A bluish mountain range, were the wind creates delicate patterns in the snow, sets the scene for a hostile landscape. A man fights his way through the knee high snowdrifts. Frozen and hurt he staggers on wards. The treasure hunter is Nathan Drake, and he is as far away from the Panama jungles as ever. The change of scene is intentionally drastic, and the expectations for the continuation of Naughty Dog's adventure game are sky-high.
Of course this doesn't mean the original Uncharted: Drake's Fortune wasn't ambitious. While others were groping around in the dark, trying to uncover the architecture of the Playstation 3 both in terms graphics and of game mechanics, Naughty Dog had tamed the Cell chip and the powers it contained. The result was a finely tuned cinematic adventure, filled with gun fights, dangerous leaps and a story evolving around the best myths and legends.
On the other hand it was also too cautious and unable to blend the different concepts properly together. The gun fights never truly blended with Nathan Drake's athletic abilities in a convincing way. Both concepts relied heavily on games such as Gears of War and Tomb Raider and even though they were at least as good and in some cases even better than those games, it lacked someone with an over all view - keeping things together. Drake's Fortune was pretty, smooth, and catchy but still lacked some unique finger prints.
This time Naughty Dog is walking on even thinner ice with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which not only ads pistol games and climbs to the mix, but also sneaking. Still, there is no need to worry since the Santa Monica Studio has polished and trimmed all existing parts of the game, as well as adding a few extra spices to the experience. The result is set to be a roller coaster of a ride, worthy of screening time in a big cinema, and yet still doesn't rob the player of any real influence. All of a sudden the words "cinematic experience comes to mind", which is usually a big no, no.
Amy Hennig, who originally worked for Crystal Dynamics and delivered the stories for the Legacy of Kain games and later joined the team at Naughty Dog, believes the cinematic experience, in a conceptual way, comes with negative associations of an uncontrollable gaming experience. Some sort of autopilot, where the studio drugs the audience with short, well planned moments of action and controls everything else with long middle sequences. Naughty Dog has intentionally tried to avoid this trap in Among Thieves, perhaps most of all in relation to the new element - sneaking.
Game Director, Bruce Straley, believes the sneaking doesn't necessarily have to be laborious or patience demanding, but instead used in cooperation with the other elements and provide an extra tool, which makes perfect sense.
This explanation is being confirmed further as we load an early version of Among Thieves and it comes up on screen. We are in a small city in Nepal, standing in a confusion of ruins. Dirty shop signs, black columns of smoke and the characteristic Nepalese flags set a marvellous tone. Bathed in the afternoon light, Drake makes his way through the streets, momentarily hidden by burnt out vehicles partly broken down walls and long black shadows. Graphically is shines quite a bit more than Drake's Fortune.
Among Thieves is neither the same rag of inspirations as the previous and first instalment was. An emptied out magazine and a handful of mercenaries, smoothly takes Nathan from fighting, climbing and so on, into daringly sneaking around. The shift doesn't at all seem forced and at no time Uncharted 2, seems to loose it's grip of the action or story. The only questions which needs to be answered now is: Why is Nathan Drake in Nepal?
Script writer Amy Hennig has the answer. Among Thieves evolves around the many travels of Marco Polo, more specifically his journey from the enormous kingdom of Kublai Khan to his home town of Venice, Europe.
According to Polo himself, he travelled from Khan with no less than 14 ships and more than 600 men, and when he finally reached the Italian city harbour, the fleet had been reduced to a single ship and only 18 survivors. Marco Polo has never revealed what happed on that journey and this is exactly why Hennig and the rest of the team have used the story as a springboard to make up their tale. This again sends Drake on a mission to recover the legendary Shangri-La and a valuable artefact called the Chintamani stone.
As with most other adventure games, Drake is not the only one seeking out the stone, which brings him on a collision course with a paramilitary leader and his gang of uncivilized mercenaries. Luckily Nathan is aided by the dark haired beauty Chloe Frazer, who seems to replace both Elena and the middle aged Sullivan from the first game.
We're not going to avoid the subject of horse power, and while the major part of the crew is showing off the new Game, Christophe Balestra can't help but giving us some figures.
"Uncharted: Drake's Fortune used up 30% of the SPU of the Playstation 3 - this time we are pushing the machine to the edge of it's capabilities. This allows for more facial movement, which again gives us a lot more expressions to use.
And the gathering of game journalists has no problem believing the co-founder of Naughty Dog. Among Thieves runs smoothly, with a flood of details, and brand new animations making the experience even more realistic - this even though they are animated by hand. The small subtle character features makes all the difference, which is important now that Nathan Drake isn't that much different from any other game hero out there.
But even this has been improved and polished by Naughty Dog. While the first game set Drake of into an adventure where you didn't question his status as a hero for one second, there is a darker side to the lead character of this second chapter. Drake has always lived on the borderland of what is right and wrong and in Among Thieves there has been made no attempt to cover up his darker sides. Amy Hennig quickly explains that this doesn't mean everything will be darker and that we will be exposed to a lot of blood and cursing. Instead, Nathan will be a bit less polished this time around.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is still almost a year from release, and even though the game already looks quite impressive and runs on a fully updated version of the Uncharted engine, we expect Naughty Dog to have more aces up their sleeves, when we meet them again at the upcoming E3 and Games Convention in Leipzig. And we will be there, because we simply love a good adventure.
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