A deceptively devious and delightful game.
November 22, 2011 – Uncharted has always been a series that has done fantastic things with setting, characters and cinematic storytelling. In many ways, Naughty Dog has taken the next step up, crafting a story that manages to avoid some of the strange elements of the first two (no maniacal generals using super-powered sap here) while building upon the existing characters with interesting new additions and small tweaks that make these characters deeper than they already were. At the same time, the gameplay still has all the hallmarks of what made the first two games great, as well as the tiny stumbles that remain a pain in the player’s side.
Beginning with the game’s most important aspect, the story, I can say with surety that it still follows in Indiana Jones’ footsteps marvelously while adding its own twists and flairs that show for every sensibility it takes from that venerable film series, it rises to the occasion to chart *coughcough* a unique path for itself.
Describing the story, how it succeeds, and where it is its strongest, is difficult to do without spoilers or gross generalities. In that sense, saying that the story is the best yet for the franchise is about as succinct as I can put it. Oh, I can mention that Drake explores many places and exotic locations. I can say that the game examines his relationship with Sully. The villains, Mrs. Marlowe and Talbot, are easily the most memorable villains yet. I can even say that new additions like Charlie are strong, different and likeable. Furthermore, the game takes the player on a wild ride and never lets you go; but what does all that really say?
A lot of what I could say means little, but there are two things you really should know. First of all, the writers of this game change up the formula in interesting ways. There are entire sections that involve no shooting or platforming whatsoever and have a great deal of impact, with some of the greatest vistas in the medium. There are chase scenes in crowded marketplaces, horse-mounted combat, desperate firefights in burning buildings, life or death brawls in the opened cargo hold of a plane in mid-flight and much more. Things don’t always go the way you expect, some surprises really catch you off guard, and perceptions are played with almost constantly throughout the game.
The second, and most important thing to know, is that Nathan, his past and motivations, are finally explored a little bit. It isn’t the most thorough examination of a character, but it adds some depth to the charming rogue we all love. We see him questioned, we see the first real prods at his motivations and emotions, and we see him finally try to move beyond his past. But for as much as this game’s story brings events to a close (and believe me, they could end the entire series right here), there are still lingering questions, and plenty of room to expand and explore these characters, Nathan in particular.
The gameplay is much the same as in previous entries in the series, which means it has all the same highlights as well as flaws. Platforming is enjoyable, occasionally very clever and occasionally very frustrating. The ability to move around the environment is as interesting as ever, and firefights while climbing keeps you invested in he platforming action. However, there are also many times when the door is locked (how convenient) and Drake has to find a way around to the other side to unlock the door. It gets a little repetitive.
The level design is impeccable, and some levels go by without a hitch. The cruise-ship level, for example, is fantastically built, and Naughty Dog really knows how to turn your world on its side (yes, there is a pun involved).Usually I’m able to follow the path smoothly, naturally going from one segment to the next, fulfilling my role in an action packed roller-coaster ride, but accidental deaths can be common in certain circumstances, especially when the visual clues that the developers use to steer you through environments aren’t obvious enough. There are times I’m sure I can get up onto a ledge, or leap from one edge to another, but for whatever reason the controls refuse to allow me passage. This can cause especially frustrating deaths when you have gunmen at your heels.
I’ve seen at least one website where this game was compared to Dragon’s Lair, and while the game isn’t as linear and do-or-die as that particular example, there are times when it doesn’t feel far from it.
The stealth segments are short and almost always end in a gun fight, which I suspect is intentional, because honestly Drake’s ability to move stealthily in this game is pretty much nill, but the short while they last they are fun breaks in the otherwise endless platforming and bullet spewing. The puzzles are similarly fun breaks, and while they are generally quite simple they are also well designed and involve a nice amount of level traversal and some light thinking.
For those of you wondering, yes, Nathan Drake is still a notorious mass-murderer. I dropped hundreds of mercenaries and pirates and cultists in pursuit of the goal, and let me tell you, I still sleep good at night. This is simply one area of the game that I think will never be addressed in the story, and really it is one of the least important things to address. After all, pretty much every fight I ever got into was one of self-defense. I can hardly fault Nathan for choosing to be the guys who survives at the end.
