I suppose I should preface this review with the following disclaimer: I love Uncharted 2. Among Thieves is one of the best games of this generation of consoles. More than that it will almost assuredly be seen as one of the most important action focused titles in a historical perspective in years to come. It embraced the idea of blurring the line between games and cinema, presenting a tightly scripted, almost totally guided journey through war torn city streets, deserted ruins, up into the mystical mountains of Nepal and beyond, that the player could participate in, if not necessarily drastically affect.
It was barely less linear than a strip of film – save for seeking out the odd artefact – but this didn’t matter. The hand of the director nudging you along the narrow path of the story was firm but gentle, it was the hand of a father teaching his child to ride a bicycle, it was ever present but it was the player willingly doing the majority of the work.
If I had reviewed Uncharted 2 when it was released it would have got a ten: for its ingenuity, its technical mastery, its plot, its play; it was a game that has had ramifications on the way this medium is created, a completely unique offering from Naughty Dog that demonstrated exactly how far video games had progressed. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception feels like the developer trying to replicate this genre defining success by taking certain aspects of the game to extremes, in doing so they’ve created an inferior product, albeit one that is still an entertaining Indiana Jones influenced romp.
Adventurer Nathan Drake and his mentor Victor Sullivan begin this new story in a particularly suspect looking London pub, there to make a dodgy deal for Drake’s signature ring hanging from his neck. Obviously things go very wrong very quickly and from here Nathan and his rotating band of thrill seeking explorer types travel from locale to locale, taking in dense woodland, sun kissed marketplaces and barren deserts. On land, at sea and in the sky you’ll be unravelling a mystery that Drake’s real-life namesake supposedly unravelled on his journeys hundreds of years earlier.
Each area is stunningly atmospheric, not just beautiful to look at but rich in its own heritage and story. The desert – for example – is visually cruel, the futility of the protagonist’s struggles against the heat, reinforced by its sheer scope. Drake is alone and lost in this barren wilderness, the dunes stretching out for miles and if the developers can do this with – ostensibly – a load of sand, you can understand how masterful they are with world creation when given a population, a culture or a distinctive architecture to work with.
Movement of each character is smooth through each of these areas but it’s the minor things that impress most, such as Drake reaching his hand out to aid himself as he ascends a flight of stairs. When you play a couple of short scenes as a younger version of the lead, Nathan’s comparative fragility as a child isn’t told to you, you see it in his ever so slightly clumsy movements, the fear of running up against the physically imposing “grown-ups” profoundly more affecting because of it. This mastery of animation and visual design transfers to the cutscenes and scripted events, this is a developer that could have taken the Uncharted brand away from games and created a hit summer blockbuster, such is their grasp of cinematic shots and knack for exciting set pieces.
The first big issue comes with this aspect though, as there are times where you feel funnelled, with no control over the scenarios unfolding. To zip back to an earlier point, yes, Uncharted 2 did guide players too, the change from the 2010 release to this though is that when Naughty Dog wanted you to go a specific way in the previous game it was far more subtle. A memorable moment in Uncharted 2 was being chased down an alley by a truck, running towards the camera and firing back to escape. It felt dramatic and natural, but consider the finer details and in reality the player’s involvement is holding down on the analogue stick and tapping the shoot button, nothing more. The mind was tricked into feeling involved as there was this small action that defined win and loss, the ability to tap R1, consequently the participant felt as if they had helped Drake while the dev could still show something spectacular but completely linear. In Uncharted 3 there are several similar occasions of running down what is basically a tunnel while something awesome happens around you, but the creators make fewer concessions to the player, making you feel less of an actor and more of an audience member. When you do have control of the series’ fortune hunter though, it’s by no means a perfect game.
Navigation of hazardous environments is still elegant, especially considering the complex geometry of some of the level design. Nathan holds his hands out for ledges he can reach, keeping the pace flowing along, the player confident that they won’t miss a gap when they know they’re given this tell-tale sign they can get to it. The puzzles scattered about are straight forward affairs but provide a welcome head scratcher and a quick breather from the platforming and shooting action.
