Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is in the unfortunate position being the follow up release to the very pinnacle of its genre, the heavily praised and adored Uncharted 2: Amongst Thieves. With Uncharted 2 developers Naughty Dog took the genre to new lofty heights, and instead of buckling under unforgiving expectations they’ve delivered once again with an explosive action adventure that both exceeds its predecessor at times and falls short at others.
The game’s story takes an unexpected turn into Nathan Drake’s (Nate) past, unveiling his first encounter with his now close friend Andrew Sullivan (Sully) along with how he came to obtain Sir Francis Drake’s ring, which he took from the hands of the game’s villain Katherine Marlowe as a young child. You soon learn the importance of the ring and against Marlowe fight to discover its secrets, tied to Sir Francis Drake’s voyage to Arabia, T.E. Lawrence’s adventures and a shadowy organisation that dates back to before Queen Elizabeth I’s time.
It’s a welcome surprise to have some insight into Nate’s past, and there is certainly far more sense of character this time around with the core cast. Familiar faces Chloe Frazer and Elena Fisher join Nate and Sully, along with the addition of Charlie Cutter, a fantastic comically claustrophobic addition. Unfortunately, apart from Nate and Sully, the cast is cut at a moment’s notice, somewhat fulfilling throw away roles.
As is typical with the series the campaign starts with the pedal firmly pressed against the floor. Nate and old friend Sully meet with an unknown dealer, looking to sell his family ring in a quaint London pub, which in typical Uncharted fashion promptly turns sour and ends in a colossal pub fight. It was at this point, merely a minute into the game, that I encountered my first jaw on floor experience. Being pummelled by a brute whilst not reacting I suddenly realise I’m not in a cutscene as the game transitions seamlessly, I’m in full control. This situation happens multiple times throughout the entire campaign, moments where I’m so programmed to expect a cutscene from less cinematic games, that I fail to realise that it’s me in control and at the hands of the one of the most cinematic gaming experiences ever released.
It’s Naughty Dogs mastery of this technique that excels Uncharted 3. It’s Call of Duty without the clear cut script triggers, or Final Fantasy without the immersion breaking switching between gorgeous cutscenes and robotic gameplay. The very best bits of Uncharted 3, the most explosive action packed moments, are in your control, utterly immersive and almost flawless in execution. Climbing and manoeuvring feels completely natural, and even during escape scenes where you’re running without a moment to pause, vibrant colours and smart level design has you following the correct path without second thought, jumping and clambering from ledge to ledge with ease.
Areas in which the campaign takes you are extremely varied, often with a defining style or feature. From the dark dank cave that’ll have you fleeing for your life from swarms of spiders, to the junk ship graveyard that has you trying to survive the rough sea to even an endless desert with no signs of survival. Once again Naughty Dog deliver an experience far exceeding the competition, in a generation which is plagued with texture reuse, frequent backtracking and uninspired level design, they’ve managed to maintain a detailed, interesting and awe inspiring world from start to end. This has an unfortunate knock on effect to the campaign length, falling at around seven hours, although I’d take this length any day over cheap tricks to lengthen the game that’d otherwise hamper the variety, pacing or action.
It’s this sense of grand adventure through a varied world on a great quest that makes Uncharted 3 a beautiful experience, and it’s unfortunate that it’s often held up by the games weakest attribute; combat. For the first half of the game you’ll have light combat encounters where you’ll be able to quickly take out the opposition before moving forward, no doubt into something collapsing, chasing or exploding around you but before long the encounters build up until you’re hitting brick walls where difficulty spikes will force you under heavy cover, long drawn out gun fights and inevitable deaths (particularly so if playing under a harder difficulty).
Enemies have far too much resilience to damage, only made worse by shielded enemies that deal atrociously high damage considering their ability to soak up gunfire or equally frustrating heavily armoured enemies that take clips to kill but can execute you from a shot or two. By throwing a few armoured foes, someone with a shield and a handful of normal enemies into tight environment, headaches and frustration come frequently. Couple this with continual incoming grenades, distant snipers and the enemies laughing at you with each death and before long you’ll consider the likes of Dark Souls to be relaxing.
