Ultraviolent sightseeing with Uncharted 2

19 Oct

I’m likely to come up with some very critical (read: unnecessarily angry) posts in the next few days, so for now here’s one filled with unwavering praise: my experiences with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.

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Let’s get this out of the way first: it’s stupidly good-looking. Many would be content with the photo-realistic facial details or the spot-on animation, but every inch of game has been detailed and polished beyond pretty much anything else out there. It’s small touches – the signs on the sides of buildings don’t repeat themselves, textures aren’t repeated tessellations, snow covers your clothing as you move through it (do a roll and it’ll get on your clothes, but only where your body actually touched the snow as you rolled – how neat is that?) – but they make a significant difference because it demonstrates the level care and attention given to things players might not even notice.I’m playing it through a second time just so I can explore more and savour every drop of detail that’s in this meticulously crafted game. All I need is a camera around my neck and a “I ❤ Nepal” T shirt.

The animation is industry-leading as well. Not since the Half-Life series have characters physically acted with each other in such meaningful ways. Take one set-piece where you haul along an injured comrade with one arm whilst shooting with the other – rather than trot along robotically, your friend slips and recoils, with your character – the funny, likeable Nathan Drake – occasionally hoisting him back up or giving him a reassuring glance.

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Gameplay-wise, there’s little new. It’s a mix of climbing, jumping, shooting and narrowly escaping hundreds of crumbling bridges and platforms. What propels it out of blandness atop a rocket with horns is that it increases the drama tenfold and ups the stakes in every imaginable way. Why just have a gunfight when you can have a gunfight whilst hanging, stranded, on a lamppost covered in bullet-resistant signs? Considering the epic, almost tiring trek through, over and alongside a speeding train filled with baddies, ending in a stupendously loud battle with a helicopter, the first game’s main vehicular sequence – bobbing along in a jet ski, occasionally stopping to pick off pirates from afar – doesn’t even compare. This is a blockbuster game, with Joss Whedon doing the dialogue and Michael Bay as Explosion Consultant. Even the puzzles have a unique physicality to them which challenges agility just as much as logic. The single player story – which is more than long enough – is hands-down one of the best on PS3.

The multiplayer is similar pile of breathless fun, albeit one that makes a few disappointing concessions. It takes a considerable number of connecting shots to kill someone, and if they’re moving (if they are it’s usually only a matter of milliseconds before they find cover), chasing them and taking them down is an overly lengthy process, and lacks the slick but chunky feel of the singleplayer mode. Another thing it changes are the fistfights. In singleplayer they’re a thing to behold – masterfully animated flurries of punches, blocks, counters and counter-counter slow-mo finishing moves. the multiplayer version of the melee attack is a single, slow swing that roots you to the spot, unable to move, abort the action or even alter the direction of the attack. It leads to some embarrassing situations where two foes charge, hit Attack to early, and both attempt to gun-butt each other in the head from six feet away. Of course, if you’re hanging from a  ledge you can still yank people above you to their deaths. This is one of the single most entertaining things to do in U2. They could have made Throwing People Off Ledges 2: Among People Who Throw Other People Off Ledges and I’d have pre-ordered the special edition.

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In spite of these issues, multiplayer is still good enough to show others how it’s done – Metal Gear Online probably wishes it could be this entertaining. The best experience is one which combines both modes of play – Co-op, which gives you either a sizeable standalone objective-based level or an endless arena mode which has you recovering treasure until becoming overwhelmed. It’s worth commending the developers (Playstation veterans Naughty Dog) on putting so much effort into the co-op levels, each having their own cutscences and dialogue from the original cast. It’s a far better alternative to the immersion-murdering co-op modes in other games where the single player campaign is changed slightly so there’s another guy with you the whole time, who magically disappears in cinematics.

Times are, for the PS3, a-changing. The new, low-fat model has rejuvenated the platform, and with games like Uncharted 2 – a stunning, exciting, compelling adventure – it’s set for a bright future.

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