You’ll need a break from the shooty shooty aspect of Uncharted 3 too, because frankly, it’s pretty weak. Drake’s Fortune and Among Thieves had a totally acceptable third person cover based shooter system that, though not complex or particularly compelling, was good enough to enjoy for long chunks of time. Something has changed in the way aiming is handled in Drake’s Deception that makes this effort a less precise experience, the reticule of whatever item of your arsenal that you’re holding never quite aligning with the area of the enemy you’d like to dispose of the first time you take aim. Bad guys will rush your position more frequently than in previous games, when combined with the slack controls there will be several times that a goon can close down a space of about thirty or forty feet before you’ll manage to take them out. Some of the more difficult opponents require you to shoot off their helmet before capping them, in these situations it’s often easier to resort to a rapid firing weapon and simply holding down the trigger until you can meet your mark, rendering most pistols in the game as a last resort. Having put just under a hundred hours or so into Uncharted 2 I know in my heart of hearts that this is not user error, it’s a problem with the game and it drastically needs addressing.
While the overarching narrative is a re-run of those seen in the previous two games – man gets into trouble, shoots way out, uncovers mystery, gets girl – the script is at least the same quality of the rest of the series, which is to say that it is confident, funny and propulsive. There are tender moments to be found too, which this time include Drake’s relationship with Sully, as well as with Elena. A very late game twist almost takes the writing into the stratosphere, though it would appear the makers didn’t quite have the conviction to carry it through, leaving it at merely the “superb” mark.
The returning cast of voice actors are still the best in the business. Nolan North continues to provide Drake a charismatic and inquisitive energy, the story even gives North more emotional range to play within, which he nails perfectly every time. Newcomer to the story Charlie Carter – played by Graham McTavish – hits the rough and cocky Londoner mark beautifully, bouncing ever-so-masculine witticisms off the lead for a handful of the lighter moments. Rosalind Ayres is elegant but manipulative antagonist Katherine Marlowe who along with assistant Talbot (Robin Atkin Downes) make for an understated villain duo. It’s Richard McGonagle’s Victor Sullivan that steals the show though, the mentor / best mate relationship he has with Drake is delved into with gusto in Uncharted 3 and McGonagle’s resonant bass voice is weighted with care for his compatriot. Behind each seemingly off-hand comment, there’s the hint of the affection a father has towards a son and it’s genuinely touching at times.
Rounding out the offering is a comprehensive multiplayer suite, both co-operative and competitive. Co-op still eschews clambering over rocky outcrops for blasting baddies, which is a pity, but the scenarios are more fleshed out than the previous game and tell some novel side-stories featuring the main cast. Playing against human opponents is once more a team based affair of heroes versus villains, with the usual deathmatch, capture the flag and VIP game types. The community tends to be a little on the younger and less pleasant side from my experience so far, so it’s definitely best enjoyed with a group of friends.
Both aspects of multiplayer are governed by an experience system similar to that of Call Of Duty: the higher your rank and the more you play, the more perks and money you unlock, which should provide that long lasting, drip fed online experience for those that really invest. That said, whether it will take root in the minds of that type of player is questionable, especially with the army of big budget shooters releasing this quarter.
Hopefully this won’t be the last home console Uncharted offering from Naughty Dog, there’s still further the series can go, more stories to be told in the universe they’ve created. It also wouldn’t be right for the finale of this franchise to go out like this; a perfectly enjoyable but overly familiar affair that does little to move its grand concept of an immaculately crafted, cinematic game forward. It’s still a very good title and a completely entertaining package while it lasts, yet this is a – very convincing – counterfeit of Uncharted 2, profoundly similar to the title that came before it, but still flawed and unoriginal nonetheless.
MLG Rating: 8/10
Platform: PS3 Release Date: 02/11/2011
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a physical copy of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of one week on a PS3. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.