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On Uncharted 2's 10th anniversary, its developers look back on the making of a perfect sequel

Jan 11, 2019
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At the end of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Nathan Drake is returning home a hero. He's defeated the bad guy, won back the affections of his true love, Elena, and even uncovered the lost kingdom of Shambhala… albeit not long before triggering its collapse into permanent ruin (hey, nobody's perfect).

"So, where do we go from here?" asks Elena, one arm tenderly looped through Drake's as the enamoured pair watch the sun dip behind the snow-capped crests of the Himalayas. "I don't know," replies our protagonist, coyly, "I haven't thought that far ahead."

It's the epitomical scene for this PlayStation icon; the charismatic, ever optimistic improv artist who – let's face it – is basically that one friend in every Whatsapp group who never responds to messages unless it's to apologise for forgetting your birthday. More than that, though, Drake's comments are a fitting reflection of developer Naughty Dog's own piecemeal approach to making consistently high calibre games, as explained by Uncharted 2's director, Bruce Straley.

"Everything we do is on a one-at-a-time basis at Naughty Dog," reveals Straley. "We've never considered any project as part of a franchise production, and that's mainly because we can't think that far ahead. We therefore tried to make Uncharted 2 a sequel that you could pick up cold without having played Drake's Fortune, easily accessing the characters, the world, and the story without knowing anything about Drake's history."

Greatness from small beginnings

Straley had previously worked on 2007's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune as co-art director, but – after development on that game had seen director Amy Hennig overburdened with sole leadership of the project – a frank conversation with Naughty Dog's co-president Evan Wells saw him promoted to head up production on the sequel alongside Hennig as development partners. In preparation, the pair (along with Neil Druckmann and Josh Scherr, who made up the rest of the project's core writing team), attended one of author Robert McKee's famous storytelling seminars in downtown Los Angeles and – according to Straley – it was here where the seeds of Uncharted 2 were really born.

"I vividly remember having a clear 'eureka!' moment, and all of us engaging in these really rich discussions during the seminar breaks about the hero's three arc structure, and this idea of the gap between expectation and results. You set up an expectation for the protagonist, and something obstructs the way there and forces them to overcome that obstacle. That's storytelling 101, but we also realised then and there, that's game design too. So to tether those story beats to the gameplay in a more meaningful way was the foundation that got this team of four people to really look at Uncharted 2 as a holistic experience."


"That's storytelling 101, but we also realised then and there, that's game design too."
Bruce Straley, director
In light of this newfound epiphany, Naughty Dog looked to the film industry for Uncharted 2's pre-production recruitment drive, in the hopes of furnishing that cinematic flair it was aiming for. Hollywood was just up the road from its sunny Santa Monica HQ, after all, and Robh Ruppel was thus brought on as the game's lead art director, having previously worked in visual development on a number of big screen Disney animations.

"I had been playing a lot of games with my daughter before I joined the studio," Ruppel tells me, "and coincidentally a bunch of those games had been Naughty Dog titles, so to be part of that team for their next big endeavour was a hugely exciting prospect." As lead art director, Ruppel was responsible for taking Hennig and Straley's new, cineliterate vision, and turning it into a consistent visual language. "All the locations had to have a certain reality to them. That's something that Bruce was really emphatic about. He had this great phrase, 'keep everything core', meaning he didn't want it to be too concept heavy or imaginary, so whatever we did we had to research heavily."

To create Shambala, for example, Ruppel's team pored over the annals of Mesopotamian history and architecture to conjure a completely imagined place that nevertheless looked just as much a work of reality as one of fantasy. "Trying to come up with a unique location that's never been seen before, but also feels like it fits within our world and has a believable history... it's hard to design something from scratch that has all those elements," he admits. "We eventually combined the two motifs – the pyramid and the ziggurat – to form the basis of our environmental storytelling, to make sure Shambala felt like it could appear in the pantheon of great monuments of the ancient world."

