*NOTE #1: While this doesn’t affect the overall outcome of any score, I will catalog a certain aspect of the Uncharted 2 GOTY Edition I’ve acquired: Siege Expansion Pack. There really hasn’t been anything else I recall that’s been added or tweaked to such a degree as when I first remember playing Uncharted 2 back in 2009 and 2010—though, it would be tough for me to remember that anyways.*
*NOTE #2: There are story spoilers in order to talk about certain qualities of the game I liked/disliked—mostly liked. Viewer discretion is advised.*
To say one’s missing out on a very fun romp in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves would be a grave understatement. While I didn't see the first entry bereft of admirable qualities, my stance on Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune seemed to—surprisingly—run sharply athwart panegyrics given to it upon most of the critical and consumer base. In an age when the adventure genre’s most prolific icon, Indiana Jones, nuked the fridge on the silver screen after his latest romp, Naughty Dog stepped up here by providing what their round-two sequels have always accomplished: being bigger, bolder, and better than their precursor.
The story centers around protagonist Nathan Drake on the hunt to discover what happened to Marco Polo’s lost fleet and his rumored discovery of Shambhala once he's informed by Harry Flynn, a former acquaintance who may as well as had “Betrayal” emblazoned on his shirt and Chloe Frazer, another professional treasure hunter who splits time between being a sidekick, a..sort of damsel in distress, and a wild card. As suggested in the title, plans go south in a hurry and Drake sets out with Not Tomb Raider II’s dagger as the key to finding this secret city through some of Not Tomb Raider II’s locales.
Come to think of it, I’m surprised there wasn’t a bathroom cut scene here that gave a wink to the nude Drake exploit everyone was trying to uncover in Drake’s Fortune.
As it’s been no doubt apparent from the unsubtle insinuations above, Among Thieves is not an adventure title keen on breaking any story molds. But how this sequel is able to avoid feeling banal is in its structure. Rather than having a greater focus on one location, Drake’s second outing can feel more akin to someone spinning a globe and then pounding their finger on it to see where their next great adventure may lead.
That enthusiastic storytelling is so perfectly captured by one of the greatest in medias res openings crafted in games. Marrying easygoing platforming and shooting with unremitting tension, it’s one of the most exhilarating tutorials to date. From those first moments on, the game moves at breakneck speed while celebrating the adventure serials it emulates. Jumping between a Turkish museum, tropics, snow-capped mountains, an Eastern city in war, and more, the campaign is intent on hurtling you through a series of adventures and spitting you back out ten hours later.
Another noted improvement would be how well the adventuring remains contextually sensible throughout the course of the story. The main antagonist, Lazarević, may be a bit more generic when it comes to…just about everything, but he and his mercenaries really do complement Drake’s cleverness. Even when his adversaries are days or months ahead on the hunt for this rumored city, using all sorts of contraptions and artillery to destroy everything in their path to find the next clue due to their incompetence, Drake’s focus on the details allows him to just stumble in and use his wit and athleticism to beat them to the chase.
Beyond the great spectacle and exciting adventure, the script itself is much cleverer than it lets on. While there is a sense of recycling that's tough to look past, the expected wry humor and interesting characterizations get a bit more breathing room this time around. On top of just being able to maintain that rip-snorting personality, it’s surprising to catch the subtleties in the dialogue that’s able to acknowledge and subvert some its own tropes. Moments like challenging adventure staples or fourth-wall breaking instances regarding Drake’s actions up to and before the finale, there’s a lot more underneath the hood that’s nice to appreciate in comparison to the more jarring and uninteresting instances in its predecessor.
That same focus on the details is complemented by the character dynamics as well. The returning intrepid reporter Elena Fisher and Chloe obviously have affections for the hero, as expected, but that doesn’t mean it’s reduced to catfights over him. Instead they’re able to contrast each other through in-game interactions or the different stances on what action should be taken next. In an age where it could be considered "progress" in the game industry to just have two woman talking to each other, here we have two with fleshed-out personalties having integral value to the experience. It also goes without saying that Among Thieves has one of the best treatments of a non-English speaking supporting character seen in games to this date. Even though all of these interactions feel authentic, I must admit one hitch with characters I found were some questionable motivations during certain moments in the story.
