Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Drake's Progress: Uncharted 2 Single-Player

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was a wonderful game. It was balanced, well-written, and player-friendly; it had a great story and high replayability. But, after playing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, I never want to touch Drake's Fortune again. Nathan Drake is back and in great form.

Among Thieves' basic gameplay isn't much different from Drake's Fortune's, but the accumulation of small tweaks and changes has made the second game far superior to the first. As Mr. Hollis-Lima mentioned, the combat in the original Uncharted was comparatively basic: Duck, cover, shoot, repeat. It was fun – and later levels did mix it up a little – but it was also the least compelling part of the Uncharted package. Among Thieves has just as many gun fights as its predecessor, but these battles are far more interesting. In Drake's Fortune, strategy often came down to selecting which rock, piece of masonry, or log you would hide behind for the duration of the violence. Enemies always knew where you were – Drake would enter a room and immediately the bullets would begin to fly. In the new game, however, Drake often manages to enter rooms undetected, allowing the player to pick off a few enemies with stealth moves. Though the first Uncharted featured a rudimentary stealth system, I used it maybe three times in the course of the adventure. Here it's vital. Hand-to-hand combat has also been improved, though not quite so dramatically as the stealth.

The improvements to combat don't stem just from the changes in mechanics; equally important are the changes in combat environments. The areas in which Drake fights are now far larger and more sophisticated than they were in Drake's Fortune. In most battles, there are several viable strategies, from stealth to sniping to rushing the foe. In addition to the "normal" scuffles, Uncharted 2 has several wonderful action set pieces. Though the events are quite scripted, the player still has a degree of freedom within the madness of (say) a fight in a collapsing building. Where many developers would put in a cutscene or a QTE (i.e. an exercise in timed button-pressing), Naughty Dog trusts players with full control.

One of the best things about Uncharted 2 is its remarkable attention to detail. In one early mission, for example, Drake has to sneak into a museum without killing anyone. When he attacks a guard from behind, he does one of several special non-lethal attacks that appear for that level only. Later in the same mission, the game forces you to throw a hapless guard off a roof and into the water thirty-odd feet below. I doubt most players will particularly care about the fate of their innocent victim, but someone at Naughty Dog thought about him. If you look down from the roof, you can see the unlucky man swim to safety. There are plenty of similar details in Among Thieves. Several puzzles require the player to flip through Drake's notebook for hints; if you look at earlier pages in the book, you'll find several funny jokes and a few callbacks to the first game, plus Drake's list of past girlfriends.

I don't want to speak too much about the plot of Among Thieves, as the game doesn't deserve to be spoiled. I thought the artifact du jour wasn't quite as interesting as its Fortune counterpart, but that character development was extremely well-done. The first game's plot had Drake fighting mostly Asian or African pirates; in this game there's a bit more ethnic diversity. Most of the villains are (gasp!) white.

More than one Uncharted player has commented on the disconnect between Drake the Everyman and Drake the Videogame Hero. Yes, Drake kills hundreds of trained soldiers in his adventure. This is, after all, a shooter. Yet, somehow, Nate still seems fallible and human. Nolan North's voice acting has a lot to do with this – if a grenade comes towards Drake, he is going to yell or curse, not just coolly evade – but so does the gameplay. You spend a good portion of the game scrambling away from more powerful enemies, including tanks and helicopters. And surviving the game's final fight requires much frantic dodging of a faster and stronger enemy.

I suppose I should talk about graphics. They're gorgeous. All the characters look, if not realistic, then plausible. It's very easy to believe in Drake and Company. Especially impressive is the game's train level, as the jungle, villages, and lakes you so quickly pass by look as good as everything else in the game. I have never before been so impressed with a game's appearance. Most of Drake's Fortune took place in the jungles and ruins of an uninhabited Pacific island, allowing Naughty Dog to showcase their beautiful tree and water effects. Among Thieves doesn't entirely dispense with the wet jungles, but Naughty Dog has new graphical toys to show off. Much of Among Thieves takes place on the heights of cold mountains and the snow effects are incredible. Drake and his companions get believably dusted with snow, the footprints left behind look realistic, and the mountain weather varies from clear skies to whiteouts. Uncharted's world, for all its concessions to jumping and shooting, feels real.

Uncharted 2 took me about twelve hours to beat, but it seems to have excellent replayability. There's a level select (Thank you!) and 100 well-hidden treasures to find. I'm at sixty-six right now and enjoying myself – treasures aren't just scattered about; you have to think like a game designer to find them. In addition to the treasures, you can also change your hero's appearance: If you want to go through the game as Francis Drake's skeleton or one of the female leads, you can do that. Even better, you can give yourself (almost) any weapon you want. If ever you want a minigun, you can have it. I beat Uncharted 2 almost a week ago, but it's still all I want to play.

Were Uncharted 2 "merely" a single-player game, it would remain the best game I've played on the PS3. But Among Thieves is not just a one-person experience, it has an extremely good multiplayer component as well. My multiplayer review arrives Friday.

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