Uncharted territory

Like Ruppel, Uncharted 2 was also Jonathan Stein's first project in 'The Kennel' (the playful term of endearment that Naughty Dog employees use to refer to their spacious studio building), but his previous experience at Monolith Productions and Nintendo set him up well for work as a Game Designer on Nathan Drake's sophomore adventure. In conversation, he looks back on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves with great fondness, nostalgia, and pride.

"I remember first showing up at the studio and being almost overwhelmed with the excitement amongst the team,'' says Stein. "There were so many passionate and motivated people, all of whom were eager to think about the game holistically and outside of their disciplines, which is something that's hard to foster at a studio. I, for example, was personally thrilled about the prospect of getting to work with the third person perspective, and the camera work that came with it, as I'd done a lot of first person games prior to that, which has its limitations when it comes to cinematography."

Stein and the design team were responsible for building spaces and sequences that balanced Uncharted's core mechanics of combat, platforming, and puzzles with ambitious, Hollywood-style set pieces, all while closely following Straley's core design philosophy "to keep the player in control as much as possible."
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"It's something I really pushed to put into practice on Among Thieves," explains Straley, who admits that he can be a bit of a "bull in a china shop" when it comes to collective decision making in the development pipeline. "If there was something that I didn't like in the design department, then I would go in and express myself quite clearly about that. I could have been nicer, but that's hindsight, I guess!"


"I remember showing up at the studio and being almost overwhelmed with the excitement amongst the team."
Jonathan Stein, game designer
Stein himself remembers working with the likes of Straley, Hennig, and Druckmann as a tough but edifying experience, all of whom who he describes as "extremely motivated, intense, driven, but also a lot of fun."

"One great success that I would credit all of them with is creating a strong sense of what we were making, even beyond the usual learnings that you get from working on a sequel,'' Stein tells me. "Everyone in the studio just had a really good sense of the characters, the tone, and the standard of quality we were aiming for. They all worked hard to make sure everyone was instilled with that so we could make well informed micro-decisions along the way, without necessarily having to consult them for every single design choice."

That philosophy to keep almost everything in Among Thieves "on the stick", though, is exactly what elevated Uncharted 2 above both its predecessors and contemporaries in the genre. 10 years later, Straley can safely say that the game's achievements were worth the uphill battle in winning everyone over to his vision, not to mention vaulting all the extra design hurdles that came with it.

"If there's an emotional beat or piece of exposition that player absolutely needs to hear, then it can be in a cutscene but, aside from those, if you can put the experience on the stick, involving the player in the moment, that is truly using our medium in the best possible way. You're making a game that's telling a story rather than making a story that happens to be in a game."

Drake's on a train

You can't talk about Uncharted 2 without paying tribute to its very first moments; a hair-raising, 'in media res' opening that sees Drake escaping the debris of a train wreck by the skin of his teeth. The game follows this baptism of fire by jumping back and forth between then and several months earlier to gradually reveal how our hero wound up in such a precarious situation to begin with.

It sets the groundwork for a tautly structured narrative device that makes full use of its cultivated dread; the next time Drake encounters that train, chugging along at full pace through the Nepalese jungle, a lump in the throat forms as you realise what's about to happen, cursed with the knowledge of how it ends for our hero. We owe a lot of credit to Stein for bringing the entire locomotive sequence to life but, according to Straley, the move to begin Uncharted 2 with Drake at rock bottom came out of a last minute decision late into development, after Druckmann brought the idea to the writing table.

"That wasn't our original opening, actually,'' Straley reveals. "It was a more of a simple, linear three act structure, which made it a bit of a slog to get into the story. It was Neil, pretty late in production, who came up with the idea to take the middle section of this train wreck and put that at the beginning, and then to intersplice some of the story bits to create this timeline that jumps back and forth. It doesn't matter when a change like that comes into production; if it makes the experience better, then nine times out of ten we go for it."



"It was Neil who came up with the idea to take the middle section of this train wreck and put that at the beginning."
Bruce Straley, game director
For Stein, that meant his baby – the level he had been working on for months – was to become the scene which opens the game itself, and the designer recalls the heady mix of exhilaration and stress that came with that unexpected weight of responsibility.

