A Brilliant Game That's Hard Not To Nitpick
To talk about Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception without comparing it to its excellent predecessor Among Thieves would be difficult. In fact, I’m certain it’s a crime that I haven’t played Drake’s Fortune to compare them both back another two years. Little else has really tried to capture the cinematic action gameplay the series offers, let alone the frantic destructive setpiece design. The two games even share similar arcs and locations, to the point where those experienced with Uncharted might be feeling an odd sense of déjà vu. But, then, I suppose it’s a testament to the formula that this year’s iteration comes out so strong.
Nathan Drake’s adventures in Uncharted 3 do feel refined in comparison to some of the potentially ruinous parts of Uncharted 2. Without getting into spoiler territory, the last chapters of Among Thieves were densely populated with over-difficult scenarios and a new type of enemy that can make or break the experience. As for the now-famous train sequence…well, in my eyes, the less said the better. This new title seems to have read my mind; only a couple encounters retain the balancing issues of the previous game. However, a few new issues crop up in this title, and for some, they may hold back the title from the accolades it will inevitably receive.
This time, our adventures begin with Nate (still excellently voiced by Nolan North) and his long-time partner and mentor Sully going to settle a trade, and already we’re introduced to some of the strengths and weaknesses of Uncharted 3. The cinematic sensibilities of the game quickly sweep us into the stylings of a crime film; for those unaware of Uncharted’s history, they might be fooled into thinking they were watching a Guy Ritchie film. However, the moment the gentlemen enter the bar in which the deal will be conducted, one really has to ask, “Why is everyone in this bar bald?” Unfortunately, enemy variety does not get much better as the game progresses, with almost half the game being spent shooting Jason Statham look-alikes and men in suits of the Hitman variety, though some of the suited enemies have the decency to sport some locks.
Our characters meet up with Jason Statham look-alike Charlie Cutter, who checks them for weapons as they enter a room upstairs to make their deal. Cutter, who is voiced by the same man as ex-Uncharted Villain Zoran Lazarevic, proves to be an entertaining character throughout the game, as does the man holding his leash, Talbot. The snark factor of the conversations continues to drive Uncharted’s characterization. Though there actually will be more sincere moments in Drake’s Deception than the previous game, sarcasm is still practically bread-and-butter to the writing staff, and they apply it liberally. All the new characters in this title actually manage to impress, although one late-game character could do to be developed a little better.
Quickly, things go south for the deal, and we’re introduced to Uncharted 3’s hand-to-hand combat system. It’s just as strong as in the previous title, with liberal timing being allowed for counter-attacks and limited maneuvering in favor of just smacking some dudes in the face. Some people will be disappointed to see a lot more repetition in the takedowns this time, though one particular takedown in which he pulls the pin of a grenade on his opponent’s belt is successfully entertaining no matter how often it happens. The game presents more opportunities than ever to use the melee combat during larger firefights, as the cover in many scenarios is formed by larger structures than in previous games, preventing Drake from being turned into bulletholes as he drives a strategically placed wrench into an opponent’s skull. There’s also at least one more encounter built upon fighting a pretty large number of random mooks unarmed, and it takes on a life of almost Arkham proportions. The enemies go down faster in this than they do in Arkham, but the system is far more simplified, so your mileage may vary comparing the two.
There are also some larger, heavier enemies to fistfight throughout the game, and one makes an appearance in this bar fight. It might be a small thing to nitpick, but aside from a single encounter with an African man with the same build, every single one of these encounters takes place against a specific model that looks quite a bit like Team Fortress 2’s Heavy Weapons Guy. These encounters are entertaining, but by about halfway through the game, you start questioning whether or not Naughty Dog included only a single model as a joke, a gameplay tip, or if they seriously thought it wouldn’t damage the immersion.
And Uncharted 3, to clarify, is still all about immersion. The gameplay during this fistfight and its cutscenes flow together extremely fluidly, so it’s a disappointment that the immersion is damaged by such simple mistakes. Other gameplay tips, such as flying birds or specific colors driving your path, are far subtler, and might not even be noticed by a lot of players. However, for those who have trouble following the visual cues the Uncharted team has laid upon its many setpiece chases and platforming sequences, the pacing in the game can be an absolute bear. The game’s extreme guiding of your path doesn’t help in this case, and Among Thieves certainly seemed to offer a lot more variety in the paths through some of the game’s more open encounters. Uncharted 3 contains two enemy encounters as open as many of the best ones in Uncharted 2.
That applies to Uncharted 3 in many ways. Where Uncharted 2 was about exploring large areas and looking for lost tombs in “this general area,” Uncharted 3 is about following in the footsteps of others. Drake has been certain of a cover-up involving his famous ancestor Sir Francis Drake for most of his life, and in Uncharted 3 he finally discovers a lead to begin chasing after what turns out to be Ubar, or Iram of the Pillars, or the “Atlantis of the Sands.” While certainly less evocative than Shangri-La or El Dorado, this adventure still proves to have a lot of thrills with more of a Middle Eastern tendency.
