Uncharted 2: Among Thieves really is something special. Whatever expectations you may have from the game after watching videos, reading previews and reviews, or even playing in the multiplayer beta will be easily exceeded when you get your hands on the single-player campaign, because what you’ve seen and read is only a sliver of what this incredible game has to offer. It grabs you by the balls in the very first cutscene and shows no sign of letting go till the credits roll. In between, it sets new benchmarks in story telling, visual brilliance, and all-round action adventure gameplay, as it takes you on an unforgettable ride that by itself makes owning a PlayStation 3 well worth it.
It is never made abundantly clear, but there’s enough evidence to suggest that Among Thieves takes place about a year or two after the events of Drake’s Fortune, although, apart from returning characters and some lines of dialogue, there’s absolutely no connection between the two. Everything you loved about Drake’s Fortune is back and better than before in the sequel, and the biggest example of this is that while most of Drake’s Fortune played out on one island, you will visit various locations around the world this time around.
The only thing missing in this game is a vehicle section. While Drake’s Fortune had the great jet-ski level, there’s none of that in Among Thieves. Sure, you’ll see Drake riding on, climbing over, and blowing up all sorts of vehicles; you just won’t be the one controlling them. But while this is an omission from the game, you don’t really miss it because even when you’re the passenger, there’s so much else to be done. The set pieces that surround these vehicle segments are so frantic and action-packed that just making it out alive is challenge enough.
Naughty Dog did a great job of not making the single locale in Drake’s Fortune feel repetitive by varying level design, throwing in set pieces, and combining combat, platforming, and puzzle-solving ingeniously. But with so much to play around with in terms of environments this time around, the developers have really gone to town creating a game world that not only looks astonishing (I’ll get to that in detail later), but is also a lot of fun to play in. The first game would often tell you when a gun combat section was coming by throwing conveniently-placed cover objects into the level; it’s a lot more subtle this time around. The reason for this, besides the obvious fact that it looks more natural, is that when faced with a bunch of gun-toting goons in Uncharted 2, a firefight isn’t the only option.
Stealth is a major new addition to the gameplay this time around, and while there was some evidence of this in the first game, the option of picking the stealthy approach is only now a rewarding one, and the level design plays its part in making it a thrilling experience regardless of which approach you take. Don’t expect any Splinter Cell or MGS level stealth gameplay though. It’s purely a combat option designed to give you more ways to play through the game, so the enemy AI isn’t as alert as in focused stealth titles, and very often they won’t raise an alarm on seeing their departed comrades lying on the floor. Having said that, you will seldom find yourself in a situation where you can clear an entire room of enemies using only stealth, but the least you can do is take some of them out quietly before someone notices you and everyone starts popping off.
That’s actually great because gun combat is just as much fun as it’s always been, and the enemy AI goes a long way towards ensuring that. They’ll take cover whenever possible, and they’ll move around behind cover as well. While taking down an enemy quietly from behind you’ll need to beware of their eagle-eyed colleagues looking your way or you’ll blow your cover. Hand-to-hand combat, while very basic and largely unchanged since the first game, is also well implemented and greatly satisfying thanks to the brilliant animations. The melee combat also blends in impressively with the stealth elements.
There are enemies of various strengths now. Armoured assailants with riot shields and shotguns will try to rush you, their buddies with assault rifles will attempt to flank you, while others with sniper rifles and RPGs will line you up from a distance. Every now and then, you’ll come across a mini boss built like Fort Knox and brandishing a Gatling gun. It’s a welcome change from the first game, where enemies were regular pirates and staying behind cover ensured survival. But the stronger enemy AI means that Drake can get overwhelmed at times, and that’s where the brilliant friendly AI comes into play. You almost always have another character with you, but not once will they get in the way. Instead, they’ll think for themselves, take cover away from you, and work with you to clear areas full of baddies.
On the topic of combat, I feel I should mention a tiny gripe regarding the guns. The shooting mechanic is fine and controls feel tight enough, but some weapons are way overpowered. If you’re like me and pathologically incapable of hitting headshots, an M4 or AK-47 assault rifle will take a few shots to down an enemy at medium to long range, while a shotgun or the pistole, which should only be effective at short range, can take out an enemy far away with just one or two shots. So you’re actually better off using a hand gun or shotgun as your primary weapon, but of course, doing so means you will have limited ammo, and even on Normal difficulty, there isn’t an abundance of ammo lying around for you. But Uncharted 2 clearly isn’t meant to be a clinical shooter, so this doesn’t adversely affect the experience in any real way. But I felt it was worth mentioning all the same.
Uncharted 2 isn’t all about combat. Like in the first game, platforming and puzzle-solving form a major chunk of the gameplay, and these elements, particularly the platforming, are where Uncharted 2’s gameplay really shines. There are some heart-stopping set pieces crafted around the platforming segments that will really get your adrenaline pumping, while at other times, navigating the environment will be a serene and peaceful experience, where it’s just you and your environment. These are often the times when the game throws some of its most beautiful scenery your way, so even though you won’t have enemies crawling all over you, there’s always something to keep you hooked.
