Sequels are a tricky business. It’s all too easy to just provide more of the same. Yet at the other end of the spectrum, deviating too far from the original risks losing what made the first title such a success. Gratifyingly, Uncharted 2 does neither – choosing instead to take everything that was great about the excellent if flawed original and turn it up to 11.
Of course, the first thing that people will notice is the stunning graphics. This is a beautiful game. Yet screenshots really don’t do it any justice. Seen in motion, the actual game could easily be mistaken for cut scenes. Nepal in particular fares especially well with its haphazard streets and riotous colour but is far from unique. Towering frozen wastes and lush tropical jungles add their own uniquely striking flavour whilst demonstrating a dizzying level of scale and make the levels feel like genuine locations rather than a series of platforms.
Meanwhile, the exploring and gunplay are now fully enmeshed so that rather than completing an action section before embarking on a leisurely climb, you often find yourself carefully inching along a narrow outcrop only to find enemies suddenly attacking from all angles forcing you to engage them whilst climbing. Given that this is a game that delights in its sheer verticality, such encounters feel suitably epic and heart pounding. Yet even when your feet are firmly on terra firma, the combat remains a frantic and deeply satisfying experience. Whilst it’s easy to stick to cover and pop out for headshots, the destructible nature of your cover coupled with smart enemies who attempt to flank you whilst their allies keep you pinned down necessitates constant repositioning as well as quick bouts of fisticuffs amidst the hail of bullets. And it all goes together seamlessly with dashes and rolls to cover never leaving you in the wrong place – an issue which plagued the original. There’s even the opportunity for stealth takedowns by sneaking behind enemies or climbing below them and pulling them over the edge to their doom. All of which opens up further possibilities for flanking opponents yourself or adapting your strategies to counter their weaponry and equipment, meaning that there’s a lot of choice in how you handle any battle. It’s hardly offering a Deus Ex level of sophistication but it does mean that each encounter plays out differently and feels like you had some genuine input into it. Even more satisfyingly though, you aren’t magically invulnerable to bullets while you struggle hand to hand meaning that every single encounter feels like a mini set piece where the player is only just making it by the skin of their teeth.
But these pale next to the genuine set pieces. The heart pounding opening that sees a wounded Drake climbing up a derailed and literally cliff hanging train has all the elements of a Hollywood blockbuster as well as demonstrating the Uncharted staples of ledges suddenly breaking or debris falling towards you – making every single climb or jump feel more thrilling. Yet such set pieces are everywhere. However, unlike so many other titles, they feel like an organic part of the game rather than tacked on or wholly separate sections. Witness for example, the rooftop battle with a helicopter which ranges over a massive area or Drake’s David and Goliath struggle with a tank that is fought through an entire village teeming with enemies. As such, it feels a little like you are lurching crazily from one set piece to another – be it a scripted event or the organic outcome of your encounters with adversaries. But this is no bad thing. Indeed, the game is played with your heart in your mouth so that you always feel like you’re just one mistake away from death. A feeling which few other titles can match or maintain over the majority of their lifespan. All of which makes the few quiet moments whilst you attempt to solve a puzzle or explore an area as well as the cut scenes themselves something to be genuinely relished as a respite from the action. Then there’s the quality voice acting and genuinely involving story to take into account. It’s hardly going to set the world alight but the continual crosses and double crosses leave you genuinely doubtful as to people’s intentions and who you can trust. Meanwhile the suitably rousing score just adds to the idea that this is a big summer blockbuster and shows exactly how games can match and even better the film industry. Yet there are still a few niggles that just hold Uncharted 2 back from that elusive perfect score.
The opening sequence is stunning but markedly less so when you have to do it all over again later on in the game. Quite why Naughty Dog thought that this was a good idea is baffling and it manages to reduce a genuinely epic section to a needlessly repetitive one. Then there’s the boss issue. Like Drake’s Fortune before it, it appears that the proven mixture of gunplay and melee combat doesn’t apply to bosses. Whilst better implemented than the boss in the first game who was bafflingly immune to headshots, it still means that you have to take part in a drawn out, albeit cinematic, fistfight at the halfway stage as well as a tiresome and far from cinematic final battle where you run away from an invulnerable enemy whilst shooting explosive sap. Yes boss battles should be tough but this one feels unimaginative and strangely out of place with the rest of the game. However, these are minor concerns at best and tellingly account for a tiny portion of the whole game. Yet they still serve to sour a title for which the phrase near perfect is wholly, if agonisingly deserved.