Thursday, November 29, 2018

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

I spent a lot of time grousing over Uncharted: Drake's Fortune's missteps. I thought the story was lacking, the game wasn't adventurous enough, and that the combat frequently became an uncompromising chore. I considered that perhaps my criticisms were too scathing, but after finishing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, I feel that my grievances were well placed; the second Uncharted outing is everything I wanted from the first. And it is a beeeaaauuuutiful game. Like, good lord.

Almost every aspect of the game has been improved, the most notable of which being the combat and locales. And honestly, those two are really all Uncharted needed; allowing the player to engage in exciting gunplay throughout diverse and gorgeous settings is what makes this game a joy from start to finish. For the most part, Among Thieves does everything in its power to make sure the player is having fun. It offers many short, exploratory breaths between its more action-packed sequences, and whenever one setting starts to drag, the weather will drastically change or the scenery will wipe from a jungle to a ruined Nepali city. Though Uncharted 2 cannot boast about its puzzles (positioning the hands of the statue was the only thing "aha!" worthy), the lack of head-scratchers is permissible because the adventure does its damnedest to stay compelling over the 10 hour journey.

This is because Uncharted 2 realized what it is Nathan Drake excels at. The game starts by thrusting you into a tense, unbelievable train-crash scenario and then slings you through space and time, weaving a tale of heroism tinged by revenge. The plot is... nothing I'd actually write home about—honestly most of the Uncharted narratives blur together into this "isn't adventuring fun?"-sorta haze—but what Among Thieves offers over Drake's Fortune is characters other than Elena to get invested in. Flynn is fun (for the most part—his servile attitude feels contradictory), Chloe is captivating, and Lazarevic proves it's better to be campy than forgettable. I mean seriously, who was the old man in the first game again?

Since the adventure is a decent chunk longer than its predecessor, moments where the player can chill out and absorb their surroundings are more plentiful. The "look for the right path to traverse" sections have a bit more meat to them, breaking up a lot of the monotonous combat that plagued Drake's Fortune. And even when there are long stints of drawn-out combat, you're often inserted into these fantastic open arenas that allow you to be fairly mobile, where you can conquer your enemies with whatever weapons you prefer. Sadly, as the game goes on it relies more on narrow hallway encounters, with the train chapters being among the worst offenders (it sure is a jaw-dropping set piece though).

I think now is a good time to acknowledge that I don't... really... care for Uncharted's combat. I think it's fine: it feels fluid, is rife with cool animations, and is rewarding when you bring your A-game. But when you're suffering death after death due to a hot start (or you're staring one too many times down the barrel of a heavily-armored soldier), the recurring thought that's likely to bubble up is "god damn these guys have a lot of health". And I get that enemy tankiness is a design by necessity—an Uncharted where foes fall in one shot is bound to be disappointingly short—but it doesn't change the fact that I don't look forward to combat due to how much of a grind it can be. When I started the series, I tried my best to go for strategic headshots, but by the end of Uncharted 3 I was just pumping magazine after magazine into the granite chests of my enemies. The gunplay plays well, but isn't immensely gratifying (for me).

I bring this up because a mainstay of Uncharted 2 is its combat. I enjoyed blasting fools and participating in scripted sequences, but wasn't something I actively looked forward to; my heart was captivated by puzzles and alluring locales and secret treasures tucked away—things that reasonably dwindle as the game got closer and closer to its rambunctious climax. Therefore it's kind of weird to look back on Uncharted 2, as I can acknowledge its greatness and technical prowess, but the final taste it leaves me with is a "I'm glad that's over". Not in a Hitman: Codename 47 way where I'm pleading to be released from torment, but in a more subdued, grateful way... like reaching the very cusp of concluding that the game is too long and repetitive for its own good.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is still an impressive title nearly a decade later. It knows first and foremost how to entertain, keeping your eyes and hands delighted throughout its colorful campaign. It's an astonishing improvement over the first in almost every way: mo-cap, scenery, combat, story—you name it. I may not be a big fan of the series, but I can appreciate the level of effort Naughty Dog has poured into building one of gaming's premier action platformers. It's hard not to stand in awe of Among Thieves.

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