‘Uncharted 2: Among Thieves’ arrived in 2009 with a resounding bang. It is the unabashed elite action-adventure extraordinaire of its generation, and probably of all time. It keeps the very best features of ‘Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune’, enhances them to a dizzying degree of excellence, and further improves on things with some fresh concepts and ideas. It succeeds uniformly well with almost everything it attempts and offers an engrossing and thoroughly enjoyable escape and adventure.
In terms of sheer verve and spectacle it had no rival at its time of release and—at least in this writer’s opinion—has still never been bettered, particularly since the Bluepoint Games HD remastered version was released in 2015 on the Playstation 4, as part of ‘Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection’ (from which the screenshots in this article have been taken).
The game starts with an opening that Hollywood movie director and producer, J.J. Abrams, apparently remarked on as being the best he had ever seen in a film, TV show, or video game. At the beginning of our adventure we find our winsome hero, Nathan ‘Nate’ Drake, hanging from a derailed train, which is dangling precariously over a Himalayan mountain face. The sense of place is fantastic; below is an abyss of several thousand metres, and on all sides are jagged snow-covered peaks. It is cold, snowing profusely, and the train is breaking apart piece-by-piece and gradually slipping off into the nothingness below.
We have two options: let our hero fall to his death with the train or try to somehow climb back up to solid ground. These days a lot of video games, TV shows, and films end on a metaphorical cliff-hanger in order to keep the audience coming back for more; ‘Uncharted 2: Among Thieves’ starts with a literal cliff-hanger and makes us never want the adventure to end. It is an unbeatable introduction, and the superior quality that the game exudes is evident all the way through to the closing credits.
This time Nate is on the trail of the famous Venetian traveller Marco Polo and the lost kingdom of Shambhala, or Shangri-La as it is better known in the West owing to James Hilton’s excellent 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Unlike his first digital foray, this adventure takes place on a more global scale as Nate swashbuckles his way to Turkey, Borneo, Nepal, and deep into the Himalayan hinterland.
During the international tour we get to visit a museum, a jungle, war-torn city streets, high alpine locations, and a hidden city. The locales are varied and interesting. Each area is exquisitely rendered with rich attention to detail, especially in the Playstation 4 remastered version where the visuals seem to almost pop out of the screen.
A lot of the strong points of ‘Among Thieves’ are also evident in the first game of the series, ‘Drake’s Fortune’, but it is the level that things are ramped-up to in the sequel that blows its predecessor out of the water. To consider some examples, in the first game we have a jungle chase during which our hero gets to blow up pursuing vehicles from a jeep-mounted machine gun. It was certainly a great deal of fun. However, in ‘Among Thieves’ there is a chase that takes place high on a precipitous Himalayan cliff that necessitates Nate jumping from burning enemy vehicle to vehicle as he clears each one out in turn.
Similarly, whereas ‘Drake’s Fortune’ contains sections that involve negotiating a sunken city and a river while firing at bad guys from a Jet Ski, ‘Among Thieves’ has two back-to-back levels set aboard a fast-moving train that consist of battling foot soldiers, taking on powerful machine guns, and even engaging in a thrilling duel with a helicopter gunship. The two levels, entitled ‘Locomotion’ and ‘Tunnel Vision’, are astounding in their ambition and deserve a more detailed exposition here.
The narrative has Nate—always a ladies’ man—board a moving train with the help of one of his love interests, Elena, in order to rescue another love interest, Chloe. The train is incredibly long, and Nate must make his way to the front by whatever means necessary. That includes going through the carriages, over the top of them, and around their sides. While attempting this he is assaulted by a multitude of gun-toting enemy NPCs. He must also avoid being knocked off the train by trackside obstacles. As he slowly makes forward progress the enemies become more and more difficult, until our hero is attacked by a missile-firing Russian gunship and finally, by a grenade-lobbing end-of-level boss.
It’s not just that the gameplay is exciting, there are other factors that contribute to the levels’ greatness: their scale is amazing, they are exceedingly dramatic, and the scenery is spectacular. During the first half of the journey, which commences from an unnamed Nepali city, the train passes through verdant bamboo groves and isolated rural hamlets, but as the elevation increases the surrounding landscape changes.
