Sony’s PlayStation 3 console met with a lukewarm reception when it was released in 2006. There were several reasons for this – the two biggest sticking points concerned the lack of console-exclusive games upon launch and its initial retail price of $600 USD. It could have made for a handy replacement for one’s PlayStation 2, as the original models boasted backwards compatibility, but the prohibitive amount of money it sold for deterred even the most dedicated fans.
In 2007, Naughty Dog, a company known for making quality games exclusively for Sony’s platforms, released Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. The game proved to be one of the console’s first bestsellers, showcasing its potential to any would-be adopters. However, many fans continued to express hesitance, as it would hardly be worth investing hundreds of dollars just to play a single game – no matter how good the press insisted it was.
Nonetheless, it sold enough units to warrant a sequel, the first trailer of which was unveiled in December of 2008. Earlier that year, the highly acclaimed Metal Gear Solid 4 saw its debut as a PlayStation 3 exclusive. As Metal Gear was a long-running IP with an existing, dedicated fanbase this action caused the tide to slowly turn in Sony’s favor, a trend that would continue into the following year after they reduced the price to a more reasonable figure. As a result, the anticipation for this new installment in this up-and-coming Uncharted series was far greater than that of its predecessor. The development period of this game took nearly two years, ending in 2009 with the final product being entitled Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Countless publications awarded Uncharted 2 perfect scores with many critics believing it to be a new landmark in gaming. It was to the point where these accolades found themselves bombastically emblazoned onto the game’s cover. From this, it’s evident that Naughty Dog was proud of their work. Was their effort able to end one of gaming’s finest decades on a triumphant note?
Playing the Game
Uncharted 2 is a third-person shooter, though it’s is not a game in which the protagonist can shake off entire salvos of gunfire with little consequence. Upon taking damage, a red tinge will appear, indicating the direction from which your character is being shot. As he takes more damage, the colors will become progressively desaturated until they turn entirely monochrome. Should an attack land in this state, he will be finished off, prompting the game to restart from the most recent checkpoint. The relative fragility of the protagonist is offset by taking cover whenever possible. If you find a safe spot in a gunfight when he is in a damaged state and wait long enough, the colors will return, allowing you resume as normal.
At any given time, the protagonist is allowed to carry two firearms: a pistol and a larger armament. You switch weapons by pushing left or right on the control pad. Once an enemy is killed, their weapon is dropped. If one of your weapons matches that of the fallen combatant, you can press a button to obtain extra ammunition for it. Otherwise, you can switch your weapon for the one on the ground. It’s best to conserve bullets as much as you can because firing with reckless abandon will drain your resources rather quickly. You can also hold a select number of grenades. They’re often handy for when the enemy has you and your comrades pinned down. Helpfully, the arc in which the grenade will travel is displayed before you throw it.
Uncharted 2 stands out from the average third-person shooter in that it’s not wall-to-wall action. There are many stretches of gameplay that involve no combat at all. As you’re often made to explore crumbling ruins, many areas would be inaccessible to normal people due to cave-ins or natural decay. Luckily, the protagonist of this game is very athletic, and is more than capable of climbing up on and jumping from ledges to reach his destinations.
It’s clear that the creators of this game went to great lengths to craft breathtaking visuals. Uncharted 2 is a linear experience, yet the development staff encourages interacting with the environment, for there are numerous treasures that await the astute players. They don’t influence the story in any way, though collecting them will unlock bonus content.
If it sounds like I just described the core gameplay of Uncharted again, it’s not a coincidence. Uncharted 2 doesn’t really deviate from the formula established by its predecessor. If one were unaware of the numerous accolades this game received, they might wonder want the point would be in playing it if it’s merely retreading familiar territory. Fortunately, there is an answer to this hypothetical quandary: it took the gameplay of the original and improved it in every conceivable way.
To start with, the action sequences are much more memorable than those of Uncharted. This becomes apparent seconds after starting a new game. Naughty Dog has Uncharted 2 begin in media res. Nathan Drake, the series’ protagonist, is on a derailed train seconds away from falling into the abyss below, and this is how they chose to introduce the parkour mechanic. In addition to getting the player’s undivided attention right off the bat, it’s an effective method of teaching them how platforming in this game works. Furthermore, it lets players know that as impressive as it is, the best has yet to come.
This game also features no shortage of puzzles to solve, and I can tell there was much more effort put into them this time around. In Uncharted, Nathan would turn to the appropriate page in his ancestor’s journal. The hints barely stopped short of outright explaining the answer to the reader, defeating any semblance of challenge the obstacle may have presented. For the sequel, Nathan has his own journal, which in addition to giving insight into his character, provides more esoteric clues for the appropriate puzzles, allowing players to deduce the solution on their own.
The level design itself has good variety as well. Although a majority of the game takes place in Nepal, chapters leading up to it have Nathan and company exploring the lush jungles of Borneo and infiltrating a Turkish museum to steal an artifact. This is a nice change from the original Uncharted, which took place in one tropical rainforest only to switch to another, slightly different tropical rainforest.
