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Joystiq impressions: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Kevin Kelly

We ventured out to Naughty Dog studios yesterday to check out the eagerly anticipated sequel, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The bad news? We didn't get to play it. We instead watched Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells take Nathan Drake through the paces. Nothing makes your palm itch more than watching someone else play a game you're dying to get your hands on.

The good news? It looks, perhaps unsurprisingly, very promising. With new abilities for Drake, better usage of the PlayStation 3 hardware and a curvy new love interest, Naughty Dog appears set to deliver a great sequel to 2007's critically acclaimed jungle romp. Check out our impressions after the break.

Gallery: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2/3/09) | 9 Photos

Much like Drake's Fortune, Among Thieves will focus on a historical "what if?" situation, this one involving Marco Polo's Lost Fleet, and a search for an enormous wish-granting ruby called the Cintamani Stone. The plot has a basis in real life too: Polo set sail from the Fujian province of China with 14 ships and 600 passengers, but only one ship and 18 passengers survived the journey. Together with a new companion and inevitable love interest, Chloe Frazer (voiced by Claudia Black), Drake attempts to get to the bottom of a mystery that spans a war-torn city in Nepal, the Himalayan mountains, a swamp and a train car, dangling precariously from a snowy cliff.

When the environment doesn't attempt to do him in, Drake has to contend with new enemies capable of hunting behavior. "You won't be seeing pirates wearing t-shirts who can absorb 20 bullets in this game," came a joking observation. Thankfully, their clothing will still play a role of sorts, with lighter-colored garb signaling easily foiled foes, while darker equipment foreshadows a tougher battle. Depending on whether he's hiding or going on the offensive, Drake will exhibit different animations to match his "mood sets."
Of course, few things improve our moods as much as a good, old-fashioned shootout. Uncharted 2 spruces up the combat though "Traversal Gunplay," which is Naughty Dog's fancy way of saying, "Nathan can shoot no matter what he's doing." Whether balancing on a log, swinging on a vine, climbing up the side of a building, or dangling from a ledge, Drake retains the ability to whip out his pistol and fire. Expect to feel less vulnerable while attempting something risky -- like climbing a dilapidated building.

In addition to trading the original game's lush locales for new battlegrounds, Uncharted 2 breathes life into environments with the addition of moving elements like speeding trains (the best kind of train!) and explosive trucks. Thanks to a better grasp on Sony's hardware, Naughty Dog can get away with more animations, effects, and doing things like sticking Nathan into a building that's actively collapsing around him.

Our demo started off in the aforementioned Nepalese city, almost completely decimated by war and mercenaries. Drake enters the city disguised as a member of the press, a disguise which doesn't last as long as he'd like. When the level opens, Drake is taking cover behind a low wall, while enemy soldiers pass closely by. Soon after, the action ignites when a bus filled with armed freedom fighters crashes into the scene, taking out a few guards in the process.

Drake sneaks out and grabs a rifle, which prompts a decision that you'll encounter throughout the game, according to Naughty Dog. Action or stealth? We get to see it both ways, with the former option leading to a nontrivial battle with the soldiers. The second attempt -- the stealth approach -- seems to fare better. With his path blocked by the wreckage of a bus, Drake opts to do his favorite thing in the world: climb.

Gone are the jungles, cliffs and boulders of Drake's Fortune, here replaced with poles, metal signs, air-conditioning units and whatever else can serve as a handhold. Luckily, most of the buildings now resemble swiss cheese, so there's a lot to grab onto. Drake hoists himself into a leaky building, clambers up a bookshelf a la Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, and continues on his way.

Farther on, our hero encounters some soldiers crouching behind riot shields -- here's where one of Drake's new melee attacks comes into play. He dashes up the shield like it's a ramp, lands behind his foe and promptly takes him out. Not one to squander opportunity, Drake makes sure to use the riot shield to block bullets and bash people in the face. We like it.

Eventually, Drake gets pinned down by several soldiers and a massive truck with a mounted turret. All seems lost until Chloe shows up with a rocket launcher in tow, ready to save the adventurer's ass. After the fireworks, the pair engage in some flirty, comical dialogue and use a mysterious artifact -- the Phurba dagger -- to point them towards their next destination..

In terms of visuals, Among Thieves boasts several observable improvements over its predecessor: character animation is a lot smoother; Drake's in-game model now matches the one used in cinematics; and environments look a lot richer. At one point, Drake is creeping past a blown-out shop littered with many colorful wooden masks -- they looked real enough to make us want to reach out and pick one up. Enemy AI still appears to be a work in progress, as we noticed several soldier turn their backs on Drake, even when he was firing at them. Perhaps they were just really unobservant or too paranoid about Drake's newfound ability to shoot from any location.

Ultimately, If you loved Uncharted, you probably don't need this preview to excite you any further. Naughty Dog seems to be crafting a superb sequel, but one that should prove alluring even to newcomers. The story is designed to stand on its own as an "interactive summer blockbuster" experience, according to Naughty Dog. While the developer wouldn't offer an exact release date, you can expect Uncharted 2: Among Thieves to hit shelves before the holidays. As polished as everything currently looks, we wouldn't be surprised to see it sooner rather than later.

Gallery: Naughty Dog Studios | 23 Photos

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