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It can’t be easy being a console’s premier franchise; after Uncharted 2 knocked it out of the park two years ago, expectations for Nathan Drake’s next adventure have been running sky-high. For the most part, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception meets every last one of its fans’ lofty expectations, and does so with the series’ characteristic smirking panache.
The action’s relentless and varied, with plenty of big cliffhanger set-pieces (many of which, if you’ve been following the game’s coverage so far, you may have already seen). The puzzles are big and ornate, and the environments – which range from dark London alleys and bright Yemeni markets to vast underground dungeons filled with ancient machinery and cool optical illusions – are beautifully detailed and filled with interesting things to see and do.
As much as Uncharted 3 seems to get everything right, it still manages to fall short of its magnificent predecessor in a few important ways. We’ll get to those in a minute, though; first, there’s a lot to get excited for.
After a brief detour through the Himalayas in the last game, Uncharted 3 puts Drake back on the trail of his famous ancestor, Sir Francis Drake. Without spoiling too much, it seems Sir Francis’ ring – the one Drake wears around his neck – is the key to finding the location of an ancient lost city, Iram of the Pillars, which lies hidden somewhere in the massive Rub’al Khali Desert. Naturally, Drake isn’t the only one who wants to find Iram, and his insistence on finding what his ancestor couldn’t (or wouldn’t) puts him on a collision course with one Katherine Marlowe, a brittle English matron who heads a secret society that’s been searching for Iram since the days of Queen Elizabeth I.
What follows is a race to stay one step ahead of Marlowe as Drake, Sully, Chloe, Elena and a couple of new cohorts plow through London, Syria, France, Colombia, Yemen and – finally – the Rub’al Khali, getting into frequent fights with Marlowe’s shadowy British operatives along the way. There are a few big surprises, some hallucinogenic weirdness and a tiny bit of romance thrown in for good measure, but a big part of the focus here is on developing Drake’s character – specifically by exploring and explaining his relationship with his partner/mentor Sully, and by finally telling us a bit about just who Drake really is.
Of course, character development doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot to do with the gameplay, which – like in the previous two games – tends to alternate between solving big environmental puzzles, scaling walls and/or jumping across platforms, and shooting squads of bad guys with the help of sticky cover (and two or three AI partners). More often than not, it’s a combination of those last two, and it’ll be familiar to anyone who’s played either of the previous games.
There are, however, some interesting new additions this time around. It’s now possible, for example, to catch your enemies’ grenades and throw them back, provided you can hit a button within a specific timeframe (and yes, this ability carries over into multiplayer). New climbing portions have been added, in which you’ll have to take cover behind certain large handholds while taking vertical potshots at enemies above you.
There’s also a bigger emphasis on stealth; it’s not mandatory or anything, but you’ll frequently see enemies walking around with flashlights, or standing around seemingly oblivious to your presence. When you do, staying out of sight and killing them silently will help you avoid hellish shitstorms of bullets, grenades and RPGs… at least for a little while.
More significantly, the brawling system’s been tweaked a bit, with more frequent counters and grappling added to Drake’s previously straightforward punch combos. It feels a little more like Arkham Asylum/City than before, as your timing is now more important than your ability to mash the Square button. The system’s also context-sensitive, meaning you can do things like smash bottles across heads if you’re next to a bar, or finish your enemy by slamming his face into a nearby crate.
With all this improved brawling, it’s not too surprising that there’d be a new enemy type to help make the most of it – and so we get the Brute, a hulking, unarmored foe who likes to stomp toward you and knock the gun right out of your hands. While they’re weirdly resistant to bullets, they’re fairly easy to take down with Drake’s fists, provided you can time all your counters and dodges right.
Roll in a few notably unique action sequences – like a convoy-hopping chase through the desert on horseback, and an attempt to stay alive on a rapidly disintegrating plane – and more than a few of developer Naughty Dog’s signature run-toward-the-camera-while-death-races-in-behind-you sequences, and you’ve got the gist of what to expect.
Finally, there’s the addition of 3D support, which – while not really adding a lot to the gameplay – does give the environments a clearer depth and weight, and makes the game just a little bit more immersive. It’s probably not going to sell you on 3D if you weren’t sold already, but if you’ve got a TV that supports it, playing Uncharted 3 with 3D on is a must.
It’s all pretty fantastic – but is it as fantastic as Uncharted 2 was?
For all its spectacle and swagger, its fine-tuned action and fantastic platforming, its expert voice-acting and effortless charm, there’s something that’s just slightly off about Uncharted 3, especially when compared to 2. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what that is. Maybe it’s that some of its biggest, most death-defying events – like the plane coming apart in midair – are just a bit too linear, amounting to little more than quick time events with almost no chance of real failure.
Above: Although they still look pretty great regardless
Maybe it’s that Chloe and Elena – both of whom played huge roles in Uncharted 2 – don’t have a whole lot to do in this outing. (They’ve got their share of screen time, sure, but it never quite feels like enough.) Maybe it’s that certain key events are referenced but never really explained, or that the game’s final moments have a strangely anticlimactic feel to them.
