Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception Review

By Adam Sessler - Posted Oct 24, 2011

Adventurer Nathan Drake is back for another adventure in Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. With less than two years between Uncharted 2 and now, has Naughty Dog had the time to craft another classic?

The Pros
  • Seamless flow between gameplay and cinematics
  • Gorgeous set pieces and a beautiful world to explore
  • Improved melee system
The Cons
  • Many of the plot points never go anywhere
  • Multiplayer seems tacked on
  • Lives in the shadow of Uncharted 2

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception: 

Uncharted 2 will stand the test of time as one of the seminal achievements in modern videogames, creating an exciting narrative interwoven with gameplay filled with production values and action set pieces that put to shame the paint-by-numbers American films that have been filling movie theaters for years.

With such accomplishments under their belt, it’s easy to imagine the challenge Naughty Dog -- the developer of the Uncharted franchise -- must have faced in its decision to follow up the critically acclaimed game in just two short years with Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception: completely revamp a winning formula, or stay to the tried and true and try to top oneself. Naughty Dog wisely chose the latter and has produced a game that has little equal in its writing and production design, and yet, cannot get out from under the shadow of just about everybody’s 2009 game of the year.


Are You Ready For Adventure?

In step with their own development schedule, the game takes place two years after the events of Uncharted 2 and delves into Nathan Drake’s lineage to the English explorer, Sir Francis Drake, in particular, the ring from his (quite distant as we learn) relative that has hung around Drake’s neck. This ring is one of many clues that may lead to a lost city swallowed in Arabian Desert, enticingly referred to as “The Atlantis of the Sands.”

Once again, Drake, his intrepid and older comrade Sully, and others embark on another globe-trotting adventure, this time, hounded by a mysterious woman, Katherine Marlowe (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Helen Mirren) and her son, who are apparently part of some secret organization with endless resources and are determined to find something hidden within the city.

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Now For Awesome Air-Kicks

Drake’s Deception plays out in similar fashion to the games that preceded it, with its pitch-perfectly paced selection of precarious climbing sections, puzzles, and combat. Given the elegance of Uncharted 2, it’s not surprising that most of these elements are largely unchanged in the new game.

Combat plays out with more dynamism, thanks to an improved melee combat system that allows enemies to flank and rush Drake more frequently without leaving the player in the uncomfortable position of trying to aim unsuccessfully at someone mere inches in front of him. The numerous animations and camera angles, which emerge based upon contextual inferences, keep the melee combat relatively fresh.

Uncharted 3

Perhaps most important is the classic action movie kineticism at play, particularly, an air-kick that sends the enemies’ weapons into your hands. This elegant device moves the combat from its already strong narrative flow into an even closer evocation of Indiana Jones and his high-adventure brethren, proving once again that combat in games can be transformed from the repetitive to the inventive.

The melee combat animations seem to be part of an overall contextually sensitive animation system, which can be seen in small touches, such as when Drake’s hand lightly brushes against the wall as he walks down corridors. The sensitive system that allows for moments of such elegance also creates an impression of instability; Drakes’ movements can seem jerky, uncertain and rushed, which, given the fluidity in Uncharted 2, is unfortunate in a game that is designed to seamless ensnare the player in its rich and absorbing world.

Uncharted 3

The World’s Your Oyster

The world is there to fall into. From its beginning, Uncharted 3 captures the franchise’s unequalled ability to capture the sweeping romance and adventure of classic American cinema without holding the player at arm’s length, only to return them to the more pedestrian presentation of the interactive portions. Cameras find stunningly dramatic angles during chase sequences, pull back to reveal the edifice that dwarfs Drakes and highlights his always-insurmountable challenges, and transition between cutscenes and gameplay with nary a pause or stutter. While it has been only two years since the previous game broke such ground in presentation, this aspect of Uncharted 3 still carries shock and awe, if only because nothing has come close to capturing its technical finesse or its creative application.

While a game like Heavy Rain has begun to open up the player’s level of control over narrative, Uncharted taps into the creative within the player when presented with the semiology of modern fantasies: the need for the exotic to free us from the corporate drear, the soundtrack to maximize the transcendence, and the expensive camera shot to reinforce its significance.

Uncharted 3

Getting Involved In The Drama

Naughty Dog’s careful attention to the drama in all aspects of the game has seen a refinement in Uncharted 3’s pacing. In successive playthroughs of Uncharted 2, it became evident that the combat sequences could drag on and, in the final hours, could arrive with such repetitive force that their importance diminished. Uncharted 3, especially in its earlier sections, doles out gameplay elements with a far more generous sense of variety and expectation: climbing sequences are heavy with what’s to be found on top, combat is designed more for the environment rather than necessity, and puzzles carry a strong sense of mystery that can open up the plot, all conspiring to even better engage the player and blend its various components into an essential whole.

It’s that whole, so seductively promised as the game begins, that one slowly realizes will never materialize and invites the inevitable and uncomplimentary comparison to its predecessor. The major set-pieces that stand in memory from Uncharted 2 -- the helicopter chase and collapsing building, the train through the Himalayas, the tutorial sequence -- may be echoed here but are faint.

