Two years ago, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was hailed as one of the most cinematic experiences in gaming, not to mention being arguably the best PS3 exclusive at the time. The story of treasure hunter and scoundrel Nathan Drake’s quest for the fortune of Sir Francis Drake was wonderfully written, with gorgeous visuals, excellent voice acting, and addictive gameplay. Despite launching to positive reviews, Drake’s Fortune wasn’t without problems. The Tomb Raider-style puzzles were a little too obvious, the melee combat left much to be desired, and the motion controls for throwing grenades felt forced. In making a sequel, developer Naughty Dog was challenged with fixing the issues of the first game while delivering another action-packed story. Even though I loved Drake’s Fortune, I was still blown away by Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. With a longer single-player storyline, the addition of multiplayer, improved gameplay mechanics, and phenomenal graphics and voice-acting, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is without a doubt one of the best games to come out this year.
Approximately a year has passed for Nathan Drake since the events of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and the fortune-seeking adventurer has his eye on something new: the lost fleet of historical explorer Marco Polo. Of course, the job isn’t as easy as he thought it would be, and Nate eventually finds himself in a race to find the mythical village of Shambhala before a mentally unstable psychopath. Along the way, Drake finds himself working with his mustachioed friend Sully, as well as the lovely Chloe, a former flame. The plot unfolds at a perfect pace over 26 chapters, and at around twelve hours, the single-player portion of the game is definitely longer than the first. Additionally, multiple difficulty modes and a hundred hidden treasures add even more replay value to the core game. Like its predecessor, Uncharted 2 is a linear experience, but I did not see this as a detriment; the story simply needs to unfold in a certain way. The narrative is accompanied by, once again, some of the best, if not the best, dialogue and voice acting in gaming. The way characters interact, both in cut scenes and during actual gameplay, is fantastic. This was a hallmark of the first game, but Among Thieves may have surpassed even that.
The basic gameplay in Among Thieves is similar to that of Drake’s Fortune, but plenty of tweaks have been made to improve the experience. Throwing a grenade is now as simple as holding L2 and moving the analog stick; while the option to use motion controls exists, I’m sure I won’t be the only one happy to leave them off. Melee combat has also been adjusted to a simple system of hitting and countering. No longer do you have to worry about button combinations during a heated firefight; if the need arises, you can quickly take down an enemy by hand. Additionally, there will be instances during which being more subtle is beneficial, and Nate can sneak up behind foes or or grab them from behind cover and eliminate them silently with improved stealth maneuvers. When it comes to gunfights, the cover mechanics have been improved for both Nate and his foes. Among Thieves features extremely competent enemy AI, and foes will hide, fire blindly, and generally do what they can to avoid being killed. Your companions will also be quite helpful, which is a nice change of pace from many video games with AI-controlled partners. Sully, Chloe, and Elena are skilled with guns, and know how to assist you without getting in your way or doing the work for you.
Once again, Nathan Drake will have a lot of areas to explore, which means plenty of climbing and platforming. One of the biggest changes in Among Thieves, though, is the variety of environments Nate will traverse on his latest journey. Instead of the same lush, green jungle, the game takes you to snow-covered mountains, war-torn villages, and a well-guarded museum, to name just a few locales. Platforming elements like pipes, bars, and climbable bricks usually stand out pretty well, but it is easy to confuse part of the background with something you need to reach, which can cause a bit of trial and error gameplay at times. This can be particularly annoying when you leap over a gap at what you assume is a climbable section, only to bounce off the wall and fall to your death. However, with checkpoints generously scattered throughout the game, this is hardly much of a setback.
The puzzles in Among Thieves are few and far between, though Nate will have to rely on his trusty journal from time to time. The journal itself is a prime example of the attention to detail in this game—there are plenty of pages that feature doodlings and pictures of Nathan’s companions and story elements, along with humorous comments. This guide will also assist in puzzle completion, though the book doesn’t open right up to the information you need this time around. These segments are a nice change of pace from combat and platforming, and add even more variety to the gameplay.
As if a fantastic twelve-hour campaign was not enough, Among Thieves features a slew of multiplayer options that should keep you occupied long after the credits roll. Though the main story cannot be played cooperatively, you can play through several controlled scenarios with up to two friends, with your trio taking the roles of Drake, Chloe, and Sully. As the three of you try to either find to a treasure or transport one, various enemies will come at you from all sides, requiring true teamwork to survive. There is also a co-op survival mode, which requires your group to stay alive against wave after wave of attacking foes. Originally, I didn’t think co-op play was going to feel like much more than an afterthought, but after beating the game I was pleased to have a reason to hunt for treasure once more.
There are also several versus modes available in Among Thieves, such as standard Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill, Elimination, and a treasure-capturing option similar to Capture the Flag. None of them are entirely original, but they are still a lot of fun. Being in a five-on-five Deathmatch in one of the game’s locales and gunning down Drake and Elena is a little jarring, but the game’s mechanics lend themselves well to a fun multiplayer experience. Money earned during the campaign by finding treasure and achieving other goals can be used to buy upgrades in multiplayer, where more cash can be earned. It almost seems like this game didn’t need multiplayer, because the campaign is so fantastic on its own, so the fact that it is more than just an addendum is yet another accomplishment.
As for the presentation, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is mind-blowing. The first game was a visual triumph, and the sequel once again sets the bar for this generation’s graphical capabilities. Nathan moves through water or snow with realistic effects; water ripples in reaction, while snow sticks to his boots and pants. The environments are stunning, and I often found myself just panning the camera around, trying to take it all in. The character models are excellent, with a great amount of attention to detail, adding to the cinematic feel of the game. The soundtrack is appropriately epic, with a score that seems to suit each scene perfectly, and the sound effects also intensify the adventure. Combine all of that with the aforementioned voice acting, and the results are incredible.
There is no question that this is a fantastic title, but that doesn’t mean it is without flaws. Just like the first game, there are times when the camera won’t align itself properly during a platforming segment, turning simple jumps into leaps of faith. The waves of enemies that constantly appear in some areas can get a little monotonous. Because both are mapped to the same button, there were a few times when Nate would roll away instead of sticking to cover. There is also a lingering feeling of familiarity, which can be both comforting and disconcerting. Once again, I felt myself involuntarily comparing the game to Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones, with cooperative elements vaguely reminiscent of Resident Evil 5. However, none of those are terrible things to be compared to, and Uncharted 2 has more than enough positive qualities to stand out despite covering recognizable territory.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves may have been one of the most anticipated games of 2009, but after playing it through I can honestly say that the hype was not unfounded. The words “cinematic experience” have been used to describe the game so often that they are probably cliché by now, but it’s something that simply must be said. I found myself saying “just one more chapter” for hours; I never wanted to stop playing, and I never wanted the game to end. The few flaws that I did find were easy to overlook in the grander scheme of things. Once again, Naughty Dog has raised the bar for gaming standards, and produced a gem that should be in every gamer’s library.