By frondoni 20 Comments
Uncharted 3 was the disappointment of the year.
If you didn’t agree with that sentence you probably won’t like this next one either.
The game feels, in virtually every aspect, broken. Not unplayable – rather, extremely flawed in an entirely correctable way, like a broken toy you know you could fix. These next few entries will be dedicated to reimagining Uncharted 3 piece by piece. We’ll start with the story, move onto the general feel and flow of the single-player side of the game, and then finish with a look at the multiplayer (actually the game’s strong suit, with only a few nagging issues).
Just a quick bit of background before we begin.
Uncharted 2 was easily the best game to come out of 2009. It ranks as a champion of design, a truly great experience with broad appeal and excellent execution. The original title doesn’t quite reach the same highs, but it’s still a fun adventure, easy to play and thoroughly entertaining.
I’m sure you can guess my feelings on the 3 game. But this entry won’t be a review and neither will the others. As such, much of this series will consist of negativity and sharp critiques with only some mitigation. If something works, I won’t hesitate to point it out, but I wouldn’t begin by calling a product “broken” if there wasn’t much room for improvement. I welcome any feedback you have, but keep in mind the tone here will stay mainly negative.
The biggest failing with this game is its story. Uncharted, as a series, enjoys a just reputation as the forefront of videogame storytelling. Each of the two previous titles had really entertaining tales told by a sharp script that still made room for necessary videogame mechanics. Their plots, while not infallible, largely held together, and propelled the action nicely.
Drake’s Deception has a descent start followed by a rapid descent into utter foolishness and a long series of convenient coincidences. This section will start by outlining a few overarching theme and plot-points, examining how they are constructed within the title and how they could be improved. Then we’ll move on to specific sections of the story that need overhaul, concluding with a new outline of an updated Uncharted 3. Wherever possible, we’ll stick to the plot already established; changes will try to incorporate the set-pieces and major story beats currently presented.
Also, as a quick note, these revisions obviously reflect my personal preference for Naughty Dog’s characters. The flaws in the narrative should be apparent to any observer even if they disagree with my solutions. I don’t mean to explain how it “should be” written out of hubris but rather out of necessity. I feel it’s important to provide some answers to the problems we raise with products – otherwise we’re just complaining for the sake of being bitter.
Part 1: Themes and Plots
Sully and Drake
Sully and Drake’s bond is probably the closest Uncharted 3 has to a complete and well told plot thread. The beginning of the game does an excellent job of building on the connection the par have for each other. Background dialogue and quick one-line jokes or explanations further this rather well. It’s failing comes from the lack of real power to the conclusion. With the exception of a brief speech by Sully and a few shouts by Drake, we never really saw either of these two people go to the extreme for the other. Yes, Drake jumped in the water, and yes, Sully killed a dude to save a child. Each of these demonstrates dedication, but on a scale we’ve all seen before in previous adventures. Drake’s Deception really needed to go above and beyond, have someone cross a line or truly sacrifice for the other to cement the father-son connection.
We’ll keep this plot-line in mind as we move forward, repurposing other elements of the plot as needed. This will also help us focus the narrative; as it currently stands, Drake’s Deception is basically the same story and Among Thieves. By making the Drake-Sully bond really the core of the experience and continually expanding on it as the game progresses (culminating in something grander than a quick swim and a short speech), Uncharted 3 can come into its own as a unique entry into the series.
This is probably the most prominent example of an abandoned plot thread. Early on, the game transcribes much significance to these creepy-crawlers. One is seen all cut open in the underground, they keep reappearing in each crypt, and characters always mention them as one untied entity, contiguously calling the players attention to these guys as a major player in the narrative. Ultimately this amounts to nothing. I think it was implied that Marlow used the venom as part of her mind-control serum and the spiders were actually the Djinn. If I’m right, neither of these two points were made explicit enough to count as closure. If I’m wrong, than the repeated importance of the spiders truly went nowhere. Let’s pick the former and expand from there.
In our new Uncharted 3, Marlow’s organization has long used these spiders as a key part of their mind-control serum. Additionally, when properly distilled, the venom actually becomes beneficial, causing advanced recover from seemingly mortal wounds. However, Marlow has begun to run out of her supply. The method of rendering the venom useful has been lost to time (we’ll come back to this). The lady needs a new source. She knows that King Solomon used the venom to acquire a vast amount of power. To the people of his era, ignorant of his ability to distill the venom and repurpose it, his power would have seemed magical – hence the legend. Marlow seeks the sunken bronze vessel, knowing it contains a large supply of the venom and that she’ll be able to reverse engineer the distillation process from the records in Iram of the Pillars.
We’ve now rendered the spiders central to the story and simultaneously explained a series of unanswered mysteries in the original game. The healing properties of the venom (admittedly a stretch, but mitigated by some well-written exchange of disbelief amongst our heroes) will become especially important for the revised ending. Imagine a scenario similar to Last Crusade, in which the McGuffin takes on special last-act importance when its function becomes vital to the survival of a major character.
Marlow and Talbot: Their powers, their organization, and what they want
These two baddies are repeatedly shown to be nearly supernatural in the first half of Drake’s Deception. Talbot survives a fatal wound and disappears into thin air. Marlow makes a cryptic speech and magically plants a tarot card on Charlie. They have that mind-control serum, which they only use twice. As it currently stands, it seems they just forgot about this incredible advantage. You’d think it would be the single most effective weapon ever and they’d pretty much rely on it. Making the venom, the core component, rare explains this – something the base game fails to do. Additionally, it’s established that Marlow is the head of an old and extremely powerful secret society. They have a hidden base and access to advanced technology. There’s a literal army of incredibly well-equipped and trained thugs willing to deploy anywhere around the world on their behalf. Since the story takes great pains to set this all up in its first act, there really should be some follow through on this point.
