There’s something very special about writing a sequel, it means that what you’ve created has been met well enough that fans want more. As someone who hasn’t been published yet, I can only imagine the pride it must fill a writer with to know that not only has your life’s work been well received, but actively sought out.
Unfortunately writing sequels is also one of the hardest things a person can do because it’s incredibly easy to do one of two things. The first is to lose alienate the audience of the first by over doing it while trying to keep it fresh, and the second is to rely too much on the first and just end up with a direct copy with a slightly different plot. After the somewhat disappointing Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune it’s sad to see Uncharted 2: Among Thieves not learning much from it’s mistakes.
The first game saw Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher (journalist and romantic interest) running around chasing El Dorado, which turns out not to be a city of gold, just a huge statue with a cursed corpse inside that when you breath in the corpse dust turns you into a zombie, despite the firm grounding in reality the rest of the game has.
This game has Nathan Drake running around with Chloe Fraser looking for Shambhala (or Shangri-La as its more commonly known), to find this thing called “The Cintamani Stone” before some militarized psycho nut-job does.
So, to start out on a high note, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves does one thing right as a sequel, and this is, it learns from it’s mistakes. However the things it fixes, while improvements, don’t really lift the game all that much. They improved Drake’s controls, which are more fluid and life-like than in Drake’s Fortune. They added a stealth combat mechanic which, although mostly useless, does come in handy occasionally for thinning out enemy troops before full-on engagement (if this feature was in Drake’s Fortune it wasn’t in the tutorial so I never found out about it). Finally, The enemy AI is smarter. The only enemies that charge you outside of hiding behind cover can genuinely kill you in a few shots while you unload clip after clip in them, seemingly to no effect.
Really, that’s about it. The rest of the game copies pretty much feature for feature Drake’s Fortune, and does nothing to build upon or expand from it’s predecessor. The script features the same familiar, dry, sardonic wit and humor, and Drake is still just as perfect as he was in the first game. However where the first script was tight and logical and easy to follow, this one just added a couple of new characters to create twist after twist, but the twists are bland and nonsensical. For example, let’s talk about Chloe Fraser. One minute she’s your best friend and Nathan’s very forward lover, and the next she’s training a gun on you telling you to leave her alone. I was never totally sure of who she was working for, and having her around was a massive annoyance – especially when everything to be had in a strong female character was in Elena from the first game. She was strong without being obnoxious about it, she had character beyond being a strong female, the romance between her and Drake made sense and (not that this is necessary to a female character, but I’m just comparing to Chloe) she was sexy without needing to talk about it the whole time! Honestly it seems all there is to Chloe is a willingness to have sex anywhere at anytime and tight-fitting clothes to emphasize this fact. And we’re supposed to believe that Drake walked out on her a few years prior to the game, and I can see why. She’s annoying and has two character traits, she’s strong and she’s sexy. That’s it, and as a romantic partner she’s just totally unbelievable. Nathan and Chloe have no chemistry whatsoever, and their relationship in the game just feels forced because the writers thought a love triangle would be a good idea.
Now that I’ve gotten one of the most annoying features out of the way, let’s talk about the rest of it. All I can say is, Drake’s Fortune. Play that game and you’ve played Among Thieves. Even the story progression is the same. Dramatic tutorial at the start (pirate attack, climbing up a train), get details on a job to steal some artifact (city of gold, oil lamp), turns out artifact is not the artifact you were really looking for (gold statue, Shambhala), monsters show up (zombies, magic tree-sap zombies) and then big dramatic battle (arms dealer, military psycho) before someone says the line “saving the world”. It’s almost as if to save on time Naughty Dog took the script for Drakes Fortune and crossed out the names of the locations and artifacts and replaced it with the locations and artifacts in Among Thieves, and there’s a distinct difference between referencing and ripping off. For example when you’re walking around and Nathan says “Power’s out, a girl’s trapped. If a zombie shows up I’m done.” That was a nice reference to something that happened in the first game and it made it seem more real because for a moment Drake had a memory, he had a past. But just outrightly making a game the same way, adding some new characters, improving the AI and having ALL the same plot elements as the original is just a copy and shows a lack of imagination.
I suppose seeing as I criticized the lack of a feeling of threat I should praise Among Thieves in that it made me genuinely afraid of dying sometimes. There are enemies that (on Normal Mode) take several clips of ammo to finally take down, and when you’re facing off against something that’s near enough to immortal and there’s two of them around it’s a frightening experience – but there does need to be balance and it seems Naughty Dog can’t quite work out what this means. The first game was balanced heartily in favor of the player whereas this time the scales have triple-flipped on the side of the enemy with death being frequent and frustrating, and no matter how many times you have a nightmare even your worst fears start to get insipid after the fiftieth time.
Not only that but there seems to be a huge chunk of story Naughty Dog seem content to do nothing with and that is Drake’s back story. I find myself constantly intrigued as to who Nathan really is because so far he just seems like a dude with a fetish for ritual objects and jumping off things. There’s no real reason for him to be an artifact hunter, nothing that seems to drive him to do what he does until morals become involved, and yet we get hints that he’s done this before with no real reason why.
Speaking of doing nothing with a potentially good thing Among Thieves opens up with a really interesting tutorial where Nathan has to climb his way up a cliff-hanging train and the story is told through flashbacks. The thing is though this stops about halfway through the game! It was an interesting method of story telling and pacing but it all ends really abruptly. I would have like to has some story game play, and then current day game play all through the game until the story caught up with the present day. It’s like the studio just couldn’t be bothered with the depth anymore and decided to hide it away in amongst the same game play as Drake’s Fortune.
Going back to characters for a moment, Naughty Dog doesn’t seem to have a very good opinion of women. For whatever reason they’re happy to let Drake do all the work, as long as the work doesn’t affect the story. But despite the fact that during the game they display all the same vertical talents he does, during cut scenes they seem to lose all this ability and they’re happy to wait behind a wall while manly man, chivalrous Nathan go does all the work for them. And all the while they’ll shout encouragement like “Hey, did you forget me back here?” or “Open the door.”. I’m trying to open the door, but the developers made all the environments look the same and all the climby stuff blends into one another and the one piece to this three dimensional puzzle that will allow me to open the door is hidden in amongst shadows and bland color schemes. Yet, another problem from the first game.
My final point about the game is that it didn’t learn from one of it’s predecessor’s most irritating mistakes in that it presents us with the illusion of choice while simultaneously keeping player’s on a strict linear path. There’s only ever two ways to do things and the first way is only there so that it can break irreparably during a cut scene so that Drake needs to run around and do things the hard way. Not only is it irritating to see huge, majestic, gorgeously crafted snowy mountains and not have them be an actual part of the level, but it’s just downright formulaic when you can predict which methods of ingress will and won’t break.
There’s no doubting Naughty Dog knew what they were doing. They saw the reception Drake’s Fortune got and went “That got us a ton of money, let’s see if we can fool people a second time” and they bloody well did, they copy-pasted the game, added a few red herrings to distract the players and switched the artifacts around. While it’s a well-made and an entertaining game, it’s essentially the same game Drake’s Fortune was, and with the minuscule amount of difference that the improvements made and for a lack of innovation I can only score Uncharted 2: Among Thieves a half a point higher. 3/5.