Charting New Ground
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, one of my favorite games of 2009—maybe the favorite—continues its grandiose pulp adventure with Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, now one of my favorite games for 2011, and I’d imagine an inevitable Game of the Year winner for many. What Uncharted 3 gets right, it gets right with such verve, thrills, and soaring imagination that few games this year can touch.
Here’s the thing: Uncharted 3 is my type of game. Gushing enthusiasm comes packaged in personal taste—this is a game that you watch an awful lot, it’s extremely linear, storytelling takes a major role, and presentation is everything. If you played Uncharted 2, you know the drill. I love it.
Expectations are sky-high, and while Uncharted 3 matches the last game’s greatest beats and even ups the ante at its best—Drake’s phantasmagoric drug-trip sequence is one to remember—what it lacks is that newness, that engaging element of surprise Uncharted 2 embodied from start to finish. Who knows how self-aware Naughty Dog was during the game’s ambitious development process—what kind of internal pressure they applied constructing such a big sequel—but perhaps the design edict of “more outrageous” pushed Uncharted 3 to the next level? This game puts Drake through so many ridiculous scenarios of punishment, terror, danger, and mouth-agape close calls that you can’t look at him as an action hero anymore as much as a comic-book super hero. At one point, I waited for him to fall into the center of an explosion, melt his skin off, and reveal his titanium innards.
There’s a cognitive dissonance to the terrific action sequences and the intentions of the narrative, but that’s really not much concern when you’re having so much damn fun guiding Drake through his obstacle course of wonders. Uncharted 3 absorbed me the most during its quieter moments, when the majesty and intricacies of the world design could really take hold. In one of the best sequences, Drake comes across a massive shipyard, storm-torn and intimidating in its vertiginous layout. This is one of the more involved stretches of platforming, requiring Drake to monkey around a tremendous latticework of beams, ledges, walkways and an assortment of industrial equipment that doesn’t look like gameplay objects. It all looks visually complete, a world that could actually exist—one of the great set pieces I’ve seen in a game. Eventually, as you make your way to the water, the tactile sensation of pounding waves rising around the bobbing scenery must be experienced for anyone who loves this type of game.
And I could certainly describe a couple of more indelible sequences in Uncharted 3, but I don’t want to compromise the element of surprise. It’s a game of moments, of scenes structured much as they would be for an adventure movie. It understands the rhythm and complexity of a cinematic experience in a way most games don’t, and you’re pulled into this treasure-hunting tale in ways no game has accomplished to this point—at least none I’ve played.
But you won’t hear me going on and on about how phenomenal the gunplay moments are, because this is where the game can lose its grip—these segments pulled me away from the experience from time to time, as I tired of the knock-down, drag-out shootouts. That’s not to say Uncharted 3 doesn’t have its moments where a good AK-47 showdown with the bad guys leaves you extremely satisfied, though. Certain areas are just better designed than others; the game is so huge and can’t quite maintain a consistent pitch throughout.
The same goes with the storytelling, which vacillates between hefty clichés—evildoers Marlowe and the gang showing up for a speech at just the wrong time gets a little silly and plot lazy—and sensitive relationship-building that actually made me feel alive with the characters. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, in all its wobbly glory, is a game that ultimately makes you feel real emotion, as simple as the raw excitement of jumping from a horse onto a moving armored car and back again or the bonding complexity of the heroes you inhabit in the game. Sure, I felt a little disappointed at times, but this is a next level of gamemaking—and an example of the craft evolving at its very best.
As with any game sporting substantial multiplayer ambitions, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception needs to undergo the full onslaught of a public showing before a proper verdict is made. The time I had with the generous online portions proved entertaining enough, but it’s the single-player adventure that matters, and the co-op, for example, just feels underwhelming in comparison. It’s well done, as are the multitude of team-based and competitive modes, and if you’re looking for this sort of thing and a solid extension of Uncharted 2, you won’t be disappointed.
Summary: One of the best games of the year, a soaring adventure
- The Good: Just as good as the incredible Uncharted 2
- The Bad: A few off-putting plot turns here and there
- The Ugly: The terrific destruction of giant set pieces