The last quarter of Uncharted 2: what were they thinking?

Last year, I played Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and to put to lightly, wasn’t impressed. Without the 2007 shock value of its visuals, what was left was a second-rate cover-based shooter with some severe pacing issues and a tendency to leave the player without a clear idea of where they were supposed to go. It wasn’t terrible, or even bad — just (in my opinion) severely over-rated.

Everything I’d heard about Uncharted 2: Among Thieves painted it as the game the first game was supposed to be. And for the first 3/4 or so, it mostly was. I could rattle off some issues, but they’re fairly minor ones, and they didn’t mar the high points. The pacing, gameplay mix, environmental variety, characters, and production values were generally pretty great. Kathmandu was a great setting, the train sequence was still neat, the Nepalese village and cave spelunking was a smart change of pace, and Tenzin was awesome.

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My enjoyment of the lion’s share of the game made it all the more frustrating when, somewhere around the Monastery (that is, right after the convoy), Naughty Dog threw away the set pieces, variety, and pacing that made the rest of the game great in lieu of incessant bullet-sponge-filled combat encounters and goofy storytelling.

The combat in Uncharted 2 was better than the first one — the cover system usually did what I wanted, it took place in more interesting environments, and deaths generally felt less cheap. That said, it still brought forward a lot of the problems of the first game. Enemies still spawned in waves, you were more-or-less forced to go for headshots by the end of the game, melee was still awkward, some enemy types just felt cheap, and there was an acute lack of variety. In moderation, it was fine, and often enjoyable, but it wasn’t enough to carry a game on its own.

Moderation is not what the Monastery level delivered. You fight wave after wave of the same enemies, including those goddamned headshot-resistent, otherwise-essentially-invincible Dragan and one-shot-kill snipers. Even on easy mode, these levels encouraged (and sometimes outright forced) boring, conservative play, and drew the player into getting stun-locked and killed. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not great at shooters, which, in addition to wanting a more breezy, action-movie-esque experience, is why I played on easy.

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By the time I reached the end of the level and descended into the path to Shambhala, I was done with shooting bullet sponges, and thought the game largely was as well. There was a welcome climbing sequence with Drake and Flynn trading one-liners, and when Shambhala opened, I figured it would be more of that with a couple of set piece fights against the guardians, a Lazarevic boss fight, and an explosion-filled escape from a crumbling city. But no, screw that, Naughty Dog apparently figured I wanted to fight more bullet sponges, only this time goofy blue Avatar-lookalike bullet sponges that bum-rush you, have no indication whatsoever of damage levels, and can apparently carry their weight in lead. Hint: if you’re going to introduce enemies that can’t be killed with a predictable number of shots, stick a damage indicator on the screen or (more realistically) rethink the decision altogether.

By the end, I was so exasperated with the game that the ridiculous final boss fight against Lazarevic felt par for the course. Sure, I was running laps around an enclosed loop pouring lead into a dude the game just fucking implied was invincible, and yes, he was throwing five grenades at once for some reason, but at least he was fairly manageable.

It’s not just the gameplay that gets ridiculous — the story also takes a turn for the ridiculous at the end. The super-Yeti were goofy, but if the goofiness had ended there, I could have dealt with it. It was when the Yeti turned out to be immortal blue supermen wearing Yeti costumes that Naughty Dog totally lost me. The insultingly stereotypical “How many men have you killed? You’re just as much a monster as me!” Lazarevic monologue really drove home my disdain for the way Uncharted 2 concluded.

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I don’t understand how they managed to fumble the end of an otherwise-great game so horribly. Did they just run out of time? Did they feel that they needed to ramp up the difficulty to provide a satisfying conclusion? Did they think the guardians constituted gameplay variety? Did the writers (who make a point of talking up their next-level writing and shitting on other games’ storytelling in the the special features) really think they’d struck gold with their conveniently-hidden paradise filled with blue supermen wearing Yeti costumes?

I should say again, because I know people love Uncharted 2: I don’t hate this game, I just resent the last quarter or so, and sincerely don’t understand what Naughty Dog was thinking.