Version tested: PlayStation 3
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is beautiful, and Naughty Dog knows it. About halfway through, the game almost comes to a halt so that Nathan Drake can wander around a village where nobody speaks English and he is unable to run or use any of his small but imaginative range of gymnastic abilities. There is nothing to do but stare at the scenery: children and livestock scurrying across sun-baked mud-tracks crisscrossed by shadows cast from clothes fluttering back and forth on washing lines, the perfect transition of bright daylight to dark interiors, and a spectacular mountain range rising beyond the rooftops in panorama.
The attention to detail is beyond compare. One of the children squirms and blushes with embarrassment when Drake kicks him a football and he holds it to his chest uncertainly; the dark outlines of the clothing on the ground cast by the brilliant sun soften at their extremities, which are devoid of the jagged serration typical of game engines being pushed to their limits; Drake strolls with cautious optimism, as the exceptional voice actor Nolan North throws out a few gentle quips that convey his character's puzzlement without ever seeming contrived or scripted. Ahead of Drake walks Temzin, the hat-wearing sherpa whose dialogue you never understand, but with whom you develop one of the strongest bonds in the game.
The village also answers a question many were asking at the conclusion of 2007's marvellous Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, which lifted so many treasures from its peers - notably its Tomb Raider platforming and Gears of War combat - and fashioned them around Naughty Dog's own wit and matinee storytelling. Was the likeable Sony-exclusive developer, whose Jak & Daxter series had grown to mask its routine objectives behind novel weapons and punchy one-liners, capable of the subtle changes and deft transitions necessary to elevate the series to the same standing as mature action storytellers like Valve and Bungie?
The 90 minutes of action that precede the narrative braking manoeuvre are a game in themselves. Drake and new love interest Chloe Frazer are creeping and skirmishing through a city in the grip of a war between mercenaries fighting for the game's principle bad guy, Zorin Lazarevic, and local resistance. Lazarevic and Drake are both on the trail of the Cintamani Stone, a Buddhist sapphire with mystical properties, and its resting place in the legendary kingdom of Shambhala, otherwise known as Shangri-La. The length of a movie later, Drake is lying in the snow surrounded by a train-wreck, having been double-crossed, disarmed, blown up, demolished in a building, strafed by gunships and reunited with Elena, the heroine of Drake's Fortune, and the third point of the sequel's compelling love triangle.
Drake is broken and exhausted. He needs a lie down. So, more importantly, does the player, and Naughty Dog's answer is my favourite part of Uncharted 2 - a quarter of an hour's respite where you don't really do anything. It's the sort of change of pace that, having brought the game to a superb crescendo, Drake's Fortune would have squandered with a light jog through trees or ruins and a few perfunctory jumping puzzles. Uncharted 2's realisation of the developer's dream - to create the videogame equivalent of a comforting adventure film - is personified not merely by the impressive way the game expands and entangles its discrete mechanics to disrupt your expectations of an action platformer, but predominantly by the sympathetic organisation of high and low tempo set-pieces.
Drake was always a very rounded person, largely thanks to North, whose light touch is always perfectly mapped to the emotional contours of the game's peerless in-engine story sequences, but he is now a much more rounded videogame character. As well as crawling and leaping between foot and handholds, swinging from ropes and bars and moving intuitively between cover points firing pistols, shotguns, rifles and other weapons, he can also fire one-handed while dangling, and employ a range of stealth takedowns, lurking behind walls and hanging from ledges to haul enemies into long drops or immobilise them with choke-holds.
Naughty Dog is shrewd throughout, reducing complex actions to a single button in most cases, explaining the context of each with a little drop of Drake's shoulder, or directing your attention to the way forward with flickering spot-lights or a change of colour. There's almost no need for intrusive signposting, although the game has optional hints that pop up if your movements betray any confusion. The routing is linear but lively, pipes breaking away from their bindings under Drake's weight, which opens up slight detours, while Drake's own movements suggest a man permanently clawing for purchase at the outer reaches of his capabilities, in diametric opposition to their delightful simplicity from your perspective.
While one or more of Chloe, Elena and shifty Englishman Harry Flynn are directly involved in the action for the majority of the game, their presence is so seldom disruptive that the two occasions it crosses the line are as jarring as they are ultimately irrelevant to the whole. The supporting cast also allows for more storytelling throughout rather than simply in cut-scenes, and actresses Claudia Black (Chloe) and Emily Rose (Elena) are as well-cast as North, while the opposition front-men are suitably bad and evil.
There are a few shades of grey on the road to Shambhala, but no more so than in films like Indiana Jones, which are derived from the same 1930s serials that lurk in the Uncharted games' own genetic ancestry. Uncharted 2's subtitle is Among Thieves, a reference to Drake's own conflict over the path he's taken and the universe it commits him to inhabit, but apart from a few swearwords and occasional stabs of PG romance this is a simple tale of heroes and villains that any child could understand. Far from a criticism though, it's further evidence of Naughty Dog's considerable wisdom: wit and mystery perfectly pitched for maximum accessibility.
