Pretty fly for a white guy.
Oh Uncharted 2, how hard you try.
Uncharted 2 feels like that one insecure kid at school that puts too much effort into fitting in. He buys the most expensive pre-torn jeans and matching Rocawear shirts, and totes the newest IPhone (he’s in Grade 5 by the way) so that he can post more text in Twitter updates per day than this review’s length. However, the fear of being rejected by his peers is mortifying and the obligation to stay within popular norms is so overwhelming that Uncharted 2 won’t order anything less popular on the cafeteria menu than French fries.
Uncharted 2 doesn’t know the meaning of the phrase “be yourself”, though I could be wrong. Naughty Dog does have a tendency to just clone the ideas of others in their games without contributing an original thought to the video game think tank. The Crash and Jak games, great as they are, could very well be immune to the Butterfly Effect. What I mean is, they’re so uninspiring that you can wipe their existence from the course of time and human history will not change one bit. So maybe Naughty Dog’s developers (or the Sony execs that tell them what to develop) are just doing what comes natural and “Among Thieves” is but an apropos title.
In particular, there are three key victims that Uncharted 2 is looking to pickpocket, the first being good old fashioned American action movies like National Treasure. Through and through, this game is trying to pay homage to action/adventure movies. But when you acknowledge how every other action game has a story that is, at best, on par with “Hollywood” movies, then Uncharted 2 trying to portray itself as a “Hollywood” movie feels like just another drop in the Gamestop shelf bucket. Even more groan-inducing is that Uncharted 2’s plot is all too identical to Uncharted 1. You have your dashing hero, his mischievous but kind-hearted old friend, his love interest, his sex interest, a famous explorer’s lost treasure (this time the less fictional Marco Polo), said lost treasure’s evil secret, an evil foreigner villain and his more-evil foreigner boss. I feel as though Amy Hennig, whom once sculpted Kain and Raziel into poetically tragic monsters in the Legacy of Kain series, is having her talents wasted on a shallow popcorn game that could’ve been written by a straight-to-video action film writer.
Though the glowing ray of hope in Among Thieves, just like in its predecessor, is Nathan Drake himself. He appears to be your typical Perfect Human Super Hero on the outside; peak physical condition, sharp-dressed, go-get-em attitude, ladies man, more confidence than your windshield faced with the looming threat of a fly on the highway. But his macho bravado fades quickly when thrown into a battlefield and very real bullets are whizzing by his head from the very real guns of very real terrorists. The pessimistic doubts and cries of panic when Drake is in danger makes the experience all the more entertaining and winds up transforming him into a John McClane-like “ordinary hero.” There was a point in the game, like in any movie, where the hero’s will is broken and he decides to abandon this inane quest. And I cheered! “A likeable fellow like him should be cut some slack. If an ordinary man like Drake can gun down hundreds of these terrorists, the American Armed Forces would fare just fine if this evil villain dared attempt any kind of conquest.” I thought to myself.
Speaking of, the second victim of Uncharted’s crimes against originality is the armed combat of the ever popular Gears of War games. Drake and the crew of friends whom he may or may not have had sexual relations with will fight hordes of terrorist-like enemies by taking cover and firing away. You make a list of popular gunfighting conventions and Uncharted follows it move for move, Gear for Gear.
-You latch on to cover with a button press, wherein you can blindfire or make yourself open for more specific firing.
-You self-regenerate health automatically.
-You can only carry one small firearm and one large firearm, including automatics, rocket launchers, sniper rifles and such. (Actually, the game’s most unconventional weapon may be the mere crossbow of surprising power)
-You lobe grenades with a separate button press (mercifully, you no longer aim with the Sixaxis controller motion thingy.)
-Enemies are just intelligent enough to attempt to flank you or flush you out with grenades
-You have melee attacks to defeat enemies up close, but they’re as useless as they were in Uncharted 1 and feel more contrived. They usually consist of: you pressing Square three times to punch, waiting for the enemy to counter, pressing Triangle to counter back and then Square to finish them with a Pro Wrestling move. The problem is that you’re still vulnerable to enemy fire while doing these canned combinations. This is why the Tekken fighters would collapse under the weight of the battle of .
On one hand, the mechanics of gun-action feel more improved from that of Uncharted 1. That game’s wifebeater-sporting pirates were capable of absorbing twenty bullets to the chest, while Uncharted 2’s armored terrorists feel more reasonably mortal. And you have fewer instances of being locked in a single facility, waiting for droves of enemies to respawn and charge at you…they just only become an issue near the game’s end. But as a whole, I felt that the gun combat in Uncharted felt very…drab. Generic. Status-quo. Terrorists come at you and you fire back with the same kind of guns you’ve been shooting terrorists with for decades. Maybe it was the frustration of dying a lot that turned me off; I found Drake meeting an untimely demise with alarming frequency. It could’ve been the AI, intelligently finding ways to flush me out and conveniently have an RPG at the ready just as I started arguing with the Cover button. (And that cover button has funny ideas sometimes, mistaking “I want to move from that cover to another” with “I want to get out of cover and get shot at” or “I want to make a rolling dive and then get blown up.”) You can blame my inadequate gunplay skills, but even when I was succeeding, I didn’t feel like I achieved a victory through skill or hard work, but merely from the stars aligning to match whatever solution the game developers had intended.
