Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Review: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: 13 October 2009

After a solid, if flawed, opening act, Naughty Dog brings a sequel that not only surpasses its predecessor, but damn near redefines the genre. Expectations were high, given the studio's pedigree, but I don't think anyone outside of the Naughty Dog office saw this coming. Among Thieves is not only worthy of the multiple Game of the Year awards it won, but it's a game that every PS3 owner should have in their collection. Simply put, Among Thieves is a classic.

That's a long way down...

After his previous adventure involving El Dorado and his purported ancestor Sir Francis Drake, Nathan Drake starts off in a bad way. How bad? Well, bloodied, banged up and in a derailed train car hanging over a nearly bottomless cliff. Escape does little to mitigate the danger of being under clothed in the Tibetan mountains. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves begins with a bang and it doesn't let off the gas much thereafter. Flashbacks then tell the tale of how Nate got into that messy situation. This time it's not gold, but the lost city of Shangri-la and Marco Polo's lost expedition. Joining Nate is sultry new-comer Chloe Frazer (voiced by who else but Claudia Black) and the delightful antagonist Harry Flynn (Steve Valentine). (Side note: Black and Valentine also starred together in Dragon Age: Origins, which had the same witty banter between the two)  Nate and Harry go way back and have a “friendly” rivalry, while Chloe was a bit more, er, intimate with Nate. Nate is racing against Harry to find Marco Polo's lost fleet and the treasure held within. Flynn's employer is a villain we can all hate: big, bad, Eastern European warlord and all-around jerk Zoran Lazarevic (Graham McTavish). Lararevic is so evil, it's almost cartoon-y, but he's the black heart of the story. He's not parody, but he's not shades of gray either. The action-packed story takes players all over the globe, with Nate and the good guys seeming to be just a half-step behind Lazarevic's private army and Flynn. Honestly, this is one of the most fun-filled and exciting games, with amazing set pieces and taunt pacing. It is one of the major reasons the game is an instant classic.

The story is just one facet of the whole top notch package. Amy Hennig again proves she is a master at her craft. The pulp adventures of Nathan Drake call to mind Indiana Jones and Hennig makes everything click. If the first Uncharted was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (flawed, but still a great time), then this one is clearly Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Among Thieves has everything a great story needs: amazing characters (Nathan Drake is one of the best action heroes of this generation), snappy writing (the banter between all parties rivals the best of Hollywood) and pacing that knows just when to hook you again. This is an example of games and movies colliding. You get all the Hollywood caliber action, but you are in control the entire time! There are amazing set pieces that defy expectations; the train sequence alone would mark other adventure games' climaxes. In Among Thieves it's only half-way, with even more amazing moments to come.

Amy Hennig interview from Qore

Graphically, there is hardly anyone who comes close. The backgrounds are hyper-detailed and include little touches like debris that can be kicked about. The environments are well designed and, just like in Drake's Fortune, the platforming pathways are “natural” looking. Every path to take has little touches from signs to shell-shattered walls that look like background, yet you interact with it. The destroyed city and the monastery deserve special mention for being amazingly well done. There are little things, too, like snow in Nate's hair or it sticking to his pants. If your TV can do 1080p, prepare to have your mind blown. This game, including the special care given to the characters, looks better than anything available (even now, two years later). This is a “show piece” title for what HD can do.

Sound design is another part that improved significantly over the first game. While the music of Uncharted was sweepingly epic and the guns had punch, it was ultimately forgettable. Not so in Among Thieves. The music adds tension and exhilaration in all the right spots. The music swells as action sequences start, and quietly creeps along your spine in tension-mounting scenes. In Drake's Fortune, distant gunfire alerted you to foes coming your way. Now, the battles surround you with sounds. Knowing where shots came from is massively helpful, especially in multiplayer. The ringing and washed out sounds after a grenade hits too close are much better done this time around. The sound design is another top-shelf effort in a game filled with them.

The Main Theme to Among Thieves

Uncharted had amazing detail to the animations. Subtle things like a hand placed on a wall to slow down, or a stumble after a shot nearly hits home. Instead of just doing more of the same, Naughty Dog went above and beyond. The new animations for all the characters really sell the realism. Soldiers stumble after a grenade goes off too close, Nate's unsteady limp during the opening, the subtle looks and slight head motions during cut-scenes; all of these combine to make Among Thieves more movie than game. It's fantastic to see so much conveyed in a look, or a slight shrug. Truly, the humanity of the characters comes out in these scenes. The animations are what make the game so realistic and a cut above most other games period, not just in the “adventure” genre.

Real opponents are more fun than AI sometimes

All of this would make Among Thieves a solid recommendation. Naughty Dog then went and added a fun, if only passable, multiplayer mode. Taking all the joy of traversing the world and adding in death matches makes for a fun experience. It's not even close to multiplayer-centred games like Call of Duty, but it's enjoyable. It has all the standard modes one would expect: Team Deathmatch, Capture the Treasure, Free for All, and King of the Hill game types are available. A “horde mode” add-on is available from the store, too. One really nice feature in multiplayer is a separate co-op campaign. It's not as deep story-wise, but it's better than a throwaway mode. These maps take place in modified sections of the main game and centre on you and up to two friends working toward a treasure. You then have to make it to an extraction point with a heavy treasure. It's all about team-work and watching each others backs. The enemies are the same as in the game, with one or two additions. Overall, it's a neat addition to the franchise, but it's not going to compete with other multiplayer focused games.

Among Thieves shows the true potential of the Uncharted franchise. All the pieces that were there in Drake's Fortune really come together to make one of the best games ever. That's not hyperbole, either. The story and pacing are superb. When the action is getting too heavy, they throw in a room sized puzzle to solve. They throw new situations at you at just the right times. After all the climbing and shooting, they might have a quiet moment in a village or perhaps a pulse-pounding sequence where you cannot fight, but must hustle nonetheless. Graphically, this is the game to show off your HD TV and the power of the PS3. It's also one of the most solidly created games. Any complaints are truly picking at nits. Sure, all the enemies can zero in on you the second you're spotted, but that makes the action sequences that much more intense. And yeah, your AI buddies are about as helpful as a band-aid for a bullet wound (they will occasionally get a kill, but that's rare). But these things don't matter. They don't detract in any meaningful way from the game. The wizards at Naughty Dog have done some serious alchemy to make a sequel that does not just build on the solid foundation of the original, but instead blows it away. The jump in quality on all levels of the game is astounding. Truly, this game is a must own for anyone.

Score: 10 out of 10
Bottom Line: This is one of the best games ever created. Seriously. Buy it.
Check it out if you like: Indiana Jones, adventure games, tight action, great stories, games at all
Game of the Year - 2009

No comments:

Post a Comment