I’ve heard the gunplay isn’t as responsive as previous games, and while I haven’t played those games recently enough to know the accuracy of that statement, I can assure you that the gunplay does have issues. At times the reticule is super jumpy and aiming at a target is far harder than it should be (there is little to no aim assist in this game). Throwing back grenades also seems to be a bit more hit and miss than it should. When it works it’s a great sensation, and when it doesn’t you feel cheated of your life. I think the problem has to do with how close you have to be to the grenade to throw it back. There were times when I swear I was right on top of the thing and I couldn’t throw it for the life of me.
When it comes to melee fights, however, the gameplay has taken a serious up-turn from Uncharted 2. You can tell that the team took some minor cues from Batman: Arkham Asylum and worked it into their game. Combat flows smoothly and essentially moves between three different button actions – punch, counter, grab/break grab. These work effectively and when some environmental elements are thrown in (bottles or fish, for example) you get some pretty nifty fight sequences.
As the game progresses enemies become more difficult; not through more intelligent AI, but rather through through how much they become bullet sponges. Of course this is a problem that has carried over from the last two games, though Uncharted 3 manages to be better in this than its predecessors. That’s not to say that the AI isn’t decent. It is. Certain enemy types work different than others, some gun men will flank you – some charge you – some snipe you – some are heavily armored, etc, but there were maybe three different kinds of shooters, and two kinds of melee brawlers. Enemy variety is definitely something I would like to have seen more of, especially by the eighth time you fight a big heavy brawler who has the exact same move pattern as all the previous heavy brawlers. Some gunfights in the game felt dynamic, fun and energetic. Others felt like a slug fest I was perpetually losing. I’m still not sure how I finally got by the mini-boss on the pirate ship.
But while I make a fuss out of these little niggling issues, I must point out that they are in fact niggling, minor and insignificant, and they only really show themselves for the issues they are because the rest of the game is so polished.
And what a polish! The graphics in this game are gorgeous; not quite the step up from Uncharted 1 to 2, but significant nonetheless. From the decayed glory of a French Chateau, to the rolling waves of a stormy sea, to the hot sand dunes of the desert, this game is gorgeous, and provides some of the best visuals of any game to date. Of course the number of vertexes and polygons can only do so much; the design and attention to detail are what really make the game as gorgeous as it is, and the team at Naughty Dog have managed to create some truly beautiful sights.
Whatever I say here cannot really do justice for this game. If you love that Indiana Jones sensibility to characters, setting and story – if you love more than capable third-person shooters – if you love superbly crafted works of interactive art – then play Uncharted 3. No amount of tiny flaws could take away from what Naughty Dog has managed here. If you own a Playstation 3, but not the entire Uncharted series, and especially this 3rd entry, the crown-jewel of the bunch, you are doing yourself a serious disservice. If you don’t own a Playstation 3, you have no better reason than these games to make it up to yourself and get one. This game is a shoe-in as nomination for game-of-the-year, and is the best part of a game series that has become an instant classic and one of the greatest ever made.
STAR RATING: (4 1/2)
For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish or high-concept for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.
The breadth of places Drake travels to in this game is fantastic. Everywhere from London pubs to France, Syria, Yemen, pirate junked-shipyards to the expected ancient lost city, the Atlantis of the Sands (which was gorgeous, wasn’t it?). Choosing a favorite is hard, especially considering that gorgeous lost city, but the Chateau in France probably takes the cake. The scenery is gorgeous, the level design is terrific and the attention to detail by the team at Naughty Dog is some of the best in the business, coming in alongside teams like Irrational Games’ work on Rapture. Of course the action set-pieces were terrific as well, even if the horse chase felt a tad too reminiscent of Indiana Jones (wait… is that really a bad thing?).
And how about those desert scenes, eh?
Part of it confused the heck out of me – I still want to know whose voice he heard in his head, etc. – but it was all beautiful. The scene where Nathan gazes at the stars was particularly striking, and the mirages were marvelously done.
For all this game was gorgeous, the character moments really made this game pop. The flashback to Nathan’s childhood – his first meeting with Sully and Marlowe, and the theft at the Museum – was great. I really wanted to know what happened between Nathan and Elena since Uncharted 2, but the emotional scene where Nathan’s head in in her lap and he says “I’m Sorry.” … my apologies… I was… I was getting a little… teary-eyed there. That had to be one of the most simple, yet touching moments in gaming, and while the other scenes didn’t quite rise to that same level, they were all great.
