When we look back at this generation of gaming, we’ll remember a few things — most of which won’t be actual video games, oddly. We’ll remember the bombardment of DLC, we’ll remember the attempt at motion gaming, and we’ll remember the meteoric rise and devastating fall of the music game genre, but we won’t really look back on this generation for its games like we already do with the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube era . However, there’s one series that will most likely define this generation after we move on to the next ones, and that’s Uncharted. The series’ developer, Naughty Dog, didn’t invent a new genre, or even really innovate mechanics within an established genre, but they set out to do what video games have always strived to achieve — create a playable movie — and they’ve succeeded. The third installment in the Uncharted series released last week, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, and Naughty Dog succeeded once again, perhaps more than any game developer ever has before.
That doesn’t mean that Uncharted 3 is perhaps the best video game ever made, but, you know, it’s up there. About as close as Uncharted 2: Among Thieves came, which is one of the very, very few problems that Nathan Drake’s new adventure faces, but let’s talk about the actual game before we discuss its implications.
Nathan’s back, and the game’s plot focuses on his iconic ring-on-a-necklace, which was included in the ridiculously-sized collector’s edition of the game.
Though this installment’s lost city, Iram of the Pillars, is somewhere in the Rub’ al Khali desert and the story’s plot drives the characters there to find a powerful treasure, the game is more focused on the relationship between Nathan and his father figure, partner-in-crime Victor Sullivan. Most of the characters throughout the series (who survived, of course!) make an appearance (sans everyone’s favorite Tibetan from Uncharted 2, Tenzin) in this installment, as well as have a significant amount of gameplay screen time, rounding out Nathan’s party of of A.I. controlled lovable criminals who occasionally gun down a bad guy so you don’t have to. The cast features Chloe, Drake’s semi-love interest and double agent from Uncharted 2, newcomer Charlie Cutter, and Emily Rose’s Elena, Drake’s actual love interest throughout the three games. Even though they changed her face just slightly enough to weird out series vets for a few minutes.
Though each character has enough screen time and story interaction to please any series fan, the game ultimately settles on Drake’s relationship with Sully, which, in a brilliant move, somewhat pushes the treasure hunting plot to the background. Little details and developments in the plot are missing, but it makes sense. When I say that it makes sense, I’m not defending a series of which I’m a huge fan. It seems very intentional, and is fairly effective. Naughty Dog had to take the series in a somewhat different direction from the previous two installments, eschewing the inevitability of someone betraying Nathan and, oh look, was a bad guy all along. Instead, the treasure hunting plot acts more as a force to drive the Nathan and Sully story. So, we may not know how Charlie Cutter joined the crew, for instance, or why Elena’s not particularly thrilled with it, but that’s because Nathan has more important things on which to focus, and thus, so do we. It works, and I’m honestly surprised it does, because there are a few things I still want to know regarding where some of these characters have been and what caused them to get there in between Uncharted 2 and 3.
If you played Uncharted 2, you know exactly what to expect from Drake’s Deception. Just expect more of it, and a little grander. The gunplay remains mostly the same. Duck behind cover, shoot at bad guys, pop out of cover and run at guys while you shoot at them. The gunplay is a little more refined, in that the bad guys are a little more dynamic — they’ll run and gun more, because it’s smarter than standing out in the open. The melee mechanic, however, has been largely refined, and is now the shining battle mechanic. Naughty Dog knows this, and the game opens with a ridiculously fun bar fight introducing the new melee system, complete with toilet-based action.
Among Thieves upped the ante with gigantic, moving, destructible set pieces, and Drake’s Deception does it one better. As Nathan moves through unstable environments, the floor frequently crumbles beneath his feet, or things fall from above and destroy the stable ground. As he climbs to higher ground, handholds break off the wall, causing Nathan to execute quick maneuvers before he falls onto something that isn’t particularly soft. Rather than rooms with static textures, this time around the environment slowly degrades in various areas as Nathan fights through it. Not only that, but the game gives you full control of Nathan in many scenes that other games can’t even hope to render in a cutscene, much less something playable. Remember the playable building-helicopter scene from Uncharted 2 that was totally awesome? There are multiple scenes and set pieces like that in 3.
