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It’s hard to find a more crowd-pleasing series than Uncharted. Whether it’s finding a Nazi submarine in the Amazon, shooting Yetis in the Himalayas, uncovering a lost city in the Sahara or searching for pirate treasure in the Caribbean Uncharted had it all. Uncharted 2 was the best of them with its opening sequence cementing it into the canon of all time great action games. Uncharted 2 was pure escapism distilled into video game form with a rollicking ride of a story attached.
Nathan Drake is double-crossed during a big score by old partner Harry and ex-girlfriend Chloe. Left to languish in a Turkish prison for 3 months Nate is bailed out by an apologetic Chloe and his old mentor Sully. The big score was a clue leading to the location of the mythical Nepalese city of Shambhala. The city holds the Cintamani Stone – a supposed key to immortality – which is being sought by Serbian war criminal Zoran Lazarevic. Nate’s adventure takes him from Turkey to Borneo to Nepal reuniting him with ex-girlfriend Elena and putting him directly in Lazarevic’s warpath.
For a man so dedicated to treasure hunting Nathan Drake is pretty shit at preserving or even holding on to anything he actually finds. Whether it’s lost cities or priceless treasures Nathan Drake manages to render them irreparably damaged whether by accident or by design. One imagines that if he was handed a Ming vase he’d stumble around comically before dropping and shattering it into a million pieces. Still all this destruction probably feeds Drake’s hunger in his efforts to find that next big score. It’s what drives him and makes him relatable. Otherwise he’d just be a roving killer with a devastating smile.
The body count in the Indiana Jones films is relatively low. After all Indie’s an archaeologist that just so happens to find himself in life-threatening situations Nathan Drake actively seeks them out. So it goes without saying that numerous mercenaries, soldiers and hired goons are shot, punched and choked in Drake’s numerous quests. Still this is a way of life for Drake so a river of blood comes with the territory. Luckily he’s a likable enough protagonist surrounded by a rag-tag group of misfits that slaughtering all these nameless goons feels a lot more justified.
Speaking of nameless goons there’s an entire army of them in Uncharted 2. Appropriately enough the game’s full title is Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The physicality of the Uncharted series always had real weight too it. From the snowbound, clifftop opening to the complex climbing puzzles to the explosive Nepalese hotel level Uncharted 2 gave players some of the series’ best action sequences as well as some of gaming’s best as well.
The hotel sequence really sticks in my mind as both Nate and Chloe must race and fight through the hotel as a Soviet helicopter gunship tears it apart. It’s a testament to Amy Hennig and Bruce Straley’s direction too as the camera is mostly fixed on Nathan in a widescreen shot throughout rather than offering the 180 over-the-shoulder view it usually does. It’s exciting and effective but also necessary as sections of the hotel fall away revealing Drake’s position as well as vitally important climbing points. It’s a thrilling sequence but also a masterclass in bringing the platforming Naughty Dog was known for into a scripted 3D event.
Any game by Naughty Dog on the PlayStation system is an event. They’re the big budget blockbusters or prestige TV dramas of the gaming world. They’re AAA in terms of budget and quality and so far the company haven’t once disappointed. Uncharted 2 is definitely their high point in terms of crowd-pleasing entertainment. Although The Last of Us may be their finest work overall it’s easy to see why a certain amount of people would reel back from it’s grim-dark setting and extreme violence. Uncharted gave players the kind of action-adventure they craved without the colonial background of Tomb Raider.
Much of the treasures Nathan and his allies sought were capable of granting their finder’s with immortality, enormous wealth or both. There’s a reason they’ve been locked away for centuries and it adds complexity to Nathan’s quest for fortune and glory. Will he cave in to amoral greed or realise that it will only destroy him and the people he loves?
If the Uncharted games are deserving of one criticism it might be that the”Idiot White Man Saves Smart Natives” story line is employed time and again. At least Indiana Jones wanted to secure the Ark of the Covenant for educational purposes. Still it’s a lot better than the way the new Tomb Raider games have handled things. Any native characters like Tenzin in Uncharted 2 are presented as competent and intelligent. Lara Croft is so high up in he ivory tower she can’t even be bothered to look down.
Likability is an important part of Uncharted 2. The game is stacked with a cast of lovable rogues from old favorites like Nate and Sully to new characters like Chloe and Elena’s poor cameraman Jeff. On the other side there’s the sniveling, slimy Harry and the coldly cruel Lazarevic both of whom make Nate look saintly by comparison. But even if Uncharted 2 had none of the stakes or character drama or the love triangle it could have easily coasted by on its set-pieces.
The Uncharted set-piece – now a defining feature of a certain era of gaming – is both grandiose and painfully personal. On the one hand you’re scaling a sheer cliff by way of a train carriage hanging off said cliff. On the other hand you’re painfully aware of how vulnerable Nate is in these moments. A mistimed leap, a minor distraction or the wrong button press will often send Nathan plummeting to a fiery (or icy) death.
Each Uncharted game has one absolutely gold-standard, hall of fame set-piece whether it’s crashing a plane into the Sahara or a sword fight in the belly of a burning pirate ship they feel both pivotal and personal. It’s in moments like these that Uncharted 2 is gaming distilled into a primal formula. The politics or the pathology no longer matter there’s only the domino effect, sweaty-palmed brilliance of it all. That, above all else, is what Uncharted 2 did better than any other game, ever.