Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

_Among Thieves_ is the best game on PS3. This is about as close to objective fact as you can possibly get in the subjective mess of reviewing. Now that bolt of truth is out of the way, we come to my opinion as to why this is the case. That, after all, is all that’s up for discussion.

_Among Thieves_ is quite simply better than anything that has come before in terms of presentation. From the very start of the game this seems obvious: the game’s tutorial guides you through the mangled train wreckage that you might have seen in the trailer for the game released a few months back at E3. Our hero, Nathan Drake, starts his journey suspended sideways in a train carriage hanging from a cliff-face. The only way to safety is for you to steer him up the wreckage as bits of it fall apart and rocks shower you from above. Visually, it’s nothing short of incredible, as even the simplest of gameplay mechanics are masked by spectacular set pieces. As a result the most tiresome of gaming chores – wading through tutorials for a sequel when you’ve completed the original game – is impressive enough to prevent any hint of frustration.

Once you’ve mastered the controls the game’s narrative follows a series of flashbacks as Drake pieces together how he ended up in his current predicament. Storytelling was one of the real strengths of the first game, with perfect voice-acting and genuinely likeable characters. _Among Thieves_ continues in the same vein, with Drake complaining and reeling off sarcastic comments as each new challenge presents itself.

The new characters, while conforming to the Hollywood rule of ‘British/Russian = Bad’, combine to create a deeper narrative than that of the last instalment. Elena; Drake’s side-kick and love interest from _Drake’s Fortune_, is joined by Chloe; a darker (and thus, English) character with a slightly wayward moral compass and Drake’s significant other throughout _Among Thieves_. Though the ‘love triangle’ plotline is a fairly corny device, and its conclusion in this instance is tidal-wave obvious, it actually plays out really well in _Uncharted 2_.

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I found myself almost caring what happened to the characters, feeling pangs of concern for their safety. While this might demonstrate that I need to get out more, it’s also something that just doesn’t happen in normal games. On top of that, the main enemy Zoran Lazarovich is a genuinely scary piece of work and his moronic (English) sidekick Harry Flynn is so instantly hateable he could be played by Alan Rickman.

While the storyline charges on, it’s lined by the finest sound and music in the business (I’m especially keen on the little noise that congratulates you on a headshot that sounds like a microwave’s just finished). Props also go to Greg Edmonson, who has composed a soundtrack that screamed ‘brilliant Hollywood action movie’ so loud that I waited for his name in the credits to check it wasn’t John Williams. This really is cinematic presentation of a kind hardly seen in videogames but it would count for nothing if the visuals weren’t up to the same standard.

As you’ve probably already guessed, _Among Thieves_ delivers emphatically in this department too. There are so many moments in the game that take your breath away: that opening sequence from earlier sets the standard of visuals higher than anything else on PS3 and that’s a standard that the game never dips below. Not even once.

When you arrive at the Nepalese city level you’ll be instantly taken aback by the attention to detail on show. The city is almost entirely destroyed, but not in a ‘broken windows and walls missing’ way that almost all games can deliver. It’s those minute details that make this game look so special and (I cringe as I type this, but it’s true) so real. The way that water runs away through a bath with shattered taps, the way that a bookshelf leans into you as you climb it, the slight tears in wallpaper, burn marks on road-signs, odd bricks out of place…I really could go on forever, there wasn’t a single thing about it that looked out of place: the textures of the environments in this game are like nothing else.

On top of that, the game delivers this level of detail and believability to a variety of environments. We knew from the first game that Naughty Dog could do jungle settings (it has, after all, been their staple since the original _Crash Bandicoot_) so the polish of the Borneo destination should come as no surprise. What has been a huge leap forward, however, is the execution of the Himalayan section of the game.

Snow has rarely looked good in games, so for it to look so inviting and realistic in Uncharted 2 is particularly impressive: it clumps in and around Drake’s footprints as he staggers through the snow, and sticks to his hair and clothes when he falls over. In general, the weather effects in _Among Thieves_ are nothing short of staggering. If that sounds mundane to you then I dare you not to change your opinion as you play through the latter stages of the game.

This stuff all looks very nice but is somewhat superficial, where _Among Thieves_ really excels is in the marrying together of stunning visuals with set-piece gameplay. Naughty Dog, like the rest of the industry, has had to take heed of the advances made by _Call of Duty 4_ in having the visuals directly impact on the gameplay experience: button-matching events that look great but are boring to play just will not cut it anymore. _Among Thieves_ arguably goes one better, the first level alone contains several set pieces that add to both the presentation and variety of the experience. In essence, this is the real success of _Among Thieves_; it’s not all for show and keeps throwing new visuals and gameplay mechanics at you.

Along with the basic elements of the game, that remain similar to those found in the first _Uncharted_, these set pieces provide the game with a variety which the first game was somewhat lacking in. Each chapter throws something different at you, dictating the pace of _Among Thieves_ by supplementing the main level with bursts of action.

