Review by 47pik

"Drake on a Plane"

I really wasn't sure what to expect when I started up Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. Well, no, that's not true; I did know what to expect – another well crafted linear action-adventure romp starring treasure-hunting, wise-cracking Nathan Drake. What I didn't know was how developer Naughty Dog would try to differentiate Uncharted 3 from its acclaimed predecessor, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, or if any attempt at differentiation would even be made. After all, Uncharted 2 was itself the much refined realization of the ideas initially presented in the original Uncharted – how much more could realistically be refined and changed while still feeling like the previous two games? A cynic might even wonder if an attempt would even be made to do so, given the success of Uncharted 2, and the current industry climate of annual releases and sequel stagnation.

It seems Naughty Dog wanted to answer my questions right off the bat. As the first chapter of Uncharted 3 begins, protagonist Nathan Drake and partner Sully are involved in a business deal that quickly goes foul and violent. As the fisticuffs begin, the cutscene transitions to a quicktime event, which itself then seamlessly transitions into actual gameplay. Smoothly and naturally, the player is playing without even consciously choosing to. This blurring of the lines between gameplay, quicktime event and cutscene seems to be the underlying philosophy of Uncharted 3; one can feel the effort put in to ensure that the player always feels actively involved even if they currently are passively viewing. Suddenly improvement had been made upon Uncharted 2 in an area that I had never even considered as needing it. After all, Uncharted 2 was no Metal Gear Solid 4 – I would hardly say that the cutscenes ever had a negative impact on my immersion – yet the presentation has been vastly improved by the change anyway. This is very much the antithesis of the “if it ain't broke” wisdom. Perhaps more than any other game, Uncharted 3 feels less like an imitation of film and more like a game presented with the fluidity of a film. “Cinematic” to use a tired industry buzzword.

But this opening sequence also serves to introduce another immediately noticeable change, and that is the surprisingly large focus on melee combat. The entire first chapter of the game contains not a single firearm, as Drake and Sully fight their way out of a tavern using nothing but their own fists, and the odd environmental object. While the combat itself is nothing to write home about, it works quite well, and is a substantial improvement over the largely useless and clunky combat in Uncharted 2. Even once gunplay is introduced a few chapters later, melee remains a viable method of taking down foes, as it offers a couple key advantages over guns at close range: the enemy cannot shoot you as they defend themselves in hand to hand combat, and it's a lot faster than trying to aim at close range. Although this may not seem to have game-changing ramifications, it very much does, making vast improvement on the combat system of the series by emphasizing what makes it unique – mobility. While many cover based shooters rely on hiding behind a “chest-high wall” and popping out of cover to shoot enemies that have also popped out of cover, Uncharted 3 thrives on the nimble Nathan Drake using cover to move and climb through the environments and flank or gain a terrain advantage over enemies in sharp contrast to the slow, clunky gunfights of, say, Gears of War. With the improvement of melee combat, one no longer has to attempt to keep distance from enemies in order to be able to accurately shoot them, which changes the entire flow of combat to be much faster and more intense, as both Drake and his enemies try to out-maneuver each other.

Given how fun the combat mechanics are, it is extremely disappointing to note that this is also where one of the game's biggest problems lies. Aiming of guns does not control well. What the exact issue is, is somewhat hard to exactly pin down, but it just doesn't “feel right”. It would seem there is some issue with a large dead zone in the aiming control, in addition to too much auto-aim, which makes it very hard, and frustrating to aim accurately, making headshots more luck than skill. Puzzlingly, the multiplayer modes, both co-op and versus, do not have this issue, and control smoothly. Since release, Naughty Dog has stated that they're working on a patch to fix the problem which will be out soon, but nevertheless, it bears mentioning, for it significantly detracts from the experience of the single player campaign, which, following the initial bad deal, takes Nathan Drake to Yemen in search of the lost city of Ubar – the “Atlantis of the Sands” – located somewhere in the middle of the Rub' al Khali desert.

