By dreamkin 3 Comments
SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable.
Idea:As it was with the original Uncharted, "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" is all about bringing the old pulp adventure genre to the 21st century. This time it's all about the lost ships of Marco Polo. The idea in the original game was pretty good. It would be easy to say that as far as the central idea is concerned "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" brings nothing new to the table. But that would be quite wrong. Pulp adventures are episodic in nature and although "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" wisely sticks to the formula, it uses the story as a tool to explore its protagonist's personality. A strong protagonist is always the strength of these stories but analyzing the personality of that protagonist in depth, using the story as a giant metaphor and still managing to stay in the realm of the classic pulp adventure requires both courage and skill. Apparently writer Amy Hennig possesses both.
Rating: 2 out of 2
Setting:The story takes place in a stylized version of our modern world. It more or less resembles the world of the 2000s but all the locations are exchanged for their more stereotypical or romantic versions of themselves. One of the best examples of this is the Istanbul Palace Museum sequence early in the game. As a resident of Istanbul I can safely assure you that Istanbul does not look like that at all. There are no high cliffs facing the Bosphorus, museum guards do not dress like that and in fact there is no place called Istanbul Palace Museum at all for there are several palaces in Istanbul. I've been inside a Turkish prison and let me tell you that it looks nothing like you see in "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves". Is this inaccuracy something bad? Not at all.
In the past, most pulp adventure stories were written by people who have never been to the places they write about. Sergio Bonelli had probably never seen half of the countries Mister No sees in his adventures. The Turkish author Kemal Tahir had written over 250 unauthorized Mike Hammer novels. Most of them were much better than the original ones. But he never saw New York in his entire life. All he had as reference were the original Mike Hammer novels and a touristic map of New York. "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" modifies its locations to fit the story. The inaccuracies help putting it inside the genre it's aiming for. This is not a travelouge... This is just a location hopping, romantic adventure.
That being said, we do not see a lot of scenes at those locations. There are no iconic wide shots of the cities Drake visits. We do not see the Parthenon in Greece, no Blue Mosque or obligatory trips through the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. One of the reasons to have "location hopping" in these stories is to make the audience feel like they're traveling to exotic places, to make them feel like they are visiting Nepal, Turkey or Greece. This quality is not present in "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves". This is a missed opportunity.
The setting balances the natural and the supernatural quite well. The story never ventures in the land of absurd fantasy. Everything feels plausible. At the same time it keeps things fresh by introducing simple fantastic mysteries.
If only we could see more of this world...
Rating: 1 out of 2
Characters:The greatest strength of "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" lies in its characters; specifically its protagonist: Nathan Drake. He's a cross between Lucas' Indiana Jones and Bonelli's Mister No. Drake is everything a pulp action hero should be. Nothing more, nothing less. He's handsome but doesn't have a baby face. He's smart but not a genius. In fact when you get right down to it Drake is a nerd. He is what your average hardcore video game player would be if he was interested in ancient treasures instead of the latest games. Maybe this is why we like him. Regardless of how outlandish his adventures are, Drake is one of us. Despite his immense upper body strength and superhuman agility he solves most of of his problems using his wits rather than his muscles; which is what we all at least feel like we would do.
The characters in "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" is its main strength because the story itself is deceptive. It's not about Marco Polo or Shambhala or the Cintemani Stone at all. It's all about Nathan Drake and his pursuit for serenity.
Drake is a troubled character. Perhaps more so than any other character you have seen in video games, probably because he's more real. He's not simply a noble knight, a space marine fiercely devoted to duty or and evil overlord driven by his lust for blood. His mind is in turmoil. He doesn't think much before acting and suffers the consequences, possibly later thinking if he has chosen the correct option.
Supporting the darker side of Drake's soul is Chloe Frazer, a dark haired, sexy worman. Chloe is a thief. She's driven by her ambitions. She's selfish and independent. She doesn't conform to the widely accepted notion of morality in the society; instead she has her own code of honor. For all intents and purposes he's pretty much like the devil. And that is exactly how she acts. A temptress, whispering into Drake's ear and urging him to be reckless and selfish. Chloe is possibly the most realistic "evil" character in the history of gaming. She's not evil in the romantic sense but she embodies the lack of biblical virtues. If this was a religious text she would be Lilith, Adam's first wife. In fact in the hotel scene where there is sexual tension between Chloe and Drake we can clearly see that Chloe is on top, both literally and figuratively. Chloe is always in control of her own destiny and possibly those around her. She's independent and strong enough to impose her own will on people. These are usually male traits.
Chloe cares nothing for usual traits. When Drake and Chloe meet again Chloe removes the Tibetan War dagger from Drake's pants right after Drake says "Maybe I am excited to see you". When Chloe is all business Drake confronts him with this veiled sexual remark. But instead of backing off and acknowledging Drake's superiority, Chloe goes ahead and castrates Drake by removing the dagger; again literally and figuratively. It may be interesting to note that the word for dagger in Azerbaijani is the same word for penis in Turkish.
If Chloe is Lilith then Elena is a modern Eve. Pure and fair, Elena emerges as the D&D paladin and the moral compass of this story, always encouraging our hero to do selfless acts of good and to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Elena showed signs of independence in the previous story too, for her actions were motivated by her need to make a better TV show. This is no different than Drake's selfish pursuit for wealth. But in "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves", writer Amy Hennig completely rewrites the character's motivations without straying too far away from her original self. This new Elena is driven by her virtues. She is a defender of justice and a protector of innocents. This time Elena does have a higher purpose. Exactly what caused this change is a mystery. Frankly it doesn't seem too plausible for her to develop a sense of selflessness so quickly. Then again we do not know what happened between Uncharted 1 and 2.
