Years from now, when I am old and decrepit, talking about how in my day we used to take “buses” to school, not the fancy jetpacks that all the kids are hot on, I will fondly look back on the Uncharted series as one of the quintessential franchises of this generation of consoles, and some of the best games ever made. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is not only my favorite PS3 game, it has a spot on the list of my favorite games ever. It will now stand neck and neck on that list with Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.
If you are on the fence about whether or not to own a PS3 (and assuming somehow money isn’t an issue, in which case I would love to borrow some), Uncharted 3 is the best reason to pull the trigger — well it and Uncharted 2. From the first moment when you step into Drake’s shoes in the midst of a shady business deal in a London bar, to one of the most amazing ship levels in video game history, it is hard not to play with a smile on your face.
This game just does so many things right. When the dust clears, Uncharted 2 may be a bit better regarded by some, but that is only because it took so many people by surprise. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune had one of the best stories on the PS3 to date, but it had a lot of problems with the combat and the pacing. Uncharted 2 reinvented the series and became the closest thing to a playable movie ever made. It was shocking how good that game was, partly because the expectations weren’t that high.
With Uncharted 3, the same level of quality is there. It is every bit as good as Uncharted 2 — plus the multiplayer is vastly improved. It won’t change the way you think about games as Uncharted 2 did for many, but that is an issue with expectations, not the game itself.
Yes, there are a few minor technical issues with the game. The combat sometimes slows down the otherwise brilliant pacing and the online (while surprisingly addictive) has a few balance issues, but these are all minor quibbles coming from someone paid to make those observations. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is definitely in the discussion for the Game of the Year honors, and it is the best PS3-exclusive game to date.
From back alleys to lost cities
The story of Uncharted 3 is much more personal than the previous titles. For the first time, we begin to see a glimpse at the past of the character of Nathan and his relationship with Sully, and a few bombshells about Nate’s past added twists. In video games, it is uncommon to place much emphasis on the background of characters, except when it is used for a very specific plot purpose. There are a few exceptions to this, but how much do we really know about characters like Master Chief? There have been novels that expand on his origins, but in the games you don’t really know. He’s a soldier and there are enemies needing a whoopin’.
It is an impressive achievement for Naughty Dog to have created a story and a universe that can support itself based partly on character development. There is one level early on that delves into Nathan’s past, and it is hard not to smile as you play through it. The whole section could probably have been told in a quick flashback, but the exceptional writing makes it interesting enough to draw you into it. You care about the characters, and you like them. The voice acting is as good as any voice acting anywhere, and Nolan North deserves special recognition as the voice of Nathan. The main dialogue shines, but it really transcends when you hear him muttering to himself, or expressing an actual sense of fatigue, humor or other, more subtle emotions.
At the heart of the story is Nathan’s race against the mysterious woman Marlowe to find Sir Francis Drake’s secret. On orders from Queen Elizabeth, Drake left Indonesia on a secret journey that eventually took him to the lost city called Iram of the Pillars, also known as the Atlantis of the Sands. Marlowe and Nathan Drake each have part of the clues, and each have their own motivations for continuing on.
There has been a lot of talk about an Uncharted movie, which is now in the hands of writer-director Neil Burger. Not to take anything away from Burger, but Sony should just let the writers from the game give it a shot. It is tough in any medium to make fans actually feel a connection to the characters, and it is even tougher to garner an emotional response to a fictional video game scenario, but Uncharted 3 does just that.
Without any spoilers, there is a level close to the end of the game where Nathan’s luck seems to have run out, and he is in a desperate situation. The way the game presents this is masterful, and it is like nothing you have ever seen before. Naughty Dog could have created a cut scene to explain what is happening, but making this section playable (you’ll know it when you see it) puts you in Nathan’s shoes. You share his desperation, and a very real sense of relief when things change.
The writing goes beyond just good set pieces and swift pacing. It is witty and tight, and while I do wish some of the characters had been fleshed out a bit more, the inevitable conclusion is satisfying.
If Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull hurt you deeply inside, like eating a cookie from your childhood and discovering it was filled with suck, then relax and jump into the shoes of Nathan Drake to see how it should be done.
Around the world in eight hours
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception clocks in at around eight to ten hours of gameplay. That might seem fairly short compared to some of the games coming out these days, but the game grabs you and forces you to run, then jump off a cliff. The length is irrelevant because the plot is deep and compelling. Broken into 22 chapters, the story takes you around the world to several exotic locations.
The set pieces remain the most memorable of the series, and they have increased their tension from the last game. The train car chapter from Uncharted 2 was among the most epic scenes in a game filled with epic scenes, and Uncharted 3 tops that. As with the last game, you will find yourself occasionally running from gun fire, ripping through a city as enemies chase you that get your blood pumping, but there are also a few jaw dropping moments, including one involving water that is best left unspoiled but will be talked about for awhile.
Combat and platforming help break up these sets. There is still plenty of jumping, swinging and parkour-style navigation, but less so than the previous game, as combat has taken a slightly bigger role. The mechanics remain essentially the same from the last game, with a few exceptions like the ability to throw back enemy grenades. Overall, it works well, but there are a few issues with it.
You will frequently find yourself in a giant room or area, and you know what is coming. The combat typically involves you hunkering down behind cover as waves of enemies come after you. There are less stealth elements than in Uncharted 2, but there are still a few. Thankfully if they become too frustrating you can turn any section into a straightforward combat situation.
The enemies are also rather unremarkable. They come, they hide, they chuck a few grenades, then you shoot them in the head. Eventually an armored enemy will come, which requires a few headshots to take them down. The AI isn’t bad and it will continue to flank you and push you back, but it will also stand in front of you and shoot over your head until you kill him. The enemy AI works well as a team, but as individuals, not so much.
A new hand-to-hand combat system particularly shines by offering a cinematic way to take out enemies. It isn’t complex by any means — you punch, counter or grab enemies — but the way it looks and moves, plus the occasional use of surrounding items like a bottle, make it a highlight. It does teeter on repetitive after a few times of fighting the same big, bald-headed guy (that I came to lovingly refer to as Abobo), but the animations and the way it moves make each fight worth getting into.
When the fights are used in conjunction with the story-telling, they are incredible. The game will constantly find little ways to surprise you.