Making a game exclusively for a single console is a tricky proposition: it's hard to justify the multimillion-dollar budget required for a truly A-list product while limiting your potential audience to owners of only one of the three major living room consoles. Nevertheless, Microsoft has its well-regarded Halo and Gears of War games, Nintendo has a stable of famous franchises, and Sony has Uncharted (while still holding back on God of War and Gran Turismo for PlayStation 3).
Sony's Saturday matinee-style adventure was an early hit for the PS3, and its sequel has built tremendous buzz over the past year, based on carefully constructed sneak peeks and trailers. We've spent this past weekend playing Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (out October 13) in order to determine if it lives up to the hype.
The game is tremendous fun and the interactive equivalent of a big, over-the-top summer movie. It's an unashamed mix of influences from Indiana Jones to Tomb Raider, with antihero Nathan Drake playing a mix of treasure hunter and art thief. Drake is rakish and good-natured, so you don't really mind that he's essentially a hardened criminal.
This time around, Drake's pursuing ancient treasures plundered by Marco Polo, which should eventually lead to the mythical city of Shambala. Don't expect much more depth than that from the "Da Vinci Code"-like premise; the story and characters run the gamut from cliched to nonsensical, and no one ever seems to have a particularly well-thought-out reason for anything he does. At least the banter between characters and the voice acting is on par with a decent made-for-cable action movie, which may sound like faint praise, but is still a pretty high bar for most video games.
It's to Uncharted 2's credit that the game is such an excellent overall entertainment product despite the lackadaisical storytelling. While it may not break any new ground (unlike, say, Scribblenauts), it's still the purest distillation of globe-trotting action/adventure we've seen in a long time. The incredibly high level of polish on everything from the scenery to the animation to the soundtrack draws the player in, creating a seamless experience that flows easily from set piece to set piece. Put simply: if you're looking for a reason to show off that PlayStation 3 console and massive HDTV, this is it. We'd be hard-pressed to think of a game that simply looks better.
Still, after several hours, a few minor flaws become obvious. The basic game mechanics haven't changed much from the original Uncharted; walk down a mostly linear path for a little while, keeping an eye out for clues or clambering over obstacles, then get involved in a firefight, requiring you to shoot back while crouching behind some crates. In the two years since the original game, the growing use of open-ended environments has made games more realistic; this feels more like a scripted amusement park ride. And many of these firefights go on for far too long, throwing wave after wave of generic foes at you in an effort to pad the running time.
Also, stealth is seemingly a must-have feature for any serious modern action game (and a good idea for a guy in a T-shirt and jeans taking on an army of mercenaries), but it feels arbitrarily employed here--sometimes you're like a ninja, other times you'll get spotted through half a football field of dense foliage.
Despite those caveats, Uncharted 2 still richly deserves its spot on many gamers' must-have lists for the 2009 holiday season. From the brilliantly nail-biting opening sequence, set on a train car dangling over a frozen cliff (no, that's not a spoiler, it's depicted on the game's cover art), it's very hard to put down--something we've been able to say about only a handful of games this year.