I call it “the pause”.
I don’t mean the center button on most controllers that halts gameplay. I mean the moment the players gives themselves during play to stop and try to mentally grasp these strange feelings they’re having. Is it joy, satisfaction, scorn, frustration, maybe even love? Depends on the person I think. It can happen soon after the beginning, when players need to let loose that joy of returning to the world of their favorite adventure. Maybe later on, when people need to emotionally catch up after the love interest died a foul, undeserved death. Or then there’s the end, perhaps when most players just need to take a step back and reflect on the spectacle that was “a great game” by their standards.
Uncharted 2 does not assign just one of these moments; you will have them all, and then some.
Although I have been writing about video games for just a few years, I’ve been playing them for two full decades, so I’d like to say I’ve seen quite a bit in my time. In nearly every occasion, one will always find at least “elements” of a game that are done well, be it characters, action, and the like. Rarely, great games come along that are the product of interweaving these elements into a complex compound of gaming talent. These are your Chrono Triggers, your Fallouts or your Monkey Islands. Most will say these are the gems of our time and represent the greatest of video game design, and most of the time it’s hard to argue against them. But then, one day, suddenly and without warning, the gaming community is delivered a game of delicate beauty; an experience that cannot be conveyed in reviews or videos, it must only be played. In the year 2009, this day came garbed in torn sleeves and peppered with jocular humor. It was the return, and the perfection, of Nathan Drake.
Coming off the original Uncharted, Naughty Dog studios knew they had a good game on their hands, but like all first drafts it had a few kinks. The story drooped a bit in the middle and didn’t offer a lot of variety between crawling up tower after tower and taking on yet another squadron of foes, the combat felt sluggish at times and a little awkward to control in the heat of battle against multiple foes, and the ending sequences felt forced and didn’t mesh well with the slow unraveling of story the rest of the game did so expertly. This time around, however, the combat is quick; the set pieces are cleverly various and more exciting than the last; and the story is perhaps the most fluid, natural and satisfying tale I have ever had the privilege of playing.
From the very beginning, Naughty Dog pulls no punches. Nathan Drake is no invincible protagonist here to save the day—in fact he’s bleeding and on the edge of death, quite literally I will add. Drake may not be the right man to save the day, but the dialogue, voice acting (kudos to you Nolan North), and cut scenes all come together to create a character that is not only relatable to, but almost make me believe this Nathan Drake actually exists in real life. His one liners while under pressure aren’t catchy or clever, but their demeanour and execution perfectly convey that sense of “really? are you kidding me?” response that the gamer will feel when that tank comes barreling down the street again.
The combat retains the behind-the-shoulder style from the original title, but has been tightened up in all the right spots. The cover system is easier to manage when taking gunfire, and does not arbitrarily stick out from the setting like before. As I recall, most of the obstacles that saved my life during play were chunks of buildings that fell off while the fight was going on, or existed as large tree trunks from the jungle canopy or the rocky surfaces of the mountainous alps. Aiming is quicker and more liberal with the lock-on schematics this time around, giving the player a little more freedom to be creative with their gunplay. Speaking of creative, Naughty Dog even allowed the use of stealth this time around for the more shadow-minded players out there. In many instances, I had the opportunity to take out a few guards before being spotted which gave me the advantage of setting the battle conditions on my terms, even if I didn’t absolutely need to. Regardless of which path I chose, I was happy to know I had the option.
But among the countless things that Uncharted 2 does so well, it is the story. While the first game had a fascinating story supported by characters who interacted organically and with a zeal I hadn’t experienced before, Uncharted 2 is sheer perfection from start to finish. The arc of the grand scheme unfolds naturally as it starts with a simple thief job and gradually snowballs into an all out war for an object of unspeakable power. Each chapter is separated by key events that deliberately illustrate a truth about Drake we didn’t know before. It’s not always a good one, but it’s necessary to make him a flawed, yet real protagonist that I can care about, and more importantly, that Elena can care about. In between helicopter assaults, tank batteries and derailing trains, you can almost taste the level of understanding and appreciation these two characters have for one another, which doesn’t even happen in most films we see today. These two get each other, and because of that they can work together.
There is a point during the game which stood out as a moment of brilliance to me. Amidst the smoldering chaos of lobbing grenades and exploding environments, there is a small sequence of serenity where you’re allowed to just be Drake for a bit. I didn’t need to roll behind cover at a moment’s notice, I didn’t need to lean forward in my recliner and shut out the world around me to focus on the task at hand. I could just…be…for a time, and catch up on everything that just happened not minutes before. It finally struck me that this was my very own “pause” Naughty Dog was rewarding me with. I could finally lean back in my chair, take a breath, and savor the beautifully rendered mountains in the distance as Drake tried to play Soccer with the town children. As he was busy, I took the time to recognize the moment for what it was—I smiled, gave a silent thanks to all those who helped make this game a masterpiece, and popped my neck a few times before diving back in.
Normally I’m one of the many gamers who awaits the words from on high before taking the financial leap, but in this case I must implore you to ignore this instinct and purchase this game immediately and without delay. No matter how much I rack my brain to think of a proper description for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, there is only one word that fits best: Masterpiece.
See you in the next level,