Smashing through the Uncharted series is too easy. They are addictive. I have to get to the next chapter, I have to find out what happens next, I need to solve the next puzzle. I have to find all the treasure. I think I have a problem.
Following up the underrated Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (calling an Uncharted game underrated is bold, I know, but as there are now think pieces on why you shouldn’t re-play Drake’s Fortune, I’m inclined to call it underrated,) I had few expectations on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Again, I have played Among Thieves upon its release but my memory is hazy. The checklist of what I wanted from the sequel was short, and easy for Naughty Dog to fulfil. I wanted a better aiming system, better pacing, more varied levels, bigger levels, and better puzzles.
Unfortunately, the sequel doesn’t follow through on any of that. The puzzles are just as basic as those in Drake’s Fortune, and the levels are still narrow hallways with little to no interaction with the environment. The gameplay has not changed one iota. Well, there is one new game mode in an attempt to add variety; stealth. The attempt fails miserably due to the dodgy enemy AI, who would catch you even when their backs were turned, or you could be standing face to face with them and they wouldn’t have a clue. When the levels are designed specifically for stealth, it’s really frustrating when I can’t play it the way it’s intended and end up shooting my way through, just like every other level. It needs a lot of work.
Instead of creating more varied levels, Naughty Dog have focused on giving us even more cinematic set pieces, another rich story, and more lovable characters. We’ve been given more of what we love instead of getting new level designs or improved gameplay mechanics. But that ain’t exactly bad thing. The set pieces in Among Thieves massively out-do those of Drake’s Fortune. They are adrenaline fuelled Spielbergian fever dreams; from jumping between enemy trucks on the cliff edges of Nepal, to leaping between Nepal rooftops, to the unanimous favourite; the train level.
Riding on a train that has several dozen cars, Drake must progress from the last train car, all the way to the first, all the while being shot at, getting in tanks, and dodging train track posts and traffic lights. It’s an exhilarating piece of gaming and I caught myself staring at the environment the train speeds passed, I wanted to catch Naughty Dog out and see the environment repeat itself, y’know, like in cartoons when the same three building repeat over and over, but it never does! Not once. However, even this level is lifter from Tomb Raider 4. It’s ironic that the game is titled Among Thieves as most of the game’s mechanics are “lifted” from Tomb Raider.
The train is subject to being a giant set piece in more than two different chapters. The game opens with a flash forward after the train has crashed, and Drake must climb the ruins. Drake is wounded, so his actions are slow. This narrative device has rewarded Uncharted with dozens of accolades. I’m just gonna say it now, the whole train set piece at the beginning is overrated. It’s such a patience testing, transparent excuse for an inciting incident and it would have been just as exciting if the game began with Chapter 2. To make it worse you have to replay the same slow chapter halfway through the game.
It’s strange that in this sequel, way more than in Drake’s Fortune, the AI gets in the way so much. When I’m trying to cover behind a wall, goddamned Elena or Sully will cover there before me. It happens so much. Speaking of AI, the enemy AI models are all the same. I don’t understand why they don’t just design some pirates with different clothes and hair. How hard is that?
Enemy AI is a serious issue; those gorilla-type monsters running wild are obnoxiously difficult. They are impossible to kill as you run around, trying not to die and not having a clue what to do until you’re lucky to survive long enough to trigger a cut scene that gets you the hell out of there. These monsters pop up two or three times, every time being more annoying than the last, as you awkwardly roll around trying to avoid them. The same goes for the guardians of Shambhala because you can cover behind a rock all you like, but they’re just gonna jump down and over power you. There is no skill or puzzle-solving to it.
One criticism I had in my review of Drake’s Fortune was the plain and lifeless climbing, but this time Naughty Dog have improved the climbing environments fantastically. Climbing up the giant cogs in Tibet was one of the highlights. Naughty Dog managed to make climbing inventive and exciting again. And they’ve done a better job with treasure, where in the last game they were just in dark corners, Among Thieves, hides treasure off of secret climbing paths.
Thank god there was nothing that scared me this time around. The final boss level was fantastic, so much fun. So much better than the hit square to punch quick time event. My memory served me wrong though, I swear when I played it 10 years ago, the bad guy turned in to huge blue guy. But I guess not. The adrenaline, the anxiety.
There’s no such thing as a perfect game, and as gameplay and mechanics keep developing, there never will be, but at the time, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was as close to a perfect game that I had ever played, and it’s beyond impressive that it holds up almost two platform generations later. Discovering Shambhala is one of the more satisfying gaming moments in the PS3’s generation, the new characters are great, the story is great. Naughty Dog really built a rich world with the Uncharted series Among Thieves.