Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)

Naughty Dog have quite a history on the PlayStation family of consoles. They started out as developers of the first three Crash Bandicoot 3D platform games on the original PlayStation, as well as a Crash-themed cart racer.

With the introduction of the PS2, Naughty Dog showed that their developers could implement the best game engines in the business. Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy was built using a variant of Lisp, and featured dynamic multithreaded loading of game data and textures. This made it almost unique among PS2 games in having no loading screens–the entire world appeared seamless. By the time of Jak 3, the engine supported progressive scan and widescreen. It had multithreaded rendering as well, which kept the frame rate consistent at the expense of some tearing.

Unfortunately, the best technology doesn’t always mean the best games. Naughty Dog’s technology found its way into Insomniac’s Ratchet and Clank games and Sucker Punch’s Sly Cooper games, and I’d rate both series as generally superior to Jak and Daxter. In particular, Jak II was a low point for Naughty Dog: they tried to take the series in a more gritty and urban direction, and it didn’t really work. The infinitely respawning enemies were annoying and broke my suspended disbelief. Worse, someone on the design team decided that it would be fun to make players avoid randomly generated traffic while trying to travel around completing missions within tight arbitrary time limits. Sorry, but traffic jams are not a fun gameplay mechanic.

Naughty Dog’s first PS3 game was Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. They stuck to their 3D platformer roots, expanding out in the direction of third person shooters, and the result was another technical tour de force. Once again, the game engine used background threads to suck in data on the fly and provide the illusion of a seamless world with no loading screens; and for the first time, a Naughty Dog game featured realistic human characters.

Uncharted was like a Hollywood action adventure. It featured a lot of running around, ducking and diving for cover, grabbing guns and shooting on the move. The combat was interspersed with climbing and jumping, and some light puzzles. The game was well reviewed, though many felt it was somewhat short. It was also disappointingly linear, and only really supported a single play style–leap in, grab the guns conveniently scattered around, and run around causing mayhem.

And so to the inevitable sequel. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves keeps what was good about the first game, fixes what was wrong, and outdoes every other similar game in numerous areas. It fully deserves all the awards and rave reviews it has been receiving.

Like the first Uncharted, Uncharted 2 has no load screens; but this time, some of the environments are huge in scope, occasionally jaw-droppingly so. The draw distance is so large you’re never aware that it isn’t infinite, and only twice did I see any sign of popup or texture loading. (And one of those occasions was during multiplayer when switching cameras, so I’d argue that it doesn’t count.) Even though the plot is basically linear, the game feels open because of the excellent design; the only time I felt boxed in was when I had a traversal puzzle I couldn’t solve.

The graphics are amazing. There are no photographic textures; everything was drawn by artists, but in photorealistic style. Dynamic lighting is used so that game objects can cast shadows. Plants are apparently modeled using a physics engine which allows them to be blown about by ambient weather or passing helicopters.

By offloading most of the graphics pipeline onto the Cell processor SPEs, Naughty Dog freed up the graphics chip to handle dynamic depth of field, generally focused around either key action events (during cut scenes) or whatever your reticule is aimed at (during combat). Depth of field helps to focus your attention on what’s important, getting around the problem of visual clutter that plagues games like Killzone 2. (For an alternate approach, see Team Fortress 2 (part of The Orange Box), where the entire art style is focused on reducing visual clutter.)

The rendering pipeline uses HDR. The game simulates dark adaptation of the human eye–when you walk from a light area into a dark one, it takes a while before your vision adjusts. Fire and water are modeled well, and there is judicious use of motion blur and bloom. The end result of all these technical details is particularly impressive during a sequence that takes place on a moving train–I won’t say any more, in order to avoid spoilers.

The set pieces in Uncharted 2 are integrated into the plot much more cohesively than in the previous game. This is possible because the game engine uses Havok physics for both characters and destructible cover. You can literally aim and fire at enemies while sliding down the sloping floor of a building that’s collapsing into rubble, ducking behind tables for cover and grabbing pieces of wall to slow your fall. While Nathan Drake has many combat moves, the controls are kept simple enough that there’s no frustrating button-sequence-mashing.

While there are a few cut scenes (rendered with the same engine, of course), most of the combat sequences that would be handled as cut scenes in something like Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots are instead scripted battles you control. The end result is like a good Indiana Jones movie–except you’re controlling the protagonist. I didn’t want to stop playing.

Another welcome improvement is that the game allows for multiple strategies. You can run in with guns blazing and hope you can dodge, like the first game; but you can also hang back and be cautious and try to pick enemies off from a distance, or sneak up to them and dispatch them quietly as Solid Snake might. I frequently started out by trying to be stealthy, then switched to diving for cover and shooting once I slipped up. Often things would escalate smoothly into one of the aforementioned set pieces, gradually ramping up the adrenaline rush.

Voice acting is uniformly excellent. Naughty Dog record the voice tracks from the actors while they are taking part in the motion capture process, so the speech fits the action in a way it often doesn’t in other games. The story is less of a cliché than the first game, too, which helped to draw me in.

Overall, I’d say that this is the best action game I’ve ever seen. I hereby forgive Naughty Dog for the controller-throwing frustration of Jak II. Uncharted 2 is a game that ought to sell more than a few PS3s.

Of course, no game is perfect. There were three things that bothered me. The first was the Elena character; she was far too much of a Lara Croft caricature, complete with tiny waist, big breasts and tight clothing. Perhaps it was intended as satire, but it felt like pandering.

The second issue is the believability of Drake’s death-defying antics. In the first game, he actually felt like an everyman, but in the sequel it gets a bit unbelievable at times. I can overlook the magical regeneration of bullet wounds as a necessary game mechanic, but there were at least a couple of moments where he took a scripted fall that would leave any human with a shattered ribcage.

The third issue was specific to Chapter 20 of the story. [Minor spoiler, skip to next paragraph to avoid.] At one point I was trapped in an alleyway by the tank, and from the only places where I could get cover, I couldn’t see the alleyway that I was supposed to run to in order to continue the story. I ended up spending a lot of time looking for ways to climb around or over, getting frustrated. I suspect that adjusting the angle of the alleyways slightly would have avoided the problem.