"I remember Neil telling me in a meeting that it was going to be the opening, and there was a real sense of excitement and fear about it. My main worry was that our audience might actually have a little bit of trouble with the non-linear nature of the narrative, but during development there had been an explosion of time travel related TV shows and movies with more sophisticated narratives, so by the time release rolled around people were very comfortable with that kind of unconventional structure, and it just wasn't an issue."

Designing the train sequence itself, both the opening escape and the unfolding carnage that bookends the second act, was a gargantuan task that demanded a seamless marriage between Naughty Dog's in-house technology, forward-thinking game design, and growing aptitude for operatic storytelling. For the concept artists, the challenge was to visualise a breathtaking tour of natural scenery that nevertheless abided to the parameters of Uncharted's gameplay.

"The creative team had come up with what they wanted to do already. Our job was just to devise a train that looked interesting, along with the mountainside that its set on, making sure that it felt both impressive and scary," explains Ruppel. "You don't realise how much attention we put into things like the ratio of snow versus rock, the type of rock, and so on, but it all feeds into creating a consistent visual language that tells its own story for that sequence."



For Stein, the inspiration for building the level came as much from the toys he used to play with as a kid as it did the concept art that Ruppel's team produced: "When I started at Naughty Dog, one of the first things I did was grab one of the model train cars they had in the office and use that as a guide to make a proxy. From there, I was able to rig up three train cars hanging off the cliff pretty quickly, and then it just became a very long iteration process of setting up a series of vignettes that showed off the climbing mechanics. There's something like 60 custom cameras that trigger one after the other for that sequence, with a lot of attention on framing it in such a way that the action is easy to execute."

"I'm proud of the fact that most people don't realise the whole thing is basically a tutorial level, but it is very much an encyclopedia of Drake's climbing mechanics, presented one after the other. The whole thing has a real sense of threat about it, yet it's extremely difficult to fail that sequence; it's a sheep in wolf's clothing!"

Drake's legacy

Despite two critically and commercially successful sequels (and a fantastic spin-off in the form of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy), Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is still widely considered the pinnacle of the series to date; a game that came together so perfectly for its time and place that it's practically a cliché. You probably won't be surprised to hear that the people who worked on Uncharted 2 agree wholeheartedly, describing the creative process as a lightning-in-a-bottle, seat-of-your-pants experience, one in which the stars aligned for a project that, while not without its moments of hardship and tension, came together like pieces of a puzzle falling neatly into place.

"Among Thieves is absolutely my favourite and, for me personally, the best entry in the franchise as a whole, not least because it was such a formative experience for me to work on, and has defined the rest of my career since," admits Straley, who went on to head up development with Druckmann on what would eventually become The Last of Us, another Naughty Dog hit. "We could not have made Uncharted 3 or 4 without Among Thieves, and we certainly couldn't have made The Last of Us without everything we'd learnt on that game either."

Ruppel, who eventually won a GDC Award for Best Art Direction for his work on Among Thieves, also has nothing but fond memories of the entire experience, and even more praise for the team he feels lucky to have worked alongside. "Bruce was the right guy for the job in perfecting the play experience, Amy was fantastic for guiding the story and the believability of character and dialogue, and Neil was crucial for implementing both of those pillars into the design of the game itself while maintaining a consistency of product," Ruppel tells me. "You can't plan this kind of meeting of minds where everyone's on the same page about the level of ambition and goals for a project, but when it happens, you're so thankful that you were there, because it's such a precious moment for your career or even your lifetime."

Naughty Dog knew it had something special on its hands then, but even Stein admits that – at the time – none of the team really understood just how much of an impact Uncharted 2 would have upon the gaming landscape following its launch. The game put Nathan Drake on the map as a PlayStation mascot, selling millions, earning near universal acclaim, inspiring a new generation of action games to come (including one of its muses in the form of Square Enix's rebooted Tomb Raider series), cementing Naughty Dog's status as a prestige studio alongside the likes of Rockstar and BioWare, and paving the way for a now in-the-works Uncharted movie starring Tom Holland in the lead role.



