I feel like the openings of the two Uncharted sequels are all but written just for me. Uncharted 2 saw Drake bleeding out and hanging on for dear life as the wreck of the train he was in tumbles down the Himalayas, and Uncharted 3 leaves him shot and dead on the streets of London as some evil suited group drive off with his heirloom ring. Oh Naughty Dog, you don’t half know how to make openings.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (PS3, PS4 [reviewed])
Released Nov 2011 | Developed: Naughty Dog | Published: Sony
Genre: Action-Adventure, Third-Person Shooter | HLTB: 9 hours
Drake is not dead, of course (spoilers). It was all a setup, orchestrated by him and his longtime mentor and friend Sully, along with Chloe fresh from the previous game and new face Cutter, your standard London gangster type, straight off the set of Snatch (complete with wryly delivered literary putdowns against the fumbling Sully and what seems to be a functionally illiterate Drake, unless it concerns reading ancient scripts, of which he is the undisputed master). Together their stunt draws out Marlowe, a… well, I dunno what she is frankly. She’s evil, that much is obvious, given she wants Nate dead if only to nick his ring, and she’s in charge of some vast organization of suited chaps who fan out across the world in search of artifacts to pilfer. I guess it’s some evil MI5, judging on the looks, the sardonic British drawl everyone speaks in, and their love affair with shooting Nate and his friends with hallucinogenic darts to spark up some new madcap sequence.
The prize Marlowe is after, and therefore which Nate is also after, is the location of the lost city Ubar, also known as Iram of the Pillars. Nate follows clues left not only by Sir Francis Drake, but myriad historical figures and groups, from archaeologist and military diplomat Lawrence of Arabia to John Dee, Elizabeth I’s personal astrologer and occult philosopher; all were in possession of fragments of clues leading to Iram, and Nate hurries to put them all together before Marlowe. Interspersed with this are scenes and sequences where we see Nate as a teenager, letting us see how he met Sully and started on his path of treasure hunting, as well as explaining why Marlowe has such a vendetta against him.
It makes this game Nate’s most personal yet; if Uncharted 2 was the game where Nate realises how much he needs Elena, this is the game where he shows just how much he relies on and loves Sully. In many ways it makes it more compelling than 2 – Elena is a fine character, but Sully and Nate get on like a house on fire, firing constant wisecracks between one another but always having each others backs. The moments where Nate doesn’t have his father figure and friend with him make him and the player feel all the more vulnerable. I admit, going into 3 I genuinely didn’t expect any of this level of character depth, and it really struck a chord with me.
The narrative and writing might be worlds ahead of Uncharted 2, but the gameplay shows only very incremental improvements – it’s nowhere near as significant as the leap between Uncharted and Uncharted 2. That said, it kind of didn’t need to do much; it suffices that the gunplay is a tiny bit smoother and that Nate snaps to cover a tiny bit quicker. You can chuck grenades back now when they’re thrown at you, which is a nice addition. The stealth is also slightly better; it’s pushed even more as an option than in 2. Nate comes with more responsive takedowns, and once again, thinning the ranks before a gunfight is a very valid approach.
Melee combat however sees probably one of the bigger improvements. Combat prompts are very telegraphed which could be seen as making it quite easy but it does make for a more cinematic and exciting feel to combat, and that seems to be the primary goal of the game more than anything else. I rather love the fancy little animations that play out if Nate takes out an opponent and grabs their gun to rearm himself mid-combat, or the special melee animations that trigger if Nate attacks with a two-handed weapon; there are even context-specific actions that depend on where Nate is during a fight – the tutorial demonstrates this by having Nate grab a beer bottle during a bar brawl and clonk someone over the head with it, but nothing quite beats being able to slap down an enemy with a fish when fighting in a market.
Making Uncharted even more cinematic is definitely the name of the game. More and more often the game dictates the pace for the player, with beautifully shot scenes unfolding to script and sequences with Nate and co ambling through scenery, all accompanied by more creative and fun dialogue. There is a downside though; I can remember a discussion from around the game’s release that Naughty Dog thought of big scenarios to put Nate in first and then pieced together how he got there later and that’s never been more apparent than here. The peak of this is a mid-game chapter in which Drake must escape a sinking cruise ship, replete with sequence where Nate runs towards the camera as cabin doors explode behind him, and the waves rush in. There is absolutely no good reason for him to be there in the story (the reason we get is believable but flimsy at best) but in fairness it is a pretty exciting moment. That kind of defines the franchise though – the story (and often the gameplay) does sort of play second fiddle to the big cinematic moments that Drake is put in. It makes for an exhilarating game, but sometimes one which feels a bit shallow.
As always, Uncharted is plagued by difficulty spikes, which can make certain sequences frustrating, though I will say that the now usual endgame spike isn’t quite as annoying this time around. Uncharted 3 does like to throw out a boring recurring big bloke miniboss – often encounters are topped off with or interrupted by a fight with some towering behemoth of a person (quite where Marlow sources them all from is not a question the game sees fit to answer), and every fight with them is exactly the same rigmarole of swiping at their face a couple times, completing a quicktime event to dodge and repeating until dead. Yes, it’s as dull as it sounds. A problem that arises from the game’s commitment to exciting cinematography is that camera changes serve the moment not the game. For example, in a sequence where Nate runs towards the camera and being caught once means instant death, the camera has a habit of picking the best looking angle rather than the most helpful, leading to some exasperating and avoidable deaths.
At least one area that has seen a vast improvement over previous games however is the soundtrack. In deference to Nate’s quest for Iram, Greg Edmonson’s score blends Uncharted’s typical action movie score with Arabic influences; Atlantis of the Sands opens with a keening mizmar that sets the tone brilliantly before giving way to bombast. I’ve always been a sucker for mournful vocals, so tracks like As Above, So Below will always hit the right note for me. For a solid combination of both, Science and Magic captures that ethereal strangeness which follows Drake and Sully in their quest.
Some tracks are more modern though. The Setup has a pounding rhythm that underscores a tense, sneaking track (check that electric guitar giving it some power, though!) Edmonson uses electric guitars very effectively in this game’s score to emphasise stealthy situations – it’s deployed alongside piano in Boarding Party excellently before the song ramps up to a Metal Gear Solid homage complete with scratching distorted percussion.
If Uncharted 1 and 2 are like National Treasure, then Uncharted 3 is The Last Crusade. It’s better – in fact, it’s the best of the 3 in my opinion. With all the improvements of 2 games behind it, it leaves the first feeling ancient and stodgy, and it edges out 2 thanks to being consistently good – even the ending is great, and those are typically the points in Uncharted where I have the biggest complaints. I’ve no such grumbles this time, only minor quibbles. Uncharted 3 is a great time; not just a fun shooter, but also one with heart, some genuine soul in its story, and I love that.
5/7 – GREAT. Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.