The basic premise of the game is standard fare for the series; if you've played the first two, you pretty much know what's going to happen. This is not to say it isn't interesting, just that certain aspects are quite predictable at this point. Then again, I'm not entirely sure that's a bad thing; after all, the Indiana Jones films, the clear inspiration for the series, had a certain formula as well, and it worked there just as well as it does here. It's when the narrative deviates from this formula that Uncharted 3 has problems. Several subplots, such as Nathan Drake's past, and the authenticity of his claim to be a descendant of famed explorer Sir Francis Drake appear, and then go nowhere despite being rather intriguing. When combined with the generally poor characterization of the villains, and several jarring plotholes, there's the unfortunate feeling that things were cut from the script haphazardly. However, one subplot in particular, that focuses on the ethics of Drake's fortune hunting, – taken for granted as being okay up until this point – is quite well done, and seemingly aimed at addressing complaints related to the narratives of the first two Uncharted games, while also fleshing out the relationship between Drake and Sully. In fact, the main plot feels like more of a vehicle for this subplot to be explored, giving the game a bit of a darker tone, and a more character based focus. Meanwhile, the presentation is once again top notch, with witty dialog and extremely strong performances by the voice actors involved, that leave Uncharted 3 drenched in charm like its predecessors, with lovable characters that stay with you after the game ends.

The presentation is bolstered by the gorgeous visuals which characterize the game world further. Retaining the stylized realism look that the previous games had, Uncharted 3 is a visual treat, with colourful and varied environments that all have distinct flair and impressive fidelity, boasting very impressive texture work. From the water that the original game was so well known for, to the banks of sand within the desert, the areas that Drake traverses are among the best looking ever seen on consoles, which should be no surprise given that both previous instalments were graphical powerhouses as well. Facial models and animation are also among the best around – they can't hold a candle to the motion capture in L.A. Noire, but they're impressive nonetheless, and this time, the eyes don't give off the uncanny valley feel they did in Uncharted 2. It is then, a great shame that the native resolution is a mere 720p, and a testament to the power of art direction that it can still look so great without being in full HD. Music too, is extremely well done with orchestrated music that always perfectly fits the tone of the situation, really emphasizing the big moments of the game.

And big moments there are. Naughty Dog once again has shown that their Uncharted series is the undisputed king of setpiece action, boasting some of the most jaw-dropping setpieces ever seen in a video game, a couple notable ones even shaming the best from Uncharted 2; one in particular that features an escape from a burning mansion will be impossible to forget. But in addition to the sheer spectacle and intensity of them, the setpieces succeed because they don't feel artificial and overly scripted, even though they are by nature. Instead the events organically spring out of gameplay with a smoothness that other setpiece driven games can only dream of. Perhaps the biggest strength of the setpieces however, is the pacing. Led by recent Call of Duty titles there has been a trend among action games to rely on a constant barrage of big setpiece moments as an attempt to wow the player. Uncharted 3 eschews this approach in favour of strategically placing its big action spectacles; big setpiece sequences occur at key moments and rapidly escalate in intensity to a climax before relieving tension on the player beginning the slow process of building up to the next massive setpiece. It's the most basic approach to action, and it's the most effective, ensuring that every big moment leaves an impact on the player.

Thus it's a shame that the rest of the game's pacing isn't so perfectly maintained. The game starts fairly slowly, and includes a flashback detour into Drake's childhood, which, while quite interesting to a player already invested in the characters, will do nothing but bore players who are playing Uncharted 3 without prior knowledge of the series, as they have not been given a reason to care yet. Once the game finally gets going, the first half contains a very impressive variety of gameplay, never focusing too much on any one aspect. There are a healthy amount of puzzles and environment traversal (I hesitate to call it exploration due to its linear nature), in addition to narrative sequences, and non-shooting action. The only thing lacking here is the gunplay, which is largely absent. However, the latter half of the game is nearly all gunplay – as I recall, there is not a single puzzle after Chapter 12 (there are 22 chapters). While I can certainly appreciate how strong these parts are, most featuring wide open environments which are among the best arenas for combat in the series, it would be nice if there were more than a brief reprieve from firing bullets. This here is the single largest flaw in the game – as great as these encounters are, epitomizing the game's philosophy of mobility as an approach to combat, when they come at you in a constant stream, they stop being as impressive. The great strength of the Uncharted series is that despite the solid shooting mechanics, it has other game mechanics to mix things up and keep everything fresh. It seems with Uncharted 3 that this has been somewhat forgotten. This is not to say the campaign is a chore – far from it – but it's frustrating to think of what could have been had the pacing of gameplay been better.
In multiplayer, no such problem exists – there the game does not try to be anything but a shooter. Like its predecessor, Uncharted 3 features competitive multiplayer and cooperative play. The online game features, as is the standard these days for online multiplayer, a ranking and unlock system with customizable loadouts, but goes the extra mile with in-game currency, weapon upgrades, challenges, boosters (think perks from Call of Duty), a variety of costumes, clan tags, custom emblems, and even fully customizable characters. Clearly, Uncharted 3 is trying to be a multiplayer game, and it's rather strong as one: both competitive and co-op modes are extremely solid. Competitive multiplayer pits players against each other, in teams, or alone, in a variety of classic match types, including variations on king of the hill, capture the flag, and, of course, deathmatch. Meanwhile cooperative mode allows up to three players, either through splitscreen or online, to work together to achieve objectives as increasingly difficult waves of enemies attack, similar to Gears of War's horde mode.

