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Unchartier by FullAuto Written on 17th October 2009

Format: PlayStation 3
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release date: October 16th, 2009

What do we have here? Stealth sections, a sultry new female lead, a cockney and a faux-Russian as villains, more weapons, more abilities, a bit of slow motion hand to hand combat...why I do believe it's a sequel! How novel!

Nathan Drake, a charmingly Nathan Fillion-esque protagonist, is busy relaxing in a beach bar when he's approached by cockney twat Flynn, with a proposition and an old flame of Nate's in tow, Chloe. All they have to do is rob this Turkish museum, right, and they can find the location of the Cintamani stone, a massive wish-granting sapphire. Also on the hunt for the stone is Lazarevic, an Eastern European war criminal with a whole army on his side. And what a surprise, the cockney wideboy may not be entirely trustworthy. Oh, and Chloe may not be either. And when Elena, the apple pie blonde journalist turns up, it's two love triangles for the price of one.
Click to enlarge
A train level. The only reliable benchmark of originality.

Suffice to say, the plot is as daft as a fucking brush. It makes little to no sense throughout. Chloe switches sides so quickly and so often she appears to barely know what she's doing. Lazarevic, the stone cold war criminal who is definitely not Russian, happily shoots his own men but not the people who have been thwarting him, despite being given a plethora of chances. Flynn pisses all over a perfectly good plan that is going
swimmingly for hardly any reason at short, don't worry about the plot, it's the norm for the medium. Just be glad that making less sense than a Dan Brown novel is accepted in few places outside of games.

What follows is usually described as a 'romp' through a variety of locales, platforming and shooting away like a good 'un. Museums to rob, jungle camps to attack, tombs to raid (sorry) and artefacts to steal. Uncharted 2 looks lovely, there's no doubting the title's production values.
Environments, enemies, explosions, they all look very nice. One thing that doesn't convince is the animation, and it's not that of the enemies or other characters, but Drake's. Perhaps the physics engine is to blame here as well, but a few of his more acrobatic moves lack the sense of momentum and commitment that characterises the rest of his actions, and if I remember right, these same flaws featured in Uncharted. It's not a big issue, but after seeing them a lot, as I had to, it was irritating. The cut scenes also look good, and the transition between them to gameplay is seamless or very quick, which encourages a feeling of involvement. Something Naughty Dog should be praised for is letting the player actually play most of the best moments of a game. Fighting in a collapsing building, jumping from vehicle to vehicle in a chase, fighting on a collapsing building as it slides down a hill, shooting an enemy off a comrade as you slip towards a cliff edge, you actually play these sections instead of having to just glumly watch them.

Sound-wise? Again, the game excels. The music is perfectly suitable for a game trying to be an action-adventure film, it changes tempo quickly enough to match the action and each piece suits the exotic location the level is set in. John Williams would approve, or quite possibly demand that it should be made louder. The sound effects are very competent, and downright wonderful in the more chaotic set-pieces. Weapon noise must be given a mention, as they all have a distinctive voice, with the almost 80's sci-fi noise of the Beretta being my personal favourite, but the authoritative shotgun booms, .44 Magnum blasts and other bangs do add oomph to the combat.

The voice acting is nothing less than superb. Drake is a reluctant hero at best, indeed the high point of the character so far is in Uncharted, when he refuses to carry on the quest despite Elena's protests. "This is not worth dying over." is a line that would stick in many a gamer's craw, used to devil-may-care shenanigans as we are, and delivered by a sub-par or even average voice actor, we wouldn't be having it. Coming from Nolan North, an undeniably talented chap in the area of voice acting if nowhere else, we not only let it pass without protest, we agree. The same quality is here not only from North, but from the rest of the cast. Delivery and timing are spot on, and are most of the reason the game is genuinely amusing. Claudia Black, who voices Chloe, appears to be doing a British accent 95% of the time, but occasionally wavers into Australian, but keeps it upper class at least. Drake's comments and asides, to himself and others, are a good mix of the humorous, angry and disbelieving and rarely do they stray into the cliched and stupid.

The level design often has continuity in mind, and even in the first level you'll effectively pass through it twice, once at ground level and then across the rooftops, spotting courtyards and gardens you hurried through previously as you jump from gutter to eave. Despite the beautiful vistas on offer from the high points, encompassing jungles, cities, and mountains, the levels are very linear, and the views are just decoration on what is a very narrow playing area. There is the odd pocket of unused space, often where hidden treasures are located (100 to find, gotta catch 'em all, or as many as you can be arsed to before you get bored), but in the main the levels are slender strips of platforming connected to spacious arenas where the combat happens. Platforming and shooting make up most of the gameplay, with the odd insultingly simple puzzle every now and again to frustrate you as you toddle through the obvious solution.

