UNCHARTED 2: Among Thieves

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

Playing UNCHARTED 2: Among Thieves directly after completing UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune, which I enjoyed quite a bit, I approached the sequel with the expectation that I’d be entertained at least as much as the first game. UNCHARTED 2 slightly exceeded my expectations in some ways, surprised me in a few key areas, and above all delivered a cracking game play experience.

First thing’s first. Like UNCHARTED: Drake’s FortuneUNCHARTED 2 doesn’t have the most inspired plot. It’s entertaining for what it is: another story in which Nathan Drake follows clues to find an ancient treasure, the fabled Cintamani Stone only to find that the stone isn’t what it seems. Along the way, there’s a bit of intrigue, exciting action and gun fights, and it’s all plotted in a linear (though opening in medias res), cinematic and engaging way.

The developers have topped the amazing graphics from the first game and in the sequel I was again treated to some of the most gorgeous visuals I’ve ever encountered in a videogame. According to an interview I’d read, the first game used about a third of the potential processing power of the PS3. UNCHARTED 2 used all of it. I don’t know a thing about “procedurally generated” environmental animation or all the technical magic that goes on under the hood, but the settings and effects sure looked amazing.

The extremely well-done cut scenes were created with in-game assets, so transitions were seamless rather than jarring. Incidental dialogue happening throughout the game added to the feeling of immersion.

One of the things I liked about the music was how it changed depending on what was happening in the game. The music seemed to emerge naturally, rather than being a jarring event. Sometimes the music affected how I felt about the current situation in the game. For example, when exploring ancient temples or remote ice caves, the music would change, creating a more nervous atmosphere. Considering the survival horror aspects of the first game, at times I expected something weird and scary to attack me. Well done, Naughty Dog audio team, well done.

UNCHARTED 2 featured fantastic voice acting, and I was impressed at how well everyone performed in their roles. The actors had genuine chemistry with each other, which shone through in their performances. There seemed to be quite a lot more improvisation than in the first game, but I’m unsure as to how much, as the acting was really good. Combined with great dialogue and acting, there were a ton of laugh out loud moments in UNCHARTED 2. Even when replaying the game, I found myself laughing again at the same wisecracks I heard the first time around. The well-done voice acting added a lot to my enjoyment. Had the voice acting been terrible, I doubt I would have enjoyed it nearly as much.

If Naughty Dog improve the ally and enemy AI in UNCHARTED 2, I didn’t notice it. Everything was as I expected, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. No complaints or frustrations here.

UNCHARTED 2 continues with the same third-person shooter, duck-and-cover, and climbing elements that the first game introduced to the series. There are a few added game mechanics, such as being able to swing from horizontally hanging poles and being able to monkey bar across gaps. These new elements felt like a natural addition, and I caught quickly. I had occasional problems with the cover mechanic, and getting Drake to get in cover in the precise way I wanted, but the experience was tolerable and not so bad as to affect my enjoyment of the game.
 

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

I’m going to dig a little deeper into the characters, story, and my observations related to social and cultural issues. If you haven’t played the game and you’re wary of spoilers, turn back now, because there’ll be some big ones.

Three of the characters from the first game return for UNCHARTED 2: Nathan Drake (of course), Victor “Sully” Sullivan, and Elena Fisher. Two new characters, Chloe Frazier and Harry Flynn, have been added to the mix. Finally, of course, there is the main villain, a Serbian war criminal, Zoran Lazarevic.

Harry Flynn has a previous friendly working relationship with Drake. Like Nate, Harry doesn’t operate strictly within the law, and it’s Harry who brings Nate into a plan to steal the Cintamani Stone from Lazarevic, who hired them to find it in the first place. Flynn later betrays Nate; Flynn was working for the warlord all along and only needed Nate’s expertise in tracking the treasure.

Chloe Frazier emerges first as a partner-in-crime brought in by Harry Flynn to assist with the heist, but later she becomes a love interest of Nate.  Chloe is awesome and she serves as a great counterpart to Nate and to Elena. She is tough and very clever. Throughout the game we’re often second-guessing her motives, as she’s both working with the enemy as sort of a double agent and romantically, if in a casual sense, involved with Nate. She also seems to be romantically involved with Harry Flynn, and because she secretly betrayed Flynn, the game developers seem to insinuate that all her motives are suspect. Trying to figure out Chloe’s angle and motives kept me interested at every turn of the plot, but I wished this angle didn’t have such sexist overtones (beautiful, untrustworthy, seductress).

