Nov. 30, 2009 -- One minute you're sipping a beer on a tropical island, the next you're running across a speeding train in the Alps dodging helicopter rockets all in search of one of the greatest treasures in history. Such is the life of Nathan Drake, the protagonist of "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves," the sequel to the 2007 Playstation 3 hit "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune."
"Uncharted 2" manages to heighten the already pulse-raising sense of adventure that came with the first game through exceptional platforming, combat and set pieces that covey a sense of grandeur that seems more at home on the silver screen. The games few flaws -- its sometimes frustratingly linear progression and unnatural boss fights -- are more than overshadowed by outright fun.
The second installment has an even more ambitious worldwide scope than the first as Drake romps through jungles, snowy caves and precarious mountain passes in a race against a predictably evil rival. Predictability, as it turns out, is one of the plot's greatest faults. Players will find themselves thinking a few steps ahead of most of the various betrayals and twists, but the story's delivery is so smooth most won't care.
It's obvious there was a lot of thought and time put into the story side of "Uncharted 2" as the voice acting and scripting are heads above most action games.
While the cast is as stereotypical as the plot -- the evil Russian mercenary, the beautiful-but-deadly fellow treasure hunter, the grizzled-but-affable old adventurer and of course the unavoidable comparison between Drake and Indiana Jones -- it's again in their delivery that any eye-rolling is lost.
They may be saying lines like "X marks the spot!" but their interactions are so natural and clever it all seems at home in Drake's world.
Combat: Take Cover, Come Out Firing
The characters do more than talking, however. They also shoot guns -- a lot of guns.
Drake and his companions will have to wade through waves and waves of enemies on their quest, but "Uncharted 2" forces the player to have at least a semblance of strategy.
Before the gun battle erupts, Drake can often dispatch several enemies by employing stealth and one of several instant take down moves. Those stealthy sections morph seamlessly into action sequences, however, when Drake is spotted creeping around by a guard that suddenly unleashes a barrage of bullets and alerting his comrades. While generally solid, the artificial intelligence is not the brightest here, sometimes allowing Drake to stomp around almost comically close to his enemies without being noticed.
Once the firing starts, it's all about taking cover as standing in the open will bring a swift end to Drake's treasure hunting days. The cover system can be frustrating at times.
Often a player will attempt to lead Drake out of cover and through an entrance, only to have him spin across the opening and to the other side where he slips back into cover. Another attempt could send him spinning back to where he started. Several attempts later Drake, presumably weary and dizzy at this point, may actually make it down the hallway. What seems like a small problem becomes a rather large one when several men with shotguns bear down on our hero.
Since mowing down a limited type of enemy can get repetitive, "Uncharted 2" also features a few engaging combat sequences where Drake fights from moving trains and trucks to raise some pulses.
The larger problem with the combat comes in the seemingly unnecessary "boss" fights. No one is saying "Uncharted 2" is a realistic game -- Drake will likely be shot hundreds of times over the course of the game with no ill effects -- but when suddenly one enemy can survive repeated shots to the face simply because he is a "boss" seems out of place in a game that is otherwise so consistent.
The strategy makes sense when Drake is battling, say, a helicopter, but not a mercenary officer. It only makes sense again once the story takes a supernatural turn.
Platforming: Jump Here, Don't Jump There
The game's greatest limitation is undoubtedly its strict linear nature, especially when it comes to the climbing sections. While many games are linear, most offer at least a couple ways to get from here to there. In "Uncharted 2," not only can you not go another way, but the game physically limits you from trying.
When Drake is hanging from a ledge in a Nepalese village for instance, the player may think that a ledge is close enough to jump to, but unless it actually is, the jump cannot be attempted. While this makes for far fewer deaths due to a player's misjudgments, it also takes the adventures out of the climb.
Often there is only one direction Drake's arm reaches -- meaning he can complete the jump -- and even if the player has no idea why he'd want to go that way, he does because there's no other option.
On the ground it's a little better, but not much. Drake is afforded a few options in the more open sections, but choke points force entrance and exits pretty clearly. Drake cannot explore far off the obvious trail, meaning several of the game's "hidden treasures" are usually within a few strides. For a game based on exploring and treasure hunting, players will have a hard time doing both.
Multiplayer: Adventures With Friends
For what is decidedly a first-person adventure game, "Uncharted 2" features an impressively robust multiplayer option. With a battery of add-ons and upgrades, the multiplayer version of the game allows the player much more customization.
The gun play and cover system translate well into multiplayer, giving the cooperative and death match modes added depth. The cooperative levels take place in the same places Drake climbed and shot his way through in the single player version, but are tailored for teamwork in combat.
Visually speaking, the game is gorgeous. From a moonlit boat ride in Turkey to dangling precariously off a ledge in a Nepalese village at sunset, players will often be caught of guard by the landscape at Drake's back.
The game's many cut scenes often roll right into the action -- sometimes literally -- so the player is actually playing with the incredible graphics they just witnessed during a cinematic crash or rescue.
With some of the best beauty and brains of any Playstation 3 title to date, "Uncharted 2" is its own treasure for adventure-lovers this year.