Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in a lot of ways. First, both Uncharted 3 and Last Crusade focus on a father-son relationship. Second, both stories hit similar setting beats as they run their course. I mean there are some really, really similar story beats. At times I wondered if it was intentional. Third, both Uncharted 3 and Last Crusade could be the last solid outing in their respective franchises. I doubt we’ll ever get a quality new Indiana Jones story and at the same time, I feel like Uncharted might need to hang up its hat before it goes the way of aliens and crystal skulls.
Uncharted 3 sees the return of Nathan Drake as he searches for Ubar, a lost city of legend in the Arabian Peninsula. However, like the other Uncharted games, the MacGuffin isn’t really what the story is about. It’s really about Nate’s relationship with Sully and, to a lesser extent, his on-again-off-again flame, Elena. It feels like everyone has grown up a little bit from Uncharted 2 (and probably a lot from Uncharted 1). In the same vein, everyone looks a little older this time around.
I almost feel like the aging of the characters is some kind of hidden subplot in Uncharted 3. Nate’s ridiculous way of life is challenged at every turn and he is constantly having to confront the reality of its effect on his friends, particularly Sully. This ties into some interesting plot points regarding what Nate is afraid of (beside clowns) that aren’t completely apparent until you start to think back on the cutscenes.
I could probably talk for pages about the characters in Uncharted games and this iteration is no exception. Uncharted 3 is an excellent sequel to the series but, at the same time, I don’t know that there’s room for another adventure of this sort. I’d love to see more of Nathan Drake and company, but if we’re going to see more stories in this universe, the formula needs to change.
Imagine you’ve just gotten a guitar and practice day and night to master a song. Let’s say that this song is titled “shoot dudes, climb stuff, get treasure.” Sooner or later, you’re going to master the song and want to try playing something else. That doesn’t mean you never want to use the chords in that song again, you simply want to use them in a different formula. The folks at Naughty Dog are exceedingly talented; Amy Hennig is probably one of the best writers in the games industry. I’ll definitely be interested to see what the future holds for this franchise. I just hope it does something more unique next time.
I don’t mean to say that Uncharted 3’s formula is bad. It’s actually quite amazing. It’s actually even better than Uncharted 2. The setpiece moments this time around are absolutely off-the-walls crazy and, naturally, you’ll have full control the entire time. Naughty Dog has shown that they are masters of the divide between cutscene and gameplay. All the cutscenes contain dialog for moving the story forward while the crazy feats and near misses are all controlled by you, the player.
Half the time, what you’re controlling looks like a cutscene. You can fail, just like in gameplay, but what you’re looking at has the cinematic qualities you’d expect from someone who understands framing and angles and all the important aspects to a camera shot. I tested the waters by playing a bit of Uncharted 3 with some people who don’t play games, and every time they realized I was actually playing, they were legitimately surprised.
The result of sequences like that is immersion. You’re rapidly switching between the punch and counter buttons in a bar fight because you feel like you’re actually there and you need to smash that bottle over that Brit’s head before he does the same to you. It’s like when you’re caught up in a movie and your muscles tighten up during a particularly intense moment. It’s engaging, entertaining, and stressful, all at the same time.
The whole game isn’t intense setpieces, though. There are lulls in the action that give you a chance to catch your breath. You may remember the Sherpa village in Uncharted 2; it was almost surprising how quiet and calm it was and it helped keep the pacing from becoming too ridiculous. Uncharted 3 features moments like this, including one breathtaking one in a desert that features some of the most impressive visuals (and sand physics) I’ve ever seen in a game.
Speaking of physics, you may have already heard about the parts of Uncharted 3 spent aboard various ships. Naughty Dog actually modeled the behavior of waves for these segments, rather than just putting in a set, canned animation for the rocking of the boat. This causes the boats to behave very realistically on the water and no two rocks from side to side feel exactly the same. It’s just another one of those little touches that makes the game that much more immersive.
Of course, Uncharted 3 isn’t without oddities. Sometimes in the in-game character models seem a little rough around the edges and the over-exposure of sunlight on an area feels excessive. Other times, Nate’s animations are a bit odd. He will often shift his weight when changing direction or reach out to touch objects as he passes them, but sometimes the animations will trigger at strange times that make the flow of his movement a little weird.
None of these things really detracts from the amazing single-player story, though. As for the multiplayer, a lot of the smaller animations and details have been cut for efficiency, so this is not a problem. It was nice of Naughty Dog to make tweaks like that in multiplayer for the sake of competition; the multiplayer feels like it could hold its own against most other multiplayer-focused games out there.
Multiplayer has the levels of customization that we all come to expect these days: character, emblem weapon, etc. The maps feel much more focused than they did in Uncharted 2 (and some of the better UC2 maps are even included). Every ladder, hallway, and ledge has a purpose and will keep you on your toes when going up against other players. It’s also quite easy to party up with friends or even take split screen online, which is something a lot of multiplayer PS3 games simply fail to accomplish.
Coop is back from UC2 as well. The scenarios feel much more focused this time around, too. Small cutscenes have been injected in to give you a little more context behind what you’re doing and it goes a long way to get you involved in the mode. The various coop chapters can be pretty challenging, too, provided you play on the right difficulty.
Contributing to this is the enemy AI in UC3. The bad guys will try a lot harder to flank you and flush you out of whatever cover you’re hiding behind. Because of this, it’s a good thing that the new melee system works so well. It’s made up of punches, counters, and grabs and works on basically the same timing model as UC2. It also features some really awesome contextual stuff, like grabbing objects out of the environment to use as weapons.
Little details like that pretty much define Uncharted 3. In fact, most of the beauty of the game is in the details: the way sand moves when you put your foot down, the way boats move in the water, how Nate hops a little in the opposite direction to counter his momentum, the facial animation during the cutscenes; it’s all just a bunch of tiny moving parts to make up an incredibly impressive whole. I do hope that the Uncharted formula changes, but Uncharted 3 is something special regardless. If Drake’s Fortune was the proof of concept and Among Thieves was the polishing of the concept, then Drake’s Deception is the mastery of the concept. This is a game that will stick in your head long after you finish it. You’ll probably push it on all your friends just so that you can discuss it with them.
Also, I would totally throw money at iTunes to download a song called “shoot dudes, climb stuff, get treasure.”