The museum heist is notable in that it’s the first chapter to feature the shooting aspect. As it simply wouldn’t do to kill innocent security guards doing their job, you’re given a tranquilizer pistol for this mission. I like this aspect because it has all of the making of a tutorial stage, yet it makes perfect sense given the context of the story so it doesn’t come across as tedious upon replaying it. The stealth mechanics go largely unused for the rest of the game, but they’re still a nice touch and add an extra dimension to the experience.
Even if the gameplay remains largely the same, there is one change I am grateful for: the quick-time events which plagued Uncharted have been eschewed. There was enough challenge present in the platforming sections, so following them up with a set piece breaking and forcing me to press a random button to live led to several cheap deaths. Technically speaking, they’re not completely gone; there are a few sections in which you have to resort to fisticuffs against troop leaders, but the buttons that flash onscreen are the same ones used in normal hand-to-hand combat.
In summary, the gameplay of Uncharted 2 is very similar to that of its predecessor’s, but Naughty Dog was able to iron out most of the flaws, allowing their good ideas to shine. Whatever weaknesses haunted the original were either done away with entirely or otherwise made much more tolerable. Then again, anyone familiar with Uncharted 2 knows that as good as the gameplay is, it’s still only half of the equation. It’s now to time to determine if when combined with its narrative, it forms something greater than the sum of its parts.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The remainder of this review will contain unmarked spoilers for both Uncharted and Uncharted 2.
It has been two years since treasure hunter Nathan Drake followed in the footsteps of Sir Francis Drake to discover the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. He is approached by a former associate, Harry Flynn, and an old girlfriend, Chloe Frazer. They tell him of a Mongolian oil lamp which is on display in a museum in Turkey. This artifact is said to have belonged to Marco Polo, the Italian explorer who led many expeditions in Asia during the eleventh century.
By 1292, after having spent twenty years in the court of Kublai Khan, he set out on a return voyage to Europe. This proved to be an ill-fated journey. He departed with fourteen ships and six-hundred passengers, yet when he arrived in Persia a year and a half later, only one ship and eighteen passengers remained. Their fate remains unknown, for Polo never revealed what happened to them. On his deathbed, he said, “I did not tell half of what I saw, for I knew I would not be believed.”
Upon recovering the lamp, Nathan and Harry find a map showing that Marco Polo’s lost fleet was transporting the Cintamani Stone from the mythical city of Shangri-La. A tsunami had thrown the ships onto the shores of Borneo. Unfortunately, after they learn this, Harry betrays Nathan, and the latter is quickly apprehended by the authorities.
Three months later, Nathan is released from jail after Chloe informed his friend, Victory “Sully” Sullivan, of his situation. From there, they learn that Harry’s superior is Zoran Lazarević, a ruthless Serbian war criminal thought to have been deceased according to official NATO records. Knowing the journey will be perilous, Nathan sets a course for Borneo, determined to solve the mystery of Marco Polo’s missing fleet before Lazarević and his company of mercenaries can alter the course of history in their favor.
It’s difficult to understate exactly how much praise Uncharted 2 received from the press back in 2009. Part of the reason had to do with the engaging gameplay, but critics were quick to cite its immaculate presentation. Following the lead of the original Uncharted, the sequel employs extensive motion capture techniques to recreate realistic facial expressions and body language in their character models. Coupled with its eye-catching graphics, this went a long way in creating an experience few other artists were able to conceive up until this point.
The process of drafting the story of the original Uncharted could probably be summed up as someone going down a list of action movie tropes until each one was crossed out, and this remains largely unchanged for the sequel. It’s clear the Indiana Jones series was a large influence on this game and its predecessor to the point where one could consider it a spiritual successor. Indeed, anyone even remotely familiar with adventure movies centered on finding a lost treasure can predict the course this plot takes at any given time. If you’re particularly versed in fiction, don’t be surprised if you end up saying the various one-liners and quips before they’re uttered by the character meant to say them.
Despite not straying too far from the original in terms of style, there are a few areas in which Naughty Dog improved their writing. To begin with, Nathan Drake actually has a definable character arc. In Uncharted, he was invincible – absolutely nothing his enemies threw at him came remotely close to fazing him. There was also the minor issue that, in the grand scheme of things, whatever good he accomplished ended up being incidental. The golden statue he and his enemies fought over just so happened to contain a virus that turned those who came into contact with it into mindless zombies. While Nathan drops it into ocean alongside the main antagonist, stopping him from unleashing the plague only drove the last fifteen minutes of the plot.
In Uncharted 2, Nathan retains his smug attitude in the beginning, but after taking a particularly nasty wound to the stomach and only surviving a blizzard thanks to a native’s intervention, he actually decides to cut his losses and abandon his quest. It isn’t until he learns of the power the Cintamani Stone contains and seeing the extent of Lazarević’s cruelty when they devastate a Nepalese village that Nathan rekindles the will to see the journey through to the end. It’s a refreshing change because his previous outing saw him motivated by personal gain while this one gives him more altruistic goals.
