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