Uncharted 2 Retro Review: Spectacular Moments Hampered By Pacing Issues

A lot of Sony fanboys will swear that the 2009 outing, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, is the greatest game ever made. No foul thing could ever be said about this game throughout seventh gen, and even to this day many claim it’s the greatest game of seventh generation. Let’s be honest, it’s a good game for what it is but it’s not as great as fanboys would lead you on to believe. The graphics still hold up decently enough to be a seventh-gen outing, and the story is filled with a lot of twists and turns, backstabs and very few surprises, but overall it’s the video game equivalent of an IMDB-rated 6/10 Hollywood blockbuster film.

Pros:
-60fps on PS4
-Smooth handling
-Fun gunplay
-Improved melee
-Great set-pieces
-Awesome train stage
-Chloe was still sexy
-Top-notch voice acting

Neutral:
• Graphics
• Decent AI

Cons:
-Pacing issues after the train level
-No operable vehicle segments
-Shambala is tedious to play through
-Final boss fight can be frustrating and annoying

Uncharted 2 - Train Wreck

Best Train Wreck Ever

Straight off the bat, I can say that the game climaxes right at the middle of the game with the whole multi-part train sequence. It’s obviously where Naughty Spent the most time, dedication, and love given how well structured it is and how technically intense it is.

The problem is that once the game does the opposite of the original Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, by front-loading a lot of the big moments in the beginning and middle, leaving the last third of the game feeling mostly forgettable and annoying.

If Uncharted 2 was a line on a graph, the middle would be the apex where the line peaks.

However, even in spite of the pacing issues, the foundation of the gameplay is so solid and well-structured that some lenience can be had toward the way the levels are structured in the second half of the game.

The first half starts with a bang, with intrepid protagonist Nathan Drake bleeding in the seat of a wrecked train hanging off a cliff.

The camerawork, the setup and Nolan North’s voice acting are all pitch perfect and on-point here.

Uncharted 2 - Shadow Pass

Gamers are forced to climb up the wrecked train and battle against some enemies before a flashback commences and we see how Nate ended up in that mess to begin with.

Here the game slows down, literally, as you’re forced through a lengthy stealth segment with an old friend of Nate’s known as Harry Flynn. This also works as a secondary tutorial to help familiarize players with the controls and mechanics before thrusting them back into the hot and heavy moments of the game.

By the end of the level things go awry and Nate ends up captured and in jail for three months. He’s eventually freed by his old mentor, Victor Sullivan, and his on-again-off-again tryst, Chloe Frazer.

The trio are then roped into a race to acquire artifacts that will lead them to the hidden city of Shangri-La. All the meanwhile a villainous mercenary by the name of Lazarević is also in search of Shangri-La in order to attain immortality.

Uncharted 2 - Lazaravic

Exotic Locales

The game mostly centers around the infrequent encounters that Nate and Lazarević’s men have on their way to the ancient city, globe-trekking across exotic locations that culminates in a big battle throughout the mountains of Tibet.

Uncharted 2’s story is solid enough for what it is. It’s not groundbreaking stuff and it didn’t need to be. There are a lot of happenstance moments to help either fuel the narrative or reintroduce players to franchise regulars like Elena Fisher.

Some people might roll their eyes at the constant encounters Nate and the band have with Lazarević while always managing to get free, but it’s the sort of suspension of disbelief most fans of James Bond films have come to expect. But when it comes to movies, the only two major times I can think of where this particular trope was unsuspectingly subverted happened in Kingsman and 15 Minutes.

But otherwise, the story is stapled together to give Naughty Dog reasons to have Nate and friends traveling from Borneo to Istanbul to Nepal to Tibet, with plenty of eye-catching set-pieces and rarely-explored backdrops to visually consume.

Uncharted 2 - Temple Formation

It’s a real shame that outside of Naughty Dog there are very few development studios willing to have players venturing to places we don’t often see explored in games. Certainly, though, sixth and seventh gen were a lot more accommodating of stepping outside the box than the painfully generic fanfare we’ve received throughout eighth-gen gaming. But I digress.

Throughout each of the levels you’ll face off against Lazarević’s men using a variety of weapons. Unlike Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Naughty Dog offers a wider arsenal on the smorgasbord of violence early on in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.

They also learned their lesson from the first game by avoiding sticking Nate and Sully in an endless loop of boring jungle levels, and quickly move them out of such areas fairly quickly.

Now here, I have no complaints. The first half of the game is paced really well as it ramps up and moves the heroes from one location to the next after a few shootouts and maybe a platforming puzzle here or there.

Uncharted 2 - Jeep Chase

By the time you reach the city in Nepal things are rocking and rolling and aren’t slowing down one bit.

