This time I'll be reviewing one of 2011's serious blockbuster games. Sure, it's easy to say that it's just Tomb Raider starring a dude or Indiana Jones with no whip, but it's turned into a mega-franchise all its own. Welcome to my take on Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception.
Here's the formula for every Uncharted game: treasure hunter extraordinaire Nathan Drake obtains an item that serves as a key to a legendary lost city full of treasure (a coin and El Dorado in UC1, a dagger and Shambhala in UC2, a ring and Iram of the Pillars in UC3). Drake and his colorful cast of friends and allies go on a globe-trotting search for the treasure, inevitably performing heists, exploring ruins, encountering rival treasure hunters and their hired mercenaries, and escaping breathtaking crises. By the end, Drake and his allies have discovered a supernatural secret to the lost city they've been searching for that merit the city stay hidden (zombie-inducing plague in UC1, immortality elixir in UC2, SPOILERS in UC3). Sure, it's a formula, but it's a formula that works. And Uncharted 3 is a master class in execution of game concepts.
Before I get to my gripes about this game, I'll heap on some praise where it's due. Visually, the game is stunning. I have never seen better animation for water, Earth, Wind, and Fire in my entire life. When Drake hikes up a sand due, the sand will ripple down the dune's side to match Drake's pace and position on the dune. When Drake swims (and there is a LOT of swimming in this game), water splashes extremely accurately and leaves visible damp stains on the surrounding floor and on Drake's clothes. Those are just tiny anecdotal examples - the game has UNBELIEVABLE graphics both at a technical level and at an aesthetic level. The game's many digitally-created natural wonders and crumbling ruins might be the best I have ever seen. Not an exaggeration.
The only thing in Uncharted 3 capable of matching its visuals are its other series highlight: action set-pieces. Myself and other reviewers probably seem to overuse the term "set-pieces" when describing gameplay segments in the Uncharted series, but that's because A) it's a perfectly apt description and B) it's an easy way to break down and categorize Uncharted 3's plot, and more memorable than their arbitrary chapters. Whatever. You raid a desert caravan on horseback, you escape a sinking ship that's spinning and turning upwards as you madly climb to the surface, and you have to climb into the open bay of a cargo plane by climbing up boxes and netting that's spilling out as you climb. Sure, the boxes and netting seem to be perfectly positioned for scaling and Drake has always been unreasonably good at climbing (my guess is that he and Cole McGrath trained together back in the day), but well, fuck. This shit is intense. I'd be lying if I didn't play through each of those set-pieces at the literal edge of my seat (re: exercise ball). That kind of action is Uncharted's trademark, and Uncharted 3 lives up to that reputation.
One thing that Uncharted 3 does that its predecessors don't is what I'll call quiet set-pieces. These are sequences where this is no real action or even much exploration, but instead serve to change up the game's pace. In two of these, Drake navigates flashback sequences while under the influence of a powerful hallucinogen. For one entire chapter, Drake is parachuted into one of the world's harshest deserts, and struggles with its vastness. Yup, you literally walk in the desert looking for water and finding mirages instead for a good 5% of the game. These sequences aren't bad, far from it, but I would trade all of them for another action set-piece or two if it made the game last a little longer.
The action is good, but also pretty normal and consistent with a few other games. It has the cover-based shooting of Gears of War, the climbing and jumping sequences of Prince of Persia, and the dungeon-exploring and puzzle-solving interspersed with gunplay of Tomb Raider. I think there were more puzzles in UC3 than in its predecessors - they range from unspecial (putting giant gears with specific symbols in holes with the same symbols) to pretty stylish and cool (placing a torch in a field of parts of statues so it casts a particular gladiatorial combat scene in shadow). Good puzzles. The gunplay and combat mechanics are solid and the gun selection is basically what you'd expect - pistols, semi-autos, shotties, snipers, incendiaries, the works. The buttons for throwing grenades and the flow of hand-to-hand combat is better than Uncharted 2, and the stage layouts are as such that using stealth is much more viable than it was in the past. Overall, the basic mechanics of the game are easy to understand and mastery thereof is reasonable. My one gripe is that targeting reticules move around a LOT when you try to aim on occasion, especially when the environment is shaking/crumbling/sinking. I guess that's just part of the challenge, right?
And speaking of challenge, here's one of the game's weaknesses: the challenge level is very, very uneven. I would go entire chapters without as much as getting hit, then I would need ten tries to make it past one firefight. This happens in three or four parts of the game. Sure, most of those deaths were figuring out the locations of snipers and armored enemies and dealing with them accordingly, but it was still annoying that my deathcounts spiked around irregularly. I played the game on Normal, by the way, and there are two difficulty levels higher than that. If you're a pro at 3rd-person shooters you can definitely handle Hard, and, well, I'm pretty sure they call the last one Crushing for a reason.