If there’s one big hitch that bothers me a bit more than some iffy character motivations it’s the finishing chapters and the zany twists that come along with it. I understand that mystical tropes are simply part of these sorts of adventure stories; but here, this kind of annoyance is exacerbated in regards to how long it remains in the story and gameplay than the previous Uncharted. One part in particular made me think of Scooby Doo’s “And I would’ve gotten away with it too…” line during one twist. This isn’t to suggest everything built up before is somehow ruined, and as stated before those twists aren’t as jarring considering the subtler hints emplaced in the story, only that it’s the one aspect that’s toughest to swallow from the whole narrative.
While Drake’s Fortune did have some praise-worthy components, like its cinematic panache and likeable characters, this sequel is simply more apt at embodying that sense of adventure throughout its story. For the characters, there are double-crosses, amazing heroics, and great treachery afoot. For threats, there’s a malicious Serbian mercenary crew armed with guns, tanks, trucks, and helicopters, as well as a mysterious ancient group that has its own seperate allegiance. For modes of transportation, there are jeeps, trains, boats, and more. Eventually, it all starts to feel less like a game and more like a catalog of adventure.
Chalking up all these different locations is only part of the battle in making them feel so realized. Almost every vista is given a great level of artistic detail here, Nepal in particular. A war-ravaged South Asian city during the height of an all-out war looks rather fantastic: entire rooms shelled out, color brimming across the walls of every building, the plethora of temples in a distance. From beginning to end, there’s a different location on screen that makes this world feel so expansive.
As expected with any sequel, the level of production values has also been improved. Drake has an even greater array of animations for each action he performs within the game; some of which are sparsely used. When near a fire, he’ll shield his face. Narrowly escaping death shows his animated debility when trying to walk during the aftermath. The same sort of environmental detail is what propels the action forward. Pipes bend and creak to Drake’s weight, aged mortar cracks, and bridges break in order to keep that incessant pace going smoothly. A few minor quibbles from Drake’s Fortune have also been ironed out. The technical performance across the game seems to keep a greater visual consistency and the grittier in-game character models blend better with the background. Cut scenes once again show punctilious editing work in order to capture nuance in each performance; though I do have to ask whose idea it was to make characters’ eyes looks so weepy in cinematics.
Audio design overall gets a slight improvement. Embodying a less-typical setting from the tropics in the previous title, composer Greg Edmonson (known for his work on Firefly) is able to utilize a wealth of different insturments and cadences that feel appropriate to the Eastern cultures shown throughout the campaign. In some ways, Edmonson outdid himself by showing the same dedication and tenacity the developers did while crafting this sequel. Along with the original ragtag crew stepping in and doing a great job, newcomers like Claudia Black as Frazer and Graham McTavish as Lazarević deliver excellent performances. Even when the plot developments are at their most typical, the delivery is consistently nailed. Aside from a couple of minor audio bugs, the technical design is quite impressive once again. There’s a wider variety of weapons this time around and most, but not all, have that proper punch.
One of the biggest downfalls within Drake’s Fortune was the unrefined nature of its panoply of different mechanics and lacking a core that didn’t feel as though it had a different identity. Here, though, “variety is the spice of life” is the motto that’s more attributable this time around because the meticulousness of the design feels nuanced in a way that makes it feel like a focused collective.
As previous, the two central tenets are platforming and combat with a small percentage dedicated to puzzle solving. Certain sundries have been kyboshed this time such as the vehicular nonsense, out-of-nowhere quick-time events, and the only motion control option tied to grenade throwing, which is turned off by default (hooray!). Paring down on the filler moments in gameplay seemed like the best way to guarantee a greater focus on the other mechanics.
