blocking him, there was nothing wrong with the ledge, it was just not the right way to go, even though the entire design of the level communicated to me that it should be.
After almost any shoot-out you’ll find yourself going to all the walls and having Drake bump into them to see which one is correct. In some, rare situations Naughty Dog does attempt to highlight this by giving pipes you can climb a noticeable blue color, only to then make a lot of other stuff blue as well and put completely unimportant pipes all over the place, making the highlight useless anyway. When you do find the right way to go, just like in the previous game, all you have to do is hold forward and keep jumping, with no risk or challenge to any of it.
The puzzles are a lot sparser this time around, like only one or two, and still focus on Drake’s peculiar habit of having any solution to any puzzle anywhere in the world already written down in his notebook, yet always acting surprised and confused by it. Puzzles involve very limited components that can be manipulated, like the arms of a statue, and though the notebook has a lot of useless notes for it, it shows you exactly where each piece goes. Nothing posing as a puzzle ever really left me stumped or even required me to pause and observe, except when I didn’t realize the puzzle required me to also do some platforming.
In short, Uncharted 2 is fun when it asks you to shoot bad guys and there is some serious meat to the shoot-outs despite of the remarkably simple control scheme. It’s just that everything connecting these shoot-outs reeks of incompetence, and I can’t even accuse it of being lazy, because the stuff you climb on and puzzle with are lavishly detailed constructions. Yes Naughty dog, you made a cool, ancient monolith for me to hop around on, you just forgot to make it any bloody fun.
Gameplay score: 4/10
It snowed a bit
I’ll continue to admit that, despite the disdain I showed for the “graphics first” style of game design, Uncharted 2 does look nice, even when you take away the benefit of this HD re-release. The problem, then, is that this title takes the series out of the jungles, which were lush with green colors and beautiful, natural landscapes. While you still sometimes dive into the woods, a lot of the game now revolves around a civil war tearing apart a city and thus you are often confined to war-torn streets where browns and grey tones are more prevalent.
Naughty Dog continues to be great at making sure you see all the impressive backdrops and get to climb around the city’s best buildings, yet in terms of presentation it presents a downgrade. Still, less is sometimes more, and the boring areas did help the impressive ones to stand out more, like this truly massive room where you solve a puzzle or the endless, snowy land you find yourself in during the game’s intro and second half.
Music and voice-acting are still stellar and a fun inclusion is a main character that doesn’t speak English. It was interesting to see Drake interact and bond with this person he couldn’t actually understand, and the script is actually legit, he doesn’t just spout gibberish. The returning characters continue to be voiced by their original actors and new girl Chloe is voiced by Claudia Black, putting on the same voice she used for Morrigan in Dragon Age. Funnily enough, Flynn is voiced by Steve Valentine, whose only other major role is Alistair from that same game. Fun to see those two acting back-to-back again with such a familiar performance.
Presentation score: 8/10
Lost forever collect-a-thon
Not much has changed going from the first to the second game in terms of extras. You still get to look around for treasures, which have been boosted to a total of 100 if you just can’t get enough of them. They are a lot harder to find this time around too and that little, white sparkle doesn’t stand out much in the snowy or otherwise clustered environments. Achievements are still awarded for the various difficulty modes, collecting the treasures, and getting a set number of kills with specific methods and weapons. It’s all perfectly functional yet wholly unexciting, like a report card filled with C’s.
Extras score: 5/10
While there were moments of fun to be had with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, I found the experience marred by a story that feels needlessly prolonged and increasingly pointless platforming sections. Whenever the camera would pan over a massive labyrinth of moving bits and pieces I was expected to platform between I would sigh, because this is a game that really comes to life during its hectic shoot-outs, only to slow down to a tedious crawl when you need to climb anything. For the third game I really hope Naughty Dog gets around to creating more responsive controls and finds a way to make the platforming more involved.