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Review

Review: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Can Drake's latest outing change the fortunes of Sony this Christmas?

The television commercials would have you believe that Nathan Drake’s latest adventure is a non-stop roller-coaster ride of set piece after set piece set in stunning locations with the finest graphics ever to grace a console, and to some degree they’re probably right.  Right from the off, in a level chronologically stolen from the game’s midpoint but used as a gentle introduction to two of the game’s control sets – climbing and gunplay – Drake seems to manage to get himself into one ridiculous situation after another, and on your second play through, when you’re really good at the game and know what’s coming next Uncharted 2 does look like it does in the adverts – the gun toting, wisecracking lovechild of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft certainly has some moves.

The first time, however, it’s a different story.  You won’t know what’s coming (and occasionally you’re expected to run into the camera, Sonic Adventure style) so unless you’ve managed to perfect predicting the minds of game developers or have the reactions of a ninja you’ll fall, stumble or miss your cue and then it’s a section restart made only slightly less frustrating by the fact that game doesn’t have to load anything before putting you back in the action.  They’re generally frowned upon, but just for once I found myself wishing certain sections of the story played out with those prompted-button based Quick Time Events rather than my having to quickly figure out the correct course of action – of course, part of the fun is not knowing what’s coming next but nobody can predict some of the events in Uncharted 2.

Reviews like this are tricky because it’s hard to qualify paragraphs like the above without mentioning them in context, so the remainder of this paragraph will contain minor spoilers: buildings fall down around you and you’ve got to jump a major gap with a second’s notice; parts of a wall collapse without warning and you’ve got to find another ledge; the truck you’re on catches fire and you must jump, Pursuit Force style, to another - miss any of these it’s back to the last checkpoint, which on the harder difficulties really can be something of a chore.  As I said though, on your second run through the game, which should take you considerably less than the 12 or so the first one did, you know what to expect and the game flows a lot smoother, but I do think some kind of prompt or warning would have been nice in most of these sections.

Also problematic is the game’s almost complete lack of signposting.  With the single player’s globe-trotting story allowing the developers to cover all kinds of fantastical surroundings – jungle, towns, snowy mountains – the core aspect of getting from A to B is, by default, rather more complicated than if the entire thing was simply set inside an old temple: bricks, glaciers and trees looks different and thus offer different ways of traversal and despite Uncharted 2 always having just enough brightly coloured ledges sticking out of whatever it is you’re meant to climb it’s not always easy where you’re supposed to look to find these visual aids.  Getting around the platform sections is never complicated once you’re on – the game is essentially one strictly linear path and that includes every section of every level too – but spotting the next cue is needlessly frustrating.

The game knows this because it offers you a camera-based clue after about 5 minutes of standing still – why not just tie this to the ‘up’ button and save us the hassle of standing around waiting for the tip?  And this frustration extends to a couple of glitches too, one of which includes the hero stuck, waist high, in a massive cog prompting the need to reload the last checkpoint to proceed – had the game showed me the way to go I wouldn’t have had to repeatedly try to grab onto what I thought was a grabbable ledge carved into the rock face and just climbed the metallic teeth of the gear instead.  This wasn’t a problem in the last couple of Tomb Raider games, with which Uncharted 2 shares more than it might admit, but then for the most part Uncharted 2 does try to push the boundaries with location variation.

The current thinking that Uncharted 2 is the PS3′s current flagship AAA exclusive is, I assume, founded on the game’s stunning visuals rather than a sum of all its parts.  Without a doubt, Uncharted 2 is the best looking video game on the PlayStation 3 and probably the finest ever to grace a console on any platform.  Textures are frequently stunning, pixel-sharp and absolutely massive with no visible repeat seams; the lighting is superb (and the shadows to die for); the animation is a notch above Naughty Dog’s last game and the frame rate’s astounding given the sheer amount of information going on in any given scene.  Right from the very first scene Uncharted 2 is breathtakingly beautiful, with some stunning vistas, exquisite close up shots and everything in between – it really is rather impressive on both a technical and an artistic level, with some wonderful architecture, expansive open spaces and believable buildings to explore – it’s a shame the whole thing is so funneled towards an end point without the option to really explore, but that’s obviously to enable the constant level streaming – possibly the single most impressive part of Uncharted 2.

The frequent cut scenes, pre-rendered using the game’s engine and played back as a video, provide a curtain over any between level loading periods and help to forward the exposition without taking the player too far from the action.  Naturally, things like Drake’s guns might change in the videos from the ones you were carrying, but because everything is so seamless you have to concede that using this method of storytelling, carried over wholesale from the first Uncharted, is the best way to go.  Equally of note is the game’s audio, with everything from the music through to the exemplary voice acting, is superb.  Drake’s banter with the various characters all around him throughout the game is well scripted and well carried off, with just his repetitive (and rather ignorant) frustration at his lack of Tibetan the single low point.  Coincidentally, the very same segment in the game was also my least favourite part of the story, proving to be rather dull and derivative without any clear goal or purpose.

