A Totally Biased Review: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

Another fantastic addition to the reigning Champ of cinematic gaming, though it’s greatest strength is still it’s biggest weakness.

PROS
– Fantastic presentation, from voice-acting to visuals to music
– Subtle improvements to combat that actually add a lot to variety and depth
– Incredible set-piece sequences littered through a surprising, twist-filled story

CONS
– Same frustrating balancing issues
– Cinematic gameplay that draws you out of the experience with repeated deaths
– The single player story ends

Expectations can be a dangerous thing in the world of video games. When Naughty Dog originally released Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, a mish-mash of Indiana Jones treasure hunting with platforming and cover-based shooting, at the end of ’07 to great reviews, the anticipation for a sequel began to build. When Uncharted 2: Among Thieves finally launched in November of 2009, no one, and I mean NO ONE, could have expected the masterpiece Naughty Dog had created. Winning numerous awards, including 10 (read: TEN!!!) Game of the Year Awards, the game also set the new precedent for interactive gaming as a medium on par with movies, with terrific voice-acting lent to believable characters, a compelling story, and a cinematic presentation that rivaled, and even surpassed, many Hollywood blockbusters. Needless to say, when you put out a game that wins 10 Game of the Year awards, you’ve got some lofty expectations ahead of you. Fortunately, Naughty Dog meets those high expectations, though doesn’t necessarily surpass them. And ya know that? That’s just fine by me.

The game tells another story in the life of treasure hunter Nathan Drake and his partner/mentor, Victor “Sully” Sullivan. In a change of pace for the series, the story starts off in a seedy London bar, and it isn’t long before they’re off on another globe-trotting adventure in search of clues left behind by Drake’s long-dead, supposed ancestor, the famous explorer Sir Francis Drake. This time out, however, the story touches on important bits of their past together, such as how they met and why they’re so loyal to one another. The story itself is fleshed out and given backstory by events that occur 20 years before the present day. It lends a great sense of emotional attachment to the two, as if any more was needed. One of the series greatest strengths has always been it’s characters, given more life by the stellar voice acting and witty, charming banter occuring throughout gameplay. As usual, though, there’s some dastardly villain out to get the goods before the two plucky heroes, and in the continuing trend of “doing things differently,” the villain is a prim, proper Englishwoman. It’s the same story across the board: this game doesn’t set out to top what Uncharted 2 did, it just wants to do things differently. It is what it is, and like it or not, it just doesn’t surpass what the 2nd game was able to achieve. The changes in presentation, and the new, original ideas, however, are extremely refreshing to the franchise thus far, and the small differences really add up to a lot, from seeing Drake’s humble beginnings, to the new, Bond-esque villainess. And although it doesn’t surpass what Uncharted 2 did, it’s a testament to the developers and writers that the game is able to at least maintain the quality of the second game.

Fightin' dudes while the building collapses. NBD for ND.

As you follow Drake around the world, following clues left by Sir Francis and the actual Lawrence of Arabia, you’ll climb some stuff, shoot some dudes, and solve some puzzles. Pretty standard fare for the Uncharted games at this point. There’s few changes to the formula, and not all of them are good. The climbing and platforming is still some of the best, most “believable” in games today, with levels that feel natural and authentic, rather than being built just to fill the need for jumping and climbing around. The only real knock against it is that the platforming is rather on the linear side in comparison to the 2nd game’s. There’s very rarely any way to go besides one very distinct path. Minor knock, but when a game as is incredible as this, you’ve gotta nitpick. Beyond that, the series biggest flaw, for me, has always been balancing issues. I find headshots don’t always register, enemies absorb a pretty obscene amount of rounds, and I die during shootouts. A lot. I can’t even put my finger on exactly what it is I find wrong with the shooting, it just feels “off” when you compare it to the slick shooting in other 3rd-person games. It’s still very good, and some of the best shooting around, but more often than not when I get past a certain section, I don’t sigh in relief and accomplishment. Rather, I’m mumbling, “well, it’s about fuckin time…” Take it as you will. The puzzle solving is very clever as well as diverse, and even the most challenging puzzles will give way to satisfying, “aha!” moments. Two out of three ain’t bad. And really, there’s nothing wrong with the combat, anyway.

In fact, it’s quite good, thanks to the new and improved melee system. Once you start punching a dude, you’re basically locked into a brawl with him until you run, shoot or knock his ass out. There’s now only one punch button, a counter button, and a grab/throw button. Countering is easy thanks to the on-screen, contextual prompts, and fighting is intuitive thanks to the top-notch animation. In fact, if Drake is standing near an object he can use against his attacker, such as a bottle, wrench, or table, he’ll hit them with it or knock their head off of it, respectively. Grenades that land near Drake can be picked up and tossed back. There’s just a lot of detail and thought put into making things believable and realistic, as well as cinematic and exciting. It’s one of the series strongest and most often overlooked points: attention to detail. Running through a puddle or standing in a shallow stream will wet Drake’s shoes and the bottom of his pant legs. Standing in front of a fire will bring his hand up to his face to shield his eyes. Walking past a wall or through a doorway will make Drake reach out and touch it as he passes. Little flourishes like that show the devil really is in the details, and the passion the animators and designers have for their job definitely shows. As far as the combat is concerned, I feel it’s worth mentioning that the stealth mechanics are still very much the same as Uncharted 2, and are still rather hit-or-miss, and long sequences of stealth gameplay frequently end frustratingly in what seems like a scripted “you-got-caught” type finish. It’s a shame, because the stealth gameplay is one of the most satisfying aspects to the combat.