Though it was a critical favorite, Uncharted came under fire from certain circles for featuring a story about a white protagonist killing non-white enemies over a treasure. Personally, I thought the villains of the original Uncharted were too dull to allow for any unintentional commentary to be made. Only by virtue of having multiple lines did they stand out from their faceless henchmen. In any event, Lazarević is likely a response to these criticisms. Indeed, the two most prominent villains are Caucasian, and their negative traits are such that Nathan and company are probably doing the world a service by eradicating them.
Then again, this was something of a double-edged sword in practice. Just to show off how despicable Lazarević is, there’s one point when the writers have him commend Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, and Josef Stalin for their leadership qualities shortly before executing one of his own henchmen who was being held at gunpoint by Nathan. The point was to demonstrate just how unfettered he is, but it comes across as campy. Had he dispatched him without saying a word, it would’ve made him far more terrifying. Sadly, there isn’t an indication that this was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. This is the kind of character who would seem more suited for a black comedy; seeing it played straight in a semi-realistic game, albeit one that doesn’t take itself too seriously, is rather jarring. It’s not a good sign when “Saturday morning cartoon villain” is considered an improvement over the previous installment.
Once again, Naughty Dog seemed to write in a way that barely acknowledged the medium on which they created their work. Even with the unanimous critical praise Uncharted 2 enjoyed, a select few critics noted that the game mechanics and the cutscenes surrounding them don’t always complement each other well. Specifically, they took umbrage with the fact that Nathan guns down hundreds of people by the time the credits roll. Combined with Nathan’s carefree personality, this creates the implication that he’s a sociopathic mass murderer. To be honest, I think the criticism is a little overblown because he’s fighting unequivocally evil people this time, but it’s a perfectly valid point to make; it’s an unfortunate consequence of attempting to program a game around a film. At one point, Lazarević even asks Nathan how many of his men he killed, but the way this conversation is resolved is Naughty Dog once again deciding to point out their flaws without bothering to fix them.
I also believe that Naughty Dog’s meticulous attention to detail wound up being their undoing in the end. It is clear most of the effort went into the first half of the game, as there is a consistent sense of pacing, varied obstacles to circumvent, and challenging, yet fair gunfights. The later stages, on the other hand, involve almost nothing but multiple shootouts in a row, culminating in a frustrating boss fight that doesn’t meld well with the established mechanics. I’ll give them credit because there is a reason the final boss can’t be dispatched with a single bullet to the head unlike his predecessor for whom that remained unexplained, but it still doesn’t work.
Even the creators themselves admitted this was the case. They revealed in interviews that they worked on a relatively early level throughout the entire development cycle. The reason it took as long as it did likely had to do with it taking place on a moving train. Meanwhile the ones set in Shangri-La where the game ends were made within the last few months. However unintentionally, it makes a powerful case that you shouldn’t rush the ending lest you risk a sour note being the one on which your work concludes.
Fortunately, there is a bright spot to all of this, as the dip in gameplay quality doesn’t extend to the writing itself, which remains consistent throughout, ending in a satisfying manner. This is a game that earns its emotional moments while remembering to have a sense of humor about itself. Considering that it came out in a time I would argue games were starting to take themselves too seriously for their own good, Uncharted 2 provided the perfect alternative for that trend.
Drawing a Conclusion
For all of the praises critics have sung about Uncharted 2, I think calling it one of the greatest games ever made is going a little overboard. When I originally finished it, I found myself completely agreeing with them, as I had never played a game with such an ambitious presentation before. I then concluded that Naughty Dog was the gold standard by which other creators within the medium should aspire to go about storytelling. However, over the next few years, I would go on to experience games such as Planescape: Torment and Half-Life. The former boasted a level of writing and introspection that few artists in the following decades were able to match. Meanwhile, the latter demonstrated the medium’s storytelling potential by using nothing but scripted events to convey a plot and never taking control away from the player. Once I had played those games among other story-heavy titles, I realized Uncharted 2 is not in the same league. Naughty Dog didn’t really address the shortcomings of the original Uncharted as much as they downplayed them to the point where they would be mostly invisible to those not actively seeking them out.
For that matter, even if some critics consider Uncharted 2 a landmark for the medium, at the end of the day, it’s not quite what I would call an innovative game. The shooter genre was already at the height of its popularity by the decade’s end due to the success of Halo, Call of Duty, and Gears of War among other series. While Uncharted 2 and its predecessor could claim to differentiate themselves from the crowd with their parkour elements, they’re still ultimately variations of the platforming mechanics featured in Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. In short, every idea Naughty Dog had for their game was provably sound before they themselves decided to implement them.
I do realize by this point, I’m not exactly making a great case for this game, but despite all of its flaws, I don’t dislike Uncharted 2 – far from it, in fact. Even if it’s not spectacular, the writing does have a certain charm to it and the leads are certainly likeable enough that you’ll want to see them survive these larger-than-life ordeals. While it’s not groundbreaking, it’s still an absolute thrill to play in a way that’s difficult to capture in words. If you have a machine capable of running it, this game will make a welcome addition to your library. This is a game where at one point, you shoot at evil mercenaries while hanging from a road sign. If that doesn’t convince you how amazing video games can be, I don’t know what will.
Final Score: 7.5/10