Hello, and welcome back to Load of Bollocks’ critique of the Uncharted series. In the first installment, I dove into Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune; a boring and sometimes frustrating game that was saved by the stellar characters that were along for the ride. Today, we will be taking a look at the follow up to Naughty Dog’s series introduction.
In the last write up on Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, I mentioned that Uncharted aims to be a cinematic experience that is visually engaging enough to make the player forget they’re on rails. And while it’s debatable whether the first game achieves this, there is no argument over whether this is true for its sequel. I’ve heard a lot of different levels of praise leveled at this game. For some it’s just a fun action game, yet for others it’s heralded as one of the greatest games ever made. I don’t necessarily think it’s one of “the greats”, but for what it’s worth, this is one of the best rollicking rides of a game I’ve had in a long time. This game will make you grin, make you c
huckle, and genuinely strike you with awe. Ladies and Gentlemen of Dtoid, this is Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
Uncharted 2 is an improvement over the first installment in almost every way. The story is delivered better, the villains are more compelling, and the gameplay components are balanced and engaging this time around. Not only is this game visually stunning, but most moments are paced perfectly to bring you further into this world. This game makes several minor tweaks and a few bigger shakeups to create a thrilling ride from start to finish. It’s not perfect, the story is still questionable at times, and the gunplay is perhaps a little too prevalent, but all the elements mesh so well together that most players won’t notice this. Uncharted 2 is a great game, and to explain why, we must start from the beginning.
It is well known at this point by most everyone in the gaming community, but if you don’t already know, let me inform you. Uncharted 2 has one of the best opening sequences I’ve seen in videogames. Nathan Drake, sitting in a train car, shot in the stomach, and bleeding out. Then the realization that the train is hanging vertically off of a damn cliff, followed by an exhilarating platforming section. Many interesting questions get planted in the player’s head at this point as well. Who shot Drake? What series of events landed him in a situation like this? What was that dagger he picked up? Where are Elena and Sully? It’s a great way to get the player engaging with the story and gameplay by starting off with such high stakes, presenting the mystery of the circumstances, and then beginning the story proper before these shenanigans began.
From here on your stand Uncharted plot begins. Nathan wants to find a treasure, and must compete with a larger, better funded faction who is also after that treasure. Nathan eventually finds a lost city and the treasure, but ends up with none because he chooses the safety of others over anything else. And Elena is thrown in there somewhere as well, usually poorly. The plot itself isn’t really all that important to the overall game, it exists to pace the game and keep interesting events coming, and not much else. As I said before, what’s on display here is the characters and the action they get involved in. This time around, however, the villains are interesting.
In Uncharted 1, the antagonists were terrible. Eddy Raja had some great dialogue with Nathan at times, but Navarro and…. whatever the main guys fucking name was…. weren’t threatening, or interesting, or unique in any way. However, Uncharted 2 has Lazarevic, Flynn, and Chloe. Lazarevic is your typical Russian bad guy; tough, and exceedingly ruthless, but he’s somewhat reasonable. He isn’t just some bumbling goon, he knows exactly what he wants, and his use of force is his method of achieving his goals. He also has an interesting character design with a scarred face and shotgun hanging off his shoulder. It’s not great, but it’s a start, and considering what Uncharted 2 is aiming to be I wouldn’t doubt that Lazarevic turned out exactly how Naughty Dog wanted. Then there’s Flynn. Flynn is another adventurer and thief like Nathan, but isn’t nearly as well learned or capable as our hero is. He’s an overconfident dumbass who’s prideful, petty, and an excellent foil for Drake. Chloe, while not a villain at all real, is sort of a double crosser, and throughout the game there are no shortage of red herrings telling you she’s playing you for the fool. And yet she always sides with Drake. Chloe is charming and witty, but remains a little more grounded than Drake does. She knows what Lazarevic is and will avoid getting cornered by his forces out of fear, hence her need to double cross Drake, or appear to, at certain points in the story. She’s a great addition to the story, and is the most interesting character in the series besides Elena, and depending on if I’m in a good mood or not, Sam.
Just like last time, I don’t really want to nitpick the story too much since it’s not really the focus of these game anyway. Let’s get on with talking about the gameplay.
For starters, Uncharted is finally fun to play. Naughty Dog obviously put a lot of effort into carefully measuring the key ingredients for Uncharted and delivering a delicious game thus. Combat is still the primary form of gameplay here, but not so much that it feels like slamming your head against a brick wall. Platforming, puzzles, and set-pieces are more pronounced this time around, breaking up the standard combat nicely with interesting visuals, mildly engaging puzzles, and tense action set-pieces that do a great job of raising the stakes for the player and giving them a sense of progression after they’re over.