"You can't plan this kind of meeting of minds where everyone's on the same page about the level of ambition and goals for a project."
Robh Ruppel, art director
"I'm largely motivated by abject fear that what im working on will not be loved by the end user," jokes Stein, "so you could say I wasn't prepared for the sheer volume and extent of the positive feedback we received both immediately after launch, and in the years following. I do think we had some very successful playtests, which often gives you great confidence in the ability to identify and solve a bunch of problems to make a game the best it can be. Even then, though, the way people talk about Among Thieves still shocks me, but in a good way!"

I ask Straley, who left Naughty Dog in 2017 and has been on hiatus from games development ever since, if he'd ever like to see another entry in the Uncharted series, purely from his perspective as a fan now that's he is outside of the kennel for good. His answer is at once unsurprising, but also the best reflection yet of how important Uncharted 2 is as a metric touchstone for the franchise itself.

"I would love to play another Nathan Drake game, but I would want to see it done in a way that is mindful of the original concepts that we pushed for in Uncharted 2. That is, keeping everything core, everything on the stick, all the set pieces playable. If I was back there, I would be pushing Uncharted even further into the realm of player choice, and exploring how that affects the adventure. More than that, though, the industry still needs well-drawn characters and good storytelling that doesn't take itself seriously like a lot of games now tend to in the triple-A space."



If Straley's wishes come true, then we may indeed all find ourselves fawning over Uncharted 5 in another ten years from now. Hell, Drake's daughter, Cassie, might even have her own separate trilogy by then. But all of that is postulation, based only in empty hypotheticals. One thing you can bank on for 2029, though, and of this I am certain, is that people will still be talking about Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.


 

God Enel

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I feel old now. It’s already ten years. Uncharted 2 is one of the best sequels I ever played.
The only sad thing about the uncharted saga is that they took the supernatural elements out of the games :(
 
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brap

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Wetsuit Elena last appeared in U2 MP. RIP.
RIP Donut Drake too.

From Uncharted 2 on PS3. More of barefoot Elena Fisher taking hits to give you hot sole shots, this time in The Sanctuary stage. Watch in HD!
 

Wolfgang Jr

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Okay, I will be more specific......... It was more memorable.

It was giant action set-piece after giant set-piece. From the awesome plane level, to the capsizing ship. It was just more bombastic and thrilling to me.
So what you're really saying is that UC3 is like a shitty action movie with no story/direction and you have ADHD.
Thanks for the honest update!
 

Hostile_18

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The Uncharted series is one of my favourites and Naughty Dog my favorite developers of all time. Everything they have produced since Uncharted 1 has been amazing in my eyes.

Played through 1-3 and got the plats for each recently and working my way through 4 (and eventually Legacy).

Don't think I could choose a favorite as they each do certain things better than the others. It's worth noting these games really do come alive on the harder difficulties.

Roll on a new Uncharted game in the future.
 
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brap

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Sometimes it's just fun to play a mindless action game.

Same with films. Everyone likes a popcorn flick now and then.
Nah, you just have ADHD. Sorry if you can't appreciate the beautiful subtlety of Nate pushing around a box for 10 mins in UC4 or him and some character we never knew existed until this game having a dramatic conversation for 10 mins.
 

ROMhack

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Was brilliant when I first got a PS3 but I tried to replay it a few years ago and couldn't get into it. Take nothing away from it though because it was a stunning game at the time.
 
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Soleil rouge

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Currently playing through the series for the first time via the Nathan Drake collection.

Part 1 was a chore to get through. Despite the premise, it didn't feel like an epic adventure whatsoever. Also didn't feel a connection with the characters because they're so generic and stereotypical. I probably would've enjoyed it more had I played it back then. It's just so dated now.

I'm currently at the part where Nate gets put in prison (part 2) and so far it seems like more of the same. The controls feel a little better. Almost like a precursor to TLoU's controls. I'm eager to find out why this game is so beloved.
 
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bitbydeath

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I believe it took a few patches for Uncharted 3 to play right where as Uncharted 2 was perfect out of the gate.

And then subsequently ruined the MP a few patches later.
 
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brap

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I believe it took a few patches for Uncharted 3 to play right where as Uncharted 2 was perfect out of the gate.

