Uncharted 3 is finally here, and it's got me doing a lot of thinking - not simply about it, but about video games in general, and in fact a lot of stuff on top of that. If you take a look at Not Our Day Job with any regularity, you can probably name some of our favorite franchises off the top of your head - we tend to be pretty vocal and pretty regular with our endorsements of content that we feel is actually worth your time. Uncharted has long been a hometown hero for all three of us on the staff list, and I know that I'm not the only one that's actually more than a little surprised by the latest entry. Is it an incredible game? Absolutely. Is it a perfect game? By no means. Is it worth the time of virtually anyone with the inclination to play it? Totally. Is it a must-play title that will stand the test of time? That remains to be seen, dear reader.
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception picks up sometime after the end of the previous installment, Among Thieves. Times have changed, for better or for worse - Drake and Sully are following the footsteps of adventurers from the distant past in search of a lost city in the deserts of Arabia said to hold incredible riches. This time around, Drake seems more bent on personal vindication than the fat stacks of cash associated with treasure: In following the footsteps of his supposed ancestor, Sir Francis, he gets caught up not only in a whirlwind of personal complications that affect his closest confidants, but also a desperate struggle for life and death against a shadowy organization who're determined to seize the ancient artifacts for their own nefarious purposes.
As with the two previous Uncharted installments, Nate travels across a variety of locations, globetrotting in much the same style as his archaeologist forerunners. The locations in Drake's Deception are tailored to both dazzle and surprise the player, ranging from some surprisingly urban locations, like the streets of Colombia and the London Underground, to the more expected but no-less incredible destinations of the Middle East and the dense forests of southern France. Uncharted 3 is a game worth playing just to see the environments created for it. Each is rendered with captivating style and attention to detail, and incredible use and reuse of gameplay space. Developer Naughty Dog has set new standards for malleable environments - areas that move, shift, and breathe in response to the actions of the characters moving throughout it. While many elements are tightly scripted (as seen over and over after some appetizingly challenging combat encounters), they're no less stunning in their use of collidable art pieces that move and act as other characters in the scene rather than working as a well-staged backdrop.
Uncharted 3's environments are regularly magnificent.
Perhaps just as incredible as the world of Uncharted 3 is the way that your avatar moves through it. Drake feels more like a living, breathing character than nearly any other video game persona I've ever seen. The quality of the character models is aside the point - the animation is the real star of the show here. Drake moves, hurts, aches, and struggles so realistically that the game will - many times over - surprise you by featuring some new element of animation that's simply not seen in video games of the modern age. The game-y elements will poke through the seams if you know what to look for - for example, Drake will often reach out to push off from surfaces (like walls) as you walk slightly too close to them... and over the course of the game, that means Drake will probably touch a lot of walls. Here's hoping his fanny pack's got some hand sanitizer.
The quality of the art serves to underscore what the series is known for - great 3rd person platforming and pretty decent combat. These formulas are largely unchanged from previous installments - but for my money, the combat feels better than ever. A vocal percentage of players who perhaps have logged more hours of gameplay than me say otherwise, but to Naughty Dog's credit, they're actively looking for feedback and seem to be responding to the desires of their fans - all of them, not merely a segment of the players. Controls aside, they're really hit their stride when it comes to designing levels and AI movement patterns that not only create a fun, believable experience, but also a game that challenges the player without feeling unfairly frustrating. The platforming and combat is, as always, book-ended by intelligent puzzles that unlock the inner recesses of the ancient world that Nathan Drake and his cohorts delve into as they race around the globe.
My least favorite puzzle: Headshots.
For all the praise that there is to heap upon the game, it's not without it's flaws, probably the biggest of which is pacing. The game has some incredible gameplay experiences unlike any you've ever seen in a game before. It also has a looooot of stretches where the repetition of your current task makes what would otherwise be a terrific transitional area border on the definition of filler. Entire levels feel next to unnecessary for purposes of presentation or even gameplay length. While I appreciate it when a game goes out of its way to justify the $60 I paid for it, I think Uncharted 3 would've been a much stronger experience if it'd had more faith in its huge moments to compensate for shorter periods of time between them. In a game with no less than 10 or 12 jaw-dropping masterpiece moments, I can deal with only one or two combat waves in an exciting area. There's no need to throw five or six waves at me just to make sure I stay in that area for a good long while. For that matter, there's no need to have three or four other areas after that which also have five or six waves of enemies that I need to deal with. While never quite as obnoxious as the seemingly infinite enemy spawners of Uncharted 1, I found myself really questioning the time I was spending churning away at the game until I was allowed to proceed.