The entire Nepalese firefight involving rebels and Lazarević’s men is a real thrill-ride. You’ll have a bevy of different weapons to choose from ranging from a couple of different assault rifles, shotguns, pistols and even grenade launchers.

This segment of the game was always a standout for me because it captured this war-torn grit but never devolved into a scenario steeped in war-trauma. That’s a really difficult thing to pull off while keeping players both entertained and engaged.

The one standout moment in Nepal is while Nate and Chloe are venturing toward an old temple they’re waylaid by one of Lazarević’s attack helicopters and it begins laying waste to a building while Nate is fighting with the mercenaries – this involves players bouncing between fisticuffs and shooting at the mercenaries while the entire building is collapsing, forcing Nate to run and jump to the next building before being crushed.

I don’t know how Naughty Dog did it, but this was one of the most impressively constructed scenes in the game, because there’s a lot of physical entities moving around, glass shattering, explosions going off, and the fact the entire stage is tilting, forcing the physics to alter – all of this taking place while players still have full control of Nate as he’s fighting and shooting with the enemy.

I don’t even know how they managed to pull this off on the PS3 without crashing the system.

After the showdown with the copters, things slow down quite a bit as there’s a lengthy temple-puzzle sequence followed by some trekking through a trap-filled catacomb, and then another series of lengthy puzzle sequences.

I can understand why they gave players a breather during this section because following that there’s an intense on-foot chase through the city, which then leads directly into the legendary train level.

Uncharted 2 - Getaway Car

Perfection… Up To A Point

I can’t say I had any noteworthy complaints up to this point.

However, after the train scene is where I felt the game’s pacing completely fell apart. It was almost as if they didn’t know what they really wanted to do with the game after this point, and you spend hours from here on doing some Tomb Raider-style platforming and exploration through the mountains, which involves a few more lengthy puzzle segments. The problem here is that the only notable action sequences involves a boss battles with some “monsters”.

I understand they had to bring players down from the train’s high, but the whole mountain trekking was really long and boring. And then afterward it was rendered kind of pointless.

Things pick back up with the village attack, which was intense and pretty cool, but part of the problem is that if you don’t do it the way they scripted out the attack sequence then you’ll keep dying over and over again until you play through the segment the way they plotted.

If you veer too far off the path or don’t kill the mercenaries in the right order you’ll be picked off pretty quickly either by the tank or specially placed snipers.

It’s still cool but very linear in the way it plays out, despite the somewhat non-linear design of the segment.

Things ramp up even more with an awesome convoy chase leading up to the mountain temple, which basically was Naughty Dog flexing their muscles in outdoing the jeep sequence from the first game. Shooting and hopping from one truck to the other is quite the delight, and it all feels like a big nod to the first and third Indiana Jones films.

Uncharted 2 - Gateway to Shambala

Shambala The Chore

The game slows down a bit from here on, where it’s a frequent mixed cycle of platforming, shooting, stealth, and puzzle-solving leading all the way up to the Shambala stage.

The final level is a real chore.

The “monsters” take forever to kill unless you have a crossbow or explosives, and a lot of the mercenary placements are designed to lure you in with a false sense of victory just for some other heavily armored shotgunners to appear and kill you instantly.

There’s a lot of stop-and-go gameplay throughout Shangri-La leading up to the final boss fight with Lazarević, which is just painfully obnoxious. The gimmick with the boss fight revolves around luring Lazarević to some explosive resin deposits and then shooting them, forcing them to explode over him. You have to lure him through a small arena, constantly blowing up the deposits until you finally kill him.

I think I spent like 40 minutes on this boss fight because he would jump towards you before you could shoot the explosives, or other times he would lob grenades at you, thus preventing you from shooting and forcing you to dodge-roll instead. So it was a real chore and not in the epic Metal Gear Solid sort of way, which usually made their bosses challenging but skill-based. There was sense of prideful reward when you beat each boss… especially in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.

Here I was just glad to be done with it and out of that terrible Shangri-La.

Uncharted 2 - Final Boss Fight

Not Quite A Graphical Masterpiece

Despite the shooting mechanics staying largely the same from the first game, they felt more refined thanks to more uniquely designed shooting segments. They opened up many parts of the levels to give players more freedom to move around, find cover, avoid flanks, and experiment with weapons they felt comfortable using. The train stage in particular had full degree open interactivity, where you could attack from outside the cars through the train windows, or from the roof, or from the front or rear passenger doors.

I also liked that they introduced the melee-counter feature, so you could catch kicks or dodge punches and lob a counter-attack at an enemy.