The platforming is kept fresh because your expectations are constantly challenged. Although routes are made very clear by colour coding and an enthusiastic camera that points the way (not to mention the humiliating 'tap up on the d-pad to see where to go' prompt), these routes are often interrupted by a gutter giving way, a rope snapping, a pipe coming loose from its fittings, and dumping Nate somewhere unexpected. By the end of the game, I felt these moments happened a bit too often, but on the journey there, they were enjoyable. Most of the platforming is easy, with only one route, easy backtracking, and the solution often signposted by camera or dialogue. Nate's range of abilities is small enough to be memorable, meaning you always know whether a jump is possible or not. A bit of room to spread your wings is sorely missing here, with strict linearity ruling the roost. Dropping 20 feet to a platform that's part of the route is painless, but dropping 18 feet to a ledge that isn't equals death. There's no real reason behind this, and it's embarrassing when it happens, like when the girlfriend gets drunk and throws up everywhere. Usually she looks good and performs well, but this time she's made a mess and you have to soldier on past it. Rooftops and ledges that should be accessible aren't, with very few areas off the main path, and their existence only justified by the hidden treasures that reside.

The combat is visceral and very enjoyable, with a lot of the weapons from Uncharted making it here, and plenty of new additions. Pistols, shotguns, rifles, grenades and rocket launchers are all here to use and are often mixed together quite freely, giving a bit more choice to the player. Still, too often it's between a dozen cartridges and a shotgun or 150 rounds and an assault rifle, which isn't quite cricket. The weapons are different enough to make experimentation worthwhile, and any favourites, if not omnipresent, will reoccur regularly. Unfortunately, the best weapons are also the most common, rendering experimentation a little bit pointless and totally optional. Hand-to-hand combat has received a bit of beefing up since Uncharted, where it was a bit of an afterthought. Enemies often get in close, and can be grabbed from cover. Strikes are a simple one-button combo, and countering is another button. When countering and finishing an enemy, the good old slo-mo kicks in, presumably to assist you in the former case and to show off in the latter. Just in case you're totally inept, button prompts always pop up for countering. Charming. You'd think performing an action several hundred times would mean that you'd have learned it, but no, Naughty Dog doesn't think so.

Plenty of cover is provided on every battlefield, and enemies are never in short supply. There's a decent variety, from the bog standard riflemen to the armoured shotgunners to the minigun-wielding fat bastards. To say nothing of the unoriginal (and then transformed into idiotic by a plot twist) non-human enemies later on. Grabbing up dropped weapons and ammo is easy and there's never any danger of running out. Going hand-to-hand and using stealth are two tactics that work a little bit, but not really. Most fights are gunfights, plain and simple, and although you may be able to stealthily subdue the odd enemy and stick the nut on one unlucky enough to wander too close, mostly it's a case of shoot, shoot and shoot again. You can take cover behind most things, very few objects have been arbitrarily decreed as not suitable, and the battlefields are large enough for a sense of freedom to manifest. The controls are suited to this largesse, and when precision is necessary, they're not up to it. The game has mastered kinetic combat, and you can spray fire from the hip while charging enemies, then aim and shoot more precisely as you get closer, then engage them in fisticuffs when you've closed in without any finger contortions, but the actions are big, Hollywood leaps and slides, when sometimes all you want to do is hop a little way from a grenade, or slide around a corner.

This is made worse by the camera. Now, usually, it's your average third-person job, hovers behind and above Nate, can be rotated 360 degrees, no real argument with it. Unfortunately, for certain sections, usually platforming, the camera moves to predefined points to show the route, and range of motion is annoyingly limited. Better yet is when it moves to a certain point and then moves along with you, but doesn't move fast enough. In combat, and especially in cover, it has a tendency to close in, so you lose awareness of your flanks and get shot in the earhole. Mention of honour goes to the small twitches it suffers in the higher areas, as it adjusts to show the glorious views, and sends you jumping off a fatal few degrees deviated from where you aimed. Oh, the rage. Oh, the fury.

The two components, although not particularly excellent, are competent, and broken up by the odd vehicle section or large set piece (with platform and shooty bits in). And Uncharted 2 moves along at a cracking pace. It never gets boring, the dialogue is snappy, the action is thick and fast, the surprises (including several shit ones) constant. Naughty Dog have succeeded in creating the video game equivalent of the action-adventure blockbuster film. This is a true triple-A title, and I use that as an accurate description, not as a compliment.

Uncharted 2 is 10-11 hours of fast-paced fun. It's amusing, looks and sounds great, has good dialogue and voice acting, which is a fundamental thing a lot of developers overlook. Every bit of the game is enjoyable. Lots of nice little touches, some minor flaws, nothing really wrong with it.

What it isn't is original, innovative, creative, or challenging. It's as if Naughty Dog looked at Uncharted and said “Right, let's do it again, with feeling.” Uncharted 1.5: Uncharted With Knobs On doesn't sound as good as Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, I suppose, but that's what it is. More enemies, more guns, bigger levels, better graphics and sound, same sort of plot, two love interests instead of one, slightly easier difficulty level, all sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Is this what we want from games? Slick, well-produced blockbusters? Something that gives us a good laugh and an enjoyable ride? Do we not want something more important? Can games be more important? If so, can triple-A titles exist alongside original, innovative 'more important' games? Do we have money in our wallets for both, especially as some factions are keen to up the RRP of big titles?


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