Friday, 1 January 2010

Game Of 2009: Uncharted 2

This was my review of Uncharted 2, for D+PAD Magazine, back in late October. Although that was only just over two months ago, in videogaming terms (and particularly during the cash-hungry Christmas period) two months is like the proverbial week in politics. Since scaling the heights of Tibet with Nathan Drake I've helped save America from an invasion by Russia, re-discovered the brilliance of Sgt.Pepper and, more recently, Rubber Soul, via Beatles: Rock Band, journeyed inside Bowser, reclaimed my GoldenEye 007 crown and been beaten up by my girlfriend for repeatedly throwing her from the levels in New Super Mario Bros Wii. That's not to mention the semblance of a social life - the office parties, Butlins-based music festivals and, er, book clubs - I try and fit in around gaming. I guess the point is that despite the pressures placed on time by videogames, and even after all the other interactive experiences I've had not just since finishing Uncharted 2, but in the last year of what has truly been "gaming's greatest decade" (thanks EDGE), Naughty Dog's sequel was my clear game of 2009. It's a work that is undeniably self-aware and yet so self-assured.

The self-awareness lies in recognising that when videogames talk about pushing narrative, it's not the slow-burn dramatics of, say, No Country For Old Men they have in mind, but the fist-pumping, crowd-pleasing efficiency of the best action movies; after all, it's no coincidence that Naughty Dog repeatedly puts Nathan Drake in a number of literal cliffhangers, in much the same way that, for example, Spielberg slyly acknowledged such popcorn-friendly action staples with the ending of the second Indiana Jones film (which also ended with all the characters hanging from a cliff, although this didn't stop it being rubbish). The self-assurance plays a thankfully larger part, and sees Uncharted 2 frankly revelling in what it means to be a game: the visuals frequently astound, cut-scenes never pull you out of the experience but instead create greater immersion and - most importantly of all - it's just great fun to play. Naughty Dog's achievement may seem modest on paper, but I wouldn't be surprised to find developers still struggling to match Uncharted 2's almost-perfect balance of interactivity and spectacle twelve months from now.

The opening months of every console’s life can be – much like the desolate mountaintop upon which Among Thieves begins – an unwelcoming and barren place. It takes a brave developer to step into the marketplace at this point and buck the vicious cycle that sees consumer uptake dependent on noteworthy games, whilst simultaneously many publishers will wait for an established user base before releasing their triple-A titles. Naughty Dog, back in late 2007, was the first significant outfit to show their hand on Playstation 3 with the excellent Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune – this at a time when the console was still suffering from a very lean early period. Now, with Sony’s machine flourishing, they’re back to claim their justified reward with the game’s much-heralded follow-up.

Anyone doubting whether Uncharted 2 is a worthy sequel, whether it lives up to the sizeable hype, need only play the opening chapter. It’s an astounding beginning for many reasons. Not only does it establish very early on the developer’s mastery of tension, but also highlights the balance between interactivity and incident that they go on to consolidate and refine later in this wonderful game. Ingeniously it’s also a tutorial that doesn’t dress itself up as pre-game training; instead you’re plunged – literally – into the middle of the narrative.

Thinking of those initial minutes now I’m almost feeling a little nostalgic. That may sound strange for a game which is barely a week old, and one that I could be playing again now, but Uncharted 2 is one of those experiences that will resonate strongest the first time you play it. Although certain moments will still be thrilling on repeat viewings, it’s your first play through that will elicit the sharp intakes of breath, the wide-eyed wonder and the disbelieving laughter as you hurtle from one extraordinary juncture to another.

Perhaps even more extraordinary is how far Naughty Dog and the franchise have come in just two years. The first Uncharted was a crowd-pleasing adventure that through its look and feel couldn’t help but evoke certain – at the time more popular- franchises. With that one game however, Naughty Dog transcended them all. More exciting than the Prince Of Persia sequels, better balanced than the recent Tomb Raiders, Drake’s Fortune would’ve been embraced by the PS3 fraternity even if they weren’t so game starved. Many of that debut’s strengths – its lack of pretension, its storytelling techniques – have been heavily built upon and carried over into Among Thieves. But there’s also something else here: a flowering of imagination and technical confidence that the first game barely hinted at.

‘Technical confidence’ is something of an understatement. After all, it wouldn’t be hyperbolic to state that Uncharted 2 is possibly the best-looking game of this generation thus far. It’s visually astonishing, but this achievement in graphics is supported by an attention to detail and countless number of little touches that also add a credibility and history to the world. The parrots that fly from their perch as you approach, the blue flame your torch casts in one particular temple, the entirety of the mountain sequence, a rain-soaked Nepal…really take your time to play through the game, bask in this scenery, and these moments – and there are hundreds like them – will sear themselves into your gaming memory (incidentally, during my first playthrough the game’s statistics recorded the collective time that I had spent standing still at over 2 hours). Oh, and the soundtrack is also great – subtle yet effective.

