Saturday, 30 January 2010

Game Review - Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

I tend not to write game reviews for a number of reasons. Firstly, game reviews are time critical and I'm usually months, if not years behind the curve. Secondly, my feelings tend not to stray too far from popular opinion. For example, Uncharted 2? Pretty awesome. I wish I could be a fierce video game iconoclast and say "Uncharted 2? More like UnFARTed POO!" but no, I thought it was super good. Sorry.

It begins with an incredible tutorial level as you climb a train car that's dangling over a cliff. It's one of those flash-forward sequences that I usually hate because they give you all your powered-up abilities for a few minutes and then take them all away and make you work for them. The first taste is free, I guess. It's okay here though, because Drake doesn't really gain any abilities during the game. Then when the timeline has caught up you play through it again, so Naughty Dog were either really proud of this level or they think we have the memory of a goldfish. It's a pity that this great opener is followed by a terrible stealth mission that's almost broken due to dodgy enemy AI. A forced stealth mission? In 2009? Luckily it's over with pretty quickly and it's back to the climby-shooty.

There's not a lot to say about the shooting, since it's the standard 3rd person cover-centric template that's the modern equivalent of the side-scrolling platformer. It seems a little more refined than the first game and the only problems I ran into was with the contextual cover/roll/drop/yak petting button, which sometimes had me barrel rolling off a cliff instead of ducking for cover. It also dispenses with the terrible PS3 motion controls for grenade tossing, although the new mechanic requires you to push L1 and L2 simultaneously, which feels weird. The shooting sections are pretty easy though, so I'd recommend playing it on a harder difficulty setting. I haven't played the "Very Easy" mode, but I imagine all the bad guys are armed with flowers and wet noodles.

Like the first game, shooting sections are broken up with some mild platforming, but it's often so easy it's like the game is on autopilot. Jumps are contextual when climbing so Drake is usually unable to make a bad leap and if you do jump with poor aim it's massaged into an appropriate direction. The environments are so detailed that it's sometimes difficult to tell what is climbable, but there are lots of visual clues to help you out, such as Drake leaning out when he can grab something and a hint system to point you in the right direction.

There are also some puzzles, although calling them "puzzles" seems a little overblown. Most of them are simply moving some symbols around to match what's written in your diary. I guess Naughty Dog think we are pants-on-head retarded though, because if you haven't solved it after a few minutes Drake will blurt out an insultingly obvious hint like "It's something to do with the mirrors". Yeah, they are the only interactive item in the whole room. Thanks for the tip. I wish they had included something a little more cerebral but they make a nice, quiet diversion from the action sequences.

What this game does really well are the big action set-pieces. I can think of half a dozen sequences that would pass for a climax in any other game. There's a battle on board a train that spans several stages and contains an amazing sequence with a flipping train carriage that had me leaping off the couch and whooping at the screen like a huge tool. Like any blockbuster action film though, it's definitely a case of diminishing returns. If you die during one of the big chases and replay the last few minutes of gameplay, it loses a lot without the initial "wow" factor. It's incredible while it lasts, though, and it lasts a fair bit longer than the first game with a lot less padding and repetition.

I've heard people say that this game has a really good story. It doesn't, it's trite and perfunctory, but it is exceptionally well told, mostly through cut scenes with superb voice acting and some of the most convincing facial animation I've ever seen. Of course, one of the problems with segregating the gameplay from the story is that it brings all of those pesky game abstractions into focus. Guns might as well fire spitballs for all the damage they do in combat and you have to virtually swallow a grenade for it to kill you, but in a cut scene we're supposed to believe that bullets and explosions are serious bid'ness. Drake is supposed to be the good guy but during the game he kills thousands of people just so he can steal a gemstone from another thief. The only time his body count is mentioned is at the finale when Lazarevic gives his obligatory "you're not so different from me" speech. He says "How many men have you killed? Just today?" Ooh, sick burn.

There's something weirdly amoral about the story too. The game starts with you breaking into a Turkish museum, brutally beating dozens of museum guards so that you can steal an artifact for a wealthy client and then double-cross him. In the first game I went along with it because Nathan Drake was Sir Francis Drake's descendant but here he has no excuse. There's a part where Drake retrieves an artifact from a bad guy and says "This is mine, jerkweed" and I shouted at the screen "No it isn't! You stole it from a tomb, you asshole! It belongs in a museum!" They make the bad guy Lazarevic as evil as possible to compensate. When discussing his role models he namedrops Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. The evil dictator trifecta. He must be evil.

One of my favourite things about the game is all the little custom animations and unprompted dialog that litter the game like delicious sprinkles. There's a great part where you have to carry a guy to safety while you are pursued by a tank and armed guards. Drake constantly reassures him and says things like "All this effort you'd think I'd have known you longer." It goes a long way to flesh out the relationships of the characters. In fact, my favourite part was probably a level where all you do is follow a guy through a gorgeously rendered Tibetan village. I must have spent an hour just wandering around interacting with people and petting yaks.

There's also the addition of multi-player, which seems pretty fun and full-featured although I'm probably not the best person to judge; I rarely play games online since I hate my fellow man. It's got everything the CoD4 kiddies have come to expect: A leveling system, perks and, most importantly, the ability to call strangers a "faggot" over voice chat. I quite like some of the co-operative modes, where you and two other players fight through levels based on sequences from the game or fight off wave after wave of enemies. DLC has been announced but for now it's just multiplayer skins based on characters from games like Resistance and Killzone. You mean I can play the game while looking like awful, bland characters from inferior PS3 exclusives? Wow!

In conclusion Uncharted 2 is both the tits and the shit. The first game was a splash of fun and colour in a genre dominated by brown/grey colour palettes and grim space marines, but it still had gameplay and pacing issues. The sequel takes that game and improves virtually everything about it. If you're one of the seven people with a PS3 then you probably already have it. If not, then what the shit, man? Get it already. If you need money then mortgaging your house, prostituting yourself or selling your kids into slavery are all viable options.

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