For all of Drake’s witticisms and everyman affability, the majority of his time will be spent shooting someone. Fortunately, the bouts of shooting action feels more responsive and are bolstered by much greater, more natural measures of verticality within most fights. Enemy encounters can still sometimes follow that wave mentality and they’re still good at absorbing bullets, but the improved balance for weapons and believability of them covered mostly in body armor makes those complaints only noticeable when at their most frantic, or that one mini-boss on the train sequence which seemed like such a stupid way to finish that segment. The same level of solid enemy AI tactics are here only varied more with enemies equipped with riot shields and those carrying handheld turrets. There are two problems that stuck out to me during shooting. One is the gunplay’s biggest weakness during close quarters combat, with the cover system acting unreliably at times. The other is a nuisance that’s just one factor spoiling the disappointing final act. A particular weapon found often during the end only acts as a single-shot when Drake equips it yet acts as burst-fire for a certain batch of enemies when they’re using it, even if you pick up that same weapon said enemy was just using. And given how powerful one shot is already, it’s a terrible design decision to give such a distinct advantage to these different enemies that can already withstand an infuriating amount of bullets.
Whenever tired of just shooting at hordes of enemies, Drake also has environmental hazards and hand-to-hand combat as other means of evening the odds. Throughout many of the better-designed combat arenas, designers were very mindful to keep propane tanks scattered about to act as an auxiliary grenade option. Same concept as grenades too: just pick one up (which reduces movement speed) and toggle the L2 button to view and manipulate the throwing arc. Fisticuffs have mostly kept the same amount of non-complexity in favor of flair, but the subtleties in the design make it more enjoyable. Rather than stupid combo nonsense when pounding the square button is all the players would probably do anyways, it understands that while also enabling an opportunity for enemies to throw a punch that can be countered. Overall, it’s simply a much more fluid complement this time around.
Given more spotlight this time, stealth gameplay comes into focus as a means to thin the ranks and find a good vantage point. While DF’s use of the mechanic was so pointless due to rudimentary AI that could spot anything, it’s more useful here…but with the rudimentary AI still present. The hand-holding nature becomes apparent during a dedicated stealth mission early on that shows just how easy it is to exploit the idiocy of security guards. Even when used towards the end, it’s annoying to feel fooled into thinking certain sections can be cleared out stealthily when there’s either an invisible wall or artificial enemy placement that forces you into combat.
Aside from a greater amount of animations and a lot of diversified background detail being taken in, platforming has remained mostly unchanged. A key problem with the platforming previously was the visuals being so detailed as to fool players between background text and actual scalable objects. Here, that’s not often the case due to a greater understanding of subtle changes in camera angles and a varied color palette indicating which way to go. It may still be straightforward, but having those kinds of subtleties made it so much easier to become rapt in the awesome sights Among Thieves places you in—which is something that struck me even more having noticed later releases like Enslaved and Remember Me’s more counterintuitive systems.
Puzzles are the one aspect I find slightly worse here. Aside from a visually splendid set of temple puzzles, the rest came off as artificial filler in comparison. Admittedly, it’s never been a great sense of accomplishment to complete when the answers are found within a journal; at least in DF they all felt natural.
Most annoyances in design present are still aggravatingly tied back to the first title, in one way or another. Whether it’s the stealth changing from pointless to now morphing into artificial and laughably rudimentary to the final chapters that contain another disappointing boss fight and bothersome enemies, it’s a shame to see those and other shooting quirks making a return here.
Even with a more improved experience with the core aspects of Uncharted’s gameplay, it’s fair to question how that somehow also gives Among Thieves a gameplay characteristic all its own when Drake's Fortune didn't quite reach that. Despite these multitudinous mechanics not being the best and brightest on their own, the magic comes into play with an added sense of dynamism to these different scenarios. There’s always some form of variation to combative scenarios that makes it so exciting: mixing in platforming and shooting while hanging from a billboard, fighting enemies while leaping from one vehicle to another, and more. Even some of the most generic bosses, helicopters and tanks, are the most exciting encounters here because of how they change the mold. These aren’t skirmishes against vehicles with visible health bars and repeated move sets; they’re meant to act as a moving part WITHIN the level that encourages you to press forward.
Value is another area in which Uncharted has improved. While the first one was able to present a fair number of secondary doodads for players to accomplish, the replay value of the campaign itself was low to moderate when it was all said and done. And though it’s annoying to see certain areas of criticism repeated in some fashion here, this meatier campaign really does have exhilarating moments I would’ve hated to have missed. On top of that, there’s a good wealth of cooperative and competitive multiplayer content—which I treat as more of a great supplement instead of a necessary component.
