Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Review

By Adam Sessler - Posted Sep 29, 2009

While an astonishing achievement in technology, storytelling and gameplay, what is the true triumph of Uncharted 2 is how the game exceeds the sum of these parts.

The Pros
  • Single-player game has no equal.
  • Multiplayer remarkably fun.
The Cons
  • Single-player ending not up to the standard of the rest of the game.
  • It has an ending.

I’m not 100% certain when it happened. I think it’s when I had Nathan Drake atop a building in a war-torn Nepalese city, cornered and being fired upon by a helicopter, engaged in a fist fight with the screen slowly draining of color, snapping my enemy’s neck and quickly rolling into cover to reload my grenade launcher only to turn and fire upon the chopper one last time as I watched it crash and explode. I think this is when I realized that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was the best single-player game I have ever played.

Uncharted 2 Review

So…you like it?

While an astonishing achievement in technology, storytelling and gameplay, what is the true triumph of Uncharted 2 is how the game exceeds the sum of these parts, creating a symphony of unadulterated joy as it hurdles you through an adventure that repeatedly brought back memories of seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time with my father:  Sitting slack-jawed at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, as the screen reflected all of my boyhood fantasies.

Outside of my own nostalgia, Uncharted 2 has deep roots in Indiana Jones, particularly in the story. This time around, Nathan Drake and his treasure hunter/thief buddies are hot on the trail of Marco Polo’s lost fleet of ships that could direct them to a jewel of limitless value. Not unexpectedly, betrayal, a horrible villain and unimaginable power all find their way into the plot, although these familiar tropes are told in such a smart and mature manner that the sense of familiar quickly gives way to a unexpectedly compelling narrative.

This is due, in no small part, to the exceptional writing that carves out strong, distinct characters and provides them with dialogue that generates honest laughs and a proper motivational foundation for the gameplay. It’s not just the writing; the voice-work and digital acting have no parallel. Almost all games have cut-scenes with characters acting as if they are all too aware that a camera is present and must deliver every expositional line with the appropriate bombast indicative of their archetype. In Uncharted 2 everything feels understated and, as a result, fresh. The non-interactive moments are personal and character-driven first, plot-determining second and, unlike many story-heavy titles, they never overstay their welcome as the player anxiously waits to get back into the action.

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And then there was awesome….

A good thing too, because Uncharted 2 provides action by the (exploding) truckload, although what’s most impressive is not the abundance but the elegantly designed and choreographed sequences that maintain the breathless, but not exhausting, pace of the game. Show-stopping moments involving train cars hanging off cliffs, car chases, shootouts on moving trains and collapsing buildings comprise some of the most memorable set pieces I’ve ever played. What makes them extraordinary is not so much the magnitude of the moment but how they fuse all the game’s technical and creative accomplishments. Allowing characters to move on objects with proper physical properties causes real-time camera movements that heighten the tension, short mid-battle scripted moments play out seamlessly and with great drama, stunningly fluid and abundant character animations make fist fights and stealth kills invigorating and filled with action-hero charm. All this wrapped in eye-bleeding graphics and a musical score that gives a barrel-chested grandeur to the unfolding events. At its frequent best, Uncharted 2 transforms itself from an exceptional interactive experience into a delirious act of pop-art gestalt.

All this is founded on the perfectly tuned gameplay mechanics. The quirky aiming that plagued the original Uncharted is gone, replaced with spot-on controls that make head shots a true strategic possibility. Taking cover, still essential, feels more dynamic, with objects you can hide behind that don’t always feel intended solely to absorb bullets. The most significant change to the gameplay is the ability to engage in combat while hanging from outcroppings on buildings or taking cover behind street signs. This, coupled with deeply visceral stealth kills, broadens the combat options and allows for level design that affords the player far more options than is initially apparent. The enemies as well, know to shoot out your cover and approach from behind, keeping Drake moving and picking up alternate weapons, giving even a traditional gun battle a fluid narrative. Death was sometimes a welcome occurrence as it gave me the opportunity to experiment, finding increasingly satisfying resolution to the circumstances at hand.

Uncharted 2 Review

The adventure aspects of the game, in the form of precarious climbing puzzles and the more traditional Tomb Raider mystic temple sequences are organically integrated into the overall game and no longer stand out from the rest of the action. There’s a wonderful sense of apprehension in these quieter moments, a sense everything will quickly turn on its head.

There is one aspect that does not hold up to the rest of Uncharted 2’s single-player game, and that is the ending. The game’s final sequence -- about the final 90 minutes -- doesn’t provide gameplay that holds up to the awe-inspiring standards that precede it. To be fair, from a design standpoint, Naughty Dog was most likely in an untenable position. The narrative mandates the game goes where it does but the spectacle and denouement hinted at would require a stand-alone game in itself. Between denying the player resolution and risking experiential dissonance, the right decision was made. It’s still very enjoyable but, in comparison, does fall victim to the game’s overall accomplishments. Nonetheless, the story stays pitch-perfect until the fade to black.

Come on in, the water’s fine

Of course the campaign is not all that Uncharted 2 has to offer. An abundance of competitive and cooperative content comes on the disc that utilizes the unique aspects of the game’s single-player gameplay to serve up unique takes on familiar multiplayer styles, setting to rest the widespread perceptions of it being nothing more than a throw-away value-add. 

Competitive multiplayer is a blast including Deathmatch, Elimination, King of the Hill and a territory mode called “Chain Reaction." What makes it work so well is that the level design encourages the climbing and stealth moves from the campaign. Hanging on a ledge shooting another player or, even better, waiting for an opponent to walk close enough to yank him off to his death, opens up play styles that, working in concert with the rock-solid controls, make the matches feel fresh and more lively than one would expect. Despite lacking vehicles, I was reminded of my initial sessions of Battlefield 1942 when all I thought was “Wait…I can do that?” Much of the credit goes to the map design that provides so many hidden goodies to experiment with that one could characterize Uncharted 2’s multiplayer as the first competitive platformer/shooter.

Co-op is equally solid, with slight story missions and a Horde-style “Survival” mode for three players. The story missions have simple objectives such as rescuing hostages that slowly develop into larger and larger battle scenarios borrowed from the campaign. While nowhere close to the production values of the single-player campaign, all is made up for in the challenge which will require all three players to work in close contact with one another to survive (maybe finally we’ll have a game to stimulate pervasive use of headsets on the PS3). What’s particularly enjoyable in this mode is watching your friends engage in the heroic fist fight and gunplay antics from afar.  One particularly enjoyable moment came as enemy bodies, hit by Mr. Sark with a sniper rifle, dropped from above all around me.  Yes, it was raining men.

While the multiplayer components are outstanding, the real price of admission is the single-player campaign that should stand up over time as a seminal achievement on the level of Final Fantasy VII, GTA III or Half-Life. Uncharted 2 delivers on what so many other games just promise:  Immersion. Lost not just in a world but in a collective fantasy of the impossible made viable. That 8-year-old me in the movie theater sat yearning for the adult world to be as filled with adventure, discovery and importance as what I saw on screen. Well-situated in my 30s, content with good health and a paycheck, I pine nostalgically for when life still held that pre-adolescent potential. For the hours I played Uncharted 2, those two selves were bridged in a wonderful equanimity, a digital compromise.