Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is fantastic. If you own a PlayStation 3, I highly recommend you purchase it right this second if you haven't already. Seriously. Just get up, leave this column for a minute -- don't worry, I'll be here when you get back, everything's gonna be okay -- and go buy the damn game.
Got it? Great. Because I want to be very clear on this: I think Uncharted 3 is awesome. I think it's a must-buy. I think it's a necessary product to have in one's gaming shelf.
I just don't think that, as a game, it's all that it could've been.
Uncharted 3's story will set it apart from the previous entries in the series with a darker, more focused tone on Drake's weaknesses, flaws, and the recurring theme of -- yes -- deception. It will engage you and bring you to the verge or beyond of tears with some truly heartwarming and deep, meaningful moments. But with my own run of Drake's tale now complete, I have a slightly disappointing statement to make: I didn't have that much fun doing all of these things.
Chad wrote in his Uncharted 3 review that the game was “an even bigger thrill ride than the previous games combined.” And I would agree. But sometimes, you want to get off the roller coaster and take a walk through the hall of mirrors. That's what ultimately bothers me about Uncharted 3: It's so intent on making gigantic splash pages of action and thrill that what so charmed me about the series in the first place -- the intensely charismatic cast and larger-than-life exploration, with some heavy emphasis on puzzle solving -- all take a dive.
Despite having finished the game a mere three days ago as of this writing, there are hardly any scenes I can recall being genuinely surprised or enthused about, as the most exciting have been beaten over my head so much from commercials I know them moment by moment. The moments that stick in my mind as “that was so cool!” just aren't there. By contrast, I could name nearly a dozen moments of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves without difficulty that bring an instant smile upon reminiscence: The giant knife puzzle, the train wreck in snow, the train chase in a jungle, the jeep chase, the tank shootout, the first glimpse of Shangri-La, carrying a wounded man on your shoulder, the initial heist and betrayal, the introduction of one of gaming's most well-rounded female characters, Chloe.
That was Uncharted 2; unique, exciting, and memorable. In contrast, Uncharted 3 feels to me entirely too familiar, too old hat. I know, I just criticized a game where you fall out the back of a cargo plane and drift through the desert for being unoriginal, but what I'm talking about here aren't the individual pieces -- which are beautiful and quite awesome -- I'm talking about how Naughty Dog has strung them together. The thought of “What if something cool happens next?” can't be enough to make me go from Point A to Point B. I need to enjoy the product as a game, and therefore want to succeed and enjoy all it has to offer as a narrative device.
Minor spoiler ahead.
Early on in the game, Nathan's crew breaks up into two teams. One searches for half of an amulet in Syria, the other in France. The plan is to regroup later, once both teams have completed their objectives. Something goes wrong in France, and so that team concludes that logically, something has probably gone wrong in Syria. They travel post-haste to rescue the other team and after about 15 minutes of wandering through a castle, find their partners alive, healthy, and in no need of rescue.
Team A complains to Team B about not having been able to contact them for 24 hours, to which one member responds that her cell phone is broken, while the other member only uses prepaid minutes.
It was funny as a joke, but the more I thought about, the more contrived and forced this felt. Because let's face it: really? You're going to go on a globe-trotting adventure halfway around the world from your friends who need to coordinate with you, and you can't spend $20 on a phone card? Or you can't take it in to get repaired? For shit's sake, my phone was freaking out three months after I bought it and I got a new one on the same day I brought it in. Not to mention the only fact I as a player am experiencing Syria is to rescue some a-holes who couldn't be bothered to tell me this before they left, and now don't need rescue at all.
I can see through the game, and instead of being swept up in the current of strong storytelling, I can't let it go. My mind won't let me for the longest time. When it finally does, it's no longer in any sort of mood to be wooed by Nolan North's sexy voice. Because now it's found a new thing to fixate upon: combat.
I'm not an awful gamer. I prize story and art direction above gameplay sometimes, but I'm truly not terrible. Hence I found myself somewhat mystified at the incredible spike in difficultly so many of the shootouts exemplify. In the same level that I've “rescued” my teammates, I face down four+ baddies with rocket launchers. There's only about two positions that offer cover, neither of which completely shields from all sides. The checkpoint starts with rockets already trained on me, and so every time I die, I must scramble for cover immediately, hoping to God that this time, this time will be the time I can snipe quick enough to take out these one-shot kill machines.
Later in the game things will become even more ridiculous, as one particular fight sends me up against what at first appears to be a room of three to five bad guys, only to have snipers, grenade launchers, and armored shotgun wielding juggernauts advance on me in seemingly endless waves, each one of them all too happy to toss grenades behind me as I duck for cover. While Drake's moves in hand-to- hand combat are now more robust, it's become practically impossible to quickly disengage from a fight to take cover, and the exact same sequence of moves plays out against so many of the enemies.
My brain knows it's playing a game, and a frustrating one at that. It doesn't give two shits about the story anymore. Instead, it screams and curses, rattling my eardrums; “Why the #$%* does it take three grenades to kill someone wearing armor??”
The final straw comes as the close of each location plays out virtually the same: stuff begins to collapse or otherwise start Drake on a foot race, the camera pulling back to let the player look on in awe as the set literally crumbles. It's as far away from the spirit of an adventuring explorer as it could be; instead of slowly exploring, searching for lost treasures or the best route through an area, the game is literally forcing you several times to move as fast as possible on a narrow track without branching off at all.
It was surprising to me, just how much of a departure Uncharted 3 was from the other two entries. The story is darker and some characters more complex, but at the cost of less screen time for the majority of the cast, who become less like people and much more like obvious plot devices to get Drake from Point A to Point B. The pacing is more thrill-a-minute, but virtually gone are the moments of high suspense and deep pause to reflect upon overwhelming scale and beauty. And lastly, the gameplay is more engaging, but so goddamned difficult and out of place when placed in context of in what should be a game about an explorer and treasure hunter.
Uncharted 3 is great. It really is. I love the characters, locations, and overall plot. But in my humble opinion, there's some truly out of place and out of touch gameplay that gets in the way of that. And that's sadly not very “Uncharted”; it's just unfortunate.
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