Thursday, 24 June 2010

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Summer’s here! So what better way to worship Ra then to sit indoors playing all the games you manfully ignored in order to pass your degree?
Just like the compelling ‘hook’ at the start of a great film, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves presents spectacle and tension from the get go as you awaken, crumpled, shot and battered inside the creaking passenger car of a train.
Whooomp! Debris falls past your groggy head as the world comes into focus. Things are the wrong way up. This train is dangling off a cliff. GET OUT.
What follows is a desperate scramble up the side of a train carriage as it constantly threatens to tumble endless miles down the side of beautiful snow-capped mountains. A last second jump as gravity takes a firm hold of the train and Nathan Drake lies incredulously on the edge of the cliff. Not the most secure terrain but it’s an improvement.
A moment of peace and Nate allows himself to think back to the events that preceded this mountainous derailment. And that’s where the player goes as the next sections of the game are played in these ‘flashback’ levels.
And it’s worked. I’m hooked.
I love this introduction for both narrative and gameplay reasons. From a ludic perspective, the threat of danger (which I’m sure is far lower than the scene portrays considering this is the first level) creates a fabulous dramatic tension, and the concept of scaling a train carriage hanging precariously off of a cliff is a winner too.
But narratively and structurally I love it just for doing something as simple as breaking up the traditional A->B linear structure to go with most games’ traditional A->B linear level progression (especially in the action-adventure genre). When you reach this scene once more through progression of the past events, it’s still great, and now it’s infused with the added depth of backstory and motive. It’s just a nice touch that reminded me how often games use linear narrative structure when we could be doing so much more. Anyone who’s seen Memento knows what an impact irregular narrative structures can achieve.
In every one of its cinematic ambitions Uncharted 2 is deftly executed, from the sweeping high-adventure score, its underdog characterisation and accompanying quips, and its globe-trotting spectacle mixed with a hint of the occult. It is as close as anyone can get to actually being Dr. Indiana Jones. The minute to minute mix of gunfights and white-knuckle cliff scaling is extremely satisfying, with Uncharted 2 allowing for scenes involving both at the same time when its predecessor did not.
The stealth system from the first game returns in great style. It now works around 95% of the time and many encounters seem cleverly set up to allow the player to silently sweep through if they are observant enough to the enemy patrols. The villain’s lackeys are just as satisfying to battle as in the first game and use a variety of grenade-flushing and flanking tactics to keep firefights interesting. The melee combat mechanics return with another great range of choreographed fisticuffs, although I miss the double ammo bonus the first game would bestow for a melee kill, and generally melee seems less viable in this sequel unless you are going mano-a-mano.
This is part of a bigger problem which is one of Uncharted 2’s greatest weaknesses. It’s too hard.
Not the climbing bits, or the puzzles, just the gunfights. This may be rose-tinted spectacles, but it seemed like Uncharted 1’s Nathan Drake was a little hardier, it really doesn’t take much to drop you in this game. One flanking goon with a shotty. A man with a balaclava and a laser sight. The checkpoints in the game are brilliant almost everywhere except for in the large firefights where 10 minute long sections must be replayed if the player dies as developers Naughty Dog throw their 8th wave of armoured cretins into the battle bowl.
It’s just such a shame. I’ve been playing shooters my whole life so I consider myself pretty good(hell I’m the mac-fucking-daddy), and yet I struggled on some sections repeatedly, and this is all on the Normal difficulty. It’s the one thing stopping it from having the truly mass market appeal it deserves. I know my parents would love it, and I’ve told them to buy it. I just hope the Easy difficulty is easy enough, because I know they’ll love every other element.
And while we’re on the topic of bad combat experiences, my other bugbear is that the final boss in this game seemed a little repetitive, dull, and overly long. The main villain too, Lazaravich, is a bit flat and uninteresting, though this might be made more apparent by the fact that the rest of the cast is excellent. For a game that shines in every other aspect, and has as far as I can remember no other bad levels, this was a slight anti-climax.
None of this would stop me recommending this game to anyone who’s ever thrilled at a rollicking adventure yarn. The imagination sprinkled throughout creates wonderful vistas and fantastic set pieces, you’ll be diving between trucks on winding mountain roads, escorting a wounded friend through a war-torn city, made to climb Tibetan monuments at gunpoint and participating in firefights on the 15th floor of a building while it collapses around you. Fabulous level design is married with the best execution of narrative and gameplay integration I’ve seen recently, to create a blockbuster experience that everyone owes it to themselves to try.

Robbie McKnight

1 comment:

  1. Hello there Mr. McKnight!
    I'm one of the designers of a game called "the metagame", a collectible card game about videogames! We would love to use your illustration of Uncharted2 in our deck. We are able to pay a small fee and provide you with a royalty share on the game itself. Can you contact me to discuss? For more info, see