Sony’s Uncharted franchise is one of the more notable to emerge from this seventh generation of consoles. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was one of the first games to truly demonstrate the graphical prowess of the PlayStation 3, and delivered a solid action-adventure experience that had not been seen since the conclusion of Ubisoft’s Prince of Persia trilogy. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves took the groundwork laid by its predecessor and created one of the most intensely cinematic and engaging videogames of all time. Two years later, Uncharted: Drake’s Deception seems intent on delivering a similarly riveting experience. But does it? The short answer is “no.” Uncharted 3 is a thoroughly enjoyable, cinematic adventure that features all of the characters we have grown to love over the last four years, and those who enjoyed the first two games should certainly not miss out. However, the story falls flat when compared to Among Thieves and even Drake’s Fortune, and the game suffers more than most sequels from being, quite simply, more of the same.
Uncharted 3 finds our hero Nathan Drake on the trail of yet another long-lost fortune. This time around it is a forgotten city in the Rub-Al-Kali desert, an “Atlantis of the Sands” which Drake figures houses some exotic treasure. Standing in his way is a cantankerous old woman named Marlowe, who is a member of an ancient world order that “controls their enemies through fear.” Needless to say, she also wants to find this Atlantis of the Sands for her own evil purposes.
If that description comes off as a bit uninspired, that is because it is. The plot behind Uncharted 3 is not terribly interesting, especially when compared to the epic tale that Uncharted 2 wove. There is no great sense of urgency to be found. There is little notable human drama to draw the player in. And there is far too much time spent kicking around in dark tunnels, caves, and other similarly unexciting environments, particularly during the first half of the game. Certain aspects of the plot are left entirely unexplained, such as why Marlowe’s henchman Talbot is immortal, and why Drake is attacked by fire-zombie-whatever-things near the end of the game. To top it all off, the ending of Uncharted 3 is one of the most anticlimactic endings in recent memory. Really, truly disappointing and dissatisfying in its utter simplicity.
Gamers (this reviewer included) lamented the fact that Drake’s cigar-chomping partner Sully was not given much of a role in Uncharted 2. Developer Naughty Dog clearly listened to those complaints, and made sure that Sully is around for the vast majority of Uncharted 3. Chloe is back too, and for the first half of the game Drake is accompanied by a new companion by the name of Charlie Cutter. With an gritty english accent and a snarky attitude, Cutter is easily the most interesting of Drake’s companions in Uncharted 3 – which is actually a bit of a sad statement.
Why? Because that honor should go to the characters we are already familiar with, but while Naughty Dog was nice enough to grace the game with their presence, they did not bother to go much further. Sully is back, yes. But his role in the game honestly feels like a throwaway. He runs around with Drake, makes some Sully-ish quips, and gets captured and beat up a lot. The game quickly reveals that he has a prior relationship with the villainess Marlowe, and one would expect this to add a dimension to the plot. But it does not. Chloe is even more useless. She strides about looking shapely, and makes a few snide comments with her sexy accent. But the greatest disappointment is Elena, who is more or less given the shaft in Uncharted 3, much like Sully in the previous game. Some of the game’s more poignant scenes – scenes in which this reviewer realized just how much he had come to care about the characters of the franchise – are with Elena. Which makes it all the more cruel that her impact on the story is practically non-existent.
But despite the negative tone of the above paragraphs, Uncharted 3 still has the uncanny ability to stop the player from ever putting the controller down. Like the previous two games, Uncharted 3 features sharp dialog, superb voice-acting, and cut-scenes that remain among the very best in videogames. And, while they may be slightly less mind-blowing this time around, Uncharted 3 delivers some extremely impressive, high-octane sequences when it wants to – like escaping from a Crusades-era castle while it is burning down. Or escaping from a massive brig as it sinks deeper and deeper into the ocean. The overlying plot may disappoint at times, but the moments, the action, and the undeniable charm of Nathan Drake make it a ride worth taking.
Uncharted has always put cinematics and storytelling before gameplay, but there is still plenty of running, jumping, shooting, and punching to be found in Uncharted 3. It is, for the most part, entirely unchanged. A Gears of War-esque cover system is utilized, with third-person shooting mechanics that can also be compared to Gears. One thing this reviewer did notice is that Naughty Dog has significantly improved the cover system. It is still mechanically the same, but it is much smoother and more easily controlled this time around – resulting in fewer stupid deaths due to an inability to take or remain in cover. Also, one mechanic that is new is the ability to toss enemy grenades back at them – which ends up being a very well-balanced, fun, and useful addition to combat.
Melee combat has been slightly revamped, and made into something that resembles the combat found in Batman: Arkham City. (Or Arkham Asylum). Drake can now counter attacks, and also utilize the environment to a small extent – attack an enemy while he is against a wall or near a surface such as a table, and Drake will perform a cinematic takedown that involves bashing his enemy’s face against said wall or table. In a few instances, Drake will even do something even fancier, such as grab a nearby wrench for use in the finishing blow. All things considered, melee combat in Uncharted 3 is still fairly shallow, but it is indeed better here than it has been before, and the melee sequences offer a nice break from the normal action.
When not watching cutscenes or taking down enemies, the player will generally find himself engaged in simple platforming. The platforming is unchanged from previous games, and frankly is a bit tepid this time around. There is rarely any question as to where to jump – the game makes it all too obvious how to proceed. Challenges such as timed jumps are also non-existent, which makes platforming in Uncharted 3 a very passive, guided affair. It can be entertaining, yes, but not particularly rewarding. The same can also be said of the game’s puzzles, which are easier than they ever have been. The solution is almost always clearly mapped out in Drake’s journal, and when it is not, Drake’s allies are always all too eager to straight-up tell the player what to do. So, again, while some of the puzzles are clever and entertaining in concept, solving them is not a particularly rewarding experience.
One thing that cannot be taken away from Uncharted 3 is its graphical accolades. Once again, Naughty Dog has crafted one of the prettiest games of all time. From the crowded city streets of Yemen to the shifting sands of the Rub-Al-Kali desert, Uncharted 3 is a literal visual feast from start to finish. In fact, looking at the game can often be more fun than playing it.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is not a game that should be missed, especially by fans of the series, but it is perhaps a game that should be purchased a few months down the road at a cheaper asking price. After three games, the formula is perhaps wearing a tad thin – and as a result, Uncharted 3 feels just a little too much like it is on rails. A pretty picture, more than anything else. But if one can look past this, it remains an incredibly beautiful, cinematic, engaging experience with sharp writing, fantastic pacing, and enough exciting action to satisfy.