These two women are competing for Drake's love and possibly his soul. Chloe pulls him towards darkness while Elena pulls him towards light. And essentially, this story is about Drake's decision. In the end he chooses the light, albeit it could be a temporary choice, for Drake himself is obviously in love with both of these women, these ideas.
Does he make the right choice? Flynn may be what Drake would turn into if he was the kind of person to choose Chloe in the end. And Chloe would not like that. That precisely is another thing which makes Chloe one of the most realistic women ever to be in a video game. After all isn't that what most women do? Falling in love with a man but changing him once they possess him and in the end not liking what he has turned into. Driven by his selfishness Flynn disregards and disrespects anything on his path, to a point which leads to his incompetence.
Drake's mentor and possibly older reflection is Victor Sullivan, who makes a relatively brief appearance. Surely Drake would end up like him; an old, penniless treasure hunter neck deep in debt if he pursues the higher path. But is that really more desirable? Isn't Chloe right in every single thing she says?
Drake's true dark reflection though, is Lazarevic. Even though he's a war criminal, looks like the polar opposite of Drake and is frankly a lame villain compared to the other characters in the story, his true purpose is to serve as a dark mirror to Drake's soul. Lazarevic, much like the majority of pulp villains points out that he and Drake are not that different. We wait for the hero to say "No... I am nothing like you." But we know why he cannot do that.
For we know Lazarevic is right. After all both Drake and Lazarevic are criminals. Both of them are looking for the Cintemani stone for their own criminal purposes. And even though Lazarevic is a war criminal, can we really claim that Drake killed less people to reach the Cintemani stone? I recall a very funny Penny Arcade strip about that.
"Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" is mostly about its characters. You'd make a great mistake thinking the characters are simple and regular. They are all there for a reason. And just when you think you've got the hang of things, the story throws a few curve balls, such as a nazi mentor or Tenzin the family man who cannot be understood by Drake but who in turn proves to be a most trusted ally.
Unlike many video game stories, Amy Hennig uses her characters to drive the story. And once you assign metaphors to the characters the story pretty much writes itself.
Rating: 2 out of 2
Plot Structure:The story starts with the perfect example of the technique called in medias res. This is literally a cliffhanger. Drake is in the worst position we have ever seen him. "Crap" indeed. This, not only starts the game with a bang, but also serves as the first mystery, first hook... How did we get here?
The first part of the story, therefore, is a long flashback. Everything starts with a simple MacGuffin and a mystery. Soon we learn about the true goal of our adventure: The mysterious Cintemani Stone. This is all very nice but we are still wondering how Drake found himself between life and death hanging from a train wreck. Here, Amy Hennig shows her expertise in storytelling. The story never drags its feet and sure enough brings us to the train wreck at a break neck pace.
And then we stop. The mountain village sequence is quite radical. This fast paced and objective driven story suddenly leaves the audience alone in the middle of a village full of people who don't understand or speak Drake's language. Drake wanders around aimlessly, watching them doing their daily work. It's a peaceful village and the peaceful people of this village bring Drake back from a frozen hell. The whole sequence coincides with a point in story where our hero loses his faith in everything and practically gives up. He doesn't know what to do, and this feeling is strengthened by the fact that now he has no idea where he is and who these people are.
Then he's asked to believe. He's given a higher purpose. His new trial is his relationship with Tenzin. Our broken hero is practically forged again, asked to trust someone he cannot even understand instead of all the people whose language he can speak but who in turn all betrayed him.
The next scene achieves an effect akin to the one in the special edition of James Cameron's movie "Aliens". Because of the seemingly pointless wandering scene the impact of Lazarevic's attack on the village is much more intense.
Drake's quest to find Shambhala also doubles as an inner journey to find peace for his troubled soul. Therefore I don't think the location of Shambhala was chosen randomly. It's more like a trial and an objective in heaven Drake has to reach after going through hell. This spiritual journey is constructed perfectly with the clearly defined initial state at Greece, rising action as Drake and his friends race with Lazarevic to find the Cintemani Stone, a turning point at the mountains, the falling action in and around Shambhala and the denouement afterwards.
My only complaint in this expertly constructed story is that some possible story hooks are not explored. Although I have to admit that exploring the darker side of Drake's soul more than this would remove the story from the realm of pulp. An emo Drake is the last thing anyone wants.
The plot structure works with the game perfectly. This is a prime example of how game play can go hand to hand with plot structure.
Rating: 2 out of 2
Craftsmanship:In the Giant Bomb review Brad Shoemaker says that he thinks game play is the most improved aspect of "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves". He may be right. Then again perhaps it's the writing which improved most.
Almost every single line of dialog is written with care.
In the previous game a lot of one liners lacked the intended punch and a lot of jokes fell flat. Hennig's writing is not only improved but also became self aware. Drake now has a few signature lines and the general craftsmanship of the script is visibly better. But when a joke fails, the characters do not pretend like it was funny. Instead they acknowledge it was lame. This strengthens the notion that these characters are real.
Accompanying the great writing is the equally great sound track composed by Greg Edmonson who adds great new themes to the library of Uncharted melodies, though he still preserves his excellent theme for Drake himself.
Like many of the great things about this game, the unique visual style is subtle too. But although the realistic comic book look is perfect for this type of story, the true star of the show is one of the main storytelling devices of the visual medium: The camera. "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves"s camera work is without a doubt the finest in the medium so far. It helps the storytelling but still manages to frame the action as well, proving the two can co-exist.
Rating: 2 out of 2
OVERALL: 9 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)
Already Reviewed: "Infamous", "Batman: Arkham Asylum", "Wet", "Planescape: Torment", "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves"
NEXT REVIEW: "Brütal Legend"