Of course, where there are Middle Eastern historical stories, the Templars will inevitably flock into the story. At this point, the comparisons to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade must finally be acknowledged. Yes, there is a sequence where you play as a young Nathan Drake. Yes, this game is about Drake’s relationship to his legacy and to his father figure, Sully. And, yes, we will go from Europe to the Middle East, and we’ll even attack a convoy in the desert at one point. Uncharted 3 very nearly STINKS of the great Ford/Connery trilogy-closer, and while it certainly diverges in many of the specifics, some of the game’s greatest strengths are ripped from an already-great story. While there were some light elements of Raiders and Temple of Doom in the previous two Uncharted titles, none of them were as blatant as those present in Uncharted 3. It’s not quite Mafia II “let’s very nearly take this scene from Goodfellas shot for shot!” bad, but for those who have seen the film and played Among Thieves; it’s hard for Uncharted 3 to feel like a truly original journey.
To go this far and not acknowledge the gunplay of Uncharted is, of course, a crime. The system is back pretty nearly in its entirety, although a couple new changes have been made. The emphasis on low-ammo occasionally present in Uncharted 2 has almost completely faded, and the necessity for power-weapons to overcome more powerful enemies has drastically been toned down. The Gatling-gun enemies, or anything like them, have been completely removed from Uncharted 3, leading to faster, more enjoyable encounters with the aforementioned legion of Jason Statham and Agent 47 lookalikes. This time, Drake has also learned to toss grenades back at his foe, which enters the game so unobtrusively you almost wonder why it hadn’t appeared in the previous title.
Also changed from Among Thieves is the previously all-laughs tone. This game more deeply explores what makes these characters tick, and while sarcasm still flows throughout the game (and is often actually funny) the characters seem a lot more desperate and emotional than in the previous game. The tension between characters speaks volumes more than it did before, and Drake actually comes out of the title a slightly tragic figure. Those hoping to see a further development of Chloe Frazer from the previous title, however, had better be ready to wait. While Chloe appears in the game, she is the only recurring character not to receive a deeper look than she had previously.
They certainly have changed her looks, though. None of Uncharted’s mainstays really look like their old selves. Chloe’s Asian features have been drastically emphasized, and Elena and Sully have become noticeably prettier. Drake’s visual changes are probably the most drastic, though, with many shots making him look more and more like Nolan North. I find it a bit odd that I’ve seen no one comment on this, but Drake’s face actually has a tendency to change pretty drastically throughout the entire game. In Yemen, his face is extremely expressive and looks more like his old self; in the ship level showed off at E3, however, he looks far more like Nolan North. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it seems worth noting that these characters have changed in more ways than simply being “better-realized.”
Not that graphically the game isn’t better realized. The tendency for explosive, gorgeous setpieces still reigns supreme, and the game’s effects and environments look almost ridiculously beautiful in comparison to pretty much any game on any platform. While it might not be the “best-looking game of all time” for some, it’s a front-runner, though the shadows at times are still a bit jaggy. Personally, the more relevant part of Uncharted is its visual design, and it carries that through from its previous title as being absolutely amazing.
The game’s musical score is starting to stand out as less-than-spectacular, though. While the tracks certainly function as they always have, and that pan flute that sweeps as the game’s musical motifs certainly is recognizable as Uncharted, it feels like it’s time for the game to have a truly memorable composition, especially if it’s planning to continue aping a film series with such a memorable tune. None of the gun effects are jarring, and the rest of its sound effects are as strong as always.
While Among Thieves’ cooperative mode was less-than-strong, Uncharted 3 steps things up with a miniature-campaign that takes 5 levels from Among Thieves and Drake’s Deception and refashions them into a short story. Present in this cooperative mode are new short cutscenes, and it’s also worth noting that there are “save your partners” mechanics reminiscent of those from Gears of War or Resident Evil 5. Those looking for their post-Gears of War cooperative campaign will have to lose a friend, though, as the cooperative campaign still supports only three players. Still, it’s largely expanded from the previous title’s horde mode, although that is still present in its previous form.
The competitive multiplayer is far better balanced than the previous title, however, with character progression happening far more naturally in terms of weaponry. Specific perks are attached to individual weapons, such as the ability to tag opponents with your weapons when you hit them. The more aesthetic unlockables are locked behind pretty serious walls, though, so plan to make a decision about a weapon early and get to that aesthetic stuff a lot later. With Killzone’s “objective rollout” being added almost directly to one playlist and with it being adapted into “power plays” for the Team Deathmatch mode, it seems more reasonable now than ever to spend lots of time with Uncharted 3’s multiplayer.
I’ve given Uncharted 3 lots of flack for its faults here, but it’s still one of my favorite games ever. Though it has some pretty disappointing design flaws and a lot of predictability for those familiar with its inspirations, Uncharted 3 is still an absolute blast to play, its characters are still some of the best in the industry, and it’s still innovating how to effectively play games. Though I certainly wouldn't cry if this was the end of Drake’s journeys for a while, I’m excited for when he next departs.