Let’s get straight down to business. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is undoubtedly a great sequel; it shows signs of improvement over the original in almost every way, and that alone should be enough to please a large chunk of the fan base. What of those that expect more than that though? Does Uncharted 2 deliver on more exaggerated expectations? There has obviously been an element of overhype, but Uncharted 2 does indeed feel pretty special a heck of a lot of the time. It’s a genuine blockbuster game in a way that the original was not, and only now - after this sequel - do I feel that Uncharted is a truly premier series.
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was a purely single player experience, and whilst Uncharted 2 has gone down the multiplayer and cooperative route, the campaign still remains the star of the show. Once again you play as Nathan Drake, on the hunt for another ancient treasure. This time it’s the Cintamani stone, located somewhere in the lost city of Shambhala. Thanks to a few good twists, turns, and distractions, the story will have you visiting all manner of locales in search of your treasure. It’s the variety and detail of these locations which puts this campaign on a level above the original one – the story doesn’t really matter. You’re just along for the ride and any excuse to make that ride more interesting and varied is for the better, and Uncharted 2 certainly doesn’t disappoint in this regard. I lost count of the number of beautiful settings and different scenarios you have to overcome in order to advance the mission, from lush jungles reminiscent of the first game to snow-drenched mountains, ancient tombs and temples, and even a moving train. Those are just the ones I feel comfortable revealing because they’ve been well publicized - there are plenty more where they come from.
Graphics debates regarding PS3 exclusives tend to feature some pretty familiar names, with one of either Uncharted: Drakes Fortune, Metal Gear Solid 4, Killzone 2 or Gran Turismo 5: Prologue usually receiving the most nods. I’ve always plumped for Gran Turismo 5: Prologue myself, until now. Uncharted 2’s campaign starts off quite slowly and I was left thinking that, sure, Uncharted 2 is an improvement over the original in the graphics department, but it isn’t by all that much. I just needed a little patience though, because around the corner was a simply stunning level (chapter 6 if you’re interested), and from then on it kept getting better and better. I’m now of the view that, when taken as a whole, Uncharted 2’s single player boasts the best graphics on the console.
The environments are fantastically detailed throughout, and they always feel vibrant thanks to the lush color palette. With so many varied locations throughout the game it’s simply astounding that they all look gorgeous and finely crafted. The much-praised water effects from the first game make a return, but they’re now also joined by a new graphical highlight – snow. I’ve never seen snow rendered so well in a game and, just as it was and still is a joy to send Drake wading through some shallow water, it’s also a joy to trudge Drake through the snow. The camerawork is an unexpected delight too. It functions perfectly, never getting in the way of the action or obscuring your view. It will pan craftily on some occasions so that you’re given a slightly better view of the stunning world around you, and will also hint at the way forwards if you’re lost.
Drake has always been a charismatic, well-rounded (dare I say sexy?) character; an impression only strengthened in Uncharted 2. His repertoire of movements has been extended so that his interactions with the environment feel even more realistic, and he now talks under his breath with much more frequency, which is a great touch. He’ll curse his luck, swear in frustration, and come out with some great one liners and cheeky comments directed towards the other characters that are often fighting and chatting alongside him. The voice acting is simply superb, going well beyond what one has come to expect from voice acting in videogames. It’s genuinely movie-like, with Chloe (Claudia Black), Elena (Emily Rose), and Drake (Nolan North) featuring most heavily, and their talents have certainly been well utilized.
There are a lot of cut scenes, but they’re all kept short and sharp so it never feels like they’re interrupting the action. In fact, they have the opposite effect, retaining the game’s fast paced and fresh feel throughout. Underpinning this the complete lack of loading screens once you’ve actually loaded up your save file, so the transition from gameplay to cut scene and back again is as smooth as can be. I do have a couple of minor presentational criticisms: first of all the cut scenes are not as impressive as the in game graphics, and secondly the enemy designs are quite bland and become repetitive far too quickly, but these are minor criticisms of otherwise excellent presentation.
Much of the gameplay is the same as before. Once again the puzzle/platforming sections are easy to complete and the controls intuitive, which is in-keeping with the game’s action credentials. You won’t, for example, find yourself failing to line up a jump very often, and there’s no need to meticulously plan your movements ahead of time. There seem to be slightly fewer puzzles this time around, although this may just be the impression I was left with, but certainly there’s nothing as interesting as the stair maze puzzle from the original here. A handful of extra puzzles, and little more originality and differentiation between the existing ones certainly wouldn’t have gone amiss.
