Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review: Among Thieves

I approached Among Thieves with trepidation. First, the reviews for it have been nothing short of amazing, but I'd been a little bit disappointed by both Drake's Deception and Drake's Fortune. Neither were as good as Golden Abyss. I was starting to think that I enjoyed the Uncharted series only because I was new to the genre when I played Golden Abyss.

I needn't have worried. Among Thieves is quite simply the best video game I've ever played. Midway through Chapter 14 (there are 26 chapters in total), I found myself thinking: I hope this game never ends! I'd already died 3 times, I was getting my ass handed to me, but I was never frustrated, and just wanted to keep going. The scenery was gorgeous, set high up in the Himalayas, the action was perfect, keeping the player in a state of flow that made even me, a mediocre video gamer at best, feel like a competent action hero.

Ultimately, that's what video games shine at. They're not great story telling vessels, as deaths and puzzles break up the story flow. They're not even that great for puzzles, since computer interfaces aren't as open ended as a real life puzzle game would be. But Rock Band could make you feel like a rock star, Arkham Asylum could give you a taste of what it feels like to be Batman, and Among Thieves makes you feel like Indiana Jones.

Which is not to say that the story-telling is poor in Among Thieves. It has the best story I've seen among video game properties. You come to care about Nathan Drake and his relationships with his cohorts. You even learn to hate Flynn, the guy who roped him into this mess in the first place. The scenery is nothing short of amazing, especially when you consider that it's being rendered for you by an 8 year old piece of hardware with crippling small amounts of RAM (both the HDD and the blu ray drive on my PS3 spun like crazy while playing this game).

The music is amazing, sounding more like a major feature film soundtrack than any other game in the series. This is big-budget game production at its best, and it's impossible to feel cynical about the entire enterprise by the end of the game because it's been executed so well.

Where Drake's Deception and Drake's Fortune got wrong was in the pacing. Both those games had places where it felt like the action had gone on just a bit too long, and you just can't wait for it to end. Among Thieves has no place where you feel that way. Even the penultimate chapter's fights are broken up into bite-sized chunks, enabling the player to rest and recover between bouts. None of the puzzles are so hard that you get stuck, and none of the individual fights are so challenging that you feel demoralized. Whenever I got frustrated by either Drake's Deception and Drake's Fortune, I would switch to playing Tomb Raider for a bit. Once I put Among Thieves into the PS3, I never found myself even tempted to play another game.

And the set-pieces are amazing. chapters 13, 14, and 15 flow as well as any action movie or novel that I've seen or read. Chapter 19 and 20 make you really feel like you're high up in the Himalayas, helping villagers defend themselves from an invasion. And chapter 16 just shows off how confident Naughty Dog was: they put in a chapter solely as a breather after the intense action that happened before, and don't feel compelled to throw in any puzzles, fights, or other inanities that a lesser video game maker might consider. You simply have a chapter consisting solely of moving through a mountain village, granting you vistas, and watching the authentically moving NPCs. You feel like you're in a magical dream.

Now, the rendering isn't as drop dead gorgeous as Tomb Raider (that game came 4 years later). But the art direction is far better in this game. Tomb Raider feels like it's doling out pretty scenery one drop at a time, as  if in fear that your eyes might get used to natural beauty and then what it showed you wouldn't be as effective. Among Thieves has no such restraint. It throws stunning vistas at you, one after another as though it was the last hurrah of a lost age.

The only disappointment I felt upon finishing the game is that now that I've played through the entire Uncharted series, I'll have no other games in the series to play until Uncharted 4 comes out for the PS 4. Needless to say, Among Thieves comes highly recommended. It would be worth borrowing or buying a PS3 solely to play this game.

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