Review: No time for love, Mr. Drake
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is, two years later, still considered one of the best PlayStation 3 games around, thanks to fantastic visuals, solid third-person shooter gameplay, and a great new character in the titular Nathan Drake. However, it had its problems; the shooting mechanics sometimes were a bit loose, enemies were bullet sponges, and there were none of the epic puzzle set-pieces other games in the adventure genre were known for. Knowing the pedigree surrounding the franchise ? that being the developers, Naughty Dog ? you knew they would tighten up any problems and even expand on what they started on with the eventual Uncharted 2. I doubt anyone expected this though. Subtitled Among Thieves, Uncharted 2 doesn't really break the mold that its predecessor was built upon, but instead Naughty Dog just polished everything up, added more action, more puzzles, more insane set pieces, and a heaping helping of multiplayer action on top of it. Easily the best PS3 game this year and a legitimate contender for overall best game of 2009, Uncharted 2 is the kind of game that you're sad ends, but at the same time thrilled to see it end because it's the kind of game that just doesn't let up, from the intense opening to the closing credits.
Uncharted 2 picks up about two years after the events of the original game. It begins on a train... a train that's hanging over a ledge and is on fire, while Nathan Drake is covered in his blood. He wakes at a decent time, as the train is just about to go over the edge of the cliff and it's a long way down. Using whatever strength he has left, Nate begins a perilous journey outside of the train car, using his superhuman ability to climb stuff. At the same time, you discover that this is a moment of a currently unknown future, as Drake starts flashing back to earlier happenings that set up the story. Upon reaching the cliff and escaping a certain death, the game begins proper, as Nate and his old treasure-hunting friend Flynn, and ?this year's model? Chloe, propose a mission surrounding threats of being in a Turkish prison (Joey?), and solving the mystery of Marco Polo's voyage where dozens of ships vanished and the man said nothing of their fate. Mentioning more would be a disservice, as the plot is full of twists, turns, and of course, constant wise-cracks from our hero.
At it's heart, Uncharted 2 is a cover-based third-person shooter with moments of light puzzle solving, just like the first game. Nate will spend a lot of time hiding behind walls, pillars, boxes, and trees as he picks away at the heavily armed enemies. In the first game, the tank-top wearing pirates were a bit too spongy, taking numerous hits before dying unless you got them between the eyes. This hasn't changed for Uncharted 2, but it seems a bit more real now, as enemies wear full body armor as the ?opponent? in this particular game is a very rich, very organized, and very crazy mercenary type. So it makes sense that 5 shots to the body won't do much good, making headshots even more useful this time around. The main upgrade in the combat is the openness of handling it; in the first game there were almost zero moments of improvisation, as the enemies would always spot you and start firing. This time around, you can use stealth to pick away at enemies by sneaking up on them and hitting Square for a context-sensitive kill. Sometimes you just leap on their backs and choke them out, other times you can hang on a ledge only to leap up and let them fall to their deaths. The only time stealth is actually required is in the opening stage; otherwise trigger-happy types can just shoot their way through.
Another hassle of the first game was the targeting; it was loose, making it difficult to get a good shot sometimes. That, and the nutty dancing the enemies did when they were shot at. Again, fixed. The baddies now take cover and respond to shots in a more... normal manner, and aiming is much tighter and thus, fun. There's still no way to tell your shot will hit (the reticule doesn't turn red or anything), but it's really not missed. The AI itself hasn't changed, which is a good thing; they take cover properly, and will punish you if you let Drake just stand out in the open. The AI for your ?escorts? also remains top notch. They don't die (which might be a tad unrealistic, but the game would be far more frustrating without this key benefit), so you don't have to babysit, and they're smart. Cover, picking off enemies to help out, following your lead and not messing up a stealth run, etc. Throughout the game you'll have no less than five different allies, all of which seamlessly blend into the game and never annoy.
What makes Uncharted 2 stand out is the incredible pacing. You've already read about how the game opens; and that was just a flashback. After that, the game almost never lets up. Whether you're sneaking around a Turkish museum, racing through collapsing buildings while being attacked by a helicopter (as seen in that epic E3 09 demonstration) hiding from a homicidal maniac drivng a tank(!), or even climbing from train car to train car while fighting enemies, there's always something going on. It can be draining, but there are few, if any dull moments, and almost every moment of quiet just makes you nervous about what's going to happen when the quiet stops. The only time the game really ?stops? is when you encounter the handful of massive platform and puzzle events. Much improved from the first game, these sections usually take place in a massive area where one slip means instant death, making the journey to unlock something or reach a switch a perilous one. They're not brutally challenging because they usually revolve around Drake's Journal like the first game (as an aside, the journal is now interactive and one of the best things about the game, there are so many hilarious pages) Of course, the game also has 100 treasures to find over the course of the game, and while they were fairly tough to find in the first game, they're exceptionally well hidden in Uncharted 2. You'll almost certainly have to replay it in order to collect them all.
As a shooter game at the core, Uncharted lends itself well to the world of multiplayer. The first game was occasionally knocked for not having it (unnecessarily, if you ask me), but it's here in full force with Uncharted 2. There's the usual competitive multiplayer ? up to ten players (five per side, split between the good guys and the villains) can partake in team-based deathmatches and capture-the-flag style play. The star of the MP show is cooperative play. Dubbed Gold Rush, it's a separate campaign-style mode for up to three players using most of the set pieces from the single-player adventure. While many solo games that get multiplayer added in in response to critics (see Chronicles of Riddick), it's far from a cookie-cutter addition, as it's just as fleshed out as the core single-player campaign with the same polished and fun mechanics seen there, and Naughty Dog has already said they're going to be adding maps and playtypes in the near future.
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was quite a looker, but it's almost insane how ?old? the game looks now that Uncharted 2 is out. The levels are huge, detailed, and lush, whether you're in the jungles of Borneo, or the Tibetan mountains where it's constantly snowing ? and Drake wades through it leaving his footprtints in the wake. Sometimes, it even starts raining which is another amazing effect. This is easily the best looking PS3 game around, and a testament to what happens when the power of the machine is pushed. The other half of the great visual presentation are the characters themselves. The normal enemies are all pretty stock, which isn't a surprise, but the main characters are both good looking and realistic, due to Naughty Dog's method of using the voice actors for motion capture. Using the same people for both results in realistic mannerisms, and because they're all interacting with each other, it's very natural... more games that want to push story and characters really needs to follow this method.
In addition, this is combined with great voice acting. All the players from the first Uncharted that still breathe have the same returning voice actors, and they all do a fantastic job once again. The new characters also do just fine, whether it's the sassy Chloe's Australian accent or the incomprehensible Tenzin and his Tibetan dialect that the game does not translate at all, which confounds Nate greatly during the time you adventure with him. It's just another humorous touch that drives the Uncharted series. To compliment the story and acting is a great soundtrack, one of the best this side of Metal Gear Solid. From the reprise of the theme from the first Uncharted to the unique compositions that use instruments from the locations (very much like Uncharted 1's use of Spanish and ancient Incan/Mayan instruments), and the intense pieces that kick in when the action gets wild.