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Analysis: One Year On - Naughty Dog's Uncharted 2

In the first in a new series of columns reassessing a video game released 12 months ago, Simon Parkin examines Uncharted 2: Among Thieves to find a matinee blockbuster "far more than the sum of its stolen parts."
[In the first of a column series offering critical reassessment of a video game released 12 months ago, Gamasutra's European Editor Simon Parkin slips into Uncharted 2: Among Thieves as it receives a 'Game Of The Year' re-release -- discovering a game that "despite its ambition towards the mainstream Saturday afternoon blockbuster, swims against gaming’s prevailing tide."] Strange, that the video game has so struggled to mimic cinema’s Saturday matinee. That rip-roaring yarn, unraveled by boisterous, yet charming men accompanied by tomboyish, yet alluring women has been a Hollywood staple for decades. It appeals to young and old without discrimination, delighting audiences without overly challenging them, a rollicking recipe seemingly well-suited to the video game’s inherent strengths. And yet, in the medium’s awkward grasps for maturity - marrying hyper-violence with desaturated post-apocalyptic landscapes - or its celebration of the juvenile - plumbers who defeat foes with hops, set against a kindergarten mural of pea green hills and winking clouds - gaming has failed to take root in this fertile middle ground. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series is an anomaly then, a blockbuster happy to talk in the violent verbs dispensed by guns and grenades, but eager to couch them in easy-going, family-friendly nouns. Sure, it calls upon genuine evils for its mythology – blood diamonds and Nazis – but it’s an Indiana Jones rendering of history’s blackness, good and bad painted in broad brushstrokes where heroes remain heroes, and villains remain villains, unambiguous in their roles. The approach is dangerous. Fail to clothe your story with sufficient character and charm and it can seem simplistic. Without the quipping charisma of Nolan North as Nathan Drake - the over-exposed voice actor’s defining role – adding consistency and likable commentary, the jumps between looting museums, battling Yetis and crawling through jungles would have seemed disjointed, little more than a small boy’s collection of adventure fantasies clumped together for no greater purpose. But with Drake's steadying voice, and the cast of supporting characters, all of whom talk with rare ease, Uncharted 2 instead flows and sizzles with pace and coherence, the developer keeping its ambition in check with its objectives at every beat of the plot. The game’s detractors rail against its linearity, the way in which there is no way to change Drake’s course, even as his writers question his morality in examining how his reckless treasure-hunting affects the lives of those around him. There is, they say, too much of a debt to Hollywood, resulting in an interactive film that plays out with only the most gentle, straightforward coaxing by the player, barely worthy of the video game name. It’s an understandable viewpoint. Uncharted 2’s intricately staged episodes offer a set-piece approach to gaming. In their scale and precision the thrills are comparable to action cinema’s most memorable sequences. But while the memory of working your way out of a building as it collapses around you, or along the length of a train as it winds interminably through the jungle and up into the snowy mountains have stuck this year, few will have replayed them.

Uncharted 2’s gunplay is robust, as is its platforming, but both offer easy-going clutches of interaction, rarely challenging the player to develop strategy or employ deeper tactics in exchange for progress. This fact demonstrates that Naughty Dog’s ambitions lay not in advancing the 3rd person action game lineage, evolving Tomb Raider & Gears of War’s mechanics in significant ways, but in hauling players into the world like a movie director. So cliffhanger follows cliffhanger, a parade of ever more impressive and unlikely crescendos, only held back from parody by some expertly integrated downtime. That scene, placed at the midway point of the game, in which Drake finds himself nursed back to health in a Nepalese village, unable to speak the local language, is one of recent gaming’s most remarkable. It demonstrates a composer-like approach to pacing, the developer setting bars of rest after bars of fury to provide counterpoint and thereby heighten the effect and effectiveness of each. When a game has thrown every imaginable action sequence at the player in order to capture their attention, the only way to maintain it is with a period of inaction. Wounded, Drake tours the village, as children and livestock hide and seek from his gaze, a space for player and character alike to recover from the preceding squall. Compared to the first game, it’s this variety that sets Uncharted 2 apart, both in tempo and environment. The game’s locations exhibit impressive range, striking an engaging balance between the comforting known and the intriguing unknown. Likewise, the decision to saturate the world’s color, in direct contrast to gaming’s current fashion (an unlockable ‘next-gen’ filter sees Naughty Dog poke fun at the bloom and de-saturation techniques so beloved of ostensibly ‘mature’ titles) emphasizes the game’s sense of playfulness. The result is a game that, despite its ambition towards the mainstream Saturday afternoon blockbuster, swims against gaming’s prevailing tide. By choosing to embrace youthful, paperback fantasies, rather than fleeing from them, the experience seems more at ease and comfortable in its character and identity than most. There’s no denying that the game’s innovations are few, drawing inspiration and ideas from a range of obvious sources. But the masterful absorption of these influences creates something distinct, far more than the sum of its stolen parts. So while you’re aware that, over the course of the story, you play among thieves, at this point its clear that Nathan Drake has given back far more than he ever took. [Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was first released on PlayStation 3 on October 13, 2009 in the U.S. This week, Sony announced plans to release a Game of the Year edition.]

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