I didn't fully appreciate how good Uncharted 2 is until I played Halo 3: ODST. "Naughty Dog" is about right. The studio did, after all, ruin a game I'd been looking forward to all year. Bungie wasn't to know I'd play ODST right after the return of Nathan Drake, of course. But boy, that was a mistake.
How quickly does the familiar pall in the wake of fresh wonder. In Halo's case, how uninspiring the action, how rudimentary the characterisation, how drab it all felt after 11 hours and 21 minutes in Drake's wild world.
Halo 3: ODST's only crime was to be merely good. A good game can be judged on its own merits; a great one by the shadow it casts over others. Which might go some way to explaining ODST's hub world colour scheme.
Assassin's Creed II was the next to suffer. Now, this is a brilliant game and my Most Improved Franchise of 2009. But for the first few hours it was that same nagging, hollow sensation of drabness. The wooden acting, the stilted dialogue - it was all so 'videogame'. And that wasn't good enough anymore.
It's a chemistry thing. There is a palpable emotional connection between Drake and his two love interests, Chloe and Elena. Uncharted 2 isn't the first game to capture vocal and physical acting simultaneously. But compelling performances, a strong script, masterly direction and technical wizardry imbues these digital creations with real human warmth and depth of feeling.
Yes, I know it's just a cheesy Hollywood adventure. But it's also a videogame and in this context chemistry between characters is the shock of the new; the fulfilment of a medium's promise.
Some more context (and spoilers lie ahead, kids): the treatment of sex in Uncharted 2 and Assassin's Creed II. The flirtatious, sexually charged banter between Drake and Chloe feels convincingly real. As she makes her dignified exit in the final scene, quipping, "You're going to miss this arse", it works because you care about the characters. And probably her arse. The same goes for the loved-up teasing between Drake and Elena as the adventure fades to black.
In Assassin's Creed II, sex is reduced to a Quick Time Event. Ubisoft is toying with the nature of interactive entertainment here - explicitly so with the final command for the player to "interact". But holding physical intimacy at arm's length for laughs feels a little adolescent next to Uncharted 2.
Naughty Dog also manages a cinematic feat alien to most of its clunking peers: subtlety. Nothing better illustrates this than the moment the player first catches sight of the monster in the mountains. Having stumbled upon the ravaged corpses of wolves in a cave, Drake and his charmingly unintelligible companion press on. As the player thrusts Drake across a cavern and onto a natural ladder of craggy ledges, the camera zooms out to reveal a snorting, yeti-thing bristling in the foreground, gone in a moment.
It's not hard to imagine a less confident, less able developer introducing the creature with all the stylistic restraint of Michael Bay directing Graham Norton. Instead, Naughty Dog understands the power of understatement, and so a fleeting glimpse that registers just long enough for the player to recoil in shock (well, I certainly did) casts a heady backdrop of fear, suspense and uncertainty to the following playable section of which, at that precise moment, the protagonist is only dimly aware.
It's a standard cinematic device but, crucially, one the interactive experience enriches: as Drake emerges from the cave, full camera control is restored to the player whose first instinct is likely to look around nervously, trying to eyeball the creature somewhere in the dark crevices of the frozen, gusty canyon.
But that's just a flash of artistic self-assurance. Naughty Dog's growing mastery of the medium and the action-adventure genre is most fully expressed, perversely, in the game's least intensive scene. Tom captured the elegance and structural import of the mountain village stage wonderfully in his review, so I won't labour the details.
Revisiting the sequence for this article, I was reminded that while Uncharted 2 is unashamed popcorn entertainment, it is popcorn entertainment that allows the player time to breathe, to reflect, to absorb the most glorious vistas rendered in a videogame.
Amongst the many stats the game tracks is the time Drake spends 'standing still'. At completion, I had stood still for precisely one hour, 22 minutes and 39 seconds. Most of which was spent just looking.
You could argue all of this is just window-dressing. But Uncharted 2 is also an exceptional game, brilliantly conceived and superbly executed. It isn't perfect. It sags a little in the middle during the inner-city sections; some of the pitched battles towards the end are frustratingly imbalanced; its run-and-gun mechanics aren't as refined as, say, Gears of War 2; and it suffers the same curious affliction that also struck BioShock and Batman: Arkham Asylum - Rubbish Final Boss Syndrome.
Yet none of these flaws prevents Naughty Dog's sequel being by a (draw) distance my favourite game of 2009. Above all it reminds me why I continue to play and love videogames, a feeling captured best by a handful of gaming moments down the years: Space Harrier's immortal: "Welcome to the Fantasy Zone! Get Ready!"; the mountainside run in level two of Strider; the first time I made Mario fly in Super Mario World; the freedom of Mario 64.
In Uncharted 2, I felt it climbing to the roof of Hotel Shangri-La and gazing out at the mountains of Nepal. A sense of wonder.
Uncharted 2 is gaming's Avatar moment in 2009. It won't be for James Cameron's straight-to-DVD dialogue that people remember the most expensive movie in history. But as a 3D spectacle, once you've seen it, everything changes. Uncharted 2 is a watershed moment in videogames that redefines what can and should be expected of cinematic interactive entertainment. I have a feeling Nathan Drake will be ruining other games for a while yet.
Check out the Editor's blog to find out more about our Games of 2009.