Attempts to capture the magic of cinema in video game form have been around since almost the beginning. Many end up leaning closer to one of these mediums than the other. Early attempts such as Dragon’s Lair simply showed scenes while requiring sudden button presses to keep the scene going. A lot of other ‘cinematic’ games grind to constant halts, forcing the player to drop their controller while a cutscene plays out. When all the awe and spectacle is limited to these moments, it can make the actual action disappointing. While Uncharted has never been free of cutscenes, the best moments are all part of the gameplay.
Lacking a better term, Uncharted 2 is one of the top examples of the setpiece action-adventure genre. Few games have such stunning openings. Nathan Drake wakes bloodied in a train, which he quickly realizes is dangling precariously over a snowy cliff. After falling to the railing at the bottom, the game immediately switches to the player’s control. You must guide Nathan Drake up the train as everything falls apart. Few moments in ‘cinematic’ gaming feel so visceral; if this is where we begin, what other tricks does Uncharted 2 have up its sleeves? This is a game about constant escalation which dares to puts its best foot forward.
The inspiration is obvious – Uncharted is essentially the Indiana Jones franchise in video game form. But plenty of games feature harried archaeologists running into thieves and waking ancient evils. What other attempts lacked was the ability to capture the extravagant situations Indy would find himself in.
Key to Uncharted 2 is the smoothness of its gameplay – the first game set the stage, but combat was a clunky mess. The sequel throws a lot at you as it switches up the sets, but it’s never hard to transition. While several sets simply require climbing, the best moments mix navigation with a constant threat. One early highlight finds Nathan fleeing through a collapsing hotel while assaulted by a helicopter. Even when he finds brief cover from the copter, more enemies pop around the corner for shootouts.
The sequence leading to the opening train wreck (the first part of the game being the typical “how did I get into this mess” presentation) is just as exciting, requiring Drake to jump between train cars and fend off gunmen as he’s carried from the jungle up to the Himalayas. Another highlight involves a tank. Uncharted 2 succeeds at making everything look impossible before offering a path to victory.
Even outside the big action sequences, Uncharted 2 has a compelling narrative. The characters are strong, with Nathan Drake being one of the better-defined video game protagonists. He’s always ready with a quip when things go wrong, but his close bonds reveal his heroic nature. The sense of escalation is matched by the unfolding plot, going places you could never imagine.
It is sometimes easy to mock a game for being too cinematic; after a certain point, it can feel like the developers only told their story in video game form because they couldn’t get anyone to fund their movie. By so effortlessly integrating its narrative into the gameplay, Uncharted 2 set a new standard.