As mentioned prior, the secret society aspect will take paramount importance now. We could even have Marlow be a bit of a renegade, possibly an illegitimate leader who seized power by force. In the chaos, much of their knowledge was lost, and she now has to go to great pains to regain it. Or not. Either way, we’ll emphasize their covert power and contrast this with Drake’s ragtag nature in our narrative. While Drake make’s his discoveries through ingenuity and luck, Marlow makes hers through force and bribery. This is already kind of in the game, we’ll just bring it out a bit more.
Marlow herself needs to be a bit more sinister. Currently, she essentially shows she’s evil in one scene where she slaps young Drake. For the entire rest of the plot she makes vague threats and menacing nods but does nothing at all. The developers like to discuss how she represents a new kind of villain, one how poses a threat intellectually rather than physically, but she doesn’t really. She’s just an old mean woman who drowns in sand because she can’t jump as well as Drake.
And then there’s Talbot. He’s now a product of the venom, a user in both senses. Talbot uses the venom to set-up the game’s “betrayal” moments and also employs it to heal himself (explaining his odd resistance to bullet wounds). Late game, we’ll repurpose the fistfight to make it more of a traditional final boss encounter, this time against a juiced Talbot who fills his veins with the stuff. We’ll come back to this later when we summarize the new plot.
Drake as a Loner and our Good Friend Charlie
Charlie needs to be in the game more. So does Chloe, for that matter. Elena too, although she at least got to be there at the end. Instead of having these characters disappear for the majority of the narrative, each one should stick with Drake all the way. This contrasts very nicely with his beginnings, highlighting his growth from a lonely street orphan. It also works well in conjunction with Marlow’s society; she has her friends, Drake has his. This subplot starts to write itself, building to a nice crescendo in which each of Drake’s allies shows their support for him and we as a player appreciate how he overcame his origins. “Greatness from small beginnings” – we’ll use that quote here, since Uncharted 3 already seems so fond of it. Plus it makes for a unique ending; a large-scale battle between Drake’s friends and Marlow’s thugs while Drake confronts Talbot, an entirely different climax to the first two games.
Part 2: Specifics
The Yemen Chase
This sequence is exciting, well done, and entirely nonsensical. It starts with a scene that makes no sense whatsoever. Marlow and Talbot drug Drake and bring him to an open courtyard in the middle of a busy market. They threaten him with police intervention while the armed thug they hired for no reason at all sits right beside them, weapons and ammo clearly visible to any passerby. And then they go on to discuss Drake’s past and Iram of the Pillars while that guy is just sitting there. Why did they even hire him? Just get one of the thousand suited British gentlemen you employ to sit menacingly behind Drake. Then you don’t have a well-equipped pirate also looking for the same lost city.
After they say some mean things about Sully and mention they found him, Drake flips a table and runs after Talbot. The chase is off! Except Talbot has literally no reason to be running. He is actively moving away from the burly pirate who wants to help. If Talbot did nothing at all, he and his friend would beat Drake to the ground in just under ten seconds. And it’s not because they fear they police; we’ve already seen how little they care about the local authorities. Only Drake is under any kind of legal threat.
To further add to the pointlessness of it all, the sequence ultimately amounts to nothing. All of the player’s effort goes to waste in a scripted moment that has Drake knocked unconscious from behind, meaning the playable section had no impact on the story whatsoever.
Really, the scene should have gone like this:
Marlow hire pirate guy because he has local connections with the authorities. They are interrogating Drake in a closed room, not in an open street, and he’s tied to a chair. Marlow leaves for some reason (we just need to get her out of the scene) – let’s say to go get Sully, but Talbot stays behind to further integrate Drake. During the conversation, Drake mentions Iram of the Pillars, but pirate guy did not know that was the prize. He gets agitated and threatens Talbot, who – because he’s distracted – doesn’t notice Drake worm his way out of his bonds. When Drake frees himself, Talbot splits, followed closely by pirate man. The rest of the chase plays out as it does in the game except for the end. There’s a three-way brawl in which pirate man emerges triumphant. Drake sees Talbot radioing Marlow while he runs as Drake losses consciousness – he fought off one threat only to succumb to another.
The player’s actions still don’t have real weight to them, but at least it ends on some kind of plot development propelled by the player.
The Boat Sequence
From beginning to end, the entire section of the game taking place on any kind of ship (chapters 12 through 15) is completely without logic or purpose. Everything moves based on unbelievable coincidence and characters behaving in such a stupid manner as to parody reality. Why did they tie Drake up in the wreckage of an old boat located middle of an abandoned ship yard miles away from the pirate flag ship? Why are there hundreds of armed men wandering this metallic graveyard serving no purpose other than videogame bullet sponges? Why do the pirates have a turret placed in the center of an entirely enclosed area facing into territory they call home? Why do they pretend they have Sully captured? Why do they pretend they have Sully captured again when Drake is on the cruise ship? If they want to set a trap for him and eventually recapture him, why do they repeatedly send dozens of men armed with high-explosives to kill him?
This is just the beginning. The lapses in logic only compound as this complete disregard for coherent storytelling continues. Really an entire entry could be made on how foolish this part of the game becomes. I'll end here for now; this is getting a little long for one entry. We'll pick up here in part 2 of our story critique.