Saturday, October 24, 2009

Praising with Faint Damns: Uncharted 2 Multiplayer

As I hope Tuesday's review made clear, the singe-player mode alone made Uncharted 2 one of the best games that I've ever had the pleasure of playing. The game didn't need a multiplayer mode, and I don't think many fans of the first game expected one. For one thing, Naughty Dog has never been known for crafting competitive games. In the past, they've made very very good games designed for single players. The last game they made with multiplayer was the PS2 racer Jak X. Still, when Naughty Dog announced that Among Thieves would contain a robust online multiplayer feature, I was optimistic. Few companies have as consistently successful a track record as Naughty Dog and I believed their first venture into online multiplayer would work. I was right.

I should make it clear that Uncharted's multiplayer isn't quite as good as its single-player. It's nearly as good, however, and that is high praise indeed. The game features most of the classic shooter game modes, including Deathmatch, variations on Capture the Flag and Zones, and an Elimination mode. In addition, there are a few co-op modes pitting you and your teammates against the same sort of AI opponents you encounter in story mode. And while there are more than enough modes to satisfy, there are a few odd omissions. For one thing, there's no traditional Capture the Flag. The closest equivalent, Plunder, has two teams rushing for one golden idol (the "flag") placed in neutral territory. There's no need to guard your own flag, as you don't have one. I tend to think Plunder is more enjoyable than CTF would have been – CTF works best if there are a lot of players, and Uncharted only supports ten at a time – but some shooter devotees might grumble. Somewhat more irritating is the lack of splitscreen play. I get the impression that even the most talented development team would be hard-pressed to have multiple players running off the same Playstation, so I can't fault the game too much. It's disappointing, but hardly a deal breaker.

Each and every multiplayer map in Uncharted 2 is well-planned, subtly-detailed, and enjoyable to play on. Alas, there are only a very few maps: There are seven "normal" maps and three levels of "story lite" co-op. The multiplayer arenas are every bit as pretty as the single-player levels they derive from, though I was somewhat surprised that there were no maps based off the jungle or museum levels of the single-player mode, as both seem appropriate deathmatch settings. What Uncharted's maps lack in quantity they make up with quality. In most matches you will have opportunities to use all your various Uncharted skills: gun combat, fistfighting, stealth, and platforming. Though Uncharted lacks the vehicles of the Halo or Battlefield games, combat is far more varied than in many other shooters.

Uncharted players don't have character classes like medic or infantry, but there's still room for customization. In all competitive modes, you get to equip two "boosters" that do things like improve your pistol accuracy or let you carry more grenades. Though most of the boosters are useful, none, as far as I've seen, are game-breaking. An "unboostered" novice, if good or lucky enough, can take down an old hand. When you first start playing multiplayer, you don't have access to any boosters – you get them as you gain experience in the game and increase your multiplayer level. Thankfully, many of the best boosters become available at relatively low levels – Uncharted, unlike Killzone 2, is friendly to its new players.

In addition to the money you earn just for playing and making kills, Uncharted gives "medals" and "cash" for accomplishing various feats, such as throwing an enemy off a ledge, killing multiple enemies in short succession, killing someone by blowing up a propane tank, etc. The medals, for the most part, are very well thought-out. In Plunder, for example, the entire team gets points for getting a treasure to the base. It's almost as if Naughty Dog wanted to encourage teamwork! In addition to new boosters, gaining levels allows players to select new multiplayer avatars: If you see someone playing as gag character, Skelzor or the bearded Lt. Draza, you know they're dedicated players.

In addition to the leveling system, Uncharted has a very easy-to-use Party system. If you wish to play multiple matches with the same group of friends, it's very easy. I hardly ever play "alone," as fun as that might be. I'm usually in a group with the co-runner of this blog or with people I know from the Internet. Uncharted 2 does socialization extremely well; though seemingly minor, I think it's one of the best features of the Among Thieves multiplayer package.

As much as I enjoy the competitive aspects of Uncharted 2's multiplayer, I think I prefer co-op. So much of the single-player story of the Uncharted games is about camaraderie and derring-do in the face of uneven odds; co-op brings story mode's ethos to multiplayer. I'm especially fond of survival mode, which pits you against increasingly brutal AI foes, often far more intimidating and clever than they are in story mode. It's tough, certainly, but addictive.

I have nothing but praise for Uncharted 2's single player campaign; my feelings on multiplayer are slightly more mixed. I wish there were a few more levels available – though I imagine the downloadable content due before year's end will rectify this – and I wouldn't mind the addition of a more traditional CTF mode. Still, Uncharted 2's multiplayer has given me some of the most fun I've had all year. On its own, Among Thieves' multiplayer is absolutely brilliant. It only falls short when compared to the main game.

To sum up my two-part review: If you have a PS3, you should buy this game.

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