Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: 1 November 2011

How do you follow up a nearly unanimous Game of the Year winner? Expectations are through the roof. Do you go bigger? Do you change it up? Do you leave well enough alone and take baby steps? The pressure Naughty Dog must have felt after Uncharted: Among Thieves won multiple Game of the Year honors (amazing considering it's a PS3 exclusive) must have been nearly crushing. Two years later, we have our answer. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is here and it doesn't disappoint.

Nathan Drake sets off on another adventure in Drake's Deception

Our thrill ride picks up a few years after the events of AmongThieves. After the detour to follow Marco Polo, our heroes are back to unraveling the mysteries of Nathan Drake's supposed ancestor, Sir Francis Drake. Instead of cursed Incan treasure, Nate's new adventure is finding a lost city in the Rub' al Khali desert. Sir Drake once sought this mythical “Atlantis of the Sands” and it also caught the eye of another adventurer, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). Finishing the quest started by these two great explorers, Nate and the team race against a sinister occult society headed by Katherine Marlowe and her right-hand-man Talbot. As Nate says, “Drake had half the clues. Lawrence had half the clues. We have both and Marlowe has nothing.” The heroes race the villains around the globe and get into more tight spaces than should be allowed. Not only is it a great adventure, but it's also a human story: one filled with pride, loyalty and devotion to a cause as central themes. To say nearly anything would be to spoil some of the biggest and best moments in video gaming this year. Sufficient to say, this game has some of the most amazing set-pieces ever played. It is a taut and thrilling ride throughout and is one of the best adventure stories I've ever played. My jaw hit the floor more times than I can count and this was the first time in a long while that I had to shout in excitement while playing. This game has some moments that just require you to voice your exclamation.

Fighting in a burning building? Just another day for Nathan Drake!

The top notch animations return, and with added effects. The opening bar-room brawl showcases some of these new motions well. Nate's fight in the loo feels more epic when you watch Nate slowly push himself up off the floor. The unsteady hands on the stall, the stumble forward and the winded, shambling walk out after victory really sell Nate as a hero, but not an invincible one. The world also got an upgrade as now Nate can kick debris about, push through crowds politely (or shove them out of the way when at a run). While everything is bigger, that doesn't necessarily mean better. Gun fights make characters wince realistically when shots land nearby and even stumbles or lurches from explosions cause everyone to fall realistically. Therein lies one problem. While cinematic, sometimes control seems sacrificed. A great example is running down a sloped roof: sure, it makes sense that Nate has his legs bowed and arms splayed out for balance, but when I cannot steer him to a precision jump and have to restart at the last (admittedly liberally placed) checkpoint, we have a problem. The set-pieces are great and really sell the “pulp action” vibe the entire series is known for, but it also seems like you are funneled a bit more than necessary. A few times I died because I didn't drop to the ground where I was “supposed” to, even though the fall distance was the same. Other times, it seemed like I should have been able to go a certain direction, but not allowed to for whatever reason. There are a few too many “run toward the screen to escape rapidly approaching death” moments, too. I know that sounds like a lot, but this is really picking at nits. The game is amazingly well done, but there are a few frustrating instant deaths that seemed preventable with more precise controls.

These two are great villains, and also colossal jerks

The gameplay has been upgraded a bit, too. The melee system received a massive overhaul, and it's much better for it. It's not a fighting game by any stretch, but now fisticuffs are more than mashing Square and occasionally hitting Triangle to counter. Nate now has access to grabs, counters while being grabbed and context-sensitive finishers. It's rather satisfying to hit a thug with a frozen fish or a beer bottle to finish them off. The melee upgrade also allowed Naughty Dog to introduce a new enemy type: the Brute. Brutes rush in and disarm Nate swiftly. You then get to reenact the fight from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (you know, the one against the big, shirtless Nazi on the runway?). These fights are fun, and the counter system and grappling add to the tension. Beating one of these hulking jerks down feels great and the two fisted smash that leaves Nate winded at the end just adds to the epic feel. The refined gun play from Among Thieves returns and still feels as tight and fluid as possible. Drake's Deception has the best overall control and feeling of the series, and that makes the little irritations stand out a bit more.

