The attention of video game fans has fallen upon Modern Warfare 2, a modern combat game which is on its way to selling more than 10 million units during the holiday season.
But those who are fans of awesome hardcore adventure games shouldn’t miss Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which is one of the best games I’ve ever played. It is the prettiest, most entertaining, and most fun game that I’ve played on Sony’s PlayStation 3. In that sense, it could mark a turning point for Sony in the video game console war.
Sony really needs a hit like this. It is in third place, but it has finally brought the PS 3 down to a slimmer size and a more affordable price. And this exclusive PS 3 game helps distinguish the console from the Nintendo Wii and the Xbox 360. If Sony has more hits like this one, it could finally start catching up to its rivals.
Uncharted 2 is an impressive achievement by developer Naughty Dog, considering that I thought the original Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was underwhelming. This game isn’t about originality. It is a male version of the Lara Croft Tomb Raider series, so much so that the first game was nicknamed Dude Raider. And its adventure theme in exotic locations is reminiscent of blockbuster Indiana Jones movies.
The main character, Nathan Drake, is a down-on-his luck type who stumbles back into a world of thieves and mercenaries who lead him onto a journey to find Shambhala, a legendary Himalayan valley that Marco Polo supposedly discovered many centuries ago. Drake is joined by his pal Sully and two fierce fighting women who love him but don’t want to admit it and compete for his attention. The game’s best line is when Drake and his fellow thief Chloe Frazer run into Drake’s former flame, Elena. Chloe says, “I sense some history here.” And Elena deadpans, “I’m Elena, last year’s model.”
It may sound formulaic. But what makes this game stand above the rest — and earned it a Metacritic aggregate review score of 96 out of 100 — is its execution. Before I turned to Modern Warfare 2, I just had to finish playing Uncharted 2 because it was just too fun and immersive to put down, like a page-turning action novel.
It has strong, fun game play and it exploits the graphics horsepower of the PS 3 to the fullest. While Naughty Dog lead designer Richard Lemarchand told us that the original Uncharted used about 30 percent of the PS 3′s processing power with its Cell microprocessor and Nvidia graphics chip, this game exploits probably 90 percent of the capability.
That means that you can see some truly stunning scenes. In one scene atop a tall building in Nepal, you can turn your character’s view and see an entire city in 3-D for miles in any direction, with the beautiful Himalaya mountains as a backdrop. At another point, as you’re escaping through a jungle, you can see a view of the distant beach and shimmering ocean from atop a cliff.
Of course, good scenery is just a starting point. A game, after all, is not a travel video. By comparison, my criticism of Ubisoft’s Avatar the Game is that the rainforest planet imagery looks fantastic, but the game play is weak. By contrast, the weaponry that Drake uses fits the game and it feels good when you aim, shoot and take down enemies. You can run and spray bullets wildly behind you, as you do when you’re trying to flee a jeep that is trying to run you over in a narrow alley.
The art style of the game is artificially vibrant. The colors of the environment are sharper and bright than you would ordinarily see in real life. This effect is so well done that you’ll spend time just marveling at the detailed objects that are part of every colorful scene.
The game has a fascination with heights; many of the puzzles that you have to figure out involve ways to scale big walls or buildings, all the while looking down with dizzying views. The puzzles are not easy, but they are not so difficult that you will give up in frustration, as happens in many games.
You start the game in a very unheroic position. You’re hanging on the edge of a train car which is dangling over the edge of a precipice in the Himalayas. You have to figure out how to climb up the car and scramble to safety before it falls over the edge. After this scene, the game takes you back a few months earlier, when the mercenary-thieves Harry Flynn and Chloe Frazer recruit Drake to hunt down the treasures of Shambhala.
This is where the main character, Nathan Drake, fits in with the way you play the game. He isn’t a superhero martial artist who can run up walls. He wobbles and gasps as he climbs things, and he even jokes in a self-referential way, as if he realizes he’s inside a game, “We always have to climb.” Drake is much more like an ordinary person thrown into breathtaking landscapes and impossible situations where there is no escape. You never know which way he’s going to go. Is he a common thief, or a decent human being? The character changes with the circumstances.
Drake banters with the two heroines in the game, who alternately help or hinder his efforts when he crosses swords with the backstabbing Harry Flynn and the game’s stock madman, Lazarevic. The voice acting of these characters isn’t brilliant, but the cinematics — the canned video-like scenes that are not playable — are extremely well done. The human faces and bodies are remarkably realistic. Naughty Dog includes cinematic sequences that roll on for minutes at a time, far longer than most games. These scenes convey a lot of twists and turns as Drake races against Flynn and Lazarevic to get to Shambhala and its ancient artifacts first.
It’s the action scenes where the game shines. Drake has to alternatively attack, evade, or escape from Lazarevic’s armed thugs. The soldiers are sufficiently well-armed and numerous enough that frontal assaults don’t work. The player has to use stealth, sneaking up on soldiers and snapping their necks. And once combat starts, the firefights are hard to win because the soldiers wear body armor.
The early part of the game takes place in Istanbul, where Flynn and Drake have to break into a museum and steal an artifact without alerting the guards. Then you team up with Sully in the jungles of Borneo, where Flynn’s treachery puts Drake on a collision course with Lazarevic. The lush jungle is spectacular. But the street fighting in the war-torn capital of Nepal is even more riveting. One of the toughest parts is a battle where you have to fight thugs on the ground at the same time that an attack helicopter is destabilizing the building that you’re fighting in. The damn helicopter keeps coming back over and over and it’s quite satisfying when you finally get the chance to take it down.
But one of the most well-executed scenes in video game history is a continuous firefight aboard a moving train, where you have to dispatch enemy soldiers from train car to train car. The physics of the train cars rocking back and forth as they move along the tracks is highly realistic. It makes it hard to aim a gun at the enemies. All the while you have to watch out for bridges and other obstacles that could knock you off the train.
There’s another cool scene in a monastery where you are at the top of a ruined building and you have to shoot down through multiple floors to take all of the enemies out; it’s a like a vertical firefight.
As the game moves on, you run into tougher enemies. Some are heavily armored with SAS shotguns that can take you out at close range. You have to jump from a moving truck onto another one as you fight soldiers.You have to escape a vengeful tank. Fortunately, your weapons get better and better along the way.
There are only a few things wrong with the game. It crashed on me once toward the end. You can sometimes go off the trail of where you’re supposed to be, like when you’re trying to evade the tank. And the facial animations are sometimes imperfect or out of sync. Still, those are small flaws.
The game takes some bizarre twists in the mountains. But one of the most enjoyable parts is a non-combat “Mountaineering” chapter where you have to follow a guide through ice-covered mountain cliffs, jumping from precipice to precipice, always barely making it.
While situations like hanging off the edge of cliffs are predictable, the quality execution of the game play makes those scenes a lot of fun and that is what makes Uncharted 2 such a delight to play. The game is 26 chapters long, but there is never a dull moment in this blockbuster movie, er, game. Even at the very end, there’s a cliffhanger, and you really won’t be able to guess which way things will turn out. I still have a lot of games to play this season. But chances are strong that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves will go head to head in my mind with Modern Warfare 2 for the game of the year.