Elena Fisher is reintroduced one third of the way through the game. We find out that after the events of UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune, Elena and Nate did indeed have some kind of relationship, but to what extent is uncertain. It ended for unspecified reasons and we’re never sure of how long Elena and Nate were involved or how attached they were to each other, but it appears that Elena ended it rather than Drake. In UNCHARTED 2, it’s clear that Elena has grown from her experiences in the first game. No longer is she seeking just a paycheck or fame in entertainment television, but she’s now an investigative journalist tracking a war criminal, which is what brings her to the same city that Lazarevic’s troops are tearing apart in their quest for the Cintamani Stone. Elena is driven by a strong sense of justice. She’s still tough and smart and funny. She was great in UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune, but she fucking rocks in UNCHARTED 2: Among Thieves. Something to note about Elena Fisher’s return is how unexpected it was in some ways, as a lot of people expected a Bond girl type treatment for female characters in the UNCHARTED series.

Then we have our “hero”, Nathan Drake. Many reviews I’ve read have called him a “nice guy”. Really, if people consider Nate a “nice guy” I seriously question their standards . Nathan Drake is not a “nice guy” or “everyman”—for fuck’s sake he has Spider-Man like climbing powers, for one thing. The entire point of Drake’s character development in UNCHARTED 2 is how he is this immature, selfish ass who needs to make choices about what is important in life, and how he is pulled in different directions, represented by Elena Fisher, Chloe Frazier, and to some extent, Harry Flynn. Nate is an asshole. He routinely objectifies and underestimates women. He’s shallow and self-serving. He’s not actually willing to follow through on anything important or do the “right” thing unless another character, especially Elena Fisher, pushes him and challenges him. He has few instinctual directions of his own, and they are strongest when goals serve his own self interest. Even when doing the “right” thing, he acts selfishly, e.g. when he helps Elena and Jeff through the Nepalese city only to lead them to the temple because he wants to continue his quest to find the Cintamani Stone with Chloe, rather than actually helping them to safety. This decision ultimately leads to Jeff’s death, which notably affects no one (which is a fail on the developers’ part). Self-examination and the drive to improve himself independent of the influence of others is not part of Nathan Drake’s personality. Unfortunately, like other videogame protagonists, Nate never develops as a person unless circumstances or other people force him to. I’m glad that Nathan Drake is not a tabula rasa like a multitude of videogame protagonists. It’s good to have characters with personality, but I really think people should take a closer look at Nathan Drake before they sing his praises and erect statues of him in the Videogame Nice Guys Hall of Fame.

I loved the interpersonal chemistry between Elena and Chloe. Both Elena and Chloe playfully rag on Drake when they’re teamed up with him as individuals—Elena in UNCHARTED, and Chloe in UNCHARTED 2. Not only do Elena and Chloe have amicable banter with each other in UNCHARTED 2, but they share their own individual experiences of being around Nathan Drake with each other and rag on him together. There is a lot of priceless dialogue between Chloe and Elena towards the end of the game, where they crack jokes at Nate’s expense, which I absolutely loved to bits. I think it’s really awesome that both women are incredibly witty and funny throughout the game, and that it’s not the hero who gets all the best and most memorable lines. Elena has some of the best and funniest lines in the game, particularly at the very, very end, right before the scene fades to black and the credits roll. Honestly, my favourite lines in the game come from either Elena or Chloe.

What disappointed me about how Chloe was presented in UNCHARTED 2 is that they over-sexualised her where they did not do the same with Elena. I personally did not find much that was too problematic in terms of sexism with regard to how the developers presented Elena. I would rather the designers have treated Chloe with the same regard as they did Elena, instead of subjecting the player to the male gaze which is common and tiresome in media. Chloe would still have been a distinctive character without being presented through the male gaze. A lot of small things that the developers did contributed to the sexist way in which Chloe was presented: camera angles, the way she was dressed, the way she is animated, the way she is posed and positioned in cut scenes, etc.

The way the developers present Chloe to the player is slightly different from Drake treating Chloe in a sexist and objectifying way. It is different from Chloe using her sex appeal to her advantage over the men in the game. Whilst the latter two examples are character-driven, and a result of creating characters with a particular background in mind, presenting Chloe with the male gaze in place tells us more about the developers themselves and their motivations, who they view as their target audience (heterosexual males), and how developers view women than anything about the characters. We can probably surmise that the “sex sells” (to heterosexual males) mantra was repeated within the Naughty Dog offices, if not in an explicit way, then implicitly, and this is evident in how UNCHARTED 2 (or any game) portrays its female characters.