And how about that ending, eh? Fantastic, wasn’t it? The entire city crumbling around you (though that bit did seem a little too similar to the last game’s ending), the bad guys are defeated in spectacular fashion with nary a bloated boss battle in sight (much more interesting to have Marlowe disappear into the quicksand and to have a knife fight with Talbot),Nathan and Elena and Sully are about to fly off into the sunset, the plane itself a connection to the first game, and everything is brought to a close with the sense that, should Naughty Dog choose to, they could simply end it here, and that’s the last we’d ever see of our heroes. We even see Drake close the book (sorta) on this whole thing by saying that he has nothing to prove (thus finishing off his seeming need to prove himself worthy of the Drake legacy).
But my word, how many little bits are left hanging. Of course, the real discussion would revolve around one simple question: What is the “deception” in the game’s title, exactly? On the one hand it can very much refer directly to Sir Francis Drake’s deception about what he found on his mission for Queen Elizabeth. On the other, it may very well refer to Nathan’s deception of everyone in his life about his true identity (I vote for both, of course – Naughty Dog, you scoundrels).
I was shocked when Mrs. Marlowe revealed that she knew so much about Drake, and his secrets, and he did not deny them. So who is he really? Is he truly just a street urchin with a fascination for the man who’s name adorned his orphanage? Is there something deeper than that? How did a little boy learn so much at an orphanage as to become steeped in Drake lore and have the ability and determination to seek out the answers to the man’s mysteries? I mean, nun knowledge may be fascinating and all, but… It doesn’t seem to make sense.
This game started plucking at the threads of who Nathan really is at the heart of his character. We’ve seen something of his background, and the darker truths about his past have had one layer of mystery taken away, but so much remains. Add in the complications of his relationships with Sully, Elena and everyone else, and there is plenty of fodder for the next game – and let’s not kid ourselves, there will be another game.
Let me, really briefly(ish), discuss some possibilities of where this might go. Okay, the ending of this game has laid it out that Nathan seems to be ready to put his current life behind him in favor of a life with Elena. Beautiful. If the series ends here, I would be happy enough. Of course it will continue since it makes so much money. So, how can they continue it without ruining this image? I don’t want them to keep pulling an Indiana Jones on this, where each game(movie) ends with Nathan(Indy) once again out of a relationship because of off-screen issues.
Believe it or not, I would love it if the next game began in the middle of Nathan’s new domestic life. Take a Heavy Rain approach to the setting for a minute. Let the player explore Nathan’s marriage with Elena briefly. Does he have a kid? Is he satisfied with daily life (An interesting and wonderful answer to this might be “yes”)? And then have him be pulled back (unwillingly?) into his former life. Perhaps it has something to do with this unnamed father of his? Something that happened to him at the orphanage? Some brush with a dangerous someone while he was in the care of some nuns (and who is better at keeping long hidden secrets than the Catholic Church, eh)? What effect would this tumbling back into danger have on Nathan and his relationship to Elena and Sully (particularly if it is revealed in the process that he isn’t who he always said he was)? There is so much material to mine here.
Dear reader, let me address, nay beg, Naughty Dog for a moment… *ahem* – Naughty Dog, please (please, please, please) show us something new about Nathan’s character. Evolve him. Don’t leave him where he’s at, with half-answered questions, and please (please, please, please) don’t take him backwards either. You can’t run this series off of Nathan forever, so start planning for that future now. What if Nathan does have kids? How does he relate to them? How does he father them? You can begin to form a family lineage right here, where each generation has new character, and new personality to draw from. A game or two from now you might have a whole new Drake to explore, and the possibilities for the series become endless! But that has to begin right now. Let Drake grow and change into a father.
Indiana Jones had a purpose that drove him in his adventures. He believed in two things: 1. knowledge is for all of humanity; 2. bad guys don’t have the right to monopolize it, and the power it brings, for themselves. What does Nathan have in all this: 1. Treasure = Money. Money = good. 2. It would kinda suck if a bad guy had the power to rule/destroy the world, so I better stop them.
But now we see glimpses of something deeper. He was trying to live up to the legacy of Sir Francis Drake. He felt like he has to prove himself. Sure, but may I ask why? Yes, by the end of the game we know he has nothing left to prove, but there is still so much to work with here. What makes Drake tick?
So, dear Naughty Dog, please (please, please, please) give Nathan a good, personal reason to be out there again, doing what we all love to see him do; namely, explore lost cities, search for ancient secrets and make wisecracks while shooting and climbing everything in sight.