Sequels are tricky business. Often they seem to come with a delicate balance to strike; too much like the original or fail to address enough issues and it can feel like wasted time, but too different or too many changes at once can easily leave an audience baffled and lost. Walking that fine line and knowing what little refinements to make is often the mark of a person skilled at their craft. With Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Naughty Dog built a functional, fine time, so with Drake returning in a new adventure, surely this balance must have weighed on their minds.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3, PS4 [reviewed])
Released Oct 2009 | Developed: Naughty Dog | Published: Sony
Uncharted 2 sure starts a lot more promising than the first game! We begin with Nate covered in blood and hanging from a train that is quickly slipping over a Himalayan cliff edge – now that’s more like it! We quickly flash back to before this palaver; while sojourning on a tropical isle, our intrepid treasure-hunter is approached by an old partner-in-crime, Harry Flynn. The pair reunited and team up with new face Chloe, a spunky British explorer and thief, and together the trio pick up the trail of Marco Polo’s Lost Fleet in their quest for Shambala. For any fans of the genre, it will come as no surprise to see Drake betrayed and left for dead, leaving him to chase down his former compatriots and race them to the treasure along his far more faithful friends Sully and Elena.
Of course, things are never all that simple. Nate quickly runs afoul of Flynn and Chloe’s new friend, a dangerous warlord with his own private army, and of course there’s the requisite mysteries to solve, ruins to explore, and plenty of mooks to fight. On top of that, Nate and Chloe have a bit of a fling, and she does stop to help Nate an awful lot despite her allegiances; if it all sounds a bit action film-cliche, well, welcome to Uncharted!
This time the treasure in question is the Cintamani Stone, a priceless orb of sapphire sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists, once sought by Marco Polo. However, while Nate scrambles around picking up Polo’s trail, so to does Zoran Lazarevic, a Serbian war criminal who has left a swathe of death and slaughter in his wake to acquire the stone. He’s an effective enough villain – he doesn’t really get enough screen time, which is similar to whoever the bad guy was in Uncharted, but he does use his time more efficiently – I think he cruelly offs some other NPC at least once an appearance.
Speaking of horrible people, Nate is significantly less awful this time around. He’s still quippy but in a more endearing way this time since a fair portion of them crop up in dialogue with other players as opposed to him reacting to violently murdering someone. He’s also more fallible, and far more willing to up sticks and run as the stakes get higher and more deadly. The same can be said of his supporting cast; Elena is still a plucky journalist, but she’s more streetwise and jaded, particularly towards Nate’s antics, and Sully genuinely does make the smart move and just duck out of the game partway through. The effort on Naughty Dog’s part is welcome though; because of it, it’s a large reason why Uncharted 2 is far more worth your time.
It’s kind of difficult to say exactly how the combat been improved over the first game, but suffice it to say that it has been made better. It’s quite a subtle series of changes; the aiming is a tiny bit smoother, Nate sticks to cover a tiny bit faster. They’re the kind of incremental changes that make for a significantly better feel when playing even though you might not notice it immediately – “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all” is in full effect.
Melee combat has seen the same type of improvements. Nate’s punches land with a little more oomph, and you can respond to enemy attempts at fisticuffs with a little more reliability – there’s a kind of off-brand mini-version of Batman: Arkham combat implemented, with Drake able to counter enemy hits with well-timed button presses but melee isn’t the focus of the game so it’s not a sophisticated system. It is however perfectly functional and a decent enough way to take on foes. What makes it even sweeter is the new focus on stealth, which has been upgraded from worthless in Uncharted to actually bloody good in this game. A majority of encounters now begin with an opportunity for Drake to thin the ranks with silent sneak attacks, and given it’s not a stealth game it works quite effectively. There are some hiccups; it’s a bit woolly as to when enemies can or cannot see Nate, and a few times I’ve had firefights start up because some baddie apparently spied Drake despite facing the wrong way.
When platforming Drake moves a little quicker and more smoothly. Jumping is still a little awkward but I had far fewer frustrating dives off cliff edges than in the previous game. Again, it’s another series of neat refinements to the formula. What is far nicer is that now we get to watch Nate clamber slowly around a far more interesting series of locales! The jungles of the first game certainly earned their plaudits for how visually lush it was, but this game outdoes it – sure we see a little of those jungles again when Nate visits Borneo to cause some trouble for Lazarevic, but we also scramble through war-torn streets of a Tibetan city, vast temples carved into mountains and under buildings, and the harsh snowy crags of the Himalayas.
I am aware I’ve been reasonably effusive in my praise of Uncharted 2, but it is not without problems. In fairness, they’re mostly little ones but at least one is a big one and unfortunately it’s one that significantly impacted my time with and enjoyment of the game. The first Uncharted certainly had a problem with random difficulty spikes, with fights seemingly being harder at random; while I’m pleased to report that Uncharted 2 is in general far more balanced and has more or less addressed that problem, the entire last quarter of the game is, in my opinion, a complete and utter slog that descends into a mire of boring bullet sponge enemies.
It is also perhaps a few hours too long; a little trimming of the fat might have helped Uncharted 2 avoid this since the ending chapters do drag into mind-numbing tedium, but that doesn’t really get around the fact that by the end you are fighting stupidly resilient enemies that deal absurd damage back. The fact it is topped off by a wildly uninteresting final boss fight is just the cherry on top. It doesn’t make Uncharted 2 a bad game by any stretch but I genuinely do not want to replay it again, such was the oppressive boredom I experienced in the endgame.
Uncharted 2:Among Thieves is good. Don’t let that big grousing there change that. It’s undeniable that it’s a big improvement over the previous game, and it’s definitely easy to see why these days it comes with high praise. That said, I honestly would be happy never to replay again though because of how much I hate the ending. Don’t let it stop you playing it because it is a massive step up from Uncharted but I can’t escape how I ended up feeling when the credits rolled.
4/7 – GOOD. Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.