One of the main themes from the game

The music, again, is unobtrusive and fitting, but nothing spectacular. The various tension raising songs do their job without standing out. I did enjoy how each game in the series has improved musically. It seems that each iteration has better, more focused music. However, at the end of my second playthrough, I still couldn't really comment on the music. It's there, and it's not bad, but I don't recall it being a strong point compared to the stellar narrative, voice acting and set-piece moments.

Charlie Cutter, one of the best new cast additions

The cast from Uncharted 2: Among Thieves returns, with Nolan North (Nate), Emily Rose (Elena Fisher), Richard McGonagle (Victor “Sully” Sullivan) and Claudia Black (Chloe Frazer) all reprising their roles. They are joined by some fantastic new-comers and one of the best villains in a while. The Uncharted series has always had great characters, and the writing is still in a class all its own. New villainess Katherine Marlowe (played with dripping menace by Rosalind Ayres) is easily the best evil character in the series. Her introduction is akin to watching a viper uncoil: it's horrifying and elegant all at once. Her barely controlled malice and hatred of Nate comes through in their banter and they share one scene that could be one of the best written in games (I won't say which for spoilers' sake, but you'll know it). Marlowe is helped by her trusty lieutenant Talbot (played by Robin Atkins Downes, who also played the villain Navarro in Drake's Fortune). Talbot is a match for Nate in every way: they are both young, determined, fit adventurers and their rivalry makes for some amazing fights and chases. New bit players, which has always been a strong suit in the series, debut to much success. Charlie Cutter (played by Graham McTavish) is a new favorite of mine. He is a great addition to the cast, just like Black's Chloe, and I hope he's about in future installments of the series. Everyone has upped their game for this outing. Each line is delivered in perfect tone, and the ambient chatter between the heroes and villains is the best to date. I love hearing a winded Nate say, “Wow...that was close,” after a grenade goes off nearby. To say that Drake's Deception is the best written of the series would be an understatement. Amy Hennig once again crafts a smart, well written adventure that hooks you early and never lets go. The motivations and relationships between the characters are all deepened, though I would have loved to see more of Chloe. Nate and Sully get a bit of their history explained and it makes their partnership more understandable. I also loved that Elena and Nate's rocky relationship is shown more light. I was pleased that their relationship was more fleshed out, and that it didn't fall into any typical “action movie” cliches. That said, I felt a wee bit disappointed by the ending. It's not a deal breaker by any stretch, but I felt that something more could have been said to make it all tie up better.

Marlowe has our heroes in bad shape

Multiplayer makes a return as well. This time the modes are better, as are the maps. Classic maps return with face-lifts and the new maps all feel well thought out. I love the new match types (three team death match is amazing) and the new matchmaking. I have yet to encounter any sort of trouble while online. On top of that, the mechanics of the game translate well into death matches. Melee is significantly different than the main game, but the guns all feel the same. Progression is handled well, with rewards handed out nearly every level. The progression tree does a good job of handing out both competitive and cooperative bonuses equally, though I would have loved to have the pistols update more often (your first upgrade is at level 10, the next at level 23). Naughty Dog has done a good job of expanding the capable multiplayer found in Among Thieves into something worth playing. I've been having fun with it, and I continue to come back to it (which isn't something I normally do). The rabid, devoted fanbase of the original are appeased, and newcomers will find that it isn't a “throw away” mode.

Our heroes: Sully, Elena and Nate

Let's get down to brass tacks. This game is amazing. It's another superb entry in an amazing series. It is another show piece for the PS3 and for Naughty Dog. While there are more issues this time around than in Among Thieves, they do not detract from the game significantly. This is another game that nearly everyone can enjoy and should own. I debated long and hard on how to score this. I didn't want to get into the quibbling scores that offer half and quarter points on games. It's not perfect like its predecessor, so a 10 is out. But giving this game a 9 would have been tragic (the game is that good). It does so much right, and does it with such style that marking off a full point seems a little silly. So, I am left with using a system of decimals to denote that this game is wonderful on all fronts, and fully deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as its prequels, but falls just shy of Among Thieves. Go out and buy this game if you have a PS3. If you don't: go buy a PS3 then get Drake's Deception and enjoy some of the best adventure gaming ever offered.

Score: 9.75 out of 10
Bottom Line: Another amazing adventure that deserves to be in everyone's game collection
Check it out if you like: Indiana Jones, action movies, tight stories, action/adventure games, games (period)
Game of the Year – 2011 Contender

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