Game of the decade?
At a time when traditional PlayStation brands have begun moonlighting on Xbox (Tekken, Metal Gear Solid: Rising and FF XIII), it's of the utmost importance that Sony's remaining genuine exclusives be of system-selling quality.
That goes some way to explaining why Uncharted 2, sequel to PS3's first must-have game Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, has been so massively hyped. It got a Eurogamer 10; PSM3 mag gave it a 21/20; and one member of our Facebook Fan Page even labelled it "Game of the Decade". High praise indeed.
Being late to the PS3 party, I overlooked the first Uncharted. So with the sequel out and all that hype swirling ominously, I decided to do what any self-respecting reviewer should: I embarked on an intrepid quest to finish both titles in one epic weekend.
Surprisingly, after 'charting' Drake's Fortune, I found that I wasn't especially looking forward to the follow-up. Despite the visual polish, rollocking Indiana Jones-style story, likable characters and an opening half that blended the best bits of Tomb Raider and Gears of War, Drake's eventual descent into frustrating trial-and-error deaths-aplenty gunplay had left me a little cold.
Thirty minutes into Uncharted 2's considered, gorgeous and at times downright funny stealth-recon opening act, my preconceptions had been shot well and truly in the head. See, Uncharted 2 feels like the first game, but the level design is tighter, the gameplay more diverse, the script wittier, the characters more charismatic, and the deft balance between Lara's leaping and Delta Squad's shooting makes, arguably, for a gaming experience superior to either.
As an adventure-platformer, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is up there with the best of 'em. Progress is linear, but routes are disguised expertly to provide a pleasing sense of achievement, giving the illusion that each environment is an expansive, cohesive locale, rather than an enclosed, purpose-built level.
The locations themselves are also vastly more varied than the original. Yes, there's still mysterious stone ruins and dense tropical jungles, but also MGS4-esque city-wide warzones, icy frozen caverns, snow-topped villages and more besides.
Drake himself is an agile lead. He bounds between handholds, swings across chasms, dangles precariously from road signs, scales crumbling buildings and wangs himself flailing over improbable distances, only to reach out a hand and miraculously stop his downwards momentum dead before ending up so himself. Guiding him is fun, effortless, and added to the level design, achieves the gratifying feeling of that you're solving one huge, kinetic puzzle, not unlike the majestic adventures in Prince Of Persia.
As a shooter, meanwhile, Among Thieves makes many pure run n gunners feel dated. It's not just that the cover system and aiming have been tweaked; nor the expanded weapon set which now includes more sniping options (I LOVED the satisfying scope on the FAL). It isn't even the way you can now hang and shoot, or advance behind a riot shield. Or the enhanced, QTE-style melee combat or softly-softly stealth options. Though these all help add to the sense of experimentation and sandbox fun.
Nope, it's that Uncharted 2 packs this staggering gameplay variety into those levels, with those gameplay devices, and never feels contrived (with the exception of all those weapons lying around conveniently, which does ask that you suspended disbelief somewhat!). It's that the areas you'll visit are rich, diverse and teeming with detail. And it's that the set pieces you'll experience - from fighting an attack chopper on a moving train, to escaping collapsing buildings, to pelting away from a tank - will, just by sheer force of momentum , explosiveness and cinematic scale make your jaw drop. Indiana Jones has nothin' on Nathan Drake.
Did we mention the production values? They're phenomenal; right up there with Killzone 2 and MGS4. But Uncharted 2 has something distinctive - its world is bright, vibrant and begs exploration, inviting you in with neon glows and warm oboe sounds, then switching up the mood with thrashing rain and a sinister sonic edge. The change in pace is just enough to give you a breather before the next beautiful, bombastic set piece, playing on your emotions like the best DJ sets.
And that's just the singleplayer. Uncharted 2 proffers a full multiplayer suite, too. Like Gears, up to ten players can compete here in various objective, team and solo-based matches, or you can get three people together for co-op modes reminiscent of Call Of Duty's Zombies.
Speaking of Call Of Duty, there's also a perks system in place to have you purchasing new abilities and weapons in multiplayer - something which has roots in the singleplayer mode too. Each of the 100 treasures found here provides more money for purchases, which even extends to cool little 'making of' video featurettes.
That's perhaps the biggest success of Uncharted; the way it cross-sells its single and multiplayer modes and keeps you coming back for more. That, and there's barely anything to criticise, aside form the odd graphical glitch, or occasional annoyance with the cover system. Oh, and very, very rarely you may die because a ledge you thought climbable inexplicably wasn't. Moments like that bring you crashing back down to earth with the realisation that, yes, this is still a game. But it's likely to happen but a handful of times across the entire 12 hours, and stands equally as a testament to how polished the rest of Uncharted 2 feels that it would bother you at all.
I may have been wary after finishing the first game, but Naughty Dog's sequel easily put my fears to rest with one of the most powerful, balanced and utterly brilliant system-sellers for any console in the last ten years.
Game of the decade? It's certainly one of 'em. Game of the Year? Quite possibly.
- No other game blends platforming, hand-to-hand combat and gunplay like this.
- An incredible-looking, lavishly-polished, utterly jaw-dropping cinematic action masterclass.
- Multiplayer modes will have you coming back for more.
- Occasional random deaths break the spell sometimes, reminding you that it is a linear game.
- The cover system has its irksome moments.
- It's a shame the Campaign isn't playable in co-op.