As mentioned, there were a lot more weapons present this time around, and they made sure to keep the supply varied without being overwhelming throughout most of the game.

You could still wall-hug, dodge-roll, and blind-fire like in the first game, but enemies felt a little more refined this time around, not afraid to flank you if you if you held a single position for too long, or brazen enough to charge you if you were out of ammo.

The soundtrack was still on-point as usual, and visually Uncharted 2 had some substantial upgrades over the first game. Poly-counts were increased for all the main characters, and the animations were better all the way around. The texture work was far less shoddy, and the stage designs were duly impressive.

Uncharted 2 - UV Light

Lighting Tricks

However, it wasn’t like the game was groundbreaking, and it was still a step behind some of the crazy features that Epic Games were experimenting with in the Unreal Engine for Gears of War, such as the opening sequence in Gears of War 2 where hundreds of the Locust horde were swarming through the village while players were fending off the convoys from the Brumaks.

And given the lack of physically-based rendering, Uncharted 2 suffered from a lot of static bright spots due to the pre-baked lightmaps. It’s oftentimes the thing that gives the game that uncanny valley look, due to a lack of naturally saturated shaders utilizing real-time multi-directional lighting. This is why in the scenes where they lit the resin torches they scaled the entire rendering hue to royal blue, so instead of a light emitter casting a blue light on the environment and characters, everything was made blue due to the graphical limitations of the PS3’s hardware.

Speaking of which, the game also lacked real-time multi-layered shadows. During cinematics or even the gameplay you’ll note that there were single shadow passes from the environment cast on the characters,  but you’ll easily notice that multiple objects or entities don’t pass soft-shadows over the characters alongside harder or darker shadows, which can be distracting for anyone coming off of recent games where such features are present.

Uncharted 2 - Shadow Pass

The problem is oftentimes masked when in dark areas since there are fewer lights or shadows to reflect on the characters and the environment, but during the outdoor areas or where there’s a lot of brightness, the lack of PBR was distracting.

Still, the inclusion of animated clothes wrinkles, and the details on the dirt and snow textures that canvassed the main characters during firefights or while trekking through the mountains were all really nice touches that helped bring the world to life.

But by no means does Uncharted 2 come anywhere close to the likes of visual juggernauts like Crysis, which still looks unbelievably impressive to this day.

Also, It was kind of disappointing that they took out the jet ski segment from the first game. There was nothing similar to that in Uncharted 2.

Although, even with the removal of any vehicular segments (other than the convoy chase near the end), the game still played better, looked better, and had way more excitement and thrills than the first game.

The dialogue is snappier, the wit is on point, and the interactions between the characters are oftentimes hilarious and entertaining.

This was also back during the time where female characters could use their sex appeal to get what they wanted, and there was no shortage of Chloe’s flirtatious antics making headway to the forefront of most her encounters with Nate.

Uncharted 2 - Chloe Sex Appeal

Overall Thoughts

Sadly, all of the flirty elements and fun that made the series so popular were stripped out of Uncharted 4, which is just a sad and hollow husk of a once great franchise.

Uncharted 2, though, marked Naughty Dog’s stride for producing the pinnacle bankable blockbusters. While many hail the second game as the greatest in the quartet of mainline games (and the greatest PS3 game ever made), it’s hard for me to agree when I feel it climaxed a little too early on and then tried to recover the fumble with a sporadic smattering of semi-noteworthy sequences thereafter. It was always going to be hard to top the train scene, but bringing the game to a crawl at times leading up to and throughout the whole Shambala chapters didn’t do Uncharted 2 any favors.

As an action-platformer this is probably a must-have title for those of you who enjoy cinematic experiences and over-the-top blockbuster titles with plenty of set-pieces that gets the heart-racing and the thumbs sweaty.

Unfortunately replayability for the game was cut off at the knees due to Sony discontinuing the multiplayer support. So the only way it might return is using the original PS3 disc and hoping it’s re-enabled via emulation, sort of like what the Dolphin emulator did for Wii games. Otherwise the only replayability you have access to is unlocking new tweaks, skins, and weapons by collecting treasure rewards or beating the game on higher difficulty settings if you have the Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection bundle.

I’m torn between suggesting to “Try It” or “Buy It”. If you get the collection you automatically receive it, but if you had a PS3 and didn’t own it already you might want to try it first. The thing is, the PS4 version runs at 60fps, and it handles a lot better than the PS3 version of the game, without the frame-drops or performance hiccups. So that’s another thing to keep in mind. But the home console version no longer supports multiplayer, so that’s also something to keep in mind. My gut tells me to suggest to “Try It” and so that’s what I’m going with.

Verdict:

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