The soul of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (Naughty Dog/Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment/Rate Teen), a PlayStation 3 exclusive from Santa Monica-based Naughty Dog studios, isn't its graphics, which are beautiful, believable and more often than not quite spectacular. Nor is it the game's brilliant, fiercely accessible mixture of Tomb Raider-esque exploration and tense, third-person gunfights. It is instead actor Nolan North, the man who lends his voice to charming, easygoing treasure hunter Nathan Drake.
As we follow Marco Polo's trail in a mad dash for the fabled riches of Shangri-La, visiting along the way such exotic locales as Istanbul, Borneo, and the mountains of Tibet, Mr. North gives voice to the player's thoughts, offhandedly commenting on the dazzling scenery, muttering about always being the one who has to do the dangerous jobs, and cracking jokes Die Hard-style - "Ha! That was your neck!" - while under fire. He also likes to ham it up for the women he adventures with, using his man-boyish wiles - a mixture of affable buffoonery and adept tomfoolery - in an attempt to earn their affections.
Indeed, hardly a minute goes by in this lengthy, 12-hour story without our hero saying something interesting, important, or, at the very least, amusing. He's the video game equivalent of Indiana Jones or perhaps Robert Langdon, only better because unlike the former he's relevant to today's audiences and unlike the latter he's actually cool - the sort of guy adventure-loving men wish they could be.
Without him, it's difficult to imagine what Among Thieves would have been like. Perhaps just another pretty action game.
Actually, that's not fair. Among Thieves is an exceptionally pretty action game. Nathan Drake - a virtual ringer for Firefly's Nathan Fillion (coincidence?) - is one of the most expressive video game characters ever created. Whether he's furrowing his brow in disbelief or rolling his eyes in frustration, we often know exactly how he feels even before he begins speaking.
The environments are a match for the characters. The view we're provided upon climbing to the top of a building in an urban district in Borneo is nothing short of spectacular. In fact, I blame the beauty of this cityscape for at least half of the dozen or so deaths I suffered while trying to evade a helicopter chasing me across the rooftops (I couldn't stop myself from occasionally pausing to admire the panorama).
Plus, it's about as cinematic as video games get. The camera is adaptive and dynamic, always striving to provide players with interesting angles while ensuring a good view of the action. If Drake is dangling from a ledge we're given an elevated view so we can see the danger that lurks below. If he's quietly climbing a cliff with soldiers above, the camera will move back and below. It feels like there's an operator working from a script who's ready to capture all the best shots.
All this and it's a hoot to play, too.
Uncharted 2 trailer Get an idea of the game's spectacular graphics and camerawork
Whether I was sneaking around and quietly pushing bad guys off of precipices, referencing Drake's amusingly annotated notebook (make sure to search out his hand-drawn scare-o-meter) to solve ancient Tibetan puzzles, or leaping from one vehicle to another in a high speed convoy, I never found myself uninterested in the action - in large part because I could never tell what was coming next. One chapter would have me figuring out how to climb the inside of a giant temple with no gunplay at all while the next would be an all-out assault on an enemy stronghold.
Much as I would like to reveal more about some of Among Thieves ' unique play scenarios-especially concerning one chapter set in and around a series of war-ruined high-rise buildings-I'm going to stop here. To provide any more detail on Drake's specific doings would rob the reader of discovery, which is part of the game's wonder. Suffice to say the diversity effectively keeps players from ever tiring of one particular activity.
And learning how to play is a cinch, even for rookies. The first chapter, in which Drake finds himself at the bottom of a train teetering on the edge of a cliff, lets players figure out the game's common-sense controls for themselves as they scale the car to safety. Want to climb up? Press up. Need to jump in a particular direction? Push the control stick that way and hit the action button. The interface is at once intuitive, tight, and surprisingly-yet pleasantly-forgiving.
While the deep, highly replayable, story-driven campaign is the game's undeniable highlight, fans of multiplayer will be pleased to learn that there is a robust and shamefully satisfying online mode with ten different game types, including original co-operative story-based missions for up to three people. Avid players will likely find themselves returning to the multiplayer for months.
To be sure, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves delivers some of the most gratifying graphics and game scenarios I've yet encountered on any platform. However, the thing I'll remember most about the game is its endearing, believable, and utterly human hero, Nathan Drake. Like the best characters in film and literature, I almost feel as though I know him, like he's a friend. That, if nothing else, is a first for interactive entertainment, and something to which other game makers would do well to aspire.