I fully expected either Elena or Chloe to be thrown under the bus, to have fatal tragedy inflicted on either or both women to create dramatic tension for the benefit of Nathan Drake’s character development and personal growth, however this amazingly didn’t happen! Not completely, anyway. They did decide to injure Elena to a serious and life threatening degree before Drake, prompted by Chloe (again, Drake never develops as a person unless someone else walks him through it or challenges him explicitly), realises that he had deeper and more feelings for Elena than he did for Chloe.

What impressed me about how the developers treated Chloe is how they decided to have her exit the tale. Chloe was insightful enough to realise that Drake was very attached to Elena, and mature enough to walk away from Drake with no drama. Considering how women are treated in videogame plots, Chloe’s involvement in Drake’s life could have been handled truly horribly.

One of the things that I absolutely dreaded, but fully expected Naughty Dog to do was the tired old (sexist) love triangle plot device in which the two women fight with each other over the hero or they compete with each other to earn his affections. This would have shown a total lack of respect for the characters, especially Elena, who we’re familiar with as a strong, independent, and intelligent woman in the first game, and it would have further cast Chloe as an “evil” seductress, tempting Drake away from the wholesome Elena. Had they decided to do the whole cat fight thing, it would have further reinforced sexist stereotypes of women as “bitchy”, and reinforced the stupid (and sexist) male fantasy plot, so common in entertainment media (and porn?), of being fought over by two beautiful women. It wouldn’t have been either woman’s personality to fight each other over Drake because they’re both independent, practical, tough women in their own ways, and really how appropriate would it be to have a stupid cat fight in a series of life-threatening circumstances? Naughty Dog didn’t do this to Elena and Chloe. They treated the characters of Elena and Chloe with respect and with what feels like a high regard for their own individual motivations and personality.

I can’t thank Naughty Dog and Amy Hennig enough for respecting the female characters they created and taking the high ground when it could have been all too easy for them to do what almost any other mainstream triple-A game would have done. In conclusion: more of this, please, Naughty Dog! I heard that Amy Hennig stood her ground on gender issues like this many times over, which I know is really difficult in the games industry. Amy Hennig, I salute you!

It honestly saddens me quite a bit to give recognition, thanks, and encouragement for something (not being sexist, respecting women) that should be amongst the bare minimum standards of acceptable human behaviour, but this is unfortunately the state of affairs we’re in in this industry.

Despite my criticisms, both UNCHARTED and UNCHARTED 2 are notable to me in how few problematic gender issues I observed. I examine games closely for sexist content because these issues are important to me, and I often look more closely at games I enjoy. Whilst UNCHARTED 2 isn’t without some problematic sexist content, as pointed out above, there is significantly less than the usual amount of sexism in UNCHARTED 2 as there is in most games. I’m seriously impressed in how far I was not offended in this respect (which is again, kind of a depressing state of affairs when put that way). This is actually fairly high praise coming from me.

With regard to the cultural and racial aspects of UNCHARTED 2, I didn’t find that the developers portrayed Asian cultures or people of colour in ways that struck me as problematic beyond the norm. However as I am ignorant of the historical and cultural intricacies of Turkey, Borneo, Nepal, Tibet, or even Australia in the case of Chloe, I am sure there are nuances I could not see. Perhaps more informed voices will be able to comment more deeply on this aspect of UNCHARTED 2.

I will present my limited perspective, as an Asian woman of colour who has experience living in three different cultures. I want to emphasise that my insight probably is not as good as others who are actually knowledgeable about the cultures we’re talking about.

I don’t feel that the people of colour were treated in a racialised way. Where they were present, I feel that they were presented appropriately. I don’t know Turkish, Nepalese, etc. but I want to hope that Naughty Dog aimed for authenticity and had the voice actors speak real languages rather than gibberish. To do the latter would be incredibly offensive and downright racist. At the start of the game, Nate, Flynn, and Chloe break into a museum in Turkey. I don’t think the Turkish museum guards are portrayed as significantly more or less incompetent than any other random NPC guards one encounters in other videogames. At one point, Drake camps at a remote Tibetan village. I don’t feel that the villagers are portrayed as ignorant savages, speaking in gibberish, although they’re speaking in (what I hope is) their native language and it’s not translated (because Drake can’t understand Tibetan, so why should the player). I don’t feel they are portrayed as imbued with exotic, mysterious, mystical wisdom. Village life is portrayed in a mostly straightforward way, though I felt some undertones of “primitive” idyll. The people in the Tibetan village were not portrayed in a way that accentuated foreignness or exoticness.

