There's a reason Sony's latest opus, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is garnering so much praise, racking up perfect or near-perfect scores from mainstream and enthusiast media alike: it's truly and righteously excellent.
However, the game is not perfect; it has a few glaring shortcomings that belie the aggregated ovation. One could gloss over or completely defer mention of said flaws in light of what Among Thieves does so exceedingly well, so clearly better that any game before it, but do that and you won't be talking about Uncharted 2 "The Videogame" anymore, you'll be talking about Uncharted 2 "The Experience." In other words, what you've got here is a game that makes you rethink the videogame paradigm itself.
So think of it like this: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is not a videogame. It's 21st century entertainment. And it's perfect.
You play as Nathan Drake, an affable and unflappable treasure hunter who is really, really good at hunting treasure. You play from the 3rd-person perspective, which is characteristic of action adventure titles in the tradition of ye olde Tomb Raider and dozens of knock-offs and one-ups. It offers equal parts level yanking and puzzle solving, wall scrabbling and chasm hopping, and good old fisticuffs and gunfights.
But what's not
cliche about this particular adventure is the high level of polish, the devilishness in the details, the fluidity of character animation, the remarkably realized vistas, the metered delivery, the decisive pacing that feels break-neck only because it's beguilingly unpredictable. You clear one heart-stopping hurdle (figuratively or literally, in some cases) only to be confronted by another heart-stopper, or a three story puzzle piece, or a little segue of banter amongst the banter-happy cast members - you just never know.
As the story goes, Nate's out to find a Grail-ish bauble that Marco Polo neglected to properly document in his otherwise well-documented travels. Touring with a sidekick or two or sometimes solo, the plot is merely a convenience, a series of contrived excuses to travel to exclusively exotic, topographically challenging places around the world. Arriving at each, Nate is invariably confronted by an inordinate number of locked doors or blocked paths that must be circumscribed by way of a) level yanking and b) wall scrabbling.
Of course, towering cliffs and crumbly brickwork can only so much peril make. Enter the requisite megalomaniac with unlimited resources - save for a really, really good treasure hunter to guide him but one he can readily chase (that be you) - plus an army of henchmen just waiting to drop their weapons and ammo after they've been duly pummeled or shot dead, which neatly adds c) fighting and shooting and d) all-of-the-above to Nate's to-do list.
It's grandiose, high flying escapism, utterly absurd, really, but for all the right reasons: like any grand adventure, the getting-there is all the fun...
...when you can see "there," that is. As it happens, for all its ground-breaking game design, its "sweeping epic" sophistication heretofore unseen, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves simply can't shake the sporadically wonky camera work that has plagued games of this ilk since they became a collective ilk some 13 years ago.
Granted, your view of the action is beyond compare for the most part; organic, smooth or dramatic when needed, pulling far back to reveal your puny self on the stone steps of some monstrous monastery or other fabled frontier, sucking in tight when it's just you and your imminent peril to worry about - all fantastic.
In fact, Among Thieves' grasp of the cinematically superb is a wonder to behold - though it's not necessarily peerless, considering the state of the AAA art. Still, by and large, it's like having your own personal Academy Award winning cinematographer along for the ride.
But every once in a while, the dynamic and autonomously selected point of view can break all cinematic illusions by zooming in and fixating on the top of Nate's head, his ear or foot, or some incidental hunk of scenery near his foot that has little to do with the sightline needed to jump or roll out of a jam. It's clearly trying to set up for a money-shot of your next imminent move, or maybe to provide the only nitty-gritty close up available between the rock and the cliff face at hand. But because it's you the user putting Nate in one of a billion of these possible pickles, that the camera can't always competently position itself is no surprise, but it's a glaring frustration nonetheless.
Other times, the perspective will shift just as you're about to make a routine death-defying leap or inconsequential hop, resulting in a sudden misdirect off a broken bridge or flatbed railcar to your teeth-gnashing doom.
Sure, you're offered some (but not complete) control over the perspective, "free look" with the right thumbstick, which is generally intuitive and useful. But when it's most crucial, you can't jump or roll and control the camera at the same time, not unless you grow a second right thumb to hit a button while simultaneously finessing the thumbstick, which most users can't. Instead, you're left to anticipate where the camera might
shift and compensate for it by pre-positioning Nate or your angle on him before hand - if you can spare the heartbeat to do it. Doing this takes the "cinematic opus" out of the game and replaces it with "dress rehearsal." Not always, but more than once.
Uncharted 2 also sports a questionable gameplay mechanic that limits Nate to carrying just one pistol and one assault weapon (rifle, grenade launcher, crossbow, what-have-you) at a time - which is entirely reasonable. Cool, even. But it also requires you to manual pick up a new weapon or just its ammunition (usually left by a dropped henchman, sometimes conveniently sitting on crate) as you pass near it by pressing a button. Woe to ye who runs past two disparate items lying atop each other. More than once, you'll try to scoop up some extra M4 ammo on-the-fly, only to find yourself suddenly armed with a spent shotgun. Whoops. That ammo replenishing isn't an automate affair is perplexing. And aggravating. Oh well.
But here's the thing, aside from the aforementioned cinematic fantastica, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves so far exceeds most other games in terms of dialogue and voice over acting that any and all technical shortcomings are categorically dwarfed.
Though the original Uncharted, Drake's Fortune released a couple of years back, was similarly praised for superior dialogue (and most everything else, save for heartbreaking brevity), Among Thieves just goes for broke with the character exchanges both in real-time and in cut-scene segments that set up the next level of interactive action. Nate mutters to his self-deprecating self like nobody's fool. When he's among friends (or foes, for that matter), they all talk like real people, casual, offhand, bristling, menacing or timorous as required.
And the rapid fire repartee and riposte is almost always within the context of each and every situation, however improbable. Even the few choice swears in play are interjected sparingly, for impact or comic relief more often than not.
So there's that, it's not just Uncharted 2's excellent use of excellent actors that brings the game to life with characters you actually care about and want to have a beer with. No, even the seemingly innocuous economies of foul language stand out, certainly amongst so many other games that embarrass themselves stupid by dropping f-bombs and n-words like so much adolescent blustering pretending at a bent sense of manhood.
All added up, that's probably why Uncharted 2 is enjoying such universal praise. It's not just an excellent (but flawed) game, it's excellent entertainment; a ridiculously high flying - or high climbing - adventure with an uncanny sense of realism provided by sweeping vistas, high definition graphics and wicked-cool animations, but all the more so by delivering characters you actually root for, out loud and with genuine enthusiasm. Well, out loud until everyone else in the room sitting there just for the sake of watching the drama unfold goes "Shhh! I want to hear what they say."