Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
The opening months of every console’s life can be – much like the desolate mountaintop upon which Among Thieves begins – an unwelcoming and barren place. It takes a brave developer to step into the marketplace at this point and buck the vicious cycle that sees consumer uptake dependent on noteworthy games, whilst simultaneously many publishers will wait for an established user base before releasing their triple-A titles. Naughty Dog, back in late 2007, was the first significant outfit to show their hand on Playstation 3 with the excellent Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune – this at a time when the console was still suffering from a very lean early period. Now, with Sony’s machine flourishing, they’re back to claim their justified reward with the game’s much-heralded follow-up.
Anyone doubting whether Uncharted 2 is a worthy sequel, whether it lives up to the sizeable hype, need only play the opening chapter. It’s an astounding beginning for many reasons. Not only does it establish very early on the developer’s mastery of tension, but also highlights the balance between interactivity and incident that they go on to consolidate and refine later in this wonderful game. Ingeniously it’s also a tutorial that doesn’t dress itself up as pre-game training; instead you’re plunged – literally – into the middle of the narrative.
Thinking of those initial minutes now I’m almost feeling a little nostalgic. That may sound strange for a game which is barely a week old, and one that I could be playing again now, but Uncharted 2 is one of those experiences that will resonate strongest the first time you play it. Although certain moments will still be thrilling on repeat viewings, it’s your first play through that will elicit the sharp intakes of breath, the wide-eyed wonder and the disbelieving laughter as you hurtle from one extraordinary juncture to another.
Perhaps even more extraordinary is how far Naughty Dog and the franchise have come in just two years. The first Uncharted was a crowd-pleasing adventure that through its look and feel couldn’t help but evoke certain – at the time more popular- franchises. With that one game however, Naughty Dog transcended them all. More exciting than the Prince Of Persia sequels, better balanced than the recent Tomb Raiders, Drake’s Fortune would’ve been embraced by the PS3 fraternity even if they weren’t so game starved. Many of that debut’s strengths – its lack of pretension, its storytelling techniques – have been heavily built upon and carried over into Among Thieves. But there’s also something else here: a flowering of imagination and technical confidence that the first game barely hinted at.
‘Technical confidence’ is something of an understatement. After all, it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to state that Uncharted 2 is possibly the best-looking game of this generation thus far. It’s visually astonishing, but this achievement in graphics is supported by an attention to detail and countless number of little touches that also add a credibility and history to the world. The parrots that fly from their perch as you approach, the blue flame your torch casts in one particular temple, the entirety of the mountain sequence, a rain-soaked Nepal…really take your time to play through the game, bask in this scenery, and these moments – and there are hundreds like them – will sear themselves into your gaming memory (incidentally, during my first playthrough the game’s statistics recorded the collective time that I had spent standing still at over 2 hours). Oh, and the soundtrack is also great – subtle yet effective.
The premise this time around concerns Nathan’s bid to track what happened to Marco Polo’s fleet upon leaving China in the 13th century – only one of fourteen ships survived the voyage, with Marco never revealing the fate of the missing thirteen (the game itself opens with a quote from Marco Polo, “I did not tell half of what I saw…for I knew that I would not be believed”, which you suspect the makers used as a personal mantra throughout the development process). Supplying the requisite conflict, the Nazi to Drake’s Indy, is Zoran – a Serbian warlord intent on finding the secret for his own nefarious means. On paper it sounds fairly conventional – even Dan Brown-like in its hokeyness – and to a large degree it is. But as with any story, half of the impact lies in the manner of exposition.
In this respect Uncharted 2’s success comes down to something I mentioned earlier, a considered balance between interactivity and incident, and an intelligent understanding of what makes for effective storytelling within videogaming. Not for Naughty Dog the immediately divisive use of pre-rendered cutscenes; everything in Uncharted 2, from the opening scene to the ending uses the same in-game engine. Furthermore, the transitions from cut-scenes to gameplay are, almost without exception, seamless – a practice aided by a camera that will dynamically swoop around and zoom out to give the most dramatic angle when needed. This, coupled with a lack of QTEs and some superb voice work, ensures Uncharted 2 always feels immersive, pulling you from one set-piece to another with all the cohesion of a classic action-film (think Raiders of the Lost Ark and you’d be close), never once breaking the illusion that so much hard work has gone into creating.
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