Intense action and glorious fantasy seem to go hand-in-hand with one another when it comes to searching out long-lost treasure; characteristics that have worked for not only interactive games, but films and books as well. While Tomb Raider may have used this pairing to help open the door for gun-toting treasure hunting in the contemporary video game realm, Naughty Dog's Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has set a new standard for the genre. The team has taken from and built on their previous outing with better visuals, tighter action, and more depth in terms of gameplay.
The first Uncharted game introduced us to a character-driven story where finding treasure for profit may have been the plan, but where a struggle for survival played out. A few gunfights here and some treacherous rock climbing there, and we were treated to a story that not only included a wrecked German U-boat teetering atop a South American waterfall and zombified Nazis, but to a game pushing its hardware to showcase stunning effects and vertical platforming. Not much has changed for the sequel, except for it takes the myth of Shambhala—instead of El Dorado—to entice Nathan Drake to leave his comfortable beach-side living and to risk his life again to reap fortuitous treasure.
Two years ago, the team at Naughty Dog showed us they weren't afraid to explore the new PS3 hardware and to use their imagination. This time around, however, they're more accustomed to the system's capabilities and have brought Drake's exploits to a new level of storytelling in an adventure that lacks some detail along the way, but which is wholly entertaining.
Leaving the jungles of the Southern Hemisphere for the thin atmosphere of the Himalayas, Uncharted 2 visually demonstrates just how well the studio has come to grasp their format. With the help of the Havoc's physics engine, we find that Drake doesn't explore only in the lush vegetation settings of the past game, but dynamic urban locales, lost temples and blizzard-swept mountains as well. The game's opening brings this to your attention as Drake gradually becomes dusted with snow, leaving receding tracks behind him while stumbling amongst scattered wreckage, after escaping a train hanging from the side of a mountain...with a gunshot wound.
It all may sound a bit fantastical, but things like watching the scenery change from a green plateau, to hillside overhang, and up to a snowy mountain pass while fighting your way aboard the train prior to its accident create one of the best looking games to-date. Also, a return of motion capture make character movements all the more believable, especially when interacting with one another. The biggest selling point of the game's visuals, however, is everything running on the in-game engine. Without a visible splinter between pre-rendered scenes and unscripted movements, the game feels more like a 10-hour film—a feeling the studio went for.
Simply, Uncharted 2 is like a blitzkrieg to your senses, both visually and aurally. Not only do the voices of the first game reprise their roles (Nolan North, Emily Rose, etc), but new talent make strong additions. Though much of the sexually charged dialogue is overplayed at some points, banter between characters feels genuine and is often entertaining. Greg Edmonson also makes a poignant return and delivers a soundtrack that sounds familiar, but less tribal and with an emphasis on Asian influences of heavy percussion, orchestrated strings and flutes.
Graphical updates, playable action moments and compelling audio also carry over to the newly instituted, and well-executed multiplayer elements. As Uncharted goes multiplayer, so too does Drake's free-climbing abilities. In each of the standard game types, ranging from deathmatches to King of the Hill, players have the same platforming abilities found in the story—including the ability to pull enemies from ledges or, conversely, kick them off. Arenas are set up to cater to such vertical freedom and create tense cat-and-mouse moments. Weapons feel a bit weak and inaccurate when compared to other games, and melee attacks frustratingly usually leave both you and your opponent dead unless you sneak up behind them, but a money based leveling system rewards you with perks and skills to purchase.
Extra money can be earned by playing cooperatively with another player in challenging levels where lives are shared with a limited number of continues. Players can heal one another in a short time frame, but even on the Normal difficulty, trying to get to them to do so isn't always easy.
There's little to fault in Uncharted 2: a fact that's rare nowadays, despite huge budgets and years for development. Little details in the way characters react to one another and their surroundings make for a game that's both fun to play and amazing to watch. Every once in awhile you're bound to run into a glitch as you try to jump between ledges, or when you're spotted by an enemy that couldn't possibly see you; but for however many times your gun clips through a wall or you get lost from vague directions, there is more than enough to make up for it. Among Thieves is not only one of the best games of the year, it's also the benchmark for action games to come.