Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is the second installment in the Uncharted series and was released in 2009 to commercial and critical success, considered the magnum opus of the trilogy before the fourth entry. My feelings on the first Uncharted are mixed. The underwhelming story and repetitive shooting galleries pull me out of the game far too often, even if I still appreciate the game for what it is (see my Uncharted 1 article on that). On my inaugural playthrough I was well aware of Among Thieves’ pedigree but I couldn’t help but worry it may be a rehash of the first adventure.
Among Thieves finds Nate two years after the first game as he becomes involved in a quest to hunt down the fabled Cintamani Stone, which is said to be located in the city of Shambhala. Marco Polo sought The Stone at the end of the 13th century. Meanwhile, army commander and war criminal Zoran Lazarević is hunting the stone for his own personal gain.
As with Drake’s Fortune, Among Thieves is a slog presented as a grand spectacle. Improvements to the main mechanics, story pacing, and level diversity invigorate the moment to moment experience, sustaining and embellishing in all the right directions. This does little to save the lackluster story, merely masking the same issues from the previous game. But unlike the first game, I see myself revisiting Among Thieves because it is a pleasure to play. The game takes a lot more risks and ends up being a richer experience.
Among Thieves introduces players to some new faces: Harry Flynn and Chloe Frazer. They approach Nate at the start of the game in hopes he will help them steal an oil lamp from a museum in Istanbul connected to Marco Polo. Although the plan is to cheat Flynn’s client, who we later learn is Lazarević, Nate is the one who ends up cheated as Flynn abandons him at the museum. Flynn is cocky and slimy, helped none by mediocre expedition skills that make you want to punch him through the screen from your living room couch. He is fun to hate but retains the cliche bad-boy with uncertain loyalty vibe.
Chloe, on the other hand, is my favorite character of not just the game, but the whole series. Her loyalties are unclear throughout the game, her actions forcing Nate (and the player) to second guess her true allegiance and motivations. Chloe is a straight shooter who is uninterested in heroics, just getting the job done. When Nate tries to save Jeff the cameraman, Chloe scolds Nate that this is a fool’s errand. Multiple times. She says a lot to the point where you start to wonder if she has something against Jeff. But she is right: saving Jeff only puts them at risk of slowing them down, risking their lives when Jeff will die from his gunshot wound regardless. This is inverted during the conclusion when Elena is wounded from Flynn’s grenade and Chloe carries her to safety even though it slows them down and puts their lives at risk. Chloe has a clear arc in the game, something that can’t be said of Nate (or any of the characters) who ends where he starts, a quippy roguish type with a heart of gold.
Chloe is framed as the other woman. When she and Elena meet, Elena introduces herself as “last year’s model.” This is not the only self-deprecation line inserted for Naughty Dog to acknowledge the trope they are following, as if saying it out loud makes it immune from scrutiny. Chloe is framed as the temptress who clouds Nate’s judgement, while Elena is the girl next door, loyal and good. After all, she is the one he ends up with at the end of the game. It isn’t helped that Chloe is a woman of color who appears sly and devious in her methods. Not a fan.
All to say, yes Elena is back for this second installment. Her and Nate’s relationship is rocky, terminated off screen and brought back for a love triangle plot line that no one asked for. The Uncharted franchise employs these contrivances in every game to create artificial tension. There was no real reason for them to break up, but they did and the audience has no clue why. Then the game makes them realize that they actually are good together and they gaze off into the sunset once more at the end.
They fall into the Ross and Rachel syndrome, popularized by the two characters on the 90s’ sitcom Friends where Ross and Rachel are constantly breaking up and getting back together. This fruitless tension makes the story digestible but undercuts its own fiction. We can’t wonder if Nate and Elena have changed or if what led to their split is mended because we don’t know what that is. The lack of context outright avoiding the subject is distracting.