The game’s third major victim (but certainly not the last victim) is the climbing elements from Tomb Raider or the recent set of Prince of Persia games. Drake will make the obligatory leaps of faith, as well as climb, shimmy, struggle and cringe with fear over all kinds of buildings, rock formations and other surfaces that only a primate like Nathan can access. Uncharted 2 has the same qualm as Uncharted 1 in that the natural geography or architectural decay just happens to build a linear path that you are intended to follow; like the hand of fate has somehow crafted a series of bricks on a very specific wall that you can climb to your destination. But that is more of an acceptable oddity than a game-crippling flaw. Rather, these tomb raiding platformer sequences are Uncharted 2’s greatest strength, in part to how the sense of peril has been completely ramped up. Signs will bend as you climb them, pillars will crack, Drake will slip and subsequently soil himself with fear. These structures were not meant to support a human male’s mass. While all of these segments are scripted, they happen at the right times, with just enough infrequency that they never lose their suspense. Also, have you ever thought it weird in Indiana Jones movies or Tomb Raider games how a 2000-year old tomb can have trap doors and other complex contraptions that still function after however many millennia? Uncharted 2 addresses this inaccuracy with several tombs that didn’t quite survive the wrath of Father Time. Also, there are no Sixaxis controller gimmicks, and quicktime events are kept to a bare, appropriate minimum. The game’s scripted moments often feel like the most dynamic and exciting, in part because you stay in control as opposed to merely pressing buttons when told while watching a movie. The segment where you are asked to jump out of a collapsing building is an example; even though I died several times trying to figure out what the game wanted me to do to escape my unlikely-yet-horrifying predicament, that I stayed in control and managed to figure it out made that escape all the more dashing.
But much like Drake’s dramatic leaps above the abyss on to an ice-coated ledge, these segments feel like Uncharted 2’s only strong sense of individuality. Afterwards, a gunfight would occur. Then I’d pop someone in the head, score my hundredth headshot and earn an Achievement; yes, the game has an Achievement system both working separate and together with that of the PS3’s trophy system. How frivolous, and yet becoming all too common in gaming. And lest I forget about the stealth aspects, which consist solely of “get behind an enemy and break’er neck.” Except for the rare occasion of walking in front of an enemy and his not spotting the twenty-something Banana Republic consumer intruding his turf, the stealth sequences are nothing particularly distinct. However, you do get punished with another annoying gunfight if you’re spotted.
After you finish the ten hour campaign, you’re more than welcome to engage yourself in the Gears of War-like online multiplayer component. There are your typical team deathmatch and objective-based competitions, as well as the co-op Horde/Firefight/You-in-a-room-against-respawning-enemies mode and co-op mission mode with two other players. That the matchmaking is automated and an overall smoother process makes this online mode, at the least, a marked improvement over Killzone 2’s mess of a lobby system. Lag is a rarity, the community seems strong, and…well if you thought Uncharted needed an online mode, here you go.
But I can’t help but feel that Uncharted 2, along with many other online games, represent an uncomfortable shift in how online games are approached. Like Gears of War, most game sessions (in particular the co-op sessions) are lengthy in nature, perhaps averaging in the 20-30 minute range. I tend to favor more the online games where I can quickly enter a game, headshot some Spartans and get back to my merry way. There were games that I left because the pace of the action was just not exhilarating (some of the maps are just too damned big, it seems, to accompany 8 on 8 deathmatches) but the game punished me with a 90 second delay and a points fine. During a co-op session, one of my teammates presumably moved away from his controller, perhaps in post-funny cigarette case of the munchies, and my decision to not sulk around and wait for this guy to return from the 7/11 found me punished with another time delay.
Then you marry the Gears-esque time commitment needed to complete a game with the Call of Duty Perks system. Your performance earns you money and levels up your rank, which in turn can be spent on a set of upgrades. None of them seem overly imbalancing (and the “drop a grenade when you die” perk’s novelty feels worn out) but I still feel like we’re giving an edge to the committed hardcore players that were going to donate months of playtime to a single game anyways. In turn, this online gaming capitalism makes the great players greater and puts the newbies or people like me that just want to kill a few minutes from time to time at more of a disadvantage.
And we’re starting to see this perk-based multiplayer in just about every online shooter.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is the archetypical next generation game. It has cutting edge graphics, a trend-following combat system, a ten-hour campaign, multiple achievement systems and a reward-based competitive and co-operative multiplayer. It feels like a game custom-built to win Game of The Year Awards at game publications and websites, all the while making few strides at creating new trends or enhancing that same archetype of “the next generation game.” Such games have a tendency of being forgotten in two-three months when videos of the next big shiny console game make the rounds, however. You can ask Killzone 2 all about that. But looking at Uncharted 2’s merits as a game, it has some frustrating moments, but also some fun moments, and you should pick it up if you find it in a bargain bin at a discount price.
3 ½ stars