At the end of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, I thought developer Naughty Dog had nearly dug themselves in a nigh-escapable hole. A follow-up to Uncharted 2 was as predictable as the sunrise due to its bombastic critical and commercial success, but I was concerned how they’d top it. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception has finally been released and while it does not hit the astronomically high marks that its predecessor did, it still is a fantastic, treasure-finding romp.
After following Francis Drake’s trail in the first game and then hunting for a mythical city in the second game, Uncharted 3 takes these ideas and merges them for itself. Drake’s ring, the all-important family heirloom, turns out to be a key to a secret that Francis Drake himself hid away. Of course, opposing forces have the same idea in mind, making Drake’s journey to uncover this forbidden wisdom that much harder.
It’s definitely classic Uncharted, which entails the same strengths. Strong storytelling shines with an easily understandable plot that steadily changes up why and where you travel to each destination. It’s hard to lose the core objective, but it isn’t dumbed down either. The excuses they give to travel the globe and experience everything they have to offer is always well-done and doesn’t leave the feeling that you were thrown there for spectacle’s sake. Oddly, Naughty Dog admits that’s exactly how they made most of the levels.
In addition to its typical strengths, it strikes a few chords that are new and welcome to the franchise. Origins are given more light, showing some neat backstory for some of the vital characters and are pretty surprising when they occur. Interestingly enough, Nate’s motives are even in question, which is oddly fascinating. The question of “Why does this even matter?” comes up frequently which caused me to stop and actually think. That’s about as specific as I’d like to get, but rest assured; that thread is pretty intriguing.
Storytelling is great, but the actors themselves are responsible for developing the plot. We all know and love Nathan Drake, Victor “Goddamn” Sullivan, and Elena Fisher each returning with their signature fantastic performances. New villains and allies are also introduced and meet the franchise’s high bar of characterization. I respected and hated the villains, but in the best way possible meaning they had great antagonistic qualities. All of these performances pave the way for the notion that these could be actual people that actually exist. Brilliantly written lines never feel forced and are both engaging and funny to boot. Not only were their voices captured well, but the performance capture done through mo-cap contributes to the pot in a pretty spectacular way. Animations are smooth, realistic, and incredibly convincing, leaving nothing to look stiff or awkward especially during cutscenes. Few games are even in the same league.
Although I was satisfied with the narrative package in its entirety (which was partly due to the great final scenes), a few parts stuck in my craw. I can’t give specifics, but two large questions were raised but never answered or brought up again. One would have been a revelation for the series and I was on the edge of my seat hoping an answer would come to light, but alas, it never did. Whether it was left out intentionally for an eventual sequel or Naughty Dog just plain forgot about it, an answer would have benefited the game as a whole.
Nathan Drake upholds his mass murderer status in this game and he has plenty of victims ready to eat his bullets. Actually, there may be too many. The Uncharted series has always prided itself on having difficult gunfights, but Uncharted 3 may take the cake. It starts out fairly simple, with only a few standard grunts, but not soon after any combination of snipers, regular grunts, heavies, shotgun-toting guys who run at you, men with RPGs, and grenade launcher-wielding enemies begin flooding every warzone with an alarming frequency. It becomes extremely hectic to take care of it all and one mistake can be costly. Uncharted 2 would always cleverly notify you when an RPG-wielding mercenary was entering the battlefield, but Uncharted 3 chooses to show you by a few surprise rockets to the butt. They will literally show in normal firefights without warning and ruin any momentum you had by a cheap rocket or grenade shot. Since enemies have no trouble flanking you and running up to punch you, having rocket launcher men and snipers to worry about on top of it can be brutal at times. Enemy management is key because without it, it’s hard to survive.
Nate also doesn’t take many bullets to be downed. In addition to health being a little sluggish to regenerate, one good spray can be enough to send you to the last checkpoint on the Normal setting. Thankfully, these load extremely quickly and are spread generously. This series has always had amazing checkpoints and Uncharted 3‘s difficulty is definitely a great reminder.
Having a nearly flawless checkpoint system doesn’t entirely excuse the issues though. I have a feeling the previous complaints wouldn’t be so apparent if it wasn’t for how the enemies react to your shots. Enemies can sponge up bullets, but the key problem (and what might be the core for all of this) is the inconsistency of how they react to getting shot. Previously, any person getting shot would almost do the Macarena from the barrage of bullets, making them easy to down once you got a bead on them. It kept combat flowing. There must be something in the tea because these British adversaries can shrug off some hot metal without any sort of reaction. Guns have more recoil this time around and skittery enemies like these are harder to take down because of these problems.
Some of the time anyway. When things fall into place, Uncharted‘s combat scenarios are thrilling. Given you have the patched-in alternate aim setting on (and you should) in the camera options menu, aiming is pretty smooth and the guns sound and feel great to fire. Throwing back grenades is also new and a godsend in these more difficult fights. Things really start to click when the multiple routes and combat strategies come together for the better. When you are behind cover firing at the four bad guys in front of you and then transition to an improvised (and improved) fisticuffs brawl, these battles start becoming highlights instead of niggling frustrations. Multiple paths and cover opportunities also give firefights a more open feel, leaving players who pay attention and take advantage of Drake’s climbing skills in a better position to dominate.
Drake doesn’t always climb during firefights, but more in their own designated sections. Platforming remains one of the integral ways to navigate environments and is still pretty fun. Levels are expertly designed to point you in the right way, but without holding your hand and feeling too obvious. Handholds are colored in a way to point you where to go and this is appreciated in the face of games like Enslaved.
