Great Experience, Sub-par Shooter and Story
Earlier this year I had my first opportunity to play through Uncharted 2, and I thought it was amazing. The incredible setpieces (the train level, falling off a cliff, being chased by a truck down an alleyway, etc.) were all breathtaking, and the visuals were mostly great as well. The shooting gameplay was...lacking, in some ways, but was a huge improvement over the original Uncharted of which I had played about an hour or so a few years back. I had some serious issues with pacing and enemy AI at various points in the game that nearly soured me to the experience in Among Thieves, but ultimately the game was masterpiece-quality.
Now a couple years after the release of Uncharted 2 comes the third entry, Drake's Deception. The first and foremost thing I must say is this: Uncharted 3 is the best looking game to date on any platform ever. From the expert animation to the believable facial expressions, improved eyes (Uncharted 2 had some CREEPY weird glowy eyes, especially with Chloe) and awe-inspiring vistas, Drake's Deception really shines. The setpiece moments hit hard and fast and are even more impressive than before, and there are plenty of well-placed "quiet moments" that help make the big moments hit harder.
It is with some trepidation, then, that I write my complaints about this game that ultimately held me back from totally loving the experience start-to-finish. For as good as the melee combat feels and for the great variety of weapons in shooting, and the gorgeous look of each locale, the action in the game is simply lacking. I complained that Among Thieves had some serious rough spots with sudden unfair difficulty spikes and overly savvy enemies, and Uncharted 3 seems to have this problem WORSE than the second. I can point to two or three entire chapters in the game where I simply wanted to either give up on the game or lower the difficulty level down from the default normal (straight in the middle of five settings) since I was having exactly no fun whatsoever with the segments in the game. In particular, a horrifically badly-made part of the game is located in a pirate ship level where there's dozens of dead-aim enemies everywhere that flank you, come in from your blind spots with high-powered shotguns and take you out immediately with no chance of escape, and myriad armored and huge enemy types that don't go down quickly. In a more well-designed game you'd find these situations challenging but fair and doable, but ultimately it feels like these various sections (which totally kill the momentum the game has) were designed by a developer that doesn't know shooters well.
To contrast, I have played through the previous Gears of War games on the highest difficulty level, which was a challenging feat and required a lot of concentration and skill, but at no point did I feel like the game was being simply unfair with me. I have played through much of Gears 3 on the hardest difficulty as well and it's tough and unforgiving, but it's smartly designed in a way that it simply requires playing the game more precisely and being smarter about how you handle enemy waves, not finding a way to cheat the enemy AI so it doesn't beat you constantly while you're taking down another group of enemies.
Also, I thought I was just having problems playing the game and had gotten bad at shooters suddenly for some reason, but then I read this story about how numerous small tweaks to the gameplay led to broken shooting mechanics, I felt a lot better about myself. I never played the game post-patch so I can't report on that improvement, but it would help a lot of the frustration inherent in the shooting.
Another issue for me was the story overall. Like the previous games, the voice acting and writing are superb. Witty, believable lines come constantly from these characters we've all come to love. The look of the game also helps strengthen the tone that's set, and there are some great antagonists and twists in the story that make the experience exciting. But by the end of the game, I was trying to think about what was ultimately accomplished. It brings up some interesting questions about the ultimate purpose of Nathan Drake's adventures, which are cool, but there are entire sections of the game that have nothing to do with the progression of the story or anything that's going on, and even in some of them (the pirate ship part, for example) make me wonder why they even existed at all, despite the really cool use of technology. (In fact, I'm so very fascinated by the creation process behind this game that I bought the collector's edition of Drake's Journal and I've watched all these videos. THAT part is outstanding)
A spoiler alert: at one point, Nathan is taken prisoner by a pirate captain and is tied up inside the brig of a ship. The pirate tells him that he is going to go torture Sully to get some information out of him since Nate won't talk. Drake ends up breaking out and fighting (and killing) dozens of pirates in pursuit of the captain to find Sully, and at the very end of the search he discovers that he never had Sully in the first place, and the pirate captain proceeds to try to kill Drake. Why? Why didn't he just kill him in the first place? What was this whole farce about? There was absolutely no reason for that character to do that at the expense of so many of his crew members...there was no payoff, no point, and ultimately it was such a weird contrast to the story's overall purpose that I was left utterly perplexed.
That's not to say there aren't great, tender moments among the characters, and I rather enjoy where things were left by the end of the game, but the whole last section of the game is remarkably similar to the last (including how it all ends up) and there are some rather large unanswered questions that I don't see getting resolved in another game since they only relate to this one.
In the end, the fact that I was so compelled to play through this game twice in one week just goes to show that the strengths in Uncharted 3 far outweigh the weaknesses. Unfortunately, the flaws and unfixed problems from 2 just make the experience weaker overall, and the fact that the story ultimately doesn't go anywhere is a huge letdown. All told, PS3 owners should definitely check out Nathan Drake's final (?) game for the platform, but it's hard to not feel that it could have been so much more.