Nathan Drake doesn’t strike me as the sort of guy I’d want to meet at a bar. Not because I’ve watched him snap countless necks and gun down hundreds of men, but the odds are I wouldn’t have much to say that would interest him. I can just imagine his face going slack and his eyes staring off into space as he realizes that not only do I not have the Holy Grail hidden away in my basement, I’m not even the secret ancestor of Marco Polo. I’d have nothing to offer this man.
The fact that Nathan Drake strikes me as anything more than an avatar to drive through Uncharted 2 is proof that Naughty Dog has accomplished something special with nuanced use of motion capture and real actors. Comparing my reaction in this case with a game like Gears of War, the accomplishment is even more striking. The only time I’ve ever imagined meeting Marcus Phoenix was in the men’s room at a bar, laughing while he tried to extract his gigantic, armored ass from a bathroom stall. It makes me giggle, but it doesn’t make me care about the characters in Gears of War any more than a street artist drawing a balloon-headed Mona Lisa on a skateboard would make me care about da Vinci’s work. Nathan Drake is still an adventurous stereotype, but he has enough personality to ground you in the world he inhabits and make you care of about the people in it.
The heart and soul of Uncharted 2 is found in Naughty Dog’s unwavering eye for detail. Every visual element is dutifully crafted, always with the aim of convincing me I’m operating inside a real place. The combination of clutter and seemingly unique textures on every other surface acts as a gauze curtain, obscuring the widgets and cogs working away in the background. Games often stumble when believable game space needs to coincide with believable world building. How many convenient crates, vines, ledges, cars, piles of dead bodies, etc. have I climbed up in my decades of virtual exploration? Uncharted 2 has plenty of timely rocks, handholds and dodgy bridges to traverse in the world, but the extreme detail in the areas often mask the deliberate nature of their placement.
This isn’t to say you can’t peek behind the curtain anyways, but half the fun is losing yourself in the adventure, and they do everything they can to make that easier for you. The downside to all the graphical detail is that sometimes I’m left wondering where to go next because half the things I want to climb don’t work, and Uncharted 2 always wants to me to go on a very specific path to proceed. Framing the camera placement to settle on likely access points and the hint system alleviate some of those problems, but these slow spots can hurt the flow between gun fights and exploration.
Combat tries to walk that same balance between realism and action with less success, gunning down dozens of enemies and soaking up bullets while dodging from cover to cover. The aiming, cover system and melee are much more refined than the first game in the series, so I’m usually too busy having fun and making sure I’m not being flanked to worry about whether or not even Indiana Jones could handle that many bad guys. It’s just unfortunate that while they have reduced the amount of bullets you need to drop an enemy (unless they have armor of some kind), they still force a few encounters that ignore common sense in favor of boss fight design.
A good portion of Uncharted 2 is played between the frantic gun fights and running from large, angry military vehicles. These sections often have you climbing or exploring, which alternate between beautiful explorations of the space and drudging monotony since climbing and jumping require no skill, just an eye for where you need to go next. At its best, the conversations between Nathan and his companions as he looks for the next handhold are funny and interesting. Otherwise, you’re simply admiring the vistas as you move from place to place. The views are spectacular, but these sections often feel like little more than an aperitif between combat areas.
Pacing is what ultimately elevates Uncharted 2 above most action games. I’m never left doing something for so long at a stretch that I get bored or frustrated by it. By the time I’ve solved a puzzle or climbed up some old God’s statue, I’m ready to get back to sneaking up on bad guys and breaking their necks or throwing them off cliffs. The same goes for moving from shooting, to chase scenes to dialogue and exposition. There are even set pieces that are both awesome and never repeated again in the game. The temptation to take something that works once and replicate it a thousand times later was resisted in this case, and it’s much appreciated.
With full multiplayer support for everything from survival (think horde mode in Gears of War 2), to coop missions and a full suite of adversarial modes, it’s probably not going to surprise you that I recommend Uncharted 2 to every gamer with a pulse and a PS3. I’m glossing over the multiplayer because I haven’t had as much time with it as I’d like, but I can say it’s lag free and the Modern Warfare style persistent unlocks and level-up system add more than enough depth to avoid feeling like a tacked on extra. Load times can be extreme when you’re getting online, however, so be prepared to wait a minute or so before a round starts.
If all games had the kind of budget and production values Uncharted 2 enjoys, the industry would probably collapse under its own weight in a matter of years. It’s testament to Naughty Dog that they have put all their resources to good use and made a game that not only delivers on visuals and acting, but on gameplay and variety too. Highly recommended!