Thursday, November 17, 2011
To say that “Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception” has a lot to live up to would be an understatement. The game is the sequel to “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves,” which took home almost every 2009 game of the year award from here to Shangri-La.
Developer Naughty Dog succeeded at creating a truly “interactive cinematic experience” better than any game before it, a game that’s as fun to watch as it is to play.
“Uncharted 3” is in a difficult spot trying to move the franchise forward and improve on what came before it. It’s a blast to play and is one of the most-fun games to come out this year. But some frustrations with the gameplay and pacing problems keep it from totally escaping the shadow cast by “Uncharted 2.”
“Uncharted 3” picks up the adventures of fortune-hunter Nathan Drake — who claims be a descendent of famous explorer Sir Francis Drake — two years after the end of the last game. Nate and his grizzled partner/father figure Victor “Sully” Sullivan are searching for the Atlantis of the Sands, a lavish and supposedly cursed city lost in the middle of the sprawling Rub’ al Khali desert in the Arabian Peninsula. They’re trying to piece together the clues left behind Francis Drake and T.E. Lawrence (known as Lawrence of Arabia to his friends) and get to the city before a clandestine order of British agents, whose goal is more nefarious than finding treasure. The story, rooted in history before going off on its own tangent, is interesting and pulls you in from the start, despite a few hanging plot threads.
The driving force behind the narrative is the relationship between Nate and Sully, with the other protagonists taking a back seat. There is an opportunity here to learn more about Nate’s backstory, but while we get to experience one of his earliest adventures and how he came to meet Sully, a lot of it is unfortunately only hinted at. Nate jet-sets here more than in previous games, with his travels taking him to the London underground, a decaying chateau in France, tombs in Syria and a ship graveyard in Yemen, before ending up in the amazingly realized desert. Each location is distinct and beautiful, and it’s clear Naughty Dog spent a lot of time researching, trying to make each setting as authentic and fully-realized as possible.
One of the things that separates the Uncharted series from other games is how it makes its characters feel like real people, not just action-hero cliches. Nate comes from the Indiana Jones/Han Solo hero mold, with a bit of Malcolm Reynolds thrown in. It’s fitting that Sony got Harrison Ford to play and endorse the game. But credit goes to the actors as much as the script for making the characters more than one-liner-spouting stereotypes. And I mean actors in the truest sense, not a movie star hired to do voiceover work and call it a day. Naughty Dog has assembled actors who perform scenes wearing motion capture suits on a soundstage and puts their digital performances into the game. This helps create a seamless transition between gameplay and cinematic. And because the principal actors have been working together for three games now, there’s a chemistry among them that shows up in little touches and scripted and improvised asides that are hilarious and make these characters feel like real people you enjoy spending time with.
Gameplay is split up into a several pieces — platforming, combat and puzzle-solving, along with the OMG moments — and the game tries to make sure you’re not doing any one thing for too long. Dying a lot? Don’t worry, there are frequent checkpoints. Don’t know where to go next or can’t solve that puzzle? No sweat, the hint system will kick in and tell you what to do.
New to the party are a deeper melee combat mechanic and chase sequences, and for the most part the new additions work well. Nate must have taken some MMA classes since the last game because he’s become even more adept at kicking ass. While the melee system doesn’t match the depth of a game like “Batman: Arkham City” it is still satisfying to use once you’ve worked out the timing. Nate will throw enemies against walls to pummel them and grab nearby bottles and wrenches to smash against their faces. Landing an uppercut to a thug’s jaw and taking his weapon is seriously satisfying. As for the other new addition, at certain points in the game Nate will be chasing or be chased. The sequences are exciting and fun, but can sometimes be confusing on where to go, resulting in deaths that disrupt the fast-paced nature of them.
If there’s a weak link in the gameplay, it’s the shooting. Throughout the game, Nate will have to shoot his way through an area of enemies to reach his goal. The player is given the option of using stealth to do this, which is nearly impossible, and when Drake’s spotted, the enemy count triples and the big guys with shotguns are called in. The enemy AI is tough, and can be unfair at times. Enemies never seem to miss, forcing Nate to hide behind cover at all times, but enemies will flank him from multiple sides in a hurry and flush him out of cover with grenades. Plus, enemies are twitchy and never stand still, and sometimes don’t react to being shot, making them hard to hit even at close range. All this would be OK if Nate were a quick trigger, but he’s a slow aimer, so enemies will have plenty of time to kill you while you’re popping out of cover to shoot back. You will die. A lot. An aim-assist option, similar to what’s in a lot of first-person shooters, would have gone a long way to easing the frustration without making things too easy. While it doesn’t come close to ruining the game, it’s easy to become impatient and frustrated having to spend 20-30 minutes trying to clear an area of enemies knowing there’s another slam-bang set piece around the corner.
Speaking of which, nobody does jump-out-of-your-chair, OMG-did-that-just-happen moments like Uncharted. There are several scattered throughout the course of Nate’s journey, and a single one of them would be a highlight of almost any other game. The only negative is that some of them don’t fit in with the overall narrative, and in one case it’s not clear how Nate’s ended up there or why all of a sudden he’s chasing after someone. It’s surprising considering how seamlessly these events were woven into “Uncharted 2.” Developers at Naughty Dog have said that they come up with these amazing moments before knowing how they’re going to fit in the story, and it seems like they couldn’t always figure out how to do it in “Uncharted 3.”
Production values don’t get better than this. Saying a video game has great camera work sounds silly, but it’s true here. The game will take control of the camera to show a cool perspective on an objective or landmark, or will pull back to show how small Nathan is compared with the giant environments he’s traversing, giving everything a grand sense of scale. One sequence shows Nate trying to traverse a massive dessert on foot, looking like a speck against the towering sand dunes that stretch off to infinity in every direction. The score is excellent, adding excitement to the action sequences, accenting the quieter, emotional moments between the characters and evoking the sweeping “Lawrence of Arabia” soundtrack.
On top of everything else, the game looks fantastic. Characters’ facial animations show real emotion. Nate walks, climbs, fights and runs smoothly and realistically, staggering when he’s tired and pushing off walls as he dashes down narrow city streets, and sand will stick in his hair and clothes. There is some occasional clipping, and nonplayable character models are often repeated, which can pull the player out of the experience.
The multiplayer component has the standard deathmatches, along with a capture the flag variant called Plunder that has teams trying to secure a treasure and bring it back to their base. The multiplayer does a good job of scratching players’ achievement itch, as they’re constantly rewarded through leveling up. Overall, it’s a fun distraction, and probably as fun as third-person multiplayer can get. Naughty Dog even incorporates some of the cinematic moments from the single-player game that give the maps a unique and exciting feel.
But the heart and soul of “Uncharted 3” lie within the main campaign. It’s a must-play not just fans of action games, but fans of action movies. The bar Naughty Dog set to achieve a cinematic experience has been cleared with a few feet to spare. The quality of the storytelling, its lovable characters, rip-roaring set pieces and top-tier production values make this an experience you can’t find anywhere else in video games. You’ll be smiling the whole way through.