The dynamic between Nate and Elena helps us stomach this poor narrative choice. No longer new acquaintances, they are much more familiar with one another. While the audience isn’t clued into their history outside of the events of the first game, their dialogue is compelling and delivered believably. Elena is still a pale imitation of a three dimensional character, still relegated to Nate’s sidekick. She has a lot of kick-ass action moments, but these amount to little when looking at the big picture. What is worse is that she is once again Nate’s prize at the end of the game.
Equally irritating is our characters forgetting the events they lived through during the first game. When presented with the reality that the supernatural may be at play with the Cintamani Stone, Nate and Elena act skeptical, especially Nate. Nate denying supernatural involvement implies the traumatic encounters from the last game never happened. Equally perplexing is a moment toward the end when the supernatural has been practically confirmed and our characters have seen the Guardians in Shambala. Chloe questions it, only for Nate and Elena to remain silent about their experience in Panama. It is a little detail that would have added a lot.
Other notable characters in this game are Tenzin and Karl Schäfer. Tenzin is a fan favorite. He is a Tibetan Sherpa who brings Nate back to his village after Nate’s wild train ride and bullet to the stomach. Tenzin doesn’t speak English, so all of his dialogue is conveyed through body language. He proves his knowledge of the landscape by leading Nate through ice caves, demonstrating competence under pressure along the way. When Nate and Tenzin reach a gap that seems impassable, Tenzin calmly grabs an old rope and Nate says, “Yeah, good luck pal, that’s almost impossible to-” before he can finish, Tenzin has cleared the gap and Nate quietly remarks, “Oh, you did it. Nice.” Tenzin manages to exude so much personality without speaking a word of English dialogue. He is the only character who doesn’t seem to have ulterior motives, which I think is what makes him so loveable. There is a pureness to him that is absent from most other characters.
While I love Tenzin, his character feels at home in the Noble Savage trope. His pureness comes from his separation from the Western values of Nate and the white people who burn down his village. The game gives him very little character. He is only there to help Nate (he somehow magically cures Nate of a gunshot wound in mere days) and disappears from the narrative after his village is pillaged. His role is to further Nate’s story, not have a character of his own. This is not a foreign concept for any side character, but stories of straight white men exploring and wrecking land that doesn’t belong to them brings a history of inventing one note characters of color. Once again Uncharted struggles with indigenous representation. It can’t have a character of color without diminishing them to a prop in a straight white man’s story.
Among Thieves was heavily praised at release for “Chapter 16: Where Am I”, the chapter where Nate meets Tenzin. The absence of combat makes the chapter stand out. It exists as a moment of reprieve from all of the action, a chance for Nate (and the player) to take a moment and reflect on everything that has happened. Although commonplace today, this was largely absent from Triple-A action games of the time. This section that only requires Nate to walk through a Tibetan village is the most beautiful in the game. Nate can interact with the children and pet oxen as he follows Tenzin. Instead of rushing the story along, the game allows itself some room to breathe. It should not go unnoticed; it is lovely. I can’t stress enough how important these quiet moments are in action stories. Moments of reprieve and reflection work wonders only in contrast to the noise and pace and explosions and gunfights.
Schäfer is also introduced in Chapter 16. He is a German explorer living in Tenzin’s village. He once sought the Cintamani Stone and encourages Nate to continue the quest. His role in the game is minimal. He is kidnapped while Nate and Tenzin are in the ice caves. While there, Nate discovers that Schäfer killed the Nazi crew he was hired to help find the entrance to Shambala. This he did to protect the world from the Stone.
Schäfer is framed as an important character, his introduction coated in mysterious background music as he offers Nate words of wisdom to continue the quest toward Shambala, despite Nate’s hesitance. Yet this framing of importance is overstated. Schäfer has less than five minutes of screen time yet the game wants the player to care about him. His subsequent capture and eventual death is underwhelming. He would not be missed if removed from the game.