Hunting for treasures never comes easily, so one must be mentally prepared for the ancient puzzles (that are somehow still functional) that block the way. Uncharted has always had puzzles, but they were usually just glorified matching games to change up the pace. Drake’s Deception makes a good effort the actually require more than second grade logic and it succeeds. Easily having the best puzzles in the series, these require some intuitive problem solving and bettered the game because of it. Drake doesn’t necessarily reach Portal gun-wielding heights, but the even worst puzzle here easily trumps some of the best brain teasers in the previous two games.
If those puzzles are the valleys, then the action sequences are definitely the highest of peaks. From the collapsing building section to the whole train level, Uncharted 2 was filled with spectacle moments that will be forever etched in most player’s minds. Expectations to meet or exceed those rushes are high and Uncharted 3 does it damnedest to keep up. Set-pieces invade every level in hopes to create some truly intense, awe-inspiring spectacles and these efforts aren’t a waste. There was more than one occasion where I had wide-eyes, completely dumbfounded about what I was actually doing and seeing. While it does have its share of cutscenes, most of these segments are playable and made me feel like a part of what was going on rather than just watching the events go haywire. Even though they are noticeably shorter than those in its predecessor, heartbeats per minute will always be high in these areas as they are truly artful in their execution. Expect chases, explosions, horses, fire, more explosions, and spiders. Creepy, creepy spiders.
Arguably more than any other series, Uncharted games are all about momentum. Although it affects the combat to a lesser extent, death brings this forward push to a screeching halt. Most of the action scenes are wonderfully orchestrated with subtle clues to quickly guide you to the safer zones, but the ones that aren’t so well-designed stick out. Only a couple have hints aren’t too obvious the first time around and one set-piece just falls flat on a few key notes. In this specific one, enemies pour into this area with unstable, moving cover that can easily one-shot you. Death is nearly inevitable in this part, meaning the sharp decrease in adrenaline is too. It doesn’t ruin the game by a long shot and the moments are almost always explosive and exciting, they just feel a bit less polished this time around.
Uncharted 3 is easily worth the cash on account of its stunning single player, but it possesses a shocking array of multiplayer modes to keep you busy long after you’ve seen the credits roll a few times. Cooperative and competitive multiplayer return and have both been buffed up considerably. You and a friend (either online or through split-screen) can team up for a mission mode cut out of the some scenarios present in the other games with varying objectives and custom voice acting. These are neat takes on a sort of uncut scenes and are even more fun to tackle with a friend. If you aren’t up for mission modes, traditional wave based survival modes have returned. As long as you don’t run out of lives, two people have to survive ten waves with different setups for each wave. Sometimes all the enemies have to be eliminated, another might only count your kills within a certain area, and the last is a treasure-fetching based mode. Switching up the mission type every time keeps these modes fresh and keeps A.D.D. from setting in. Even though single player is my main attraction, co-op still remains one of my favorite modes.
If you hate your friends and would rather shoot at them and not with them, the competitive portion of the multiplayer would probably be the mode more suited for you. Uncharted 2 laid the groundwork and Uncharted 3 just blew it out in almost every way. You can customize this, that, and the other thing, throw a scope on this, put a perk on this weapon, and much more. It’s a little daunting at first, but for the best. The money pool that was present in the previous title (although disappointing lacking the ability to get cash in single player) returns and allows you to purchase what you want to further customize your experience.
Once you actually get done tinkering and get to the shooting part, it’s still surprisingly fun. Guns may still be a tad less accurate, but climbing around and becoming mobile gives the game a different feel from other online titles. Monkeying around, shooting while hanging, and kicking people off are still unique gameplay experiences to be had in the Uncharted online universe. Powerplays have also been added and give the losing team an opportunity to catch up while keeping it exciting and also keeping the games from becoming landslide victories or defeats. Cinematic moments also carry over and even give the multiplayer some great memorable sequences. From a primarily single player affair, Uncharted 3 sure has it’s multiplayer bases more than covered.
I’d be remiss not to mention the obvious and say how damn stunning this game looks. Whether it is in motion or just being still, Uncharted has almost been synonymous with gorgeous visuals and Drake’s Deception holds this up phenomenally well. Dense environments also have detail that more sparse games can’t even match and it houses some incredibly jaw-dropping vistas and environments. I don’t like using the phrase “jaw-dropping” because of its overuse, but when my jaw literally drops and my eyes widen, it seems appropriate. Lighting, context-sensitive animation, water effects, a rock-solid framerate, larger-than-life dynamic levels, and facial expressions are all at the top of their class and never cease to amaze. Not even once. Naughty Dog is truly a team of technical wizards.
In the process of writing this review, one line that I had to keep myself from overusing was “Part X is good in this game, but Uncharted 2 did it better.” Pessimistically, I stand by that sentiment, but that sounds overly negative to continually go back to. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception has its own strengths from its (mostly) exciting fights, blood pumping action sequences, eye-bleedingly gorgeous graphics, and a story that hits a good chunk of the right beats. Even though it isn’t the highest point in the series, it’s still a solid title on its own two feet and definitely deserves your time. Most franchises don’t even get the privilege to say their least amazing game is an absolute must-play.
+Strong story with the usual fantastic group of well-realized (and familiar) characters
+Combat, when it works, is intense
+Gorgeous game with fluid, convincing animations
+Competitive and cooperative multiplayer is incredibly deep and a good addition
+Set-pieces, although not the series’ best, still excite and bring plenty of “holy shit” moments
-Combat (stealth included) is relentlessly difficult at times with some inconsistencies
-Interesting questions are mentioned but aren’t answered or brought up again
-Some parts of some set-pieces fall a tad short either by easy deaths or being too difficult
Final Score: 9/10