Review: Uncharted 2 – Among Thieves (**** stars)

Note: I did not play the multiplayer at all, and thus this is solely a review of the single player campaign.

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. When he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard. And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.’ And so they went. Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing around; and he *said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?’ They *said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He *said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard *said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.’ When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius. 10 When those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they grumbled at the landowner,12 saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ 13 But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? 14 Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. 15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last shall be first, and the first last.”

Matthew 20

Uncharted 2 seems like a game fundamentally locked in envy of other art forms.

I have been deep in thought on the last few days, specifically in regards to the Uncharted series. I know people who love, and people who hate, Naughty Dog’s grand trilogy (now quadrilogy?), both with a weird passion unrivaled by many video games. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you why. One party seem dedicated to the sort of cinematic action experience that Uncharted provides – Indiana Jones in video game form, more or less – while the other hates the linearity, mechanics, and lack of true interactivity. Both sides obviously demonstrate their arguments well enough that, in the long run, we wonder whether Uncharted simply set the template for better games, or actually is a great game unto itself.

I wager that Uncharted 2, from my perspective, really wants to be a movie. Like all games circa 2009, the video game market desired what we’d call “cultural legitimacy”, and possibly the label of “art” (if not just “craft”). In effect, it seemed envious of its forebearers, eager to use the interactivity of video games to do them one over. Uncharted gave film the evil eye, covetous of their mainstream success, and sought to replicate the filmic qualities of standard action-adventure movies into a video game. The original game succeeded, in part, due to its lighthearted, silly premise; still, it was a fundamentally incomplete game, with a shoehorned cover system and a weird lack of pacing for an “action film”. Naughty Dog sought to up their game with the sequel, and boy did they ever!

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I’m not going to bother with plot details because, for the most part, they seem extraneous to me. Whether or not the plot makes sense, or whether the “acting” is “good” seems beside the point. Rather, what the cast do is set the tone for light-hearted fun and (I guess) fun video game murder against bad Serbian people. The script gives you all the stale laughs they can muster, and enough witty banter can save any cast (except for the sexual forwardness of Chloe, which suddenly disappears around the halfway mark – so much the better, really). All of these remain genre tropes, and I would expect nothing less from a B-movie worthy plot. The success of Indiana Jones came through its craft, not its story-telling prowess, and that’s what you get from Naughty Dog here.

Is Uncharted 2 a better game than its predecessor? Sure, in the same a person might compare Indiana Jones movies, like saying Raiders of the Lost Ark is a better film than The Last Crusade. (I’m trying to keep my film reference straight here). It even has supernatural archaeological action! If I had to guess, Uncharted 2’s high rankings come with the assumption that, indeed, this is the best game in the series. You can see why in the pacing of the action, along with plenty of quiet moments to simply climb massive structures and reflect on all that action. The first game often lulled with dumb vehicle segments, long protracted combat sequences (WAVE AFTER WAVE OF ENEMIES) and stale arena-combat. Uncharted 2, for its part, keeps the settings diverse and interesting; the aesthetic settings actually lead to fun combat scenarios, a rarity in this genre. Just imagining the train sequence and/or car chases gets me excited, because it forces you to take strange cover at awkward angles. After all, Uncharted really consists of “Gear of War + Tomb Raider”, so any situations that emphasize verticality and movement often give the series a unique flavor. In a word, level design lets Uncharted 2 transcend its predecessor in almost every fashion.

You still need to move out of cover, and still lack ammo, so you need to move around constantly. Naughty Dog really only adds a few new kinds of guns and gun types, but they all add little nuances to the combat. Enemies still flank you, but enemy types come in wider variety (especially the ones that run real fast), meaning you need to adapt quickly to changing circumstances. The “combat arena” feel of the first game disappears due to the ever-changing circumstances of the plot, and that’s for the better! You do feel, in some sense, a struggle for your life; the checkpoints which refuse to let you skip difficult combat sequences only add to this, which surprised me on more than one count. You actually must play the game well to progress, which is more than we can say for Uncharted 2’s contemporaries. Stealth can also help you take out more than a few enemies before big fights, as well as preventing enemies from tracking you during fights (they’ll show a little stealth indicator so you know that enemies don’t know where you are). You don’t get double health for stealth kills or melee fighting anymore, but that’s rarely a problem. Skill still wins the day, which is a relief.

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The AI still has psychic powers, though.

At the very least, we can set some historical context for the emergence of Uncharted as Game of the Year 2009, with a Metacritic score of 96. It fits into a narrative of “improvement” and “the second thing in a series of three is always better for some reason!” That makes it one of the highest rated video games of all time, mostly for the intimation that “games will be taken more seriously with a product of this quality!” However, with six years of hindsight, you see a lot more flaws than you might expect at a glance.

If you don’t like shooting dudes or climbing preset platforms, there will be little for you to enjoy. Uncharted 2 does pace these well, until the last sections turn into a boring combat slog (with a very well-done, and QTE-less boss fight), but the game often wears out its welcome when playing for several hours or more. Tiny elements begin to grate on you more than we should. Often, the mechanics turn subservient to their master, that of the “action set piece”, and the sudden shift in camera angle leaves you in the open during a fire fight. Sometimes, you “solve” a “puzzle”, which mostly consists of going through some motions the developer set in advance; compared to the first game, Uncharted 2 contains all of three puzzles with completely obvious solutions. Cues of conveyance for the path forward aren’t always obvious, due to the game’s setting in “the real world”; I didn’t know I had to climb this specific sign, and jump to this specific ledge, to progress, and nothing else will interact with you. Thanks for the hints, guys! Glad you had the foresight to know most people wouldn’t know where to go half the time!

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BUT CINEMA

Who doesn’t love a Quick Timer Event or two, in addition to melee combat that requires light smashing of buttons and counter buttons? Also, how can I not throw grenades back at people yet? Does Nathan Drake not know how to do this? Why does the context-sensitive button for getting behind cover (notably improve from the first game) also cause Drake to hang off platforms? Why are there so many pieces of cover next to ledges, making this very thing happen in the middle of fights? Why do the enemies still take too much damage for normal human beings? Look, even if you had that much body armor, I doubt you and I could take a shotgun blast to the face. In Uncharted, his helmet just flies off, and he walks away like nothing happened. What’s with the mystical bullet sponges at the end, Naughty Dog? Is this considered “fun” for some people? Did a Sony executive complain about length, and the developers upped the health totals to compensate?

In sum, Uncharted 2 does a lot of things right. Comparing the first two games, I’d say the second one comes out slightly ahead, just by a little bit. Unfortunately, the renewed emphasis on “cinematic action” puts Uncharted 2 at odds with its own structure. In the end, while it’s a very well-crafted video game, it’s not a movie, and that’s why it fails on so many fundamental levels. The game simply overstays its welcome, and its envy of other media formats simply gives it too many problems for its own good. Uncharted 2’s lack of satisfaction probably stems from this more than anything else. It apes the successes of others, without putting forth its own unique identity in the process.

So yes, while this is a four star game, I’d call it a very tepid one.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.