Combat is improved quite a bit over the first game, not so much in how guns shoot, but in the enemy placement and types, level design, and realism. In the first game, enemies were pretty lazily placed throughout any given map. Usually you were just fighting the same generic foes on a horizontal plane, with ample cover to hop in and out of as you slogged your way through never ending green jungles. That has all been thrown in the trash. Enemy variety is greatly improved with more lumbering shotgunners, grenade launching enemies, snipers, as well as the new shield enemy that slowly advances on your position. The different setups of enemy types will poke and prod you into different play styles depending on what you’re going up against, and often you’ll be forced into running across the map to avoid a shotgunner, or to get the drop on a shield guy. The maps are often more vertical in nature too; often you have multiple layers to climb up and out of to fight the enemies in different ways. My favorite example of this is in the train levels, where you can fight inside the train with access to cover, but you also need to watch enemies on top who will rappel into the car. You can fight on top of the train too, where you can pick off enemies easily due to lack of cover, but you don’t have cover either. Not to mention you’ll have to avoid rail signs and posts passing over the train. It’s a beautiful section of the game, and one of the highlights from the whole series.
You can also use stealth…sort of. The first game technically had stealth, but it was apparent that it must have been a last-minute addition since the levels weren’t built for that kind of gameplay. Uncharted 2 makes much better use of stealth by giving you the opportunity to thin the herd a bit before you inevitably get caught and start another firefight with the enemy forces. Now, the reason I say that you can use stealth “sort of” is because you can’t truly stealth through a lot of sections of this game. The game doesn’t let you. The whole reason you inevitably get caught is because the game will place goons in spots you are unable to get to while remaining undetected. There might be one or two maps in the game where you can stealth kill everyone, but that’s it. The only reason I bring this up is because after the fantastic opening, your first mission you play through is a sneak mission. I assumed this would mean that if the player desired, they could stealth through a lot of sections of the game, but it is impossible to play this way outside of a few areas. I wouldn’t have been irked by this if the game didn’t put an emphasis on stealth initially; after all, Uncharted is still an action game at heart, but the fact that it was given such an emphasis early on set me up for some mild disappointment.
We’re just about done talking about the combat, but I’ll end on a short note of praise concerning enemy spawns in the game. In Uncharted 2, there are no infinite enemy spawns, and if there are, they are so well hidden that it is a complete non-issue. This is something I hated about the first game. You think you have a fair understanding of where enemies are, and then there’s suddenly more goons lumbering onto the battlefield from an empty room. Thankfully, Uncharted 2 has fixed this part of the game completely. Enemies are finite this time around, and taking enemies feels like you’re gaining an advantage on the battlefield like it should. When enemies do spawn in, it’s usually in a very noticeable way, like in a jeep, or even a helicopter. The levels even accommodate for these new forces too with either nearby cover the player can scramble into, or with a shield dropped by an enemy just before the new forces arrive. For a player like me who absolutely hates it when games stop making any sort of logical sense, this was a welcome boon to the quality of combat encounters.
The platforming in Uncharted 2 remains largely unchanged from the first installment, though there are some changes to the environments you move through that enhance the otherwise shallow mechanics. The first thing I noticed was that handholds are communicated more subtly to the player than in the first Uncharted. This made the experience of climbing up buildings and swinging across temples feel like I was actually exploring. While that might not count for shit in games that emphasize mechanical depth, it means a world of difference for games like Uncharted that aims to immerse the player by making them feel like they are pulling off the actions onscreen. This one slight change makes the illusion easier to buy into for the player, disguising the generic gameplay as exciting parkour.
You might be thinking, “Hey wait a minute, Uncharted 2 still uses obvious handholds in a lot of areas! It certainly has less of them, but they’re still around,” and this is true! None of the Uncharted games can escape logic. Perfect ledges and handholds to climb on are seldom found in nature. What I think Uncharted 2 does better than the other two games however, is by having obvious handholds make some sort of sense in context. When you’re platforming in Nepal, you climb collapsed poles, street signs, and buildings being torn apart by the civil war occurring there. When you’re jumping around a Tibetan temple high in the mountains, it’s explained that gaining entry is a trial of its own. The temple was built so that those wanting to enter would only gain access if they could prove themselves physically and mentally worthy. The obvious handholds then, in these contexts, make a lot more sense; of course, there would lots of ways to climb a crumbling building, and of course there would be telegraphed handholds in a temple that demands you to platform to get inside.
This is all without mentioning that Naughty Dog really outdid themselves with the visual appeal of the environments you play in. Every chapter of the game feels distinct because the player is visually engaged with tremendously gorgeous environments at every turn. This is especially true while platforming. Often Uncharted 2 requires you to solve a simple puzzle using platforming, and to keep things entertaining, it provides you with a beautiful statue, vista, or temple to ogle while you tap X for five minutes. I can’t express adequately in words how superb the environment looks here, but if you’ve ever played any of Naughty Dogs work, you know they are sticklers for detail. And while I wouldn’t say it’s the best thing in the world, or what Sony would call a, “true next-gen experience” circa 2009, it’s a welcome permutation that elevates Uncharted 2’s somewhat lackluster platforming and puzzles.
Here’s a strong bit of contention I have with Uncharted 2: the puzzles. Long story short, they’re just awful. Most of them aren’t even really puzzles, they’re just platforming sections pretending to be puzzles. There’s hardly any thought put into them and you brain goes numb while you complete them. On top of this, the big final puzzle in the game that Lazarevic can’t figure out how to open is probably the easiest puzzle I’ve seen in a long time. Want to know what it is? Okay!
