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Impressions: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and old flings


Elena Fisher, shrewdly describing herself as "last year's model," is back in Uncharted 2, breaking with the standard serial adventure ethos that values the one-and-done romantic interest over long-term attachment. It may have taken Marion two decades to make her way back to Indy's side, but Elena has swiftly staked a claim as Nathan Drake's true sidekick. The two reunite in Naughty Dog's sequel with the sassy Chloe spicing up the between-the-sheets melodrama. It's a diversion, at least, from the requisite mass murdering that seems to accompany Drake's carefree treasure hunts.

Naughty Dog most certainly has not scaled back any of the elements that made the first Uncharted a blast to play but, upon reflection, posed some serious questions about Drake's psychological condition. The man single-handedly committed pirate genocide, after all (well, Elena did peg a few, too). Fitting, then, that Uncharted 2's antagonist is a Serbian war criminal, who might share more in common with Drake than the surface story leads us to believe.

Gallery: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (1/23/09) | 8 Photos

Director Bruce Straley talked a lot about storytelling as he guided Drake through several never-before-seen sections of the single-player game. He began on a centralized hotel rooftop in a sprawling Nepalese city, nestled in a valley in the foothills of the Himalayas. Straley pointed out at the distant landscape, dotted with dozens of shimmering shrines. Out there, he explained, was our destination; one of the temples hid the key to the secret entrance to the mythical kingdom of Shambhala.

Straley was highlighting how visual cues will be used to enhance the game's reality -- the existence of an Uncharted universe. There's a sense of a cohesive, visible world that is completely playable. Additionally, the open-world view serves as a storytelling technique. It's foreshadowing. On top of the hotel, Drake looked toward the edges of town, noting the temples, one of which he would eventually visit, and then, beyond those, snow-capped mountains, which (from trailers) we know will be another distant, gameplay destination.

Collecting himself back into the present location, Drake shimmied and tiptoed across rooftops, Chloe tagging long. The easygoing platforming was not to last, though, as a heavily armed helicopter descended upon the adventures, unleashing all manner of firepower on the brittle architecture supporting the duo. The ensuing chase -- and massive environmental destruction -- showed off the game's new, dynamic objects technology. Trees sprouting from a rooftop garden bent and swayed in rhythm with the wind generated by the copter's blades. Later, as a building collapsed, all manner of objects (boxes, desks, chairs, mercenaries, and even Drake and Chloe) slid toward a gaping opening where a wall once shielded the outside -- before the bad guys rocketed it to pieces. With disregard for the in-process catastrophe, the firefight continued between our heroes and their foes, with moving cover, as Drake and his sidekick stumbled closer to the perilous drop. They leapt, at just the right moment, smashing through a window of the next-door building.

The next section we were shown reunited Drake and Elena, albeit in the most unfavorable of circumstances. Drake and Chloe emerged from the temple, back into the streets, where they saw Elena and a colleague pinned down by gunfire. It was raining now, lightening-and-thundering, the color palette had been stripped and desaturated. More visual storytelling. Drama indeed.

Eventually, the allies-by-default, Elena, Chloe, Drake, and an injured cameraman glued to Drake's shoulder, were forced to run (and shuffle) for their lives. Drake is slowed down as Chloe pushes ahead (she's the selfish one), and Elena is trying her best to stave off the oncoming militia. There's more, subtle storytelling in this escape mission; in the back-and-forth bantering; in the canned moments; and in each character's reaction to these events: a life-or-death tussle in an alleyway; a mortar shell just missing into a nearby wall.

Couple the improved physicality of the virtual actors (um, the animations) with the artful environmental effects, and Naughty Dog is building in-game antagonism. Uncharted 2 is peeling away the surface layers applied in the first adventure and actively pushing us to enter into Drake's unstable condition. Just ask the guy we saw him toss from a rooftop. Or the dude who burst into flames when Drake chucked a propane tank at him, igniting the makeshift bomb with a single bullet. There's enhanced gameplay depth for sure, but also a more dramatic, brutal experience. Bring it on!

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