Dramatic and exciting events do unfold, but many feel obligatory and lack the boyish vitality that catapulted them from exercises in dexterity to visceral thrills of fantasy. A burning chateau, a rooftop chase, riding on horseback to stop a convoy, and the game’s final sequence all feel small, or worse, retreads of what we’ve played before. To be sure, they play out in a satisfying fashion and have sparks of magic, but lack exhilaration, that essential and innate excitement. Instead, there emerges a somber exhaustion, as if the heavy expectation of surprise and awe dampened the creative flame.

Uncharted 3

Curiously Strong? Or Curiously Tangential?

One section of Uncharted 3 stands out as different. Drake, captured by pirates in Yemen (don’t worry, it feels far removed from current crises) must escape a ship graveyard and make it onto a dilapidated cruise ship run by the gang. Using remarkable water physics, climbing and aiming are complicated by the listing of the half-submerged boats in one of the strangest game environments ever. The rotting boats and the massive rusted encampment, to say nothing of the sociopathic criminals running the place, capture the awe and mystery that is missing elsewhere in Uncharted 3 and immediately brings the action scenes to life, as the player discovers truly creative combinations of climbing and shooting that make the sequence both challenging and eminently replayable. In scaling a dry dock and cruise ship, the game hits the eye-popping thrills and informs everything with an energy and urgency, culminating in a trick of physics and design that finally accomplishes the task of outdoing any one of the highlights of Uncharted 2.

Uncharted 3

As astonishing as the pirate sequence is, it is curiously tangential to the overall plot. It could have been removed from the game without any uninformed player being the wiser. Its role in the game as both highlight and diversion speak to the strange inability of Uncharted 3 to coalesce its disparate parts into a cohesive whole. The writing in the moments of Uncharted 3 are still superlative, as is the voice acting and character animations, but what started with such narrative promise becomes increasingly meandering and disjointed.

For instance, more than just finding a lost city, the game reveals Sir Francis Drake’s role as an agent of Queen Elizabeth I’s secret service, and his mission was on her shadowy behalf. Then, the villainesses’s name -- Marlowe -- seems to refer to another famous agent of the Renaissance-era spy network, playwright Christopher Marlowe, but nothing comes of it. Finally, a secret lair of the nefarious agents thwarting Drake implies an ancient network of evildoers and great revelation that will unfold; however, all of this sumptuous historical mystery amounts to little, as does another interesting subplot highlighting Drake’s pathological need to find treasure for validation, endangering all that care for him. Interesting sequences of hallucinatory stumbling through the narrow streets of Yemen seem to hint at something richer in the game’s narrative that never comes to the surface and the final sequences in the oppressive environment of the Arabian sand dunes clearly want to carry an emotional deliverance that haven’t had sufficient grounding in the game’s early story. All of this culminates in a finale that is deflatingly similar to Uncharted 2’s conclusion, with a final confrontation that may have carried weight if characters and relationships had been given more opportunity to develop.

Uncharted 3

Let’s Get Some Others Involved

The competitive and cooperative multiplayer makes a return in Uncharted 3, with the competitive faring better. The look of the game offers a pleasurable distinction from the typical shooters, as does the level design that lends itself to the climbing and traversing like a human rediscovering his primate self. The shooting, however, does not deliver the exacting qualities that so many fans of the current crop of multiplayer games expect, and the animation quirks that are present in the single-player campaign are exacerbated by the hectic decision making and movement in multiplayer. Clear efforts have been made to emulate the perks, medals and other reward systems found in multiplayer games everywhere, which should deepen the experience for those who choose to play but, as with Uncharted 2, its appeal should reside mostly as an alternative to the war-based multiplayer shooters dominating the market.

Uncharted 3

The co-op is less successful. While it attempts to take on narrative side-stories to the single-player, the skill and quality of the main game’s storytelling is nowhere to be found, and the invited comparison does little to elevate the experience. More importantly, the sense of fun that characterized Uncharted 2’s foray into co-op has been replaced with a turgid experience that, despite which map from across the Uncharted series you are playing, unfolds in the same manner, with four to five segments, each bringing forth increasingly harder enemies with limited AI who function as bullet sponges.

It’s a stunningly joyless experience that should become tiresome to anyone but those who don’t like any thought getting in the way of shooting someone in the face. In the end, as with Uncharted 2, the multiplayer is seemingly frivolous or just commercial, but in light of Uncharted 3’s single player shortcomings, one cannot help but wonder whether those resources could have been better applied.

Uncharted 3

The Adventure Comes To An End

It is this agonizing eschewing of potential in Uncharted 3 that ultimately reduces the game to only great. The technical prowess never ceases to amaze, but the beating heart that makes it more than mere novelty is only intermittently present. As fun as it is in all of its myriad moments of action and design, there is a latent malaise.

Coming so soon on the heels of Uncharted 2, there hasn’t been enough time for the strong memories of the predecessor to fade away, to revitalize a story and game format that had so recently been revitalized and reached its apotheosis. Sony’s commercial needs may have motivated such a quick revisit to the franchise but, like Nathan Drake’s long quest to unravel the mystery of his relative, it takes time to appreciate the value of a treasure.

Watch Sessler's Soapbox: Uncharted 3 and The Problem With Review Scores