And then subsequently ruined the MP a few patches later.
I'll never forget the fucking default square aiming in U3. How they fuck it up like that?
 
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Rock And Roll

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Might be the best exclusive to ever appear on a Sony console. Definitely my favorite game on the PS3 and I still go back and play it every few years. Only thing that held it back was the terrible final boss fight. Other than that I wouldn't change anything about it.
 

Hostile_18

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I believe it took a few patches for Uncharted 3 to play right where as Uncharted 2 was perfect out of the gate.

And then subsequently ruined the MP a few patches later.

Yeah Uncharted 3 is a strange one. The shooting mechanics of 2 were applied to 3 in the remaster but the enemies still don't react to getting shot like they do in all the other games. Still theres loads to love about it though, I think it's got the best set pieces.
 

Fox Mulder

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3 was better.

How.

UC3 is a step back in areas and actually felt unfinished or something. The big cruise ship technical set piece felt tacked on and is completely pointless to the story. The story also has huge gaps where side characters just vanish and the villains have unexplained plot holes. Even stuff like a sandstorm section is done worse than the blizzard section in UC2.
 
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brap

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The story has huge gaps where side characters just vanish and the villains have unexplained plot holes.
Like what? I'm not saying there isn't any but I wanna know. I haven't played it in like 8 years.
 

Danny Dudekisser

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It was a pretty incredible technical achievement. I thought the actual *game* part of it was shit, but it sure was pretty.
 

DeepEnigma

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How.

UC3 is a step back in areas and actually felt unfinished or something. The big cruise ship technical set piece felt tacked on and is completely pointless to the story. The story also has huge gaps where side characters just vanish and the villains have unexplained plot holes. Even stuff like a sandstorm section is done worse than the blizzard section in UC2.

UC3 was great as well. What impacted/hurt the story was the actor who played Cutter (Graham McTavish) sustained an injury in real life and they had to write the character out 3/4 of the way through development.

Would have made for a different story dynamic, since he was instantly liked as a character.

So many people ask for a Cutter and Sully prequel spin off based in the late 70s to early 80s.
 
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Hostile_18

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UC3 was great as well. What impacted/hurt the story was the actor who played Cutter (Graham McTavish) sustained an injury in real life and they had to write the character out 3/4 of the way through development.

Would have made for a different story dynamic, since he was instantly liked as a character.

So many people ask for a Cutter and Sully prequel spin off based in the late 70s to early 80s.

I read he got offered a part in the Hobbit at the same time and so they reduced his role. Not sure if it's true but only did a Google search a few days ago.

Still I think they wrote Charlie and Chloe out well enough. The overall story of 2 is better as well as the hit reactions but the set pieces, graphics and melee system is the best in 3 (of the trilogy).

Edit; from Giantbomb.

An interesting piece trivia for those wondering why Cutter didn't have a larger role in Uncharted 3. According to Nolan North's "Drake's Journal" book, Cutter was originally planned to appear in the entire game. The actor who played Cutter, Graham McTavish, had been cast to play the role of Dwalin on Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit". Long story short, his Hobbit schedule clashed with the mocap filming in the game. In the middle of production, McTavish had to go to New Zealand for filming and had only 5 days to complete mocap and ADR. As a result, Amy Hennig, the Creative Director, had to rewrite his role so he could be taken out of the picture early. Shame really, the character was great. Although, good on McTavish for landing a role on The Hobbit
 
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DeepEnigma

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I read he got offered a part in the Hobbit at the same time and so they reduced his role. Not sure if it's true but only did a Google search a few days ago.

Still I think they wrote Charlie and Chloe out well enough. The overall story of 2 is better as well as the hit reactions but the set pieces, graphics and melee system is the best in 3 (of the trilogy).

Edit; from Giantbomb.

Ah okay, so maybe the injury in the game (with how they wrote him out) was what got people confused and stories crossed.

It’s a shame, because I would have liked to see him through from their original plans of being there all the way to the final battle.
 
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First Uncharted was rocky as fuck but the second game is fire. From partnering up with Tenzin to the deep lore of the Yeti's and going into a portal into Outlands.
 