For the sake of reiterating campaign replayability, there’s the standard assortment of trophies dedicated to kills and discovering treasures. These scattered treasures are that completionist filler but they’re also tied to an in-game reward system that enables you to unlock cheats, skins, bonus videos, and more. Plus, an appreciated improvement over the original Uncharted in this regard is the number of hidden collectibles found on said chapter is now detailed in the level select option.
For Naughty Dog’s first foray into the online multiplayer shooter gallery they’ve certainly surprised with the included suite of options and solid presentation.
The cooperative side fares moderately well with two key components: Objective and Survival. Co-op Objective repurposes a few single-player levels with a different background story for you and two other players. If there’s a sterling compliment to bestow it’s that the challenge is nail-biting, regardless of difficulty setting. Easy or Hard, these missions are structured to make a team spend about twenty to thirty minutes between them. It’s also a nice trinket for these repurposed co-op campaigns to have short cinematics between completed objectives. Unfortunately, there are two aspects that put a damper on one of my favorite MP aspects: lack of raw content and balancing for a different number of players. There are only three unique levels here. And though the maximum three players puts up an appropriate challenge, two players going through—which matchmaking seemed ready to put me through sometimes—get a half-baked sort of “scaling” that just reduces the difficulty to Easy. May not seem too bad, but the execution doesn’t legitimately compliment a two-player play-style which feels unfairly difficult to complete.
Co-op Survival is Uncharted’s reinterpretation of Horde Mode, where up to three players face 10 waves of enemies that continually get stronger. Even with the verticality and good challenge in mind, it’ll definitely feel like the most recycled aspect of co-op. There’s also an objective variant where players have to carry treasure to a chest in order to move on to the next wave. Though not part of the ‘vanilla’ version, Siege Expansion Pack offers a different co-operative mode and two new multiplayer maps. Here, a trio of adventurers is tasked with defending a marked terrority against relentless waves of enemies. The twist being that each captured territory results in a stronger wave coming immediately after, making movement to the next location all the more challenging. Siege is a fast and fierce mode that adds dastardly risks like a score multiplier. That small wrinkle adds an interesting element to an inherently teamwork-oriented mode that glues together bravado of coming in first with the necessity of remaining on the defensive to complete all ten waves.
The competitive side of Among Thieves is the most consistent in quality and quantity. The game mode staples such as team deathmatch and objective-based variants are here, plentiful, and tied to a rather solid network code. From someone who’s started from the beta to the most recent version (1.09.078), the fun of ledge-grabbing, running-‘n-gunning, and more didn’t deal with too many technical problems. The non-DLC map count totals at eight with most being refashioned single-player levels. Perhaps some may find that to be a borderline conservative number, but the “quality over quantity” excuse holds water here when you’re seeing all the ins and outs of most map designs. Admittedly though, I did come away feeling the maps ‘The Train Wreck’ and ‘The Temple’ were throwaways.
What ties the competitive and cooperative modes so well together is the compelling ranking system. Sharing a conceptual design with the campaign extras, money is accumulated after each mission that can be spent between different characters skins between heroes or villains, permanent co-op weapon upgrades, taunts, and Uncharted’s version of perks known as “boosters.” Since the ranking system also configures your overall rank to the equation of what CAN be purchased, there’s an interesting persistent dynamic at play that makes leveling consistently enjoyable.
Say what you will about Among Thieves slouching a bit in its best cooperative option or a lack of something beyond the replicated campaign gameplay to completely call its own, this is a team known for pushing the technical aspirations of what’s come before. From other elements like dynamic events in levels, cinema mode, to everything else stated above, it’s a culmination of the last several years of good multiplayer design rolled into a technically proficient package.
In the end, Among Thieves is simply a sequel that sets out to be more respectable of the consumer’s money, more diligent in utilizing its varied game design, and more skillful in its storytelling. It’s unfortunate that, despite what’s been stated, it does bear a number of past sins that set its design back from the height of the production values. Nevertheless, this is still an immensely enjoyable rollercoaster ride that’s all the more memorable with rarities like flavorful writing and great pacing. It only means to entertain. And it does a better job this time around.
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