If you've already decided to buy Uncharted 2, no matter what this review says, you probably think that I am going to start out by telling you how great Naugthy Dog's latest game is from start to finish. However this is not the case, because apart from the first five minutes, the first hour and a half of Drake's latest adventure is a disappointment I never saw coming.
Disappointment probably sounds a bit too harsh, but it's really hard to play through those first 90 minutes without a strong feeling of deja vu, unless you were stupid enough to skip the first game in the series, of course. But there is a reason for that deja vu and even though I was ready to hand over Uncharted 2 to another reviewer, I'm glad that I didn't.
The reason is that Uncharted 2, like a good movie or a book, takes its time to introduce the characters, the background story and the different personalities in a way that you will never doubt who is who or what they stand for. Naughty Dog have so much faith in their qualities as storytellers, that they never fall into the same traps that other developers do when they try to give their stories added depth. In other words you never have to search for dropped books, that for some reason describes the enemy you are chasing, or diaries that contain secret information about your friends. And why? Simply because, Uncharted 2 doesn't have to.
Perhaps you think it's a bit weird to talk about acting and story even before I get to talk about gameplay, since this is supposed to be a review of a game. But there is a pretty good chance that it's exactly this that will be the first thing to blow your mind when you start playing - how alive, in the Hollywood blockbuster sense of the term, Drake, Elena, Sully, Flynn and especially the villain Zorin Lazarevic are when they interact with each other. With Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog have set a new milestone when it comes to virtual acting and telling a story that doesn't in any way trip and fall, from beginning to end.
This time the rainforest has been replaced by rocky Nepal, filled with the secret caves that only the bravest of adventurers manage to find. Without giving up too much of the plot, the story centres around the hunt for the hidden village Shambala, here interpreted as Shangri-La, a mythical paradise filled with riches and guarding the magical Cintamani Stone. In close pursuit is the mysterious Serbian war veteran Lazarevic, who has his own personal reasons for wanting to get his hands on the treasure.
The journey through the game is evenly divided between putting Drake's athletic abilities and your wits to the test and pure action where you let your weapons do the talking. One of the two parts is unfortunately significantly better than the other. Because this is the kind of adventure where every secret always is hidden behind clever puzzles and traps, Naughty Dog have had many opportunities to show off Drake's silky smooth animations, while giving them room to put their own imagination to the use in creative ways.
With the exception of one particular movement, Drake moves naturally between obstacles, no matter how violent the situation gets. Even more impressive is the amount of detail and work that the developers have managed to put into his body language, like when he's shivering in the cold or putting his hand in front of his face when he gets too close to a fire. A lot of effort has only gone into writing and recording Nathan's many small comments, that he uses to soften the mood from time to time, that also help to bring him to life.
The puzzles are inventive and generally impressive as well, without ever resorting to punishing you with illogical solutions. If you ever get stuck there's an option hint system, which gradually tells you what you need to do to keep going. This system works perfectly and should be implemented in every game in the genre from now on, because it makes sure that you get a steady progression, no matter how much help you need or don't need.
When it comes to the controls I do wish that they weren't as automatic as they are now, so that I could feel a lot better about the more daring jumps I'm able to pull off. Instead it feels like I'm being led by the hand and pushed in the right direction, something that - as opposed to the hint system - can't be switched off.
Perhaps it is because it's so much fun to solve the puzzles that the action sequences feel so lacking. The weapons in Uncharted 2 feel more like tools that let you solve action based puzzles than lethal instruments in a deadly fight for survival. There's nothing wrong with the difficulty, but the weapons don't pack a punch at all and the action lacks the intensity that can be found in many other games in the genre. The bad artificial intelligence doesn't help either and the enemies often move around mindless drones, completely oblivious to the grenade I just threw at their feet or to the fact that I am in the process of emptying a full magazine into their bodies.
That doesn't mean that you won't experience action scenes that you will want to play again several times, but these are often memorable because of the situation that surrounds them rather than how the weapons feel. It gets a bit more exciting when you get into close combat and can use the new counter attack, or when you get to sneak up on the enemy, but that doesn't happen often enough.
It's impossible to go through a review of Uncharted 2 and not mention the astonishing technical feats that the American developer has managed to pull off with the hardware. I've never been to Nepal personally, but I am now convinced that is has to be one of the most beautiful places in the world, at least when seen through they eyes of Naughty Dog.
The drawing distance is amazing and the environments spread out around you as far as the eye can see. Sure, we might be talking about a tightly packed slum, suffering from extreme poverty, but yet the sight is enough to take my breath away. This high level of detail is maintained throughout the game, all bathed in a light that manages to be realistic without forgetting to convey a feeling of adventure at the same time.
If it isn't already a cliché to call Uncharted 2: Among Thieves the closest a game has ever been to a Hollywood film, it certainly will become one. Naughty Dog have, with their feel for storytelling, memorable character and virtual acting, created a game that I'd much rather play than watch any of the movies that's been released lately.
This is a game that does so many things right that it really should have been put into the chapter "Best Games in the World", if someone writes a big book about all the games ever released. Sadly, the rather lame action scenes and the way too eager helping hand get in the way of that. Instead it will now reside on the top of the list of "Technological miracles", and work as a milestone for any developer that would try to even come close to re-creating a piece of movie magic in their game.
In any way does this mean that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves isn't one the Playstation 3's strongest games this year. It also creates a glimmer of hope that in the future chapters of the Uncharted saga, Naughty Dog will have mastered the last aspects of their craft. With any luck, we'll see many more adventures with Sully, Elena and - last but absolutely not least - Nathan Drake.