When it comes to the shooting gameplay, again, not much has changed on the face of it and owners of the first game will instantly feel at home. The one key area where things have been mixed up is in the melee combat system, where Drake is now able to utilise stealth to take out enemies. Aside from the early missions where the stealth is pigeon holed into proceedings and feels contrived (purely, it seems, in order to introduce you to this new mechanic), the stealth combat is actually well integrated into the game. Typically you’ll sneak around the start of a new area, taking out as many enemies as you can before your cover is broken, at which point you’ll tend to revert back to shooting your way out of trouble.
There are a handful of different stealth takedowns and they vary from hanging off a cliff ledge and pulling an enemy patrolling above off the edge and down to his death, to simply sneaking up on an enemy and choking him to death. Once you’ve been introduced to the new stealth gameplay you’re free to use it (or not) as you see fit. So if you want to just shoot your way through the game you can, but the stealth kills are pretty satisfying and it is good fun to see how much progress you can make through a level without being spotted, so you probably will make use of the new stealth gameplay throughout.
The stealth is a welcome addition that manages to add to the amount of combat options available to you without ever taking anything away from the original gameplay set-up. The shooting elements may not be quite as enjoyable as the very best shooters on the market, but Uncharted 2 is able to rise above this thanks to the sheer amount of actions you’ll be performing and new scenarios you’ll be playing out, so you’re only given a few opportunities to grow tired of the gun fighting. One other improvement to the gameplay is the removal of Sixaxis motion controls by default, instead you simply use the analogue sticks. So yes, this means no more unpredictable balancing acts as Drake crosses a beam or throws a grenade.
I always felt that Uncharted’s main weak point was its lack of content; a problem that has most certainly been rectified here. It took me exactly 10 hours to complete the single player campaign on normal (according to the game’s own statistics page, although I’m not sure whether this includes the cut scenes or not), which felt like a perfect length given there’s virtually no backtracking or unnecessary padding. Among Thieves is nothing short of a superb single player experience, and I can certainly envisage many wanting to replay certain levels, if not the entire campaign. There are also a handful of incentives to doing so – trophies, in-game medals, 100 hidden treasures, statistics tracking and you also earn money throughout the campaign, which can then be spent on things like concept art, behind the scenes movies, camera filters and gameplay tweaks.
Among Thieves is also packed full of multiplayer content, making for quite the contrast with its predecessor. There’s a fully fledged online multiplayer system, with six different competitive modes and two cooperative modes, spanning seven maps inspired by some of the single player levels. Competitive modes include variations on deathmatch, zones, king of the hill and capture the treasure, whilst the two cooperative modes consist of a horde-like survival game and ‘gold rush’ (where you have to steal treasure from increasingly tough AI opponents). These are all pretty standard gameplay modes, but they’ve been given an Uncharted twist. For example, instead of capturing a flag you have to capture a heavy treasure. The treasure can be thrown across the level like a grenade to teammates, making for some intense games where the treasure is thrown back and forth like a tug of war through the level as the two teams lay waste to each other.
The multiplayer is clearly not a tacked-on affair either, and it works better than many will have expected. The gameplay is compelling and addictive, and with all of the different modes on offer there’s plenty of room for you to mix things up should you tire of a particular game type. My experience has been completely lag free across the board and forming a party with people on your friends list is extremely easy. The only downside is that the wait to get into a match can be a little lengthy at times.
The most disappointing multiplayer feature is the cooperative campaign, although it’s not a campaign per se. Instead, it’s just three stand alone levels based on settings from the single player campaign. There’s no split screen however, so these levels can only be completed online with two other players. I was left with the impression that what we’ve been given access to here are the first few levels of a cooperative campaign cut short due to time constraints, which is unfortunate since what is here plays well on the whole (with the exception of the ham-fisted multi-person tasks). What’s certainly clear is that the potential was there for a cooperative campaign (split screen or otherwise) with its own separate storyline.
As in single player, everything you do in your multiplayer career will earn you money. This serves two purposes. First of all it acts as an experience system so that you can level up. Secondly, it allows you purchase extras from the online store once you’ve reached the required level for each item. These items vary from gameplay perks (such as steadier aiming or more ammo), to new characters you can play as online (there’s even an obese Drake!), and so on. This is a natural extension to the perk and experience systems found in most online shooters nowadays and it works just as well here. As if all that were not enough there is also a cinema mode, which allows you to record, playback and upload replays of your matches. If the amount of content on offer was a problem for you the first time around then rest assured, Uncharted 2 should keep you busy for some time to come.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is the best action/adventure game released on the PS3 thus far. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune had its fair share of flaws – not least in the value department. Naughty Dog have sought to rectify that with Uncharted 2, and they have done so with flying colors. Among Thieves is literally bigger and better in almost every respect; a truly epic, fantastic single player experience, the best graphics on the console, and a fully fleshed out and addictive multiplayer experience. If you've set your face against the Uncharted series up until now then you should seriously reconsider - this is not a game many PS3 owners should skip.