One plus is the new melee system being surprisingly dynamic, bringing the camera in adding that cinematic edge and making full use of the environment. There’s also the ability to counter attacks in the form of quick time events, which unfortunately creep into several boss battles and can sometimes be too prompt. It’s easily the highlight of the game’s combat though, keeping away from the often clunky gunplay, along with the much welcomed addition of throwing back unwanted enemy grenades.
The leap between Uncharted 1 and 2’s campaign was magnificent, moving from a good to fantastic, and this has often been credited to focusing on the cinematic experience as opposed to being combat heavy as found in the first. Uncharted 3 feels very much like the first half is an improved Uncharted 2, light on combat with some of the best cinematic set pieces you’ll find in gaming and the second half being an improved Uncharted 1, focusing heavily on tight combat encounters and frequent difficulty spikes.
Uncharted 2 saw the addition of multiplayer although it felt shoehorned in at the last minute, something which has been rectified this time around. Bringing along familiar modes such as team deathmatch there are now new additions such as three team deathmatch (2v2v2) and a wealth of customisation options from unlocking and purchasing new clothing items to familiar perks and weapon upgrades which online shooters seem unable to get enough of. A nice addition is a buddy system that will reward you for working together with friends, similar to the medal and kickback systems which improve your combat proficiency as you play well.
If you’re more cooperative than competitive there’s an entire campaign to work through with friends, or alternatively pit it out against waves of enemies or other players in co-op arena modes. I was sad to see the typical emphasis on combat remaining though, where I had hoped for some co-op platforming brilliance. There’s even the ability to edit gameplay footage for uploading to social networks, or to just sit back and enjoy in-game with UnchartedTV. As always whilst these additions are welcome and will add a wealth of replay value overall, it’s still very much a side addition to the main attraction; the single player campaign.
Graphically Uncharted 3 may be the most stunning game to date. It might not have the highest polygon count or the sharpest of textures, but where games which focus on technical achievement Uncharted 3 focuses on sheer beauty, a level of detail that is incomparable and design that brings both environments and characters to life. From the bustling city streets filled with market stalls maintained by NPC’s all fitting unique outfits to the sand swept deserts that have you feeling the heat yourself, the art team behind Uncharted 3 have recreated a beautiful world you can feel a part of.
The world however wouldn’t feel very authentic if it wasn’t for the improved particle work powering the desert sand storms, motion sickness educing sea and the fire effects that the various levels are often feel themed around, if only to show off. Similarly so are the subtle animations that bring characters to life, with Nate’s entire body chemistry changing throughout the game to fit his current fatigue. It’s the smallest of actions, from gently pushing off every wall or brushing aside foliage that you don’t even notice that are the most impressive, small details that aren’t required, barely noticed, and which subtlety make a huge difference.
It’s not a flawless affair though. Being late in a console cycle the biggest hindrance is the lack of anti-aliasing, with a plethora of jaggies that plague all detail in the distance. There are a handful of weak animations, particularly when getting in close with melee combat or riding on horseback which doesn’t appear fixed to the ground. And whilst there is good variety in the civilian outfits, it’s a shame that the actual enemies adorn the same outfits, particularly so with a larger mini boss figure that appears to be the exact same man defeated time and time again. What’s nice though is to even be able to notice and cite such minor blemishes, standing out if only because their surrounded by near perfection.
The music tracks that often set the scene and fittingly ramp up the tempo of an action sequence are fantastic, particularly so if you’ve invested in a surround sound setup, but it’s undoubtedly the stellar voice work that steals the show once again thanks to not only superb voice acting (Nolan North on form as always) but the witty script between the game’s various characters.
Uncharted 3 will undoubtedly be compared to its predecessor, for the two standalone leagues ahead of their genre. The sheer level of intensity, played out in the most cinematic blockbuster action packed scenes to grace a gaming platform, with a surprising level of variety and detail that resonates development passion, then there’s a wealthy multiplayer on top too! The campaign alone is a seven hour rollercoaster ride that comes close to utter perfection, and whilst there are a few kinks in the track the overall experience is one that’ll excite and impress as your jaw continues to remain on the floor.