Uncharted 2: Among Thieves begins with a dramatic letdown. Nate Drake, a young treasure-hunting adventurer (sort of Indiana Jones with hair gel), awakens bleeding on a red velvet seat in an old passenger train that is dangling off the edge of a cliff in the Himalayas. Suddenly Drake’s seat falls, taking him with it. Tumbling out of the train car’s back door, Drake manages to grab onto a rail, leaving him hanging above an icy gray abyss. While the train creaks and moans overhead, it’s my job to quickly guide him upwards to safety.
It’s a superb scene. It’s so good that the whole thing is repeated partway through Uncharted 2. Between those two sections, the game flashes back to explain how Drake found himself in pursuit of a legendary treasure that was apparently hidden away by an ancient tribe of extreme rock climbers. During its relatively short duration (10-plus hours), Uncharted 2 tells an unabashedly cinematic story of antique hunting, artifact stealing, romantic double dealing and climbing, climbing, climbing across a large chunk of the ancient world.
Tibet, Turkey, Nepal and Borneo are all on Drake’s itinerary.
While the exotic locales of the first Uncharted game had the look of a theme park, the environments in the sequel have a naturalistic sprawl even as they open into ever more unreal vistas: temples, snowy mountains, hidden cities. When accompanied by Greg Edmonson’s musical score, which progresses from movie theater strings to singing bowls and Tuvan throat singing, Uncharted 2 creates a setting that blends the richest elements of both fact and fantasy.
As though inspired by the dramatic surrounding, the designers have interspersed Drake’s climbs with outsized action sequences. Chief among them is an emotionally exhilarating battle that moves freely from the rooftops to the sides to the insides of a moving train. By the time the game ends, a tank has torn through a Nepalese village, a mountaintop monastery has been toppled by RPGs, and the Uncharted franchise has been set on a course that will probably see Drake ascending many more sequels.
THE GOOD: No matter how visually dazzling they are, climbing puzzles get old. Uncharted 2 tries to break the monotony with a variety of other types of gameplay. While some of it is uninspired videogame fare such as “align the mirrors” and “spell the password” puzzles, the game’s combat is filled with intelligent enemies to shoot at and be shot by. Simple foot soldiers advance recklessly towards me, while better-armed commandos stage their attacks with cunning and coordination, keeping me adjusting my position and generally making myself more vulnerable.
THE BAD: With a story full of double crosses, love triangles and uncertain loyalties, it would have been nice to negotiate my own path, like a sophisticated Chose Your Own Adventure. Instead Uncharted 2 proceeds like a movie where it’s my job to move the protagonist between plot points. I’m in charge of the killing and the climbing, but the only meaningful choices I make for Drake are the guns he gets to hold.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a lavish, adrenaline-fueled fighting and exploration game with the style and setting of a first-class Hollywood blockbuster.
Something tells me I’m in for an arm-arranging puzzle.