Zekra Dezivad

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If Straley's wishes come true, then we may indeed all find ourselves fawning over Uncharted 5 in another ten years from now. Hell, Drake's daughter, Cassie, might even have her own separate trilogy by then. But all of that is postulation, based only in empty hypotheticals. One thing you can bank on for 2029, though, and of this I am certain, is that people will still be talking about Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.

Everytime I remember this I suffer greatly. Because of that "why not" attitude in chosing the Nathan's children they robbed me of a young Victor Drake.
You know it. You know. It had to be Victor just like Sully.
I don't want to think that no one at ND hadn't thought about that. It's something that hurts me so much.
It was the perfect ending, a perfect way to close the circle.
A man with no father, who find spiritual father, and in the end becomes a father, and he give the same name to his son.

It was such a tremendous betrayal to the character by ND.
The original character creators wouldn't have done such a thing, ever.

It was just the ending scene, just one stupid scene. Why wouldn't give to fans the last heartwarming gift, to end all with a smile and a tear.
You robbed it from me, Naughty Dog.
 
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Negotiator

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I ask Straley, who left Naughty Dog in 2017 and has been on hiatus from games development ever since, if he'd ever like to see another entry in the Uncharted series, purely from his perspective as a fan now that's he is outside of the kennel for good. His answer is at once unsurprising, but also the best reflection yet of how important Uncharted 2 is as a metric touchstone for the franchise itself.

"I would love to play another Nathan Drake game, but I would want to see it done in a way that is mindful of the original concepts that we pushed for in Uncharted 2. That is, keeping everything core, everything on the stick, all the set pieces playable. If I was back there, I would be pushing Uncharted even further into the realm of player choice, and exploring how that affects the adventure. More than that, though, the industry still needs well-drawn characters and good storytelling that doesn't take itself seriously like a lot of games now tend to in the triple-A space."
Amen to that.
 
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Belmonte

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Uncharted 2 is my favorite by a mile. Flawless pacing and the game was not ashamed of being a fun action filled blockbuster. It had some introspective moments but not too much. I was surprised by how much I liked its multiplayer at the time also. Lots of fun!

Didn't play Uncharted 4 and its DLC yet though.
 

Cleared_Hot

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Uncharted 2 is my favorite by a mile. Flawless pacing and the game was not ashamed of being a fun action filled blockbuster. It had some introspective moments but not too much. I was surprised by how much I liked its multiplayer at the time also. Lots of fun!

Didn't play Uncharted 4 and its DLC yet though.
I feel like I'm the only person who felt like uncharted 4 was just a whole new level of immersion. I was floored by how well done that game was. Looking back the gameplay was the greatest and the pacing was a little off but the story, and the exploration and how that complemented said story was just an amazing experience. I didn't want it to end.
 

Stuart360

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Easily the best Uncharted imo. The longest one (i believe), it has the most variety in gameplay, the best pacing, by far the best story and environments, and the best characters imo.
 
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zombrex

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UC1 and especially 2 were both fantastic games.
In comparison UC3 was terrible. When you look at the actual game play flow and loop it was not good.
Sometimes more is not better, it was mostly a series of nonsensical interconnected set pieces.
Some parts like inside the ship theater were so poorly designed and tested that enemies would spawn behind you without any cues and kill you instantly. It also launched with ridiculous and obvious input lag. The development was clearly troubled.

And it also has the worst story in the series.
This video is essential viewing, it calls out the problems with the story and shows the philosophy the
developers had in just making a bunch of set pieces and trying to slot them together somehow.

 
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rəddəM

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My life changed when I downloaded the demo, then played the game.
Loved every aspect of it and the :messenger_fire: of gaming burns hot in me ever since.
Happy birthday.
 

The Shepard

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Uncharted 2 was like a rollacoster you didn't wanna get off, it just flowed better than any of the other uncharteds as well. I have this on ps4 and should replay it at some point.
 
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plushyp

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I liked the focus on the father-son aspect of UC3 the most as well as there being no supernatural elements in the game. Plus the desert and sand setting was a nice change of pace.