I’m sure this is pretty obvious, but there is something seriously problematic about this white Serbian warlord, Zoran Lazarevic, descending upon various locales in Asia, causing untold amounts of violence and destruction, all in search of a mythical gem. That’s basically why Lazarevic is one of the bad guys, though. This is another example of videogames mirroring real life in terms of Westerners fucking things up in other parts of the world.

The quest to find the “Buddhist Holy Grail” (the Cintamani Stone) and doing the Indiana Jones (a highly problematic film series from a racial and cultural perspective BTW) thing is actually quite problmatic in itself, as this “others” cultures by treating their legends and religion as mystical, magical, mysterious, strange, almost unknowable. It dissociates important cultural artefacts from the humans who created them, and further removes them from that which is knowable, that is “us” and “our” culture. In this sense, there is some exotification going on in Uncharted 2.

One thing I’m puzzling over is whether Chloe Frazier is a person of colour. Chloe is Australian by nationality, however her ethnicity, if she is a POC, is a mystery. Despite the dark skin and dark hair, she seems to have blue or grey eyes, which seems unusual. If Chloe is a person of colour, then I don’t feel that she was portrayed in a problematic way in terms of race. I found it difficult to place Chloe’s accent when I didn’t know her nationality. It sounded British to me, but not quite. A little bit of digging turned up the factoid that Claudia Black, the actor who plays Chloe, is an Australian who has lived in the UK for many years, and because of that I guess her Australian accent has been influenced by her cultural environment.
 

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

At this point, I’ll leave my analysis of the characters and social and cultural issues aside, and discuss one last experience with UNCHARTED 2: multiplayer. Before I get into the details of my multiplayer experience, I’ll give a bit of background.

UNCHARTED 2 is the first console game in which I’ve played the online multiplayer component. I don’t have other console games to compare this experience to, so I am writing as a complete newb to this format and to online console play in general.

I mute all voice chat from strangers, and do not enable outgoing voice chat if I play with strangers. I sometimes play multiplayer with chums I know through Twitter and the blogosphere, but have never met in person, but I will enable incoming and outgoing voice chat during those play sessions. Why am I opposed to voice chat with strangers? I have a low tolerance for bullshit when I play games for fun, and I would rather not hear sexist, racist, homophobic, and stupid comments from the mouth breathing console gamers of the world. I’ve read what it’s like being a woman whilst playing console games on Xbox Live, and I doubt the experience on PlayStation Network would be different. Online gaming is something I’d rather not get stressed out over. The sad reality is that a lot of people in the online console space ruin people’s fun because they are complete douchebags. I don’t believe I will form significant connections or friendships playing 20 minute gaming sessions with random people. I don’t think third person shooters are ideal for that (MMORPGs, on the other hand…), so why bother to tolerate the 99% of shit experiences whilst waiting for the 1% of golden moments?

I primarily play in Co-operative modes rather than Competitive modes simply because the former is a play format that I enjoy more. I play competitive modes with my buddies, though. If I fuck up, they’re more understanding. For many folks, online gaming is such SERIOUS BUSINESS that they rage quit if they’re losing even by a little bit.

Lastly, I am not that skilled at this game, at least not compared to the randoms that I’ve played with. It’s less frustrating for all involved if I’m teaming up with people against AI enemies rather than human players. With that background, you can understand why my stats, though seemingly impressive, are actually quite skewed.

So how is multiplayer for me? It’s fun, it’s polished, it’s a great experience overall. Because I primarily play Co-Operative, I haven’t had the less-than-perfect online multiplayer experience that Josh has had. I’ve been playing tons of UNCHARTED 2 multiplayer, and I think it’s a hell of a lot of fun. In fact, one of the reasons I haven’t posted this review sooner is because I’ve spent my evenings and weekends playing Uncharted 2multiplayer.

I think web support for UNCHARTED 2 multiplayer could use more work. Displayed stats are out of date, some features haven’t been implemented yet, and many features are missing. Players like looking at their stats online, and when the web support for a game is lacking, it just feels disappointing to a player who wants to see their current levels and stats instead of figures from several days ago.

I began this UNCHARTED 2 review by looking at general story and game play, examined the characters, discussed social issues in relation to the game, and wrote about my multiplayer experiences. UNCHARTED 2 is an incredibly polished, tight game, with gorgeous visuals, and great characters, delivering on Naughty Dog’s aspirations for an engaging cinematic feel coupled with fun game play. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment, and I met with very few game play frustrations along the way. Conclusion: UNCHARTED 2: Among Thieves is completely brilliant.

ETA – 29 October 2009: I feel the need to clarify that I don’t actually dislike Drake as a character. He is okay, but he is neither an “everyman” nor a “nice guy”.

