One of the PS3’s most anticipated games of the year, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, has finally arrived; but will it live up to the hype? The previous installment, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, was the first PS3 game to widely receive a perfect score from many reviewers, and set the bar incredibly high. Uncharted games are third-person treasure hunting blockbuster adventures in the vein of the Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider series. Developed by Naughty Dog, Uncharted is not only a Sony exclusive series, but has also grown into a cornerstone franchise for the entire Sony video game empire.
This time around Nathan Drake and crew are globetrotting in an effort to find a long lost city, “The Atlantis of the Sands.” The quest starts by following a trail of clues from Nathan’s ancestor, the famous explorer (and some would say privateer), Sir Francis Drake, and T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). Nathan will stop at nothing to prove his theories correct and claim what he sees as his birthright.
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Events don’t jump off with the powder-keg excitement of Uncharted 2’s train hanging off of a cliff opening, but are still quite memorable. Nathan and Sully navigate the wet streets of London and arrive at gritty pub, seemingly inhabited exclusively by Jason Statham-like hard men, where a shady backroom deal quickly goes awry. Here the player is given a melee combat mechanics crash course in a wonderful barroom brawl sequence. Punch, counter, throw, smash a bottle over an attacker’s head, or bounce their noggin off of the unforgiving bar; hand-to-hand fighting is easy to pick up thanks to quick-time prompts that flash on the screen. In no time you will be adept at fisticuffs, just in time for the story to take one of many unique twists as the chapters seamlessly segue.
In awesome playable flashback sequence in chapter 2, we not only learn how important this lifelong quest is to Nathan, we also learn the origin of his relationship with Sully and the rival parties out to claim Drake’s ancient secret for themselves. This back-story is excellent because it does a great job of fleshing out the characters, and letting us understand their motivations, flaws and history. In fact, the Uncharted 3 character development is some of the best I have ever seen in a video game. The development of great characters is helped along by the superior voice-acting and dialogue that comes off as natural and convincing; hallmarks of the Uncharted games. Sure, the characters will toss out expected witty banter and one-liners, but they also reveal themselves in small ways if you pay attention. Nate is intelligent, but will often over-think a situation, only to have Sully chime in with a simple but elegant solution. These characters have the genuine chemistry of old friends. Cutter is tough as nails, but claustrophobic. Other characters will call into question Nate’s personal motivations impact his friends. These characters are not generic cannon fodder, and are a huge part of what makes Uncharted 3 really work.
Of course, the dazzling graphics do an amazing job of making Uncharted 3 into the playable film that in really is. The game’s environmental visual elements are just breathtaking. Early in the game Nate and Sully make their way through a French forest, to a rundown chateau that is situated on the other side of a ravine. Bright shafts of sunlight penetrate the canopy of leaves and shadows on the ground sway as a breeze gently rustles the flora. The light provided by sun’s orientation stays consistent throughout the entire area. Whether seeing headlights reflected an wet London streets, dark catacombs being illuminated by a flashlight or torch, or the relentless sun beating down in the dessert, Uncharted 3 uses lighting to great effect. I was initially worried that due the nature of the dessert themed story, the vibrant locales and colors that I have come to expect from this series would be left behind in favor of drab sand dunes. This concern was completely unwarranted, the locales are eye-popping. The small graphic details add a nice level of realism. Get wet and Drake’s clothing will darken, then start drying on the shoulders, and gradually return to normal. The camera angles and cut-scenes add an unrivaled cinematic quality to Uncharted 3. The game moves so smoothly between gameplay and cut-scenes that players must pay close attention to realize that they are at a point when they are again in control of Drake’s next move. Some of the set-piece sequences, while a little predictable, are memorable nonetheless. Camera angles and zooms also provide important clues about your objectives and what path to take. Character animations were convincing due to small details like blinks, facial expressions, and nice movement that wasn’t stiff. As would be expected from a game released late in a console’s life-cycle, Uncharted 3 really showcases what the PS3 is capable of graphically.
Uncharted 3 has superb pacing. The mix of exploration, combat, and puzzle solving is completely on point. Players never tire of any one aspect, because the variety keeps it all feeling fresh. This game never feels like a grind at any point, and moves fast. That said, this is not an open-world game; there are clear paths that must be taken. Though the paths available to take are predetermined and fairly limited, hunting around for hidden treasures makes the game feel larger. Even when there are diverging paths, they usually meet back up very quickly. Combat is fun, and between melee and a variety of firearms, players can find a fighting style to suit their tastes. You can try to be stealthy, run and gun, use the cover system to take down enemy strongholds when the opportunity presents itself, lob grenades, or find a sniper-rifle and a nice spot to methodically take down the bad guys from afar. Most of the puzzles in the game are fairly easy, but get stuck long enough and eventually the option to have the solution provided will come up. Keeping the player engaged and the pace of the game flowing freely was clearly an important consideration in the Uncharted 3 experience.
While Uncharted 3 is the best game I have played this year, there is always room for improvements. It was a bit baffling why Drake is unable to swim underwater. Nate is able to briefly dive straight down to a limited depth, but quickly returns to the surface the way he came. It would have been fun to be able to explore all of the nooks and crannies underwater. In fact, it would also have been fun to open the game up a bit more to be able to explore the beautiful areas more completely altogether. It is sometimes hard to judge how far of a fall will kill Nate, and actually seems to vary. Sometimes Nate is able to make long heroic jumps, and other times will die after falling a few meters. The enemy AI makes most run-ins quite exciting; camp out in cover and they will flank and charge your position. Other times, however, hostile agents will just watch Drake run up to them and not react at all. NPCs often block your path and hem you in when in a tight space, though if the collision detection allowed you to just pass through it would be labeled a fault. There are rumored weapon targeting patches on the way, but I didn’t really run into this issue on my complete initial play-through. As with most great things, the story campaign went by quite quickly and left me wanting more, but clearly deserves to be replayed with the difficulty maxed-out or to find any treasures missed the first time through. There is also an online multi-player mode, and a co-op mode that can be played split-screen or online.
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Minor gripes aside, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is definitely a “must-play” game. It was a beautiful rendered game with great characters, dialogue, writing, and style. Most importantly, Uncharted 3 is a fun adventure that blurs the line between game and film in ways that set the benchmark for the entire gaming industry. If you own a PS3, you would be seriously remiss not to experience this exclusive game. If pressed to give Uncharted 3 a numerical rating, I would score it 9.5/10. In a relentless month that is dropping such highly-anticipated games as Batman: Arkham City, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Assasin’s Creed: Revelations, make sure to set some time (and money) aside for Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception – you won’t regret it. The next installment of the Uncharted series will be a prequel titled Uncharted: Golden Abyss, on the powerful new PS Vita handheld system. If it is as good as Drake’s Deception, that could prove to be a strong selling-point for the Vita. Happy gaming!