That mystery, once illuminated by the lost writings of Marco Polo, flares to life through restrained exposition and underpins the game's puzzles, which continue to rely on your reading of Drake's journal. There's less mechanical invention here than in the game's imaginative cross-country train sequence or a final act with a touch of the 1925 Lost World about it, but there's reasonable satisfaction to be had unlocking the entrance to an underground temple by reconfiguring a Buddhist monument, or rotating gigantic tumblers in a sunken ice fortress, and more importantly the circumstances of each brainteaser are infused with the right level of urgency and a convincing sense that only Drake, through his actions and acquisitions, could be in a position to solve challenges of the ancients left in plain sight for so many centuries.
The way Uncharted 2 unites its platform and action sequences is often its greatest strength, escaping the repetitive pattern of discrete alternating sequences in Drake's Fortune - and helping to manoeuvre the action between diverse locations in the process, which was another sticking point two years ago. With that said, more and more of the former creeps back into the game as it moves toward its conclusion, to the point that it's sometimes reliant on North and the Shambhala mystery to carry you past gratuitous fight sequences.
Drake's stealth skills and more complex environments that allow for greater verticality mitigate this somewhat, but by the final showdown there have been a few too many body-armoured shotgun shock-troops, and other aggressive, unyielding adversaries not to brush the smile partly from the player's face at the restoration of a seemingly distant last checkpoint. Combat is engaging and varied, but Drake is still not so fluent a pugilist or gunfighter as some of his contemporaries, and his enemies' intelligent use of cover and flanking manoeuvres comes to feel disproportionate to his own capacity for resistance. There are also a few occasions where the platforming lets you down, often to a bloody pulp hundreds of metres below, despite the feeling you were jumping in the right direction.
It might seem unreasonable to append much significance to minor lapses - in amongst which the game is still capable of moments of great quality, like a dangling assault on snipers in a crumbling monastery - but the smaller the blemish in an otherwise convincing model the greater its significance. Having paid so much attention to the details in every margin of storytelling and technical direction (witness the way snow or mud gradually builds up on Drake's clothing and footwear as he tumbles around), Naughty Dog's decision to increase the volume of the conflict and enclose the noise certainly improves the acoustics of Drake's desperate situation, but feels like a wrong turn from a developer evidently capable of achieving the same effect more subtly.
Where Naughty Dog is on the right track though is in its decision to make multiplayer a significant component. Stocked with derivations on deathmatch and team games like capture-the-flag, king-of-the-hill and domination, the players' unusual agility, a good ranking system with credible perks and a satisfying choice of playlists make it an easy decision to stay on for the next game, and then several more, especially if you settle into a good party coordinating via headset. The decision to match everyone's loadouts and sprinkle marquee weapons around keeps you guessing, and there's lots of personality to each encounter: levels are repurposed and augmented single-player settings and a few have game-changing gimmicks attached, like a tank that rumbles through a village killing indiscriminately. It's also possible to hang from ledges and pull other players over your head as they approach for a quick kill.
There are co-operative levels too, including something in the Horde/Firefight mould, although these arguably suffer from the same issues as the more extreme battles in the single-player, and multi-person tasks like pushing or lifting objects feel a little contrived. Elsewhere, in competitive matches, money earned from kills goes towards rankings, so there's little to be lost by reckless grenade-throwing and knowingly futile melee swipes to down a wounded foe, even at the risk of your own exposure to nearby gunfire. (We'll revisit Uncharted 2 multiplayer for more in-depth impressions later in October.)
Even so, multiplayer may solve the riddle of how a linear action-adventure like Uncharted - filled with exceptional set-pieces but still a few tweaks short of a game like Halo's strategic foundations - can earn a longer stay in the Blu-ray drives of gamers whose mass consumption of Call of Duty suggests a hunger for long-term value. Matchmaking is resilient after two rounds of beta-testing, with good host-migration and apparently decent checks and balances against griefing, and a brilliant Cinema mode that captures and allows you to play back any game - and even upload them to the internet. European critics in particular were sceptical about Uncharted 2 multiplayer, but colour me converted.
Whether or not the multiplayer sticks, however, is arguably a footnote, because at the core of Uncharted 2 is an action-adventure masterpiece whose minor flaws are washed away on a tide of rhythm and spectacle - one that would still be an essential experience even without the option to pull your friends off cliffs and play capture-the-heirloom. For over a dozen pulsating hours, Nathan Drake is among thieves, just as Naughty Dog was when it made the first game by ransacking surrounding genres. By the end of Uncharted 2 though, Drake has found his place in the world, and so has the developer - among giants.
10 / 10