  7 comments for “UNCHARTED 2: Among Thieves

  1. 29 October 2009 at 00:16

    I see when you said this was going to be an epic blog post, you meant it. o.0 A good read overall though. :)

    Oh, by the way – “procedural generation” is actually pretty easy to grasp if you think of it as “writing a program within a program” – basically, instead of having your artists and level designers hand-craft every tiny little piece of detail on textures/models/environments, instead, you write scripts that tell the game engine how to generate those details, and then the game engine takes care of the chore of visualizing it. So as an example, instead of hand-placing every leaf in a tree, you might write a script that describes “how to make a tree” (start with one big branch that is the trunk, then attach other branches to that branch, and more smaller branches to the branches you just added, and so on, until a certain point at which you add leaves to all the branches instead) and then you could just say “I want a tree here” and the game engine would make you a nice looking tree (perhaps with some settings you could change on a per-tree basis – leaf color, size, etc).

  2. DocDre
    29 October 2009 at 11:43

    Excellent post, particularly the integration of gameplay analysis with a critical cultural analysis.

    I slightly disagree with your characterization of Drake, but i can respect your perspective on him. i felt you had an interesting oversight, tho, in your discussion of the Tibetans. The idea that a White ex-nazi becomes an ‘elder’/leader of the village was problematic for me, as it reinforces paradigms of White male leadership over “less-civilized” folk.

    An additional problem was the way that the gameplay forced you-the-player to lead the native guide around the Himalayan caves. The “drake finds the way” mechanic kinda makes sense when Drake is accompanied by ‘weaker’ characters like Chloe, Elena, and Sully – and even during the chapter with Flynn once we realized that flynn intended to set up Drake all along.

    However, Tenzin is directed to LEAD drake to Schaefer’s secret location. why is he so passive and even reduced to ‘helpmeet’ when he’s more familiar with the terrain and the fauna? Shouldn’t he be more expert at mountaineering/climbing than drake? i admit that this is a subtle point, but i find it instructive to watch how game mechanics and narratives reinforce cultural behaviors and beliefs.

    Good stuff, tho. keep it up.

  3. 29 October 2009 at 17:44

    Those are all really good points, and I agree with them. Thanks for commenting!

  4. 29 October 2009 at 17:46

    Thank you for the detailed explanation! So it seems that procedural generation could potentially give you a slightly different tree every time you visited an area, but all within the general parameters set by the programmers?

  5. Tom
    29 October 2009 at 22:07

    Yay! Awesome post. I’ll second DocDre on the Schaffer/Tenzin stuff, especially how Schaffer was set up in that nice house, and everyone respected him. Didn’t he roll through their town with his Nazi buddies 60 years before, *kill them all*, and then come hang out in the village? I wouldn’t trust him.

    Also, I really liked the bit where Drake walks through the town. I was expecting it to be terribly problematic, and it wasn’t, for the most part, especially how Drake treated them.

    Also, I’m jealous that you beat me to this, I have a long winded, laborious PoP/Among Thieves post rolling around in my head/computer. Oh well, at least I can take inspiration from you.

  6. Ice Burn
    7 December 2009 at 22:10

    A bit late, but I’ll weigh in.
    I think the reason Drake is called an “every-man” is precisely due to the flaws you have brought up. Too many games have heroes who are either entirely unredeemable or far too “noble” to be taken seriously. Drake comes across as a pretty average guy, in terms of drive; he DOES NOT want to be the hero, he doesn’t want to throw himself into situations where either his life or the lives of those near to him are threatened, and I got the impression throughout both games he would have rather walked away from it all were it not for the people around him appealing to his better nature, and the promise of some sort of payoff in the end.
    After all, the entire point of his adventures was to strike it rich, gain fame and reknown, retire early to luxury. Yes, he is bit sexist, more than a little cocky, a mite cowardly, but not unwilling risk it all when reminded that there is more to life than wine, women and song. This also can describe many men in real life, possessing all the same flaws, and perhaps the same strengths at the end of it all.
    It’s men who call Drake an every-man, who see the same flaws and failings that they see within themselves. He isn’t incredibly noble or selfless, nor is he overflowing with false, forced machismo. He has just enough of all these things to seem like an actual person, a character that can resonate with men who are just as flawed (and realize it) as Drake.

  7. 1 January 2010 at 11:27

    2009 in Review

    I haven’t been in the habit of doing year-in-review posts, so why not do one? Looking back at the blog, I’ve drifted away from the continuous navel-gazing of play experiences, towards lengthier, more thoughtful, and less frequent posts. Over the…

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