While I'm on the subject of minor annoyances, here's the most minor one of all: Uncharted isn't very good at subtitles. Drake's Fortune was actually pretty good, but Uncharted 2: Among Thieves? Really? They dropped the first word from "honor among thieves" because I assume 1) these thieves have no honor and 2) Sly 3 already had that subtitle, but really it isn't a very appealing name. It doesn't feel like a full phrase, and it doesn't sound very marketable. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is a nice nod to the first game and has alliteration and cadence going for it, but it doesn't make much sense! Drake doesn't actually deceive anyone in this game and isn't even really deceived either! The enemies and heroes are clearly visible from the get-go, and closest thing to an actual deception that occurs is an occasional gypsy switch. Not the best choices, Naughty Dog.
Now here's my major problem with the game: it's too damn short. The game is organized into 22 chapters, just like Uncharted 2, but feels about half the length. The size of actual puzzles, dungeons, set-pieces, and firefights were about even with its predecessors, but there are fewer of them. This is a major problem. This game deserves to be longer - without the right buildup it makes the final confrontation seem anti-climactic. It could be that those quiet set-pieces like the desert scene and the hallucination scenes took up a lot of the game's space (they go by pretty fast; they're shorter than a proper action set-piece or a firefight) and I just didn't die as much this time, but still.
I liked Uncharted 3's story, I really did, but it also suffers from the game's short length. The game's major arc other than searching for Iram of the Pillars is a focus on Drake's relationship with his partner in crime and father figure, Sully. This is actually handled pretty well. You get flashbacks to their first meeting, you see Sully's struggles and Drake's feelings for him (no homo) ramp up as the story gets more serious, and it ends in a curveball that is still satisfying. One of the extremely few complaints fans had about Uncharted 2 is that there wasn't enough Sully, and Uncharted 3 throws those fans a juicy bone here. Uncharted 3 also brings back fan-favorites Chloe Frazer and Elena Fisher from Uncharted 2 as well as introduces a few really intriguing new characters, namely the villainous Kate Marlowe, Marlowe's chief enforcer Talbot, and Drake's new allies Charlie Cutter and Salim.
Marlowe is evil enough, but I'd like to see a better picture of her grand plan - by the end of the game we know what she wants, but hardly why she wants it or even enough details about her past with Sullivan or even with her own organization. I really liked Cutter and Salim, I really did, but Cutter leaves the story abruptly and left me wanting to know how he's doing a ways down, and Salim, who absolutely has the potential to be this game's Tenzin, only shows up for two short periods and not nearly for long enough. Even worse, Chloe, the popular new heroine of Uncharted 2 that was one vertex of an awesome love triangle, only shows up for the game's first quarter and does not nearly get enough screen time, let alone saucy dialogue or even a change to play off of Elena. Elena is a major part of the game's second half, and alludes to recent relationship struggles with Drake, but what were these struggles? Why are they going through a rough patch? Do I have to read a book or something to find out? Not enough, Naughty Dog, not enough.
The major reason that Uncharted 3 is not as good as Uncharted 2 is that Uncharted 2 gives you more. UC3 has better visuals and mostly better gameplay, and it's still a mighty fine game on its own, but this shorter length is holding it back. Do I regret purchasing this game early? No. I'm glad I got to experience it early, like paying a little more to see a midnight showing of a huge movie, but, hey, sometimes sequels are still great but not as good as the sequel from two years ago.
Games Beaten: 2011 Edition
1. Mario vs. Donkey Kong
2. Primal Rage
3. Torchlight Hat Trick
4. Ghost Trick
6. Batman: Arkham Asylum
7. Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus
8. Sly 2: Band of Thieves
9. Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves
10. Tales of Eternia
11. Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds
12. Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII
13. 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors
14. Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation
15. Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime
16. Dragon Age: Origins
17. Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky
18. inFamous Evil Finish
20. inFamous 2 Good Finish
21. Big Bang Mini
22. Final Fight: Double Impact
23. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning
24. Cthulhu Saves the World
25. Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword
26. Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening
27. Disgaea Infinite
28. X-Men Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse
29. Jeanne d'Arc
30. Dragon Age II
31. Jade Empire
32. Cthulhu's Angels
33. DeathSpank: Orphans of Justice
34. Disgaea 4: A Promise Unforgotten
35. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance
37. Prince of Persia '08
38. Final Fantasy IV: Anniversary Edition
39. Professor Layton and the Last Specter
40. inFamous: Festival of Blood
41. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
Next up could be damn near anything. I am itching to determine my next PS3 project (too many candidates to name one) and I'm in the midst of two big-ass RPGs on my DS and PSP. We'll see how this plays out, but I think I can still meet my goal of 50 for 2011. Probably.