Each seemingly simple task will usually be interrupted by a seemingly insurmountable one; be it running away from a jeep down a narrow alley, taking on a helicopter on skyscraper roofs or (one of my favourites) being trapped inside one of those buildings as the helicopter reduces it to dust – all the while having to deal with the grunts that represent the usual threat.
The beauty of these moments is that they’re never repeated. Naughty Dog has been brave enough to create a perfectly balanced and enjoyable gameplay moment and, rather than tire it out, limit it to thirty seconds of the game. This approach makes for an astonishing diversity between levels; and you just wait for the end of the game when Naughty Dog put their platforming experience to good effect to create what may well be the best gaming set piece ever.

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With gameplay so dictated by set pieces, _Among Thieves_ could come in for criticism for its linearity. Though sandbox games are the fashion these days, complaining about the linearity of this one is like wining and dining the girl of your dreams, only to complain that ending up back at her place didn’t give you enough choice of objectives. _Among Thieves_ has everything in terms of gameplay, you just need to accept that it’s more an impressive ghost-train ride than a simulation of freedom like a _GTA_ or _Infamous_.

It pulls this off through a combination of all the tight elements that made up the original game and a new freedom within its pockets of action. Whereas _Drake’s Fortune_ sometimes felt like trudging through room after room of uniform enemies until you reached a cut scene, the new stealth moves introduced to _Among Thieves_ leave you with a much greater freedom to plan gunfights as best suits you. You’re allowed to cut your stealth teeth in a museum robbery early in the game: a real move away from the jungle combat from before. From this point onwards you can attack from cover, and scuttle away before being seen. In practice, later in the game, you could decide to clear an area without raising the alarm, or to ‘go loud’ and take them all head on: usually some balance of the two pays off, but it’s down to you to work out how.

The platforming has been tweaked to give a greater illusion of freedom too. _Drake’s Fortune_ made it too easy; every handhold might as well have been marked by a neon light so that there was only one clear way to go, and the camera had a nasty habit of revealing them before you’d had the chance to work this out. In the sequel, platforming works in a similar way and, yes, the odd handhold or jump is very obvious.

Progress has been made, however, and those handholds now exist as much more convincing parts of the scenery – it feels more like you’re climbing on a structure that would be the same without you, rather than one that has been designed for you to climb. This, and a camera adjusted to make jumps look as cool as possible rather than as obvious as possible, makes for a much more rewarding platforming game.

On some occasions you’ll have no option but to have Drake make a blind ‘leap-of-faith’ which is always spectacular and very funny when it goes wrong: it’s a much more enjoyable part of the game this time around. The best example of this comes in a truck-chase halfway through the game where, without prompts, you have to work out yourself that the only way forward is to leap from truck to truck. It’s just as well at this point that the check-points are carefully placed because, unless you have the thumbs of a god, you will get killed a few times. But then, that’s the charm of the platform elements of _Among Thieves_: it’s actually possible to get them wrong.

All of these elements combine to make the most varied gaming experience on PS3, and that’s just in terms of the single player. The Among Thieves online multiplayer Beta trial has been up and running for much of the summer, so has been tweaked extensively ready for release. It’s now right up there with the best online multiplayer games around (ok, maybe not quite _Call of Duty 4_). The health regeneration is much less forgiving than in story mode, and with only ten players at a time is slightly less frantic than the single-player’s siege moments.

In terms of multiplayer, however, these changes make for a brilliantly balanced game: kills come quickly and easily without the irritation of being killed as soon as you respawn. The game modes, while generic, work really well and the vertical dimension of maps added by _Among Thieves’_ tight platforming make for an online shooter experience like no other: even _COD4_ doesn’t let you take cover up lampposts.

Personally, I’d have preferred it had this mode not been included; the game goes to such efforts to make you feel like a modern-day Indiana Jones only for that illusion to be destroyed by a Canadian ten-year-old called Clive (true story). While humiliating on a personal level, I still can’t deny that the online multiplayer is great fun, particularly the co-operative missions. Distinct from the game’s main story, the online co-op forces you and two newly-acquainted chums to work together: like the rest of the game, the difficulty balance is just spot-on.

So, where does all that leave us? With the visuals, sound, gameplay, longevity (14 hours, good by current-gen standards) plus that wonderful-yet-embarrassing online mode _Uncharted 2: Among Thieves_ is the best game on PS3 probably in all of those departments and as a whole.
But I couldn’t help but have a dark, pensive moment as I completed the game. Yes, it’s the best game on PS3 and, yes, it’s probably game of the year. Problem is, the year isn’t over. Naughty Dog has shrewdly shied away from competing with _Modern Warfare 2_ this Christmas, and I can’t help but feel gutted for them as there’s every possibility that their claim to greatness may be short-lived.

Bad for them, perhaps, but great for us. If the other big sequels this winter deliver half as emphatically in surpassing the originals then any games fan is in for a very happy Christmas indeed. For the time being though, this is as good as it gets. To own a PS3 without at least trying this game would be a crime, and if you don’t own a PS3 yet then now is the time to beg, steal and borrow to get one. _Among Thieves_ is worth it.


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