A few minutes into Uncharted 2, and it’s already apparent that it’s leagues ahead of the previous game, both in storytelling and finesse. After a meeting in a beach bar with some old associates, Nathan Drake finds himself persuaded to join a museum heist in Istanbul – an opener that immediately draws attention to the ‘Among Thieves’ subtitle. It’s a bold statement – Nathan is unequivocally a bad man, a man who thinks nothing of stealing for profit. Yet as the game goes on to show, he’s a somewhat less bad man than the other bad men and women who dog his every step. And later on he finds himself torn between the archetypal ‘bad girl’, who shares his thirst for adventure and questionable morals, and the ‘good girl’ who perhaps reflects his better side.
It’s a much more fulfilling plot than the mostly black and white storytelling of the first game, the latter being a much more basic set up in which bold adventurers journey in search of El Dorado. One of my favourite parts of Uncharted 2 is when the two rival women in Nathan’s life finally meet, which leads to some wonderfully sharp dialogue – a domestic crisis played out under gunfire and across a quest for the mythical kingdom of Shambhala.
But it’s not just the story that makes this game stand out above its predecessor – the set pieces and locations are fantastic. The very start of the game sees Nathan clambering up the ruined carriage of a derailed train, which is hanging precariously off the side of a snowy mountain cliff for unknown reasons. We then cut to the beach bar scene, and realise that the derailed train is a flashforward to something that must happen much later on. As a cold opener (pun intended) it’s fantastic, and I like the way that it builds expectations for what’s to come. When the train section of the game does eventually arrive, it’s easily the stand-out part of the entire game, a pitched battle along the length of a train that winds its way through jungles and up into the Himalayas, all the more exciting because you know how it must turn out.
And it’s not the only memorable set piece – the scenes in war-torn Nepal are beautifully evocative and wonderfully drawn, and the Istanbul heist is brilliantly tense. Then there’s an exciting chase scene involving a seemingly unstoppable tank, as well as some eerily beautiful (and huge) ruined temples imbued with ancient machinery – even if these are defiantly copying a page torn out of the Tomb Raider textbook.
The controls are improved too, making gunfights much more enjoyable and less frustrating than in the original game. Yet gunfights still occur far too frequently for my taste, and Drake steadily mows down an absurd number of people for someone who is essentially a wise-cracking treasure hunter. His good-natured humour and murderous intent seem somewhat uncomfortable bedfellows.
The finale, too, rubbed me up the wrong way. The eventual denouement comes as something of a letdown, a tedious ring o’ roses with a bullet-sponge bad guy that’s more frustrating than exciting. It felt more like a need to fill a hole on a design spreadsheet that said ‘INSERT FINAL BOSS FIGHT HERE’, and it amazes me that video games still feel the need to throw in end-of-game bosses even if this doesn’t fit with the nature of the game. Bosses are a relic from eighties’ shoot ’em ups, yet they still get dragged in to all sorts of modern titles as a matter of course. I fondly remember how Banjo Kazooie subverted this trend by switching out the expected final boss fight for a quiz show. I’m not saying that there should have been a quiz at the end of Uncharted 2, but the point is that there are many ways of ending a game that don’t have to involve ploughing bullets into an overpowered boss.
When all’s said and done, Uncharted 2, like its predecessor, is a big dumb old adventure game that would never win an Oscar for its plot. But in terms of sheer fun and spectacle, it trumps the first Uncharted in every single way. And even if the characters feel a little cartoonish at times, I found myself caring about what happens to them – a seemingly simple requirement that many other, lesser games regularly fail to achieve.
Better Late Than Never is a regular series in which we play through landmark games many years after their debut, after missing them the first time around. Does the praise heaped on these famous games hold up in hindsight?