WHAT'S THAT? MORE ENEMIES? CAN'T FUCKING WAIT
Uncharted 3 is also not shy about reusing its tricks over and over, too. A "brute" enemy serves an amazingly fun encounter in the very first level as Drake and Sully brawl their way out of a tight spot. The second brute in the game had me frowning. The eighth had me rubbing my temples in exasperation. I know how to beat this guy already, Uncharted 3, and he's kinda worn thin - you're using up precious battery life on my wireless controller! The same goes for other enemy archetypes - the endlessly flanking armored fighters, the wait-for-it snipers, and more. There are a lot of moments in the game when combat is a ton of fun, especially given the enormous breadth of options to move around the environment, enter and exit believeable stealth moments, and resort to melee or takedowns when it's a believable option. But when you've been fighting guys for 20 or 25 minutes, you really start chomping at the bit for a cinematic.
Unfortunately, the cinematics gave me their own set of frustations. While Uncharted is still perhaps the best-presented series of game stories ever told in the history of the medium, the actual for this third installment doesn't quite build up to its own hype. A lot of twists and turns are alluded to by the characters' attitudes and dialogue... which never really get the full explanation that you truly want from them. I came away from Drake's Deception with the feeling that I somehow missed a number of important elements to the story and the characters' development.
Behold! Villains so good at keeping secrets that they come across as unbelievably boring!
To talk about the specifics would give away the few things you can in fact spoil about the story, which is frustrating - it means I pretty much either have to toss up some ugly spoiler flags and rant away about the things said and left unsaid, or ask you to take my word on it. Suffice to say that Uncharted 3 makes you believe that it has some serious things to say about its characters and the lives that they lead and ultimately falls completely flat, omitting seemingly game-changing details about their relationships and the events that transpire around them.
I'm just as fed up with this as you are, Nathan.
This failure of the final hours of the game to execute on its veiled promise was terrifically frustrating and ultimately a source of disappointment, but thankfully, not one that overrides the visceral fun of seeing the game to its conclusion. The successes of Uncharted 3 far outweigh its failings. A great game with an lackluster story is much more worthwhile to me than an average game with a great story.
Would a great story and better pacing have made Uncharted 3 an experience that I'd want everyone to experience as soon as humanly possible? Probably. But even as-is: Uncharted 3 is still an incredible gaming experience with some astounding content that I hope brings even more fans to the franchise. It's a great adventure if you're a fan of games, but it's that much more delightful if you're already a fan of Sully and Elena and Chloe and Drake's shenanigans. These are exceptionally well-developed characters, and even in a tale that's not their best outing and that doesn't portray them in their best light, it's still a pleasure to see them in action.
I have not played the co-op segments yet (although I plan on it) and having sampled the beta for the MP component already, I haven't felt a big compulsion to jump into that experience when Battlefield 3 is still sitting here waiting for me. In all honesty, I'll probably play Among Thieves again before launching the Drake's Deception MP. I might even load up the original adventure again. While the original games really do have something great to offer, Uncharted is best appreciated as an ongoing franchise - hopefully one that will continue to go on for quite some time.
Murdernator and I talked at length about comparing this franchise - logically - to the Indiana Jones films, and he makes a good point, but my personal disdain for Temple of Doom prevents me from making an impassioned graphic that leads you, dear reader, to think that I consider Among Thieves to be comparable to Indy's second outing. Aside from which, it's not really a pleasing thought to think that in 20 years, we'll see Nathan Drake forcibly raped by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
Personally, I feel the comparison to Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is much more apt. The first installment sets the tone, and the second continues the adventure with some new characters and new adventures. The third installment is a fun ride, but one that drags on and on and on punctuated by incredible individual moments of fun and high adventure that promises big things for the storyline but ultimately simply promises to that there'll be more to see in the future.
Hopefully, Uncharted: Golden Abyss for PS Vita will deliver appropriately in the style of On Stranger Tides. I'm of course talking about VH1-caliber mermaid nudity.