There's no better way to suck the audience into the plight of the main character than by drowning him, over and over in a sea of misfortune and pain. It's even better, however, if said main character takes such punishment with a grain of salt and a little chuckle. It's this compelling ethos that immediately reflects in Naughty Dog's Nathan Drake sequel, which opens with the cocky treasure-hunter in possibly the worst shape - and position
- imaginable. You may have seen the video already (if not, click here), but it's the infamous train/cliff/snow/bleeding sequence that sees Drake having to scale a train car, hanging precariously from an icy cliff in the Himalayas. What's more is Drake has been shot and is bleeding. The video itself was a tantalising look at the drama to come, but actually playing through this sequences, from the game's outset, is far more impactful.
A few things become immediately apparent for anyone who played the first game, within the first half an hour or so of play. The first is that scripting here is tighter, and more in-line with physical action. A picture is worth a thousand words, and a moving picture even more than that. This is the beauty of Naughty Dog's experience with the first game; while you're still ultimately playing through an interactive movie - there are solid, stand-alone moments of gameplay that involve only the immediate environment, Drake and the player (and his or her subsequent ability with Drake and his move/skill-set). This speaks in volumes in the first play section, but opens up immediately to offer new characters, locations and settings as we're thrust back in time to learn just how Drake ended up in this life-threatening predicament. It's story-telling of the Hollywood summer blockbuster kind, but perfectly suited to the foundation Naughty Dog have laid with this already much-loved series.
The story itself is actually much deeper this time around with Drake seeking out - initially - the Cintamani Stone; the cargo of Marco Polo's lost fleet which presumably sank after fleeing the court of the Mongol leader, Kublai Khan in 1292. As with all great adventures though, just when Drake thinks he's closing in on his treasure, more details of a bigger picture (and treasure) are revealed thus the adventure grows and grows.
The game's plot takes our hero to a number of exotic locales, such as the Himalayas, Istanbul, Borneo, Nepal and plenty more - all with the much touted (and now expected
) massive, grand set-pieces that drive home both the visual power of the game's inner workings, Naughty Dog's art-team and the strength of the game's narrative journey at hand.
We're also introduced to a handful of new characters, while some original faces also come along for the ride. But the key factor here is that Drake, while our purported protagonist, really is a bit of a bad-guy at heart. His passion is archaeology and history, but his pockets are empty and as such, passion takes a back-seat to monetary desire and riches, which shines through in the early parts of the game. It's also a fairly telling point that through shady dealings, Drake has found himself shot and precariously hanging from a crashed train atop a cliff in the Himalayas. Thus the game's foundation comes full circle, and you're ready to play the game proper.
A lot of people complained about the first game's plot and dialogue, claiming it was cheesy and derivative, and while I disagree to a point (in that I think that was half the goal in the first place), this time around it's not even remotely close to being like that. There's true deliberation in each and every line of dialogue here, and you get a sense of riffing throughout, as was revealed to us at E3 (where Naughty Dog would let the actors essentially craft their own tone and path for their characters and their dialogue for each major sequence) - it's such an organic process and works well with the game's linear flow. Without compelling characters driving your desire for an endgame situation, you're not going to want to trawl through walled off singular paths.
So Uncharted, in the sense of expanded videogaming, actually isn't at the forefront of next-generation interactivity. It's actually a pretty straight-forward affair of exploration (on said linear level), gun-play and puzzle-solving. Really, this is nothing we haven't seen before in the likes of Tomb Raider, Resident Evil or the like, but what the game does better than anything, is craft a well-paced story told through intermittent cut-scenes and a continuing drive by you. It's like powering through a book, pushing Drake forward is like turning the pages to get to the next big revelation where you read each and every detail slowly and carefully.
This concept is furthered by the game's absolutely top-notch presentation. I challenge anyone to find a more colourful, diverse and richly detailed fully 3D gaming experience. For the most part, the environment is static but there's just enough interaction you can get by, on your speedy run-through (and there are plenty of sections you'll be powering through, believe me), without filling jibbed. Drake and co comment regularly on their surroundings, reminding you to look at key spots, or just take in the stunning view. In fact, on the topic of contextual conversation, Uncharted 2 does a bang-up job keeping things in-line with your actions. Jumping into a sacred pool of water, for example, will force his new female companion, Chloe Frazer, to say "I can't believe you just did that". There are plenty of moments and reactions like this, and they're contextually based on your actions in real-time, breaking up any of the slight monotony that could
be felt about being lead down a strikingly linear path.
With all of that said though, Uncharted 2 is not a perfect game. There are plenty of issues I had with gun-play in the form of predictable enemy AI (eventually they just charge at you), terrible collision detection (seriously, worst head-shot impact counter, ever) and an ever-frustrating cover/silent take-down mechanic. It's all passable, but the bottlenecks in the game come in these moments, and it sucks because the rest of the game just has such an organic flow; it's an odd juxtaposition that serves less a challenge and more as an unwelcome impediment.
Drake himself also suffers in a few key areas. For the most part his animations are solid, but I still feel like I'm skating him around at times - especially when needing to move him slowly. His animation trees also leave a bit to be desired in face of so much else, and when you consider the extensive animation trees found within the likes of Assassin's Creed, a similar game in the sense of movement and climbing, it's a shame Naughty Dog didn't revamp the system fully (in fact it doesn't feel like it's changed much at all). And often, his lack in animations can spoil the big scripted sequences that offer temporary heart-beat-inducing moments (such as walkways suddenly giving out, or poles you're clinging to bending because of his weight).
Still, it's hard to overly fault the game. These are areas that simply need a slight revamp and plenty of polish. they certainly don't ruin the experience, and Drake's fortune (for the player) comes exclusively in the experience as a whole. This is cinematic quality story-telling of the interactive sense, and it works incredibly well. In fact, better than any who have tried previously. But for those who're after a bit more than just an "interactive movie" there's also the option of multiplayer this time around that includes both co-operative (not a part of the full single-player experience) and competitive. Up to 10 people can play online in modes that include Deathmatch, Elimination, Plunder and Chain Reaction, while up to three people can play co-operatively with an extra mode that features ever-growing and more difficult AI enemies called Gold Rush (it's kind of like the currently popular Horde mode, only with an added spin of taking a treasure back to a base point to move to the next round).
There's no denying this is the year's best PS3 game, and it will be a while before it's topped in my opinion. But thankfully, the way in which Naughty Dog have crafted their characters and stories here, I doubt this will be the last we see of Nathan Drake and comrades. Plus, by my count, there's still plenty of treasure out there to be found, and with Indiana Jones clearly raped in the eyes of fans by his creators, we can only look to the future of treasure hunters in Nathan Drake.