While the modes themselves are nothing new to the multiplayer arena, Uncharted 3 manages to feel extremely unique due to a couple key factors. First is the game's medal reward system, which awards medals for a plethora of actions (such as getting three melee kills) or for gathering treasure. When the player has gained enough medals, they can activate a kickback, which grants that player a bonus of some type for a period of time. Kickbacks are similar to Call of Duty's killstreaks in function, but unlike kill counts, medal counts don't reset upon death, meaning that they aren't only seen by the best players. And since kills are not what fuel kickbacks, thus preventing positive feedback loops as seen in other games where one player gets killstreak after killstreak after killstreak, never allowing the other team to have a chance. Secondly, while multiplayer for any third person shooter is by nature going to be a lot more mobile than the campaign, Uncharted 3 also allows players to retain the signature climbing and jumping aspects of combat, as they move about the map. The dozen or so multiplayer maps all take advantage of player mobility, with plentiful buildings to climb and ledges to hang from. Additionally, the maps are some of the best designed I have ever seen, with interesting layouts that are instantly memorable, and take full advantage of vertical space. Several have some kind of interesting gimmick at play as well, such as one that begins on two trains speeding along, before arriving at a station, where the remainder of the match takes place. The result is that Uncharted 3 may be the most movement based third person shooter available, and despite treading on familiar ground, one of the most unique, with a distinct flair not seen anywhere else.

Alternatively to the other modes, there is “Co-op Adventure”, which is rather different, challenging players to work together to complete five chapters of a rather humourously non-canon storyline where Drake and friends attempt to track down an ancient treasure before a team of all the villains from the Uncharted series. Much like in Uncharted 2, these levels are brutally difficult, even on the normal difficulty. While they probably won't have the lasting appeal that the competitive multiplayer and co-op arena modes have, they're worth a look, especially for longtime fans, as they contain areas seen from games past, as well as some familiar scenarios. While not extensive, there are even cutscenes and scripted events sprinkled throughout the levels. The ridiculous nature of the story is amusing, and the dialog is quite self-aware, bordering on parody of the series at times. It's a shame that while the charm of the series is here intact, the fabulous production values aren't. While cutscenes are novel, they look atrocious due to being close up to the models and textures used in multiplayer, which have much less fidelity than in the single player game. Nevertheless, it's a nice little mode to round out the multiplayer.

There has always been something intangibly compelling about the Uncharted series. Something that makes it succeed where other games would fail. It's not that the games don't have flaws – each game has had them and Uncharted 3 is no different– but it's just that one can glaze over them so easily, even when they are glaringly obvious. Due to the fantastic presentation, it's rather easy to not even notice most of them. Uncharted 3 is a feel-good game; a real joy to play and become caught up in, from the spectacle of the brilliant setpieces, to the charm of the characters. Underneath the shine, it's a solid shooter with its own flavour, that is broken up by plenty of other game mechanics. Although pacing and story issues make it a less polished package than Uncharted 2 : Among Theives, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is a quality title that still improves upon its predecessor in several ways, while showing most other action games how it's done, all with a distinct style all its own. Nathan Drake is still top dog of the third person shooter.

7.5/10 - Good


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 11/09/11

Game Release: Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (US, 11/01/11)


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