Nate still carries his same personality from the first game, but there is much more of an emphasis on his honorable heroics. Time and time again we see him go out of his way to save others at his own peril: carrying Jeff the cameraman after he has been shot and getting on the train to save Chloe to name a few.
The game emphasises Nate’s identity as a thief. He surrounds himself with thieves who are not be trusted, so at every turn we’re always guessing who might betray us next. At the start of the game, Nate is betrayed by Flynn. Throughout the game, Chloe appears to betray Nate multiple times. These are usually followed by some dialogue clarifying Chloe’s actions, but the immediate feelings of betrayal still linger. Nate himself works to betray Lazarević at the start of the game when he decides to help Chloe and Finn. What is even more troubling is Nate’s thieving antics. Throughout the game we see him steal and plunder every location he vacates, be it ancient artifacts that pertain to the story or the in-game treasure collectables scattered throughout. Nate is a thief and works with thieves, hence the title of the game.
All of this is setup to ask the question, what sets Nathan Drake apart from regular thieves? “Honor among thieves,” Elena says, dropping the game title just before Nate is about to save Chloe midway through the game. Elena’s implication is that even among thieves, there is code. But Lazarević sees beyond Nate’s simple morality. He questions Nate at the end of the game. “You think I am a monster. But you’re no different from me, Drake. How many men have you killed?” This is a great question to raise, and an opportunity for Nate to explain his worldview, elaborate on his motivations. But that doesn’t happen. We just have more quips and explosions because, like I said at the start, the story isn’t interested in the topics it raises. Not really.
Considering the body count Nate stacks up throughout the game, Among Thieves raises the question of ludonarrative dissonance. Nate is established as a good guy throughout the game, yet is consistently tasked to kill enemies around him. We are told he is our hero, but gameplay suggests he is a villain. Even Lazarević suggests this. Joseph Anderson brings up this discussion in his video Uncharted and The Last of Us – Great and Terrible Games, saying, “…some have criticized the series for the dreaded ludonarrative dissonance…I don’t agree with this criticism of the first three games. The enemy forces are hostile to you first. Even when you do instigate some of the encounters, it’s clear that they’re going to kill you, not capture.”2
Yet Nate slaughters an unprecedented amount of guys in this game and the previous game. To make matters worse, the narrative portion of the game pulls the “it’s only cannon in cutscenes” storytelling in this realm. When Lazarević calls out Nate’s trail of bodies, Nate lets the Guardians kill Lazarević instead of pulling the trigger himself. This implies Nate is different from Lazarević, but the loophole feels underbaked.
This game amounts to a rollercoaster ride, enjoyable on its surface but masking the thin story behind the facade. It’s status as the magnum opus of the trilogy rests solely on the fact that the game’s mechanical system builds upon the first game in every capacity and makes it a much more gratifying play experience. Nate has a larger arsenal of abilities which make for smoother combat. Gameplay scenarios are more varied and exciting. Nate spends an entire level traversing the roofs of train cars, taking out enemies as he avoids traffic signals and tries not to fall off the moving platforms, while the next moment he is climbing the train dangling from a cliff above a frozen abyss.
Among Thieves has Nate exploring a higher variety of biomes compared to the first game, which took place on two islands that look exactly the same. Nate visits a tropical forest and an icy tundra and a mountain village. The variety the game offers in comparison to the first is untouchable. The game is impressive on the surface, but all the elements fail to lift the game’s ideas and themes beyond the basic action plot.
Spectacle overtakes substance. More troubling, is that this mediocrity makes it hard to settle on a particular topic. There aren’t any incredible or awful features of this game. Everything is somewhere in between. What is left is a game that is passable.
- Naughty Dog. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Sony Interactive Entertainment. PS3/PS4. 2009.
- Anderson, Joseph. “Uncharted and The Last of Us – Great and Terrible Games.” YouTube video, 01:01:07. October 30, 2020. https://youtu.be/ma4DJbvO84I