The opening sequence of Uncharted 2 sees Nathan Drake wake up to the unlikeliest of scenarios: covered in his own blood, he rouses from unconsciousness to realise that the train carriage he’s sitting in is dangling vertically from a snowy cliff face. How did he get there? And more importantly, how on earth is he going to escape from the clutches of death this time?
The answers to these questions in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves will be delivered in a narrative style not too dissimilar from the TV series Lost: the storyline unfolds initially through the use of flashbacks. And very much like Lost, the narrative is delivered with such impressive production values and polish, the likes of which are typically reserved for high-budget television dramas. The voice acting is simply phenomenal, with the central protagonists being not only extremely likable but also very believable.
It’s set a couple of years after Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune – a game that is now popularly recognised as PlayStation 3’s flagship title. Charting the further misadventures of Drake, an Indiana Jones-esque treasure hunter, Among Thieves sees him seeking out treasure related to the final voyage of the great Marco Polo in 1292. It’s an adventure that will see Drake travel halfway around the world, trading fire with rival treasure-hunting guerillas, solving ancient puzzles in Borneo’s temples, bumping into old associates and, eventually, staring death in the face while hanging from a dangling train carriage in a snowy mountain range.
Like Drake’s Fortune before it, Among Thieves combines elements of third-person shooters and 3D platformers in the vein of the Tomb Raider series. The combat controls are much like Grand Theft Auto IV or Gears of War, with Drake sticking behind cover and popping up to fire a shot or lob a grenade. Drake can carry a rifle (or a larger weapon like, say, an RPG launcher) a side arm and up to four grenades at any one time.
There’s also a fairly clever and cinematic close-quarters combat system. If an enemy is in close range, you can start a close-quarters brawl with a mash of the square button. Your enemy will also start throwing punches, but be on the lookout for a grapple; if your opponent catches one of your punches, tapping the triangle button will perform a counter move, which then leaves them open to a knockout blow with the square button. It’s a simple but very effective combat system, it looks great in action and it’s completely satisfying when you pull it off.
Playing a larger part this time around is stealth gameplay. If Drake can approach an area patrolled by enemies undetected, it’s quite possible for him to take out as many as possible using stealth takedowns before engaging in any kind of firefight. Simply creeping up on an unsuspecting enemy and tapping the square button will perform a one-hit knockout. The stealth element of Among Thieves is a lot more forgiving than the likes of Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid – at times you can walk right up alongside an unaware guard and still perform a stealth takedown on him. Of course, you can disregard this gameplay mechanic altogether if you choose (save for one mandatory stealth section early on in the game), but performing stealth takedowns can make an impending firefight just that little bit easier for you…
Perhaps the most notable inclusion in the game’s mechanics this time around is the emphasis on Assassin’s Creed-style free-running as a means of negotiating the various environments. You’ll scale buildings, massive statues and other tall objects by grappling on to anything that will help you reach your goal. Suddenly, layered street signs and protruding bricks will become ladders, and horizontal flag poles will allow you to propel yourself to otherwise unreachable areas. However, these sections can be pretty linear – there’s typically only one way to negotiate such a section, and it’s not always entirely obvious what the magic object will be that will allow you to start the process. Often it comes down to a bit of trial and error – at worst requiring a dreaded leap of faith – but once you get things in motion and it all starts to unfold, it’s pretty satisfying.
A multiplayer component has been included for the first time with Among Thieves. Unfortunately, I was unable to test it out in this pre-release copy, but a full cooperative campaign is on offer, with up to three players assuming the roles of Drake and his friends and companions Sully and Chloe. This campaign contains teamwork puzzles, firefights and other challenges unique to the multiplayer experience. There’s also a competitive multiplayer component for up to 10 players, which features the typical ‘Deathmatch’ mode (two teams compete for the most kills), ‘Plunder’ (a ‘capture the flag’ mode), ‘Elimination’ (a deathmatch with no respawns) and ‘Chain Reaction’ (a ‘capture the flag’ mode where treasures must be acquired in the correct sequence). Finally, there’s a three-player cooperative mode called ‘Gold Rush’ where the players must haul treasure back to their base while avoiding hostile, AI enemy soldiers. The multiplayer modes are only available online (hence I was unable to test them before release), so bear in mind that the awarded score is for the single-player campaign only.
Among Thieves doesn’t bring much new to the table for action games, with most of its core gameplay mechanics borrowed from other established franchises. However, it executes all of them remarkably well and combines them all to great effect: the free-running of Assassin’s Creed and the combat of Grand Theft Auto IV gel together remarkably well in Uncharted 2. And the icing on the cake is that it’s all tied together with some of the most impressive graphics and storytelling yet seen in gaming. Uncharted 2 is an entertainment experience that’s every bit as compelling as the cinema’s summer blockbusters.