Uncharted has always been known for its charm. From the incredibly animated facial expressions, to the legitimately stellar voice work that is on par with — if not better than — most movies and television shows, Uncharted continues to feature the most developed, likable cast in video game history. They feel like your friends rather than characters you’re controlling. It feels weird when you finish the game and realize you can’t continue hanging out with them.
Drake’s Deception is much bigger on the little touches this time around as well. If you run Nathan into a wall, he’ll react by putting his hands out and stopping himself. If you walk him near a wall, he’ll stick his hand out and brush up against it. He also stumbles more in this installment, because when you’re swinging from a chandelier, to a broken pipe, to another chandelier, then barely make a landing on a rotting wooden walkway, you’re going to stumble. The fighting mechanics have great little touches as well. With the overhaul of the melee mechanics, the game sees bruiser enemies, which are simply big, muscular enemies that Nate generally has to fight when he — for one reason or another — doesn’t have any guns or explosives on hand. Aside from each bruiser fight feeling like a cutscene even though you’re controlling the whole thing, a fantastic touch is, occasionally, if Nathan manages to knock the guy on the floor, but stumbles in the process, Nate will kind of leap off his knees and deliver a final blow to the bruiser, with both of them on the ground. Nathan’s humor and mindless chatter with himself is back as well, so don’t worry, the game is still funny at all the right moments. The game is full of these little touches, and they make everything that much more of an incredible experience.
For those that played Among Thieves and played through one of the best segments in video game history, which oddly consisted of walking around a boring mountain village having Nathan introduce himself to villagers and pet yaks, Drake’s Deception attempts something similar this time around, but doesn’t achieve the same effect. You’ve seen the screenshots, you’ve seen the trailers, and you can only assume Nate has to trek around a desert for a while.
Don’t get me wrong, just because this attempt at the passive gameplay didn’t quite reach the village from Uncharted 2 doesn’t mean the segment isn’t any good. The overall artsy approach to the segment, the amazingly rendered desert, and Nathan’s isolation are effective and naturally progress the story, as well as make us feel alone with Nathan, giving us a little insight into his character and further highlighting his relationship with Sully.
Once you finish the campaign, there’s the entire other half of the game, the multiplayer. I haven’t spent very long mucking around in it, but as the campaign mode takes Uncharted 2′s revolutionary campaign and slightly one-ups it, the same goes for the multiplayer. More competitive modes, more co-op modes, and more short co-op campaign play. Luckily for trophy hunters, Drake’s Deception doesn’t include the ridiculously difficult to achieve multiplayer trophies from Uncharted 2′s multiplayer DLC, but there are at multiple DLC packs in the pipeline, so one can only assume something similar to those terrifying trophies will make another appearance.
Like any amazing game, Drake’s Deception isn’t without faults, though the faults are so few and far between, and generally minute, that you’re likely to miss or forget about them as poor Nate is getting beat up in new and creative ways. Mentioned above, one of the biggest complaints one may have with this installment is the story focuses on Nate and Sully. Though we all love Sully, fans, for instance, may not get enough Elena, especially since something happened between Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3 that starts Nate and Elena’s relationship off in an unexpected place. Another big complaint would be that the game may not feel as mind-blowing as Uncharted 2, because the leap from Uncharted 1 to 2 was so mind-blowing, that the slight incline from Uncharted 2 to 3 doesn’t feel very steep, though 3 still grew beyond 2.
If one wanted to avoid any knowledge about the game, but still be assured it is worth the money, “Like Uncharted 2, but better,” would almost suffice. Almost. There’s a caveat here. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was a highly entertaining, cinematic, though formulaic romp. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves basically revolutionized video games — without actually inventing any new type of interaction mechanism — by achieving the coveted “playable movie” goal. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception improves on Among Thieves’ amazing formula, but that’s all it does, and that might be a problem for series veterans. Whereas Among Thieves blows your mind because you weren’t expecting what it achieved, you’re fully expecting it from Drake’s Deception. It delivers, but you knew it was coming. Drake’s Deception is as good — if not better than — Among Thieves, but you knew it would be. However, just because you knew something would rock your socks doesn’t mean your socks will remain safe, you’ll just be more prepared for their inevitable destruction.
Uncharted 3 is unlike anything else on the market even though you saw its brilliance a mile away, and maybe that’s Drake’s greatest deception.