Puzzles are fewer this time around, but those that are there are grander in scale and complexity and some will require serious head scratching to complete. To help you through them, of course, is Drake’s journal, which now also lets you browse through the pages and gain some insights into the mind of Nathan Drake, including his fear of Sulli’s moustache.
While gameplay elements are executed to near perfection, what separates Uncharted 2: Among Thieves from every other game is its characters and masterful story-telling. Voice acting is of the highest quality and the script does a wonderful job of making the characters feel real and believable. Whether in a cut scene or just back and forth banter between the characters as they walk around, dialogue feels effortless and natural and it’s nothing that you wouldn’t expect to hear from anyone in that situation. Chemistry between the characters is spot on as well and none of the interactions between them feels forced.
There’s humour in amongst all the shooting and treasure hunting too, and while in most games a funny dialogue would make you think to yourself, “Oh, that was funny”, here it will actually make you laugh or in the least force a smile. These moments come when you least expect them and again, the chemistry between the characters goes a long way into making it feel real and believable, and therefore a lot funnier. The humour is never out of place and the game doesn’t try to be funny; it’s simply a product of the way the characters interpret the situations they’re in.
The cutscenes also merit a very special mention. Often I found myself so drawn into a cutscene that I momentarily forgot that once it was over, I had to pick up the controller and play on. While the characters, script writing and dialogue delivery play a major role in achieving this, it’s also the stunning character models, impeccable body language and facial expressions, and cinematic direction that draw you in completely. It’s the set up that these cut scenes provide that makes the gameplay that follows all the more immersive, and Naughty Dog deserve the highest praise, as do the voice actors, for making Uncharted 2 one of the best told stories in gaming.
Some would say Killzone 2 is the best looking console game ever; others would say it’s Metal Gear Solid 4. While they’re both brilliant, neither holds a candle to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves purely because of the diversity in environments and sheer scale on offer here. Think back to your first reaction when you entered the Amazonian forest in Drake’s Fortune and how the lighting and textures left you speechless. Now multiply that by ten and you have Uncharted 2. From the ice caps of Tibet to the lush jungles of Borneo, the game will never cease to shock you with its graphical brilliance.
It’s unfair, really, because you can’t do justice to the beautiful and painstakingly detailed surroundings as events unfold around you. You almost never get the time to take a step back and marvel at the rich architecture, the wonderful draw distances, the lush forests and the breath-taking ice caves. There is never a drop in frame rates and no evidence of screen-tearing or texture pop-in whatsoever, and all of this is achieved without a mandatory installation or a single loading screen from start to finish. The remarkably high resolution textures, unparalleled lighting effects, fluid animations, and realistic explosions all deserve a special mention here as well. It’s almost too much to take note of and the game warrants a second play through just so you can take in the sights that you will undoubtedly miss the first time around.
As I’ve mentioned before, the voice acting is top notch and a class above anything else on the market. This is backed up with great environmental sound effects and an effective, if somewhat overdone, background score. Weapon effects too pack a punch, rounding off a truly impressive audio-visual package.
As you play through the game, you will also find collectible relics in the form of hidden treasures strewn around the environment. I took roughly 11 hours to complete the game on Normal difficulty, and I had collected less than 15 of the 100 hidden treasures by the end of it. So expect to clock many more hours if you choose to go after all 100. You also get in-game achievements in the form of coins, which are independent from the PS3 Trophies. You also earn cash for unlocking these coins, which can be accumulated and used to buy boosters, upgrades, skins and taunts in the game’s multi-player modes. Most of these coins are objective-based (X number of headshots, X number of stealth kills, etc), but some are thrown in just for the fun of it. For example (minor spoiler, skip to the next paragraph to avoid), if you happen to spot a swimming pool, jump in, swim around, and see what happens.
I’ve been all praise in this review, but there really aren’t too many faults to be found. At times, the enemy AI will behave erratically, stand 10 feet away from you and do nothing, sometimes Drake will make jumps over seemingly impossible distances, and there was a solitary incident of a dead enemy soldier getting stuck in the scenery, but these were isolated incidents, none of which even remotely takes away from the overall experience.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves isn’t perfect, but then again no game is or ever will be. The bottom line though is that no matter who you are or what kind of games you like, if you own a PlayStation 3, there isn’t a game available yet, or any game that will come out in the remainder of this year – exclusive or multi-platform – that demands your attention more than this does. It is the pinnacle of story-telling in video games, as complete a single-player experience as you can ask for, and without a doubt, one of the greatest games ever made.
This review is based solely on the single-player campaign of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. For our thoughts on the multi-player component, check out our hands-on impressions from the latest multi-player beta here.
Title: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Developer/Publisher: Naughty Dog/Sony
Platforms: PlayStation3 (Rs 2,499)