To be clear, these are all minor complaints. More than anything, though, it feels like a case of ambition, or lack thereof. Uncharted 2 was a wildly ambitious game, taking what had previously been an impressive Tomb Raider-style adventure and shoehorning in scenes that put you inside of falling buildings, pitted you against helicopter gunships and forced you to flee from tanks (to say nothing of all the cool multiplayer additions). There was a gut-wrenching immediacy to it, which was tempered by the surprisingly human characters and story.
Uncharted 3, then, feels suspiciously like more of the same, with big spectacles delivered because they’re expected (in 3D this time!), rather than because the developers had a really cool idea that they wanted to realize in a visually arresting way. That’s not to say Uncharted 3’s big events aren’t cool; far from it. Drake’s escape from a sinking cruise ship is unforgettable, as are a solo trek through the Rub’al Khali and a creepy puzzle in which you have to line up a light with twitching statue body parts so that they make a silhouette on the wall.
However, a lot of the game’s big moments also have a strangely by-the-numbers feel to them; they’re not really unexpected or special, they’re just there because a big action sequence or obligatory fall through crumbling floorboards should go there. It makes for an experience that’s both immensely satisfying and unsatisfying at the same time, delivering just enough substance during its roughly nine-hour runtime to leave us wanting more.
All that said, Uncharted 3 really is amazing – it’s just not “omgholyshitincredible” in the way that Uncharted 2 was. At least not as far as the campaign’s concerned …
Aside from its stellar campaign, Uncharted 2 was known for delivering some of the absolute best multiplayer action on the PS3, and fans of multiplayer won’t be disappointed by what Uncharted 3 brings to the table. At its core, it’s pretty similar to what UC2 offered: team-based, cover-centric shooting across a range of varied modes, with plenty of verticality and cool things to climb on. However, Uncharted 3 also introduces a beefed-up system of weapon upgrades, ability-enhancing boosts and special ability-granting Kickbacks (which can be activated once you’ve racked up a certain number of medals for doing cools stuff), which – along with an unlockable assortment of character models and clothing – ensure that there’s always something to buy with the cash you earn in-game.
There’s also a buddy system that ensures you can spawn near a friend, stationary machinegun turrets, random timed team bonuses (like the ability to see the locations of every enemy player) and an Uncharted TV feature that broadcasts matches and developer videos for anyone keen to pay attention. There’s a new three-team deathmatch mode, and a splitscreen feature for those who want to bring a friend along into online matches.
Probably the biggest and coolest additions, however, are the timed action sequences that take place before the “real” action begins on certain maps. These take the shape of things like two speeding subway trains for players to fight across, or a fleet of trucks following closely behind a taxiing cargo plane. Whichever team does the best in these sequences starts the round with a bonus, giving them an early edge.
There’s more to Uncharted’s multiplayer than competition, of course, and the three-player co-op mode returns as well. Focusing almost entirely on shooting and simple objectives with little climbing and no puzzle-solving, it’s not quite as much fun as a co-op feature in the single-player campaign might have been. It’s still pretty great in its own right, though, and Uncharted 3’s co-op takes things a step further by giving the mode a consistent (if goofy and non-canon) storyline that Uncharted fans will love.
Add to that Co-op Arena, which ditches the story in favor of timed objectives (i.e. fight while staying inside a glowing green area, or carry heavy idols to a chest), and there’s enough here to keep even competition-phobic players busy for a long time.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves? Yes from a purely technical standpoint – Uncharted 3 is more visually dazzling, brings more to its multiplayer modes, and of course adds impressive 3D support. However, if we’re just comparing each game’s campaign, Uncharted 2’s felt more ambitious, more involving and more emotionally charged – all qualities that helped it earn the 10 we gave it. Uncharted 3’s story, while still great, never quite hits those same highs.
Batman: Arkham City? No. It might be a little unfair to compare a linear adventure like Uncharted 3 to a gargantuan open-world epic like Arkham City, but there are a few key similarities between the two, most notably the climbing and fistfights – both of which, thanks to a grappling hook and a beautifully timed sense of flow, Arkham does better. Also, ignoring its open-world aspects, Arkham City rivals Uncharted 3 for visual flair and environmental variety, and its storyline delivers some of the urgency and emotional punch that Uncharted 3’s doesn’t.
Gears of War 3? Yes, if we’re comparing campaigns again – playing as Drake, scaling ornately detailed ruins and solving huge environmental puzzles has it all over Gears 3’s slightly lackluster narrative, giant monsters, chainsaw bayonets and four-player co-op be damned. However, where Gears 3 nearly reinvented its series’ multiplayer, Uncharted 3 seems content to add timed set-pieces and a ton of new whistles and bells to the already impressive offerings from UC2, without changing too much about them. It’s still great, to be sure, but it’s not Beast Mode or Horde 2.0 great.
While it never quite reaches the highs of Uncharted 2, Uncharted 3’s slick, relentless action, beautiful visuals and beefed-up multiplayer ensure that it stands well enough on its own.
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