…You just move boxes onto pressure panels. That’s really it. It’s an insult to the player’s intelligence, it makes the villains looks ridiculously stupid for not figuring it out, and it’s a sour note towards the end of the game. Fuck it. Fuck the stupid puzzles in this game that make me feel like a toddler.
Okay, there’s just one final part of the Uncharted formula to talk about, the set-pieces! This is the strongest aspect of Uncharted 2, and the fabric connecting these moments set the precedent for how set-pieces and story interact for every future entry into the series. Let’s begin.
So, obviously, the opening sequence with the train is excellent for several reasons I outlined earlier, and I don’t think I need to recap. However, I do need to outline a few things here. First, the set pieces in this game are far more common than in the first outing, and second, they all fare a lot better, and both test the player and tell story in different ways. For example, when you get to Nepal, you’re immediately thrown into a run and gun sequence with an armored truck. It’s not hard to get through at all, and a little bit of gunfire will take it down. However, in context, it’s an absolutely thrilling moment that the player likely wasn’t expecting. One moment you’re establishing plot details, and the next you’re running and gunning for your life. It gets the player engaged in the gameplay on a basic level, and shows how ruthless Lazarevic’s forces are. It helps to further establish the tone and the traits of our villain right off the bat, and for that I praise it. I also praise it because it feels like the opening level of Sonic Adventure, which is dope.
Nearly all the set-pieces in the game are like this. They help reinforce some plot idea that Uncharted 2 is trying to communicate to the player, and it’s good. It’s not amazing or anything, but it shows that some thought was put into this thrill ride, and I really, really like that. The next major set-piece revolves around one of Lazarevic’s helicopters hunting Nathan and Chloe. It mixes both scripting platforming and action sequences in with a straight up boss battle at the end. It smoothly transitions between cut scene and gameplay, and control is never taken away for very long. The entire experience is gorgeous and feels quintessentially Uncharted, right down to the one liners Drake spouts towards the end. This great sequence also establishes that Lazarevic has caught onto their presence in the city, and wants to get rid of them at any cost. It’s exhilarating, fun, and a perfect balance between the platforming and action. This is easily better than anything that happened in Uncharted 1, but isn’t even close to the best set-piece in Uncharted 2.
That’s because the Train levels exist. These are the best sequences in the entire series in my opinion; they ask the player to manage both the roof and the interior of the train, while throwing several advancing shotgunners at the player, forcing you to move in and out of sections quickly. There are obstacles on top of the train as well you have to avoid, and if I’m being honest, the visuals are incredibly impressive. I’m still unsure how in the hell Naughty Dog got a sequence like this working back in 2009; the train moves from a jungle environment, up to foothills, and then into a snowy mountain area, seamlessly. The gameplay is great, the platforming is great, the visuals are a treat, the story here is a treat, and you have some interesting new gameplay mechanics introduced here. You fight another helicopter here, but this time the method which you defeat it is more realistic. Only hiding and stray shots with an RPG will get you anywhere, and you finish it off with one of the tanks Lazarevic is transporting on the train. This is a great sequence, and provides a clever subversion of the player’s expectations. I know that the first time I played through, I was sure that the chopper was going to crash into the train, and that was how Drake would end up hanging off a cliff. But no, the helicopter crashes into a cliff instead, and if you’re like me, you were left on the edge of your seat wondering, ‘what in the fuck is going to derail this train now?’.
Shit this article is long as fuck, I have to wrap this up. It’s already taken me way too long to write this thing….okay, DOUBLE TIME!
There’s a dope set piece where a tank chases you in a small village. It mixes both regular shooting gameplay with running and hiding from the tank. The tanks scripted attacks on you don’t feel scripted, they feel REAL and dangerous. The animation is convincing as fuck and since you previously made connections with the villagers, the fight feels almost a little personal. You blow the shit out of that tank at the end though (not sexual). It’s damn great and shows a more relentless side of Lazarevic’s power. It’s scary to see this Tanks rampage such a peaceful town.
Okay this next set piece revolves around Drake jumping from car to car in a large convoy and slowly defending himself from incoming fire. This set-piece gives the player an illusion of interaction that works well when coupled with convincing animation, visuals, and sequence of events. You shoot at enemies and trucks, hijacking new trucks as needed. It looks great and plays great, and it perfectly captures the cinematic gameplay that Uncharted aspires to in every game. It’s such a perfect fit that Naughty Dog repeats this exact formula in all future entries, and it gets better in every game.
That’s…pretty much it! The games story is fun, but If I talked about it at length this critique would be considerable longer, and would contain a hell of a lot of nitpicks on my parts concerning the story. So, thank you, kind reader, for seeing this through to the end! Sorry this took so long to write, I got really burnt out writing this due to school also requiring me to write a hell of a lot. Next time we’ll talk about Uncharted 3, one of the better games in the series with one of the stupidest plots ever. I’m going to split this one into two parts, because even though I don’t like to talk about story in Uncharted, it’s so poorly thought out in Uncharted 3 that it paints itself as an easy target. See you then!