The premise this time around concerns Nathan’s bid to track what happened to Marco Polo’s fleet upon leaving China in the 13th century – only one of fourteen ships survived the voyage, with Marco never revealing the fate of the missing thirteen (the game itself opens with a quote from Marco Polo, “I did not tell half of what I saw…for I knew that I would not be believed”, which you suspect the makers used as a personal mantra throughout the development process). Supplying the requisite conflict, the Nazi to Drake’s Indy, is Zoran – a Serbian warlord intent on finding the secret for his own nefarious means. On paper it sounds fairly conventional – even Dan Brown-like in its hokeyness – and to a large degree it is. But as with any story, half of the impact lies in the manner of exposition.

In this respect Uncharted 2’s success comes down to something I mentioned earlier, a considered balance between interactivity and incident, and an intelligent understanding of what makes for effective storytelling within videogaming. Not for Naughty Dog the immediately divisive use of pre-rendered cutscenes; everything in Uncharted 2, from the opening scene to the ending uses the same in-game engine. Furthermore, the transitions from cut-scenes to gameplay are, almost without exception, seamless – a practice aided by a camera that will dynamically swoop around and zoom out to give the most dramatic angle when needed. This, coupled with a lack of QTEs and some superb voice work, ensures Uncharted 2 always feels immersive, pulling you from one set-piece to another with all the cohesion of a classic action-film (think Raiders of the Lost Ark and you’d be close), never once breaking the illusion that so much hard work has gone into creating.

You may have already heard wonderful things about these set-pieces – one gaming website even ran a feature on their top five moments the very day Uncharted 2 was released. The problem of course with writing about such a game, whose biggest pull is the promise of thrills beyond anything previously experienced, is the risk of spoilers; I’m loath to go into detail, as much as I want to discuss certain sections and how they compare to and often surpass anything Infinity Ward, Bungie or Epic have crafted in the last few years. Suffice to say Uncharted 2 is a game seemingly designed with one eye on frenzied internet conversations; gamers will be swapping their own personal highlights from now until the inevitable third title (a potential for dialogue ironically undermined by the automatic – and incredibly banal – updates provided by the in-game Twitter link). Even the gunfights are uniformly exciting, allowing enough scope for strategy within each unique location to compensate for their similarity.

This is not to say that Uncharted 2 is one mindless ride, for Naughty Dog has also really paid attention to the idea of momentum. Rather then bludgeoning the gamer into submission with a relentless succession of death-defying feats, a clever use of the narrative structure and some expert pacing help build the experience into one which, to use the comparison again, recalls prime Spielberg. Not only does the opening chapter tease with its promise of perils to come, but the first few locations and objectives then serve as a neat reminder of the earlier game (the jungles of Borneo especially are almost a ‘greatest hits’ of Drake’s Fortune). There are also enough puzzles to punctuate the action, while one entire chapter – without giving too much away – is beautiful in its simplicity and emphasis on pure exploration, like playing a fabled next-generation Zelda.

It is in these areas of game design – the integration of the story, the spectacle of the action – that Naughty Dog has made the biggest strides. Beyond these features lies practically the same game as before, with an identical cover system and controls. There are only a few tweaks; one is the greater frequency of co-op moments that take place between Drake and, depending on the plot point, one of the many partners he works with throughout. These are pre-scripted, so a potential fully-fledged online co-op campaign could be something for a future game. Money earned throughout the game can now also be used to purchase bonus material, from documentary curios and concept art to graphical filters and – best of all – an alternative look for Drake that needs to be seen to be believed (one word: doughnut). It all adds up to a comprehensive single-player package. In this context the initially controversial online features could only ever be a bonus.

Thankfully they too are imbued with the spirit of the main game. Split into competitive and co-operative sections, there are a healthy number of game types within each mode; from the regular deathmatch to the now familiar Horde/Firefight template of battling successive waves of enemies, it’s a successful addition to the main game. In particular it works so well because a lot of thought has clearly gone into the arenas and the ranking system, with a now familiar combination of mini-objectives constantly showering medals and points upon the player. This lends the multiplayer a degree of substance that deflects any criticism of it being considered an after-thought. With consistent post-release support the Uncharted 2 community could well become the PSN’s equivalent of that built up for Gears on Xbox LIVE. Meanwhile, other forthcoming marquee games with seemingly ‘tacked-on’ multiplayer (Bioshock 2, cough cough) would do well to take notes.

If the first Uncharted was an early reassurance that Playstation 3 would one day be home to format-exclusives of genuine quality, then Uncharted 2 deserves – by a mile – to be the machine’s system-seller. In a season which has been dominated by the release of a certain other sequel, Naughty Dog might just have quietly slipped in and stolen the thunder. This will never win awards for originality, and other games this generation have been more audacious, ambitious, and plain louder. But none have left the sweet aftertaste that Among Thieves does; none have left me wishing I had enough time and luxury to jump straight back in and take the entire journey again. It’s destined to enter the annals of gaming’s classics in years to come.

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