When Uncharted 2: Among Thieves came out in 2009, it changed video games for a lot of people, including myself. It was more than a video game. It was a massive cinematic gaming experience where I felt like was playing Indiana Jones.
I passionately cared about the characters in this game and wanted to see them succeed. I loved the third-person shooting mechanics and platforming. It was a massive improvement from Drake’s Fortune, which had a decent basis for the franchise. It’s one of the very best video games I have ever played and it always will be.
Right from the game’s opening, you can tell this game is going to be incredible. It throws you into a scenario of a train falling off a snowy cliff and you get to control Nathan Drake as you attempt to survive. It’s a scenario that doesn’t actually happen until about halfway through the game and it sets up a great flashback storytelling mechanic that helps the player immediately get immersed into the story. If anything, it’s the opening of Star Wars where you wonder what the hell is going on. Who are these robots? Who is Princess Leia? You question why you are hanging from this train and what the hell even happened to get here? That is what effective storytelling does right from the start. It makes you question what’s to come.
The funny thing is that the game actually takes you slowly through the narrative in the sense of developing the gameplay, despite the massive opening. We start with this platforming heavy train sequence and then a great stealth sequence with Drake and Flynn. This is great game design because it allows the player to be eased into the story and gameplay. The game essentially starts off as something very narrow and becomes something massive by the end with the unveiling of Shambhala.
The humor of the game is completely on point the entire time and is just as enjoyable as it was in the first game. From the stealth sequence and being betrayed by Flynn, we then get to spend some time with Sully in Borneo where we are meshed into smaller combat sequences that are still far more dynamic than anything in the first Uncharted game. Instead of mobs of enemies being thrown at the player in a generic manner, the AI is clearly smarter and the environments are far better designed than before. Borneo has small duck and cover shooting sequences that are completely effective and the melee is shown off in sequences where you get thrown off a cliff and are forced into a melee sequence. Is the melee still far too basic in the game? Yes it is, but it still works for this game.
The famous train sequence where Drake is hanging off a train as you control him to mow down enemies is one of the most delightful parts of any Uncharted game. The game shows itself off as not only a cinematic experience with a helicopter chasing you down, but it shows itself off in terms of platforming and combat more than any other part of the game. Having to frantically switch from hanging off the train to duck behind parts of the train while having to take down enemies can genuinely be challenging and different than other games before it at the time.
Eventually, we finally get to see how Drake ends up where he was in the beginning of the game and it unfolds in a great way because we get to see Tibet. Tibet is when the game really becomes gorgeous and the developers clearly knew that because you are put in a slow-paced walk while you follow Tenzin, the Tibetan man who saves your life. It really shows off the graphical capabilities of the PlayStation 3 in 2009 and it still somehow holds up today.
The storytelling in this game is far more mythical than the first one. Despite the fact that we have monsters and Nazis involved in the first game, this game manages to top that with the Cintamani Stone and the role it plays as this awesome mythical storytelling object. It’s not as though Uncharted has the most in-depth story per say, but it still intrigues and incorporates history in a very fun way (and as a history major that excites me).
The ice caverns with Tenzin is such a fun time because the language barrier between them is absolutely hilarious and charming all at once. Also, we get the beginnings of another monster twist just like the first game but it’s still quite effective and interesting. If anything, this ice cavern segment displays that Uncharted isn’t just a duck and cover third-person shooter, it’s a legitimate good platformer albeit a fairly basic one but that’s the exact reason why it works as one. The simplicity in Uncharted’s gameplay is the reason why the story is so accessible and incredibly enjoyable to follow.
I wouldn’t say everything about Uncharted 2 is perfect though, despite the fact that I would probably give the game a perfect 10 if I were reviewing it right now. The puzzles aren’t very interesting and I never find them interesting in any Uncharted game to be perfectly honest. They tend to interrupt the game for me personally. Additionally, the villain in this game, Lazarevic, is just a generic power hungry guy and has a pretty shitty boss battle by the end of the game, though I’m getting ahead of myself. Uncharted hasn’t ever had great villains (although Drake’s Deception is a bit better with that) but it isn’t super problematic when the heroes are so great.
Shambhala itself is incredibly gorgeous to look at and still holds up incredibly well. The soundtrack is incredibly massive during this part of the game as well and holds itself up to the standards of something as great as John Williams’s Star Wars score.
One of my favorite scenes in all of Uncharted 2 is the scene where Lazarevic questions Drake’s mass murdering spree he has gone through during this entire game. In a strange way, it’s kind of meta, but it also isn’t at the same time. Most video games involving guns involve a lot of death. The hero of the story, funny enough, performs a lot of that death yet we root for these heroes. The fact that a video game was willing to challenge that idea, which is funny because the developers are almost criticizing their own video game, is interesting and makes me as the player question what I’m playing. It makes you stop for a moment and consider what exactly Nathan Drake has done. Is he a hero? Yes, he stopped an evil person from doing something evil, but he also had to murder a shit ton of people in the process and that isn’t exactly heroic at the same time. It’s a question that is hard to answer and something that really makes you ponder a lot.
Finally, we’ve killed Lazarevic and then we get to run on a collapsing bridge and it’s an amazing set piece. Oh, and by the way, Elena might die but that’s just a side note. I genuinely get extremely sad at the thought of Elena dying during this part of the game, which would probably mean Naughty Dog has crafted pretty great characters. And of course they find a way to trick you and make you think Elena is dead as Tenzin says a Tibetan prayer around a grave site but it just ends up being for Schafer, that one guy you barely know much of anything about and he’s kind of just a story piece.
We get the wonderful sunset ending of Elena and Drake talking about his fear of clowns. It’s funny, it sends chills down my spine, and it brings me genuine and real happiness. I feel pure joy by the end of Uncharted 2. I adore these characters, set pieces, gameplay, and the story itself. It all comes together to make one of the very best video games I’ve ever experienced. I don’t want to use the word “played” there.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is an experience that anybody who plays video games should be required to experience to truly understand what great video games are. I loved it in 2009. I love it in 2016. I will love it in 2030. It’s a masterpiece.