Uncharted 2: Among Thieves First Look

Naughty Dog gives us a look at what sort of Himalayan adventures Nathan Drake will find himself in later this year.

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Released as a PlayStation 3 exclusive in late 2007, the original Uncharted had a lot to like. From a gameplay perspective, it played like a cross between Tomb Raider's acrobatic platforming and the cover-based gun combat that you'd find in a third-person shooter in the Gears of War mold. Its treasure-hunting storyline was propelled by a cast of likable and charming characters led by protagonist Nathan Drake, and the whole package was tied together with a tremendous level of cinematic detail. Fortunately, this proved to be an example of great work paying off, because Uncharted was able to win over the hearts and minds of the buying public enough to warrant the development of a sequel. And so it was yesterday that we paid a visit to Naughty Dog's Santa Monica studio to get our first look at the upcoming Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.

On the surface, it may look to the pessimistic observer as if Nathan Drake has been plucked from one exotic locale and dropped right into another. On some levels, this is true: Uncharted 2 will trade in the lush jungles of the original game for snowy Himalayan cliffs and dense Nepalese cities. But its story and setting represent a different look at the game's main character, Nathan Drake. Uncharted portrayed Drake as a lighthearted, quick-witted treasure seeker who had a knack for getting in trouble but always meant well. Uncharted 2 will explore some of those personal faults in deeper detail by throwing Drake into some nastier situations that will tempt his desire for uncovering riches with more on the line.

Welcome to Nepal! Probably not your ideal tourist destination.
Welcome to Nepal! Probably not your ideal tourist destination.

What's brought Drake to this corner of the globe is a forgotten chapter in the history of Marco Polo. Like the history-inspired tale of Sir Francis Drake from the first game, Uncharted 2 uses historical occurrences as a launching point for its own fiction. Marco Polo was known for thoroughly detailing his exploits abroad, but there's one incident that he never explained: the mysterious disappearances of more than a dozen ships loaded with treasure en route back from China in 1292. Naturally, our hero Nathan Drake is out to capitalize on this historical black hole.

Joining Drake in this quest for riches is a new female lead, Chloe Frazer. Her personality will be a marked departure from Elena, her counterpart from the original. Whereas Drake's relationship with Elena took on a subtle, will-they-or-won't-they form, Chloe is a much more forward love interest. She gets her hands dirty in the same circle of lawless smugglers and criminals that Drake does, so their relationship is one that will reveal some new sides of his personality. Naughty Dog tells us that a larger cast of characters will also be present to expand the story beyond the tightly knit trio of Drake, Elena, and Sully that we had in the original.

But for as much as Uncharted 2 will be a story-driven experience, we're still talking about a video game. And in that regard, the brief demo that we witnessed didn't disappoint. The chapter of the game that we saw was taken from the Nepal section, in which Drake has to fight his way through a dense mess of urban rubble engulfed in civil war. He begins by taking cover behind a small ledge as a bus careens into view, buzzes a few armed soldiers, and crashes into a distant building. Drake uses this as a distraction to hop out, pick up an assault rifle, slide into cover, and take them out from behind.

Nathan Drake will be joined by the Australian beauty Chloe Frazer.
Nathan Drake will be joined by the Australian beauty Chloe Frazer.

With this immediate threat taken care of, the focus shifts toward Drake exploring this war zone to make his scheduled rendezvous with Chloe. If you venture too far in the wrong direction, the game will kindly let you know that you're going the wrong way with a cinematic bus explosion. Looking around a bit further reveals a collection of street poles, building signs, and balconies that stand out like beacons among the scattered bricks and chunks of concrete. The level of cinematic detail present throughout the game doesn't take any time off here: Signs bend under Drake's weight, balconies dip when he vaults onto them, and the general level of destruction and dilapidation is clearly evident as Drake platforms around the city.

It's in this platforming that Naughty Dog has made some of the biggest improvements to the gameplay. The climbing and shooting sections felt very distant from one another in the first game, like two halves of a whole that never quite met. This time around, those two elements will be fused with your ability to take arms at any moment--whether behind cover, climbing up the side of a building, or anywhere in between. If you're on a ledge underneath a rooftop guard, you can quickly peer up, pop him in the head, and continue on your merry way. But the opposite is also true: If you're sidling along a tall ledge and you see a guard below, you can take him out from on high without breaking your platforming momentum. It all looks very fluid, with terrific animations that manage to surpass the quality visuals that the first game boasted.

A glimpse at one of the snowy environments you'll later encounter.
A glimpse at one of the snowy environments you'll later encounter.

A moment later, Drake was back on the ground and ready to approach a group of soldiers mulling around for what was sure to be a large firefight. But if you're careful, you can tip the odds in your favor by using stealth tactics against the first handful of soldiers. The ability to take on enemies via less aggressive means is a big focus for Naughty Dog, and that was evident in this demo. Drake managed to sneak up on the first few guards and quietly take them out before a watchful soldier caught him in his peripheral vision, giving you the choice of either scampering up a building and letting them chase you up (a new AI behavior) or just taking them on full-steam ahead.

The Naughty Dog employee in charge of the demo chose the latter option. The core of the combat remains the same, which is cover-based gunplay that rewards patience and quick timing. However, the way in which you'll be taking cover seems to have been expanded. During this brief firefight, we noticed a couple of interesting moments. At one point, Drake kicked over a table to gain better protection, and shortly afterward stole a riot shield from a hapless enemy to function as both mobile cover and a brutal melee weapon.

The demo then ended with a cutscene that showed Drake and Chloe meeting up, exchanging some witty dialogue, and deciding where to head off to next. The two voices seem like a nice pairing, and Naughty Dog went so far as to show us footage of the two voice actors interacting in person from an audition tape, just to make sure they had the right chemistry. That level of near obsessive-compulsion to make sure the presentation remains consistently slick was fairly evident in everything we saw: The animations, lighting, and every sound effect, right down to ricocheting bullets, was thoroughly impressive. It's clear that the work done to craft the game's Naughty Dog Engine 2.0 ought to pay off. We're especially looking forward to seeing how that engine handles the snowy environments.

Platforming and gun combat will be more closely intertwined with the ability to shoot while climbing.
Platforming and gun combat will be more closely intertwined with the ability to shoot while climbing.

Altogether, if you were a fan of the original game, there's a lot to be excited about here. The only thing that has us the least bit worried is that the connection between the first game and this one, in terms of story, seems almost nonexistent. Members of the development team we talked to were coy about wanting the sequel to have the power to stand on its own, and they avoided any discussion on whether the first game's characters would be entirely cast to the side. Although that question will remain unanswered for the time being, everything else we've seen about Uncharted 2 looks really good. We'll have more on the game in the months leading up to its fall 2009 release.

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