Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Fun in PlayStation 3's 'Uncharted 2' is off the charts

The action/adventure game features fun gameplay and top-notch production values

Omar L. Gallaga
ogallaga@statesman.com

"Uncharted 2: Among Thieves," a new video game for the PlayStation 3, begins with its bloodied hero Nathan Drake hanging by a rail from a train car that's dangling off a snowy cliff.

With no context to draw from, the player is forced to figure out the mechanics of shimmying up the wrecked car as metal splits apart and boulders rain down. By the time you make it back up to safety (if you make it up to safety), you're left as winded and exhausted as Drake. It's a stunning opener, enhanced by detailed graphics and expert sound design. There are $200 million Hollywood-studio movies that couldn't pull off the crackling tension and visual finesse of such a scene.

Midway through the game, it becomes clear that the opener was no fluke. "Uncharted 2" is one of the year's best video games, a highly polished gem that regularly surprises and wows in ways that other interactive entertainment rarely achieves. Drake, a kind of globe-trotting Indiana Jones with hair gel and CW Network good looks, dodges armored tanks on the streets of Nepal, hunts for artifacts in the jungles of Borneo and in one jaw-dropping sequence, does battle with a helicopter from a moving locomotive.

It's what happens when what feels like Sony Entertainment's entire production budget is poured into making a game with bleeding-edge production values. Whatever digital trickery was put in the service of making Drake's adventures so cinematic and large-scale paid off. Though it moves at a breakneck pace for about 15-20 hours of play, you could stop at any moment and admire the play of streaming light on cave walls or the contents of a high-rise tenement as it literally collapses around you from rocket fire.

Drake is following a trail left behind by Marco Polo to a legendary jewel in the lost city of Shambhala while being pursued by (wait for it...) a bad guy with connections to Nazis. The story isn't ground-breaking, but the third-person characterizations of Drake, his romantic interests and even routine thugs are beautifully rendered. Drake in particular — who is given to the occasional curse word and a lot of pithy dialogue — works well as a leading man and goes beyond the generic stand-in of most action/adventure games. You won't confuse the characters in "Uncharted 2" for real movie stars, but there's an impressive range of emotions and good work on the motion-capture front.

All of the eye- and ear-candy would be pointless if there wasn't a solid game to play through. "Uncharted 2" combines elements we see in other modern games — good climbing and jumping mechanics, simple gunplay controls and a clever cover system for evading attacks from enemy henchmen. On some levels, you're climbing ledges and solving puzzles (echoes of "Tomb Raider" abound); in others, you're engaging in firefights and blowing up stuff. You might find yourself dodging obstacles atop a train or hopping rooftops while under fire. Unlike many games where disparate gameplay elements never feel cohesive, "Uncharted 2" never leaves you bored or frustrated.

If at any point in the game you truly feel stuck, you can get an optional hint to help you through. You'll want to play through the game's entire 26 stages because no one piece of the game feels short-changed; it's gorgeous and fun to play throughout.

There's even a multiplayer mode that takes the well-conditioned gameplay online in several modes, such as "Plunder" and "Deathmatch."

But it's the single-player adventure that makes "Uncharted 2" a standout on a console that's had very few exclusive games of this quality. Set piece after set piece transports you and dazzles you with engaging, pulse-quickening fun.

It looks like it'll be a good holiday season for games, but even in a crowd that includes "Modern Warfare 2" and "Dragon Age: Origins," "Among Thieves" is a must-own for PS3 gamers.

ogallaga@statesman.com; 445-3672