Hype can do one of two things for a highly anticipated upcoming title. It can spark interest in a game that no one really cared about beforehand, or it can increase buyers' expectations to a level that, no matter how good or great the product may be, it will never be able to reach those daunting heights.
Sony's latest blockbuster, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, has been so hyped and so awaited for so long that you'd have figured by default that acclaimed developers Naughty Dog couldn't do much to meet fans' and critics' lofty expectations. Remember back, if you will, to mid-February; I reviewed the first Uncharted and gave it a perfect score. I was completely enamored by Drake's Fortune and couldn't, in a million years, fathom what would or could make it any better than it already was. I'll admit, I was really, really anticipating Among Thieves, but I figured Naughty Dog would take the Epic Games route and simply refine the visuals, touch up the game play and leave everything else as is.
Oh how wrong I was. As you read through reviews for Among Thieves and take note of all the perfect scores, endless amounts of praise, and resounding cries of "Game of the Year contender," you will probably be predisposed to think otherwise, but this really isn't enough praise. Among Thieves is one of the best action games, best adventure games, and perhaps best games of all time, period
Playing through Among Thieves is like being the director of your very own 10 hour action movie replete with engrossing shootouts, death-defying stunts, amazing set pieces, and beautiful visuals. Uncharted 2 is the virtual equivalent to a Michael Bay film but with better actors (or in this case, voice actors) and endearing characters. But not every gamer will appreciate what Among Thieves dishes out. There will be plenty of those who will complete the single-player campaign and exclaim, "That's it?!" There's literally no focus on any kind of realism and, trust me, your suspension of disbelief will be tested. But that's the beauty of it. As much as we as consumers feel that over-the-top action movies are insulting to our intelligence, the same will more than likely be said about Uncharted 2. If you're into grounded fair that plays more realistically there are still plenty of other games you should consider purchasing because this is not one of them.
Some of the more engrossing aspects of Among Thieves are the numerous elaborate set pieces that would ordinarily define any big-budget summer blockbuster, not a piece of interactive entertainment. During one such sequence, Drake will find himself jumping from moving truck to moving truck as he narrowly dodges RPG rounds, as well as hurling himself out of a crumbling building's window that, consequently, just had its supports blown to pieces by an attacking helicopter, and even a moving train segment that ends in one of the game's most beautiful displays of pure visual prowess. Among Thieves' entire package is simply jaw-dropping from the time you pick up the controller to the last time you put it down. One minute you're climbing up huge, lumbering structures and making incredible leaps-of-faith, and the next you're blowing and shooting shit up as you fight to stay alive against insurmountable odds. Perhaps more an interactive action/adventure flick than a game, but for this gamer that was not at all a problem.
Keeping in tone with the "bigger is better" approach to sequels, Naughty Dog are not resting on their laurels here. The mechanics of the game have been greatly improved in the two years between games. The platforming segments feel more natural and as a result more fun, shooting is as good as it's ever going to get, and enemy AI is greatly improved. I loved that Naughty Dog ditched one of the biggest problems of the first game: enemies that were able to soak up nearly a full clip of ammo and keep coming for more. Not only was this a nuisance in intense firefights, but having enemies that were constantly moving didn't help, either. I'm happy to say that the so-called "breakdancing enemies" have been done away with. There's also the ability to play stealthily whenever possible. Surprisingly enough, it is fully functional and works better than I would have ever anticipated.
Drake has also learned some new moves over the years. Hand-to-hand combat has been revamped and no longer requires combinations of the square and triangle buttons to pull off hard-to-perform combos. Naughty Dog has seen fit to relegate all melee attacks to only the square button this time around. Not only are combos much easier to perform, they are even more satisfying here than in the first game. Apart from this, Drake can also shoot while hanging from various objects in the environment. This gives the game a nice vertical feel and allows for more variety in ways to play through a gun fight.
I was also relieved to find that the puzzle-solving elements were given more depth even if they aren't as frequent as the first game. Each puzzle segment in Drake's Fortune felt criminally easy and way too simple despite their abundance. The puzzles in Among Thieves, however, require a bit of digging through Drake's journal (and this time around you can actually scan through the numerous pages in his journal in order to find solutions to these puzzles instead of being presented with the correct page no matter what) to solve and often go just as vertical as the gunfights. It's obvious to this gamer that Naughty Dog didn't place as much emphasis on these segments, but by giving you puzzles that weren't as easy and also much more complex, they feel more rewarding.
But I would be remiss if I didn't mention the graphics, and Naughty Dog have truly outdone themselves here. It's been rumored that the first Uncharted used about 30% of the PS3's Cell processor whereas Among Thieves uses between 90%-100%. It's also been said that the game's files take up all available space on the Blu-ray disc. Considering the sheer amount of detail strewn across 10 or so hours of game play, as well as the astounding differences between each respective locale Drake will visit, this all comes with nary a framerate drop, no in-game loading screens, and more surprisingly still, no installation process. With that said, Uncharted 2's visuals do not disappoint. Graphically it's right up there with PS3 favorite Killzone 2 only much broader in design and with much more variety in colors. One chapter has Drake traversing a moving train as his surroundings slowly transitions from dense jungles to snow-capped mountains. It's awe-inspiring to just sit back and watch this happen as the lighting swiftly shifts tone to pronounce the snowy textures. Drake then says aloud, "Jeez, I should have brought a jacket!" It's this attention to detail that makes Uncharted 2 such a joy to play.
No matter your stance on shooters, adventure games, or platformers, Among Thieves is the first must-play, must-buy game of the season. With the holidays fast approaching and so many great games being set for release, we'll see if the inimitable Nathan Drake can sustain the competition. For my money, the first Uncharted piqued interest in me and many others, and quickly became the one reason to contemplate owning a PS3. With the release of Uncharted 2 there should no longer be any contemplation, you should already be heading out the door to purchase the system along with one of the best games I've ever played. The explosive action, brilliant cut-scenes, mouth-watering visuals, superb voice acting, memorable, relatable characters, and mesmerizing story is only scratching the surface as to why this game should be in every PS3 owners collection. I can sit here and talk all day about how great a game Among Thieves is, but it means absolutely nothing until you experience what will undoubtedly be this year's best action game for yourself.