So, whilst Naughty Dog have pulled off rather more than a wholesale rip off of the very similar move-set in recent Tomb Raider games to ensure that the third of the game that requires careful platform works well enough, the gun play doesn’t quite succeed on the same level.  Weapons, on anything above ‘Easy’, feel flimsy and under powered and the sheer amount of ammunition required to take down some of the generic bad guy goons is astonishing, even at close range – yes, they’re armoured, but piling on increasingly soaky bullet sponges with no clear sense of how many are left isn’t my my idea of a smooth difficulty curve. On the plus side, enemy AI is smart, but it’s not going to surprise you – unless you’re playing on the tougher levels they’ll simply use the same cover system you do.  Which, for the most part, works (you just tap circle) but the game has a nasty habit of sticking you to the wrong wall in the middle of a firefight – not good.

So, without detailing any plot development or mentioning any of the numerous twists, that’s the single player portion of Uncharted 2.  Chances are you’ll find the actual story a little confusing and sometimes less than riveting but the overall experience is absolutely a pleasant one.  Sure, it’s essentially the same as the first game in terms of what you need to actually do (and the loop of get somewhere, find out where you need to be and then discover it’s not the right place after all is repeated at least 3 times) but that’s what you’d expect from a sequel.  Technically astounding, but occasionally hampered by frustrating direction, unclear objectives and the omnipresent feeling that you’ve done all this before, long before you get to the conclusion.  And speaking of which, whoever thought that that last boss was a good idea nearly prevented this author from actually finishing the game – at least the explosive last few seconds of the game make up for it.

In conclusion, then, a powerful, impressively produced game boosted by stunning visuals, audio to die for, a massive multiplayer section (which we’ll come to separately) and enough challenge and hidden secrets to keep fans playing for months – for anyone that enjoys third person adventures Uncharted 2 represents a thrilling experience with some breathtaking set pieces and enough challenge to retain your interest far longer than most console games this generation, and it’s almost worth buying just for the graphics which I don’t think will be bettered for a good couple of years. The game doesn’t really make the most of some of its cleverer tricks (the stealth moves are forgotten quickly and the hilarious Journal is touched on twice for the game’s two main puzzles) but the slower moments obviously had to make way for the game’s action movie feel to come to the front. On a personal level I actually preferred the raw purity (and the story) of the first game but there’s no doubt that Naughty Dog are masters of the PlayStation 3 technology and they should be immensely proud of their achievement.

Graphics: Stunning throughout, probably the best graphics ever to grace a games console and an utter joy to experience: 10/10

Sound: Great music, solid voice acting and worth buying a 7.1 sound system for: 10/10

Gameplay: A little frustrating, often repetitive but mostly a success. Cover system needs a little more work and some sections feel a little unbalanced: 8/10

Overall: Set to be the PS3′s poster child, with some amazing set pieces, but the lack of direction, rambling story and a few control-based niggles knock the game a little.

9/10

Please note that this is a review of the single player portion of Uncharted 2. We’ll be addressing the multiplayer once we’ve had enough time with the game. In addition, because Uncharted 2 is such a pivotal, hotly anticipated game we’ve invited some further opinion from our team, with both Greg and Lewis chipping in with their mini reviews, thus:

Greg: If you liked Drake’s Fortune, you’ll like Among Thieves. It is more of the same but prettier. Until today the jungles in the first Uncharted were my favourite console-rendered tropical forests, but I was simply stunned the first time I set foot in those in Uncharted 2. There is so much more detail and variety present in them. They seem so much more alive. Throughout the game the graphics are up there with the best yet seen on a console. Like I said, prettier. I also said more of the same though. The repetition both within the game and between this and the first Uncharted does grate somewhat. One section of Uncharted 2 in particular stands out as almost a carbon copy of part of the first game. Maybe it was intended as an homage, I do not know, but it is far too similar for my liking. Fortunately it is not stopping me enjoying the latest adventure of PS3′s favourite fallible hero. 8/10

Lewis: Beautiful, engaging, funny, immense and infuriating; these five words sum up Uncharted 2, for me. You won’t see better environments and atmosphere in any other game in my opinion. Drake’s movements can feel clumsy at times, especially in the latter half of the game, when confined to small areas. The story, although it contains different locations, names and objects, is almost identical to Drake’s Fortune, but the voice acting and dialogue makes up for this. The game is a rare treat, combining gunfights with puzzles and, once the first stealth level is out of the way, the pace flows seemlessly from running to climbing, from dodging to hand to hand combat. Despite the niggles I have with, I can’t not give it 10/10. It should be PS3′s flagship game, in my opinion, as it is truly one of a kind and completely un-put-downable! 10/10

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