The game wisely explores and fleshes out the dynamic relationship between Drake and Sully.

If there’s one thing the game most certainly gets right, aside from the witty characters and impeccable presentation, it’s without a doubt the exhilirating set-pieces. Whether it’s firing off RPG rounds at a convoy from horseback, climbing up through a burning building, falling out of a plane without a parachute, or even simply trudging through an endless desert, the amazing sequences peppered throughout the game will leave you breathless and on the edge of your seat again and again. Leave it to the team at Naughty Dog to make walking through a desert fun and exciting. Interesting design choices and a decision to challenge themselves also urged the team towards creating a level that they could flip 90º, which in and of itself, is WAY beyond wicked fucking cool. There’s also a couple of thrilling chase sequences, which are done extremely well, with the game flowing seemlessly in and out of actual gameplay and cinematics, and the animation and general workmanship in these set pieces in general is absolutely second-to-none in the video game world.

Unfortunately, these same sequences also harbor the biggest flaw of the game in general: any time you’re playing through a sequence as tightly scripted as some of these, a mistake that results in a checkpoint restart can be extremely frustrating for two very important reasons, A.) it’s frustrating that even a minute mistake results in death and B.) it’s even more frustrating because it reminds you that, “hey! you’re playing a game!” Having no leniency during these sequences that result in death after death after death is incredibly detrimental to the suspension of disbelief. Something that so valiantly proves itself to be a legitimate cinematic experience can start to suffer when you watch Drake fall and die 10 or 12 times because you were a split-second off with your timing. Granted, playing through these stretches of gameplay are absolutely and utterly exhilirating if you manage to not make any mistakes, but any falter and you may be sucked right out of the moment by being told you died, and the system is reloading the checkpoint. The other, obvious flaw with having such extravagent and astonishing sequences is the fact that replaying them just isn’t as exciting as the first time. When you know what’s coming, it takes away just a little of the tension and excitement that any “first experience” has. If you think that that’s being really nitpicky, it’s because it is, and honestly I’m having trouble finding anything wrong with this game.

The graphics... OH, the GRAPHICS...!

The presentation in this game could, and rightfully should, be the new standard for other games to follow. The attention to detail shows in almost every facet of the presentation, from the animation, to the evocative lighting and color choices, to the level design and playability, to the impeccable sound-work and score. Drake’s Deception impresses on all fronts, with especially notable praise due to the terrific cast who help make the characters both believable, but most importantly, likable. There’s also an incredible amount of nuance to each performance, and you honestly get the sense that beneach that cocky, wise-ass exterior, Drake is vulnerable and cares earnestly for those around him. The dynamic between Sully and Drake and Elena and Drake are further enhanced by the actor’s performances and by top-notch facial animation. I swear, Drake is a fictional character, made up of polygons and he’s a better actor than Keanu Reeves. Ok. Bad example. But just the same, Drake’s journey takes a (not-so-obvious) toll on him, and the pain of loss and regret shows visibly on his face even as he does his best to let loose with witty barbs and snide comebacks. Not bad for a set of polygons.

The game, as usual, comes with a multiplayer mode which I haven’t tried yet, but due to the nature of the leveling system, I’m planning on playing at some point. Instead of getting your ass romped and feeling like you had a shitty match, you still earn experience and level up just for trying, which makes it much more accessible to the multiplayer casual, such as myself. There’s also a set of co-op missions, loosely lifted from the single-player campaign, which sound interesting enough, but since there’s no trophies for completing them, I may just skip them altogether. Hat’s off to anyone who plays them. I couldn’t really give two shits.

Flawless presentation and great writing greatly outshine the game's few flaws.

Drake’s Deception doesn’t rewrite the way games can be done the way Among Thieves did, but it set out to do things different than the first two games. They didn’t set out to change the way they do things. They did the same things they have before: the same characters (plus a new, fantastic addition), the same sort of journey, a villain, and a new design challenge. Take, for example, what the design team challenged themselves with in each game. The first game did water effects better than any other. The second game took a stab at making the most believable snow ever seen in a game. Drake’s Deception? They set out to make the most realistic sand levels ever constructed, and did so. The villain? An intellectual, wicked, but elegant woman, in contrast to the power-hungry, brutish warlords from the first games. These changes aren’t groundbreaking by any means, but they all add up to something different. Uncharted 3 doesn’t surpass Uncharted 2’s divine splendor, but it does the next best thing and at least meets it. And while it hits the same sort of high and low notes as Uncharted 2, it does so just differently enough to keep it fresh and new. And for me? That’s more than enough.

Do yourself the favor, go play some Uncharted.

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