I was lucky enough to score an early copy of the game at the recent big-screen-demo event, and after pulling a marathon run through of Uncharted 1 and proceeding straight into the sequel from there, I noticed just what the game does that makes it one of the most cinematic gameplay experiences ever.
She's voiced by the lady from Farscape. Mmmmmm
I'm trying not to slather too much fawning praise on it here, as you've probably read as much in the flood of early reviews. In terms of mechanics, Uncharted 2 is definitely NOT new. Feature-by-feature, it's barely different from the first game, save for some relatively minor-but-useful tweaks. In fact, "minor-but-useful" is a good way to describe what exactly the game has done to make for one of the best single-player experiences you'll find.
Note: Don't worry about spoilers.
What it does is make the transition from cutscene to gameplay almost seamless. That's it. That's really all it took. Again, it's not new. You saw the beginnings of it in Uncharted 1, but it's so fully realized here that I noticed how important it was in bringing the cinematic experience to a game while preserving the mechanical elements of play.
By "cinematic experience" I'm talking about the linear, cutscene-driven, arguably passive narrative format that for whatever reason is being treated as a scarlet letter by some more militant game design progressives. If nothing else, games like Uncharted 2 illustrate exactly what we have to lose should we suddenly abandon those principles in our rush to embrace self-authored, emergent, player-created blah blah blah.
One of the first times I actually saw a transition anywhere near that smooth was in Metal Gear Solid 4, right at the opening. After Snake rolls out from under a truck, the cutscene shows him rolling across the street and sidling up against the wall while Otacon suggests he find a weapon. As he steps out from cover, the camera simply pulls back, and the HUD smoothly fades, signaling that you, the player, are in control.
That only happens a few times in MGS4, but it happens all the time in Uncharted 2, making for some of the greatest "Oh shi-!" moments in any single-player campaign. It's partly a technical achievement, since graphics are finally good enough that you can't really tell between cutscene and gameplay models, but it's also a great exercise in precise timing and dramatic scripting. All of it comes together to feel as if you're really playing a movie. You get control during the bits you want to take part in (gunfights and wild stunts), while allowing the game to take the reins during bits you'd rather watch (great voice acting, dramatic interaction, and staring at Chloe).
Naughty Dog proves that level of expertise repeatedly, knowing exactly when, where, and for how long to take away control without letting on to the player that what just happened was supposed to happen. The game strings together set-piece after set-piece, but this time without the telegraphed pacing that you noticed in Uncharted 1, where you went from arena-fight-to-puzzle-to-arena-fight. Some puzzles are long, tense climbing challenges, and some fights are fast-paced, running gunfights.
You're climbing a rickety lather, when all of a sudden the rung collapses, causing it to swing to the side and throw you into a wall, immediately transferring your grip to that wall, allowing you to continue the climb up. You never really lost control, until the last second when the designers went "Whoops!" and cued the surprise, then were given control back right as you caught your breath. You're constantly thinking "Holy crap, that was a close one." You don't notice until the replay that you could have just hung on to that supposedly collapsing ledge forever, because the first time around, it really looked as if you could screw up and fall, or because guys were shooting at you at the time.
Of course, not every game is suited to maintaining that breathless pace. Complicated plots or mechanics that require mastery wouldn't be able to maintain coherence in the face of all that action, but Uncharted 2 doesn't tell a very complicated story, and makes all of its gamey nuances known in the first couple of hours. After that, it's all about keeping your attention while crazy-ass shit goes down all around you.
It isn't gaming's Citizen Kane, but it IS gaming's Indiana Jones, which is a hell of a good thing to be by itself. Well, I said I wouldn't slather too much praise on it, but it seems I just did. Oops. Anyway, I'll just end this by saying that that "It Does Everything" ad Sony cooked up hits pretty damn close to home.
P.S.: If Heavy Rain manages to make me eat my words next year, you'll know that it has been an EXTREMELY good time for linear narrative, and for games in general.