At one point, mid-helicopter battle, we enter a tunnel; when the train emerges from the other end it bursts into an icy Himalayan amphitheatre of towering rugged peaks. The transition is so effective, and the snowy environment so realistically portrayed, that one can almost feel the biting cold reaching out. The train moves at a very high velocity, so it really seems that we are speeding headlong into who-knows-what, in one of the most inhospitable environments on Earth. Despite how terrifying this would be to anyone, throughout his high-altitude train traverse Nate offers punchy quips as he talks himself through overwhelming odds and taunts his foes. It’s pure edge-of-the-seat interactive entertainment at its finest.
There are several more of these terrific set pieces in ‘Among Thieves’, including an earlier rooftop game of cat and mouse with another helicopter gunship and a furious battle with a tank later on. These are nail-biting encounters that offer moments of extreme excitement and tension.
Offsetting these high-adrenaline experiences, the game also provides slower-paced peaceful moments wherein we can regain our composure. The most obvious of these takes place in a small isolated Himalayan village that features scenery that superlatives simply don’t do justice to. Nate is free to take his time to walk around, appreciate the views, and interact with the locals.
This kind of relaxed gameplay was almost non-existent in previous action titles, and it is one of the features that sets ‘Among Thieves’ apart from the rest of the pack. The timing of the appearance of this level is what makes it so effective, as the sections preceding it are packed with pulse-pounding high-stakes action. Following with a contrastingly tranquil period results in excellent pacing in terms of both gameplay and story.
The relationships and interaction between the game’s main characters are interesting and well thought out too. In addition, the antagonists are much better developed than their counterparts were in ‘Drake’s Fortune’.
The story features backstabbing and double-crossing among several of the cast, and the depth to which Naughty Dog has taken the general relationship building makes the overall adventure all the more engrossing. Although Elena and Sully from ‘Drake’s Fortune’ make a welcome return, several new characters also have prominent roles in the sequel. Not one of them feels extraneous; they are all integral to how the story develops and have an actual purpose within the game. As a bonus, this makes for some good sub-plots.
Without giving too much away, one of these is an ex-Nazi army unit commander who, it is revealed, was searching for the same treasure as Nate many decades ago. His backstory is not only engaging but also acts as a point of comparison for analysing our character’s motivations. Moreover, meeting the former soldier and learning more about his past has an influence on some of the decisions the main protagonist makes in the game.
Another improvement over ‘Drake’s Fortune’ is the way that Nate can use the journal he carries at will. In the earlier game, the player was prompted to open a journal at scripted points, and what we could see was limited to the particular page that was relevant to the moment’s gameplay. However, in ‘Among Thieves’, we can pull out the journal at almost any time and freely leaf through its pages.
There is some excellent detail in there, including historical information, puzzle advice, and humorous doodles. Being able to consult a map of Marco Polo’s voyage whenever we want to enhances the story. Using hints contained in the journal to solve puzzles injects realism into the gameplay. Thumbing through Nate’s sketches and comical visual representations of his musings adds considerable depth to his personality—and to the relationships he has with other characters. There is even a page of pressed flowers, written next to which are the names of women Nate has presumably enjoyed amorous encounters with over the years.
The journal is a brilliant example of how Naughty Dog built upon something that featured in the first game of the ‘Uncharted’ series. Using it also contributes to the feeling of exploration that a game of this genre should offer, and ‘Among Thieves’ certainly includes hearty helpings of that. There are cool secret chambers concealed beneath Buddhist temples to enter, treacherous ice caves to navigate, and eventually, a lost city to discover. After having finally made our way through the exotic and aesthetically pleasing levels, we are awarded a fantastic crescendo of an ending.
The last few cutscenes of the game have quite an emotional weight, and upon the story’s conclusion it is very tempting to jump right back in and enjoy the adventure all over again.
When everything is taken into consideration the game is pretty much perfect. In combination, the story, locations, characters, exploration, and action offer an experience that can best be described as epic. ‘Uncharted 2: Among Thieves’ is the ultimate gaming action-adventure.
Disclaimer – A Note on Ownership and Copyright:
No ownership of copyright for the game cover or gameplay images included on this page is claimed by the creator of Escape & Adventure. A credit beneath each gameplay image references the game’s publisher and developer. The images are only shown on this site to help the reader’s appreciation of the superior works they represent. All the images have been used in accordance with what is believed to be fair use. The in-game screenshots were taken manually by Escape & Adventure during actual playthroughs and are not from any other sources. All the literary work contained on this page is the intellectual property of the creator of Escape & Adventure. Consent is required before any of the literary work can be reproduced in any form.