Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception Review: A Sandy Triumph

out of 5

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception Review: A Sandy TriumphThe Sony PlayStation has always had an identity problem. When it first arrived in 1995, it was going up against Nintendo, home of the Mario Bros., and SEGA, home to Sonic the Hedgehog.

The PlayStation was never “home” to anything. Oh, they tried. Crash Bandicoot had a good run, and Sweet Tooth, the flame-headed clown from Twisted Metal as well. Then on the PS2 came Jax and Dexter, Ratchet and Clank, and Sly Cooper, too. But for some reason, the PlayStation brand just couldn’t nail down that one iconic mascot character that would be the face of the system.

That is until 2007 and the release of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune for the PlayStation 3. Sure, with the PS3 launch there were some decent games, and for the life of them, Sony tried to push Resistance: Fall of Man as their system-seller. But it was no Halo (well, Master Chief), or no Mario (or Link). No, it was in the fall of 2007 that Nathan Drake went on his first excursion into the jungle, and gamers everywhere took notice. Finally, PlayStation had its signature franchise.

With 2009s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves raising the bar in almost ever facet, the developers at Naughty Dog really needed to do something to elevate the third Nathan Drake game into the atmosphere. And they found it in the sand.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception Review: A Sandy Triumph
In Uncharted, Drake’s adventure took place primarily in a jungle/temple setting. With Uncharted 2, the story bounced around from jungles, to third world cities, to eventually the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas. Now, in Uncharted 3, Nate lands (violently… more on this later) smack dab in the middle of the Rhub’ al Khali desert. And there is sand. Lots and lots of sand.

As Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, begins, Nate and Victor “Sully” Sullivan are attending a secret drop meeting in a pub in London’s East End. Because this is Nathan Drake, and this is an Uncharted game, everything goes awry. There are fisticuffs, double crosses, running, and death of major characters. All within the first fifteen minutes. Aww, it’s great to be back in the Uncharted world.

What follows is a journey that stretches time and distance. We, for the first time, get to see and play as a young Nathan Drake on one of his first adventures in Cartegena, Columbia. It also serves to highlight “When Nate Met Sully.” Uncharted 3 takes the player to the jungles of France, and to the citadels of Syria. Then, before you can catch your breath, it’s off to Yemen, and then to the open seas and a sinking cruise ship, which in turn leads back to dry land and to an airplane escape that happens to crash land smack dab in the desert. If Naughty Dog hoped to expand the story, they accomplished their task.

The McGuffin, (or “thing they seek”) this time is the Lost City of Ubar. Legend says that deep in the middle of the Rhub’ al Khali desert lies a city of great fortune. As the story goes, in the seventeenth century, Queen Elizabeth commissioned Sir Francis Drake to seek out the city for the English Crown. History shows he never found it. But Nathan Drake knows otherwise, and can prove it.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception Review: A Sandy Triumph
Joining Nate and Sully this time around are returning fan favorites Chloe Frazer from Uncharted 2, and of course, Nate’s constant, Elena Fisher. New to the story is Charlie Cutter, an East End tough guy who has a long history with Drake and his shenanigans.

The antagonist is Katherine Marlowe and her right hand man, Talbot. Marlowe and Talbot both belong to a secret organization that has served the English Crown for centuries. Marlowe has been searching for the city of Ubar for most of Nate’s life, and their paths have crossed multiple times.

Marlowe makes for a much better antagonist than the criminal warlord, Zoran Lazarevic from Uncharted 2. Her viper-like character design and haughty British accent just screams “villain,” and Talbot works perfectly as her “sword,” carrying out her dirty work. In the mythos of Nathan Drake, there has never been a better foil for our hero.

As expected, the story of Uncharted 3 is one of its strong points. Naughty Dog, and writer Amy Hennig, have always made sure that the story remains important, even during the numerous gunfights, parkour-like climbing exercises, and ancient temple puzzles. By the end of the game, you feel like you have seen (and played) not just a movie, but a novel of sorts. A movie lasts, on average, 90 minutes. Uncharted 3 took about 12 hours to play through the solo campaign. Because of that, the story is allowed to breathe and grow, as it should, and it will always remain a hallmark of the franchise.

Graphically, the game is just beautiful. Water looks fluid, and wet, and the myriad colors represented in the street vendors during the Cartegena and Yemen levels are eye-popping.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception Review: A Sandy Triumph
And the sand is incredible.

Terrain moves as it would in real life as Nate traverses the Rhub’ al Khali. And it never looks like fudge, or paint. The team at Naughty Dog have created the most realistic looking sand short of, well, real sand.

The variety of levels allows the game to feed the player constant gorgeous visuals, and the overall color pallets are astounding. The Syrian Citadel level comes to mind, as it takes place at night, and is bathed in blue hues against a purple sky, both accentuating the earth tones of the masonry of the Citadel structure itself. The French chateau set piece looks amazingly aged, and later, during a scene that involves fire, the artists took the visuals up another full notch. There is not a game that comes to mind more beautiful that any of the Uncharted games.

The gameplay doesn’t sway much from the formula. There are still ridiculous “stunt pieces” that has Nate running and jumping from building to building, and climbing absurd distances. But this is a game, and it is easy to overlook the over-the-top action, especially when it is done so well and so entertaining.

Combat is handled much as before, with an over-the-shoulder, third person angle taking up most gunfights. For hand-to-hand and melee fights, the Square button handles most of the action, and the Triangle button is a dodge and reverse option. There are other context sensitive commands that give Nate different moves.

I noticed that I relied on hand-to-hand combat more in this game, and that actually points to a more balanced and realistic experience overall, even if there is too much of it.

There are well over 30 different weapons for Nate to use in his journey. They range from handguns, to fully-automatic machine guns, to bolt action, single-shot sniper rifles. And there are also grenades, blast shields, and propane tanks. In Nate’s world, anything is a weapon.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception Review: A Sandy Triumph
There is a major issue with the reticle targeting in gun combat, as dead-to-sights shots would miss, even at near point blank. This issue goes back to problems from the first game, and it is very noticeable and should be considered a problem here as well.

The music in the game remains top-notch, as the theme of Uncharted is almost as recognizable to gamers as Halo, or even the Legend of Zelda series.

The voice acting remains a top draw in the series, with Nolan North reprising Nate, Richard McGonagle reprising Sully, and Emily Rose returning as Elena. Rosalind Ayres’ performance as Marlowe stands out, and is on level with North’s in the way the character comes to life with the actor’s voice work alone.

There is a co-op option for the main campaign, which allows a friend to join you as your partner. And therein lie the issues that I found with the game. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was about an adventurer searching for a great treasure. And along the way, he found love. But Uncharted 2, and now Drake’s Deception, have changed that formula to include partners throughout most of the story.

To compare it to the Indiana Jones movies (which is an easy thing to do as they share some of the same subject matters), in Raiders, Indy was primarily solo, but in The Temple of Doom, Short Round and Willie joined him. By the The Last Crusade, even his dad was along for the ride. The feeling of discovery is lost when there are too many people in the pool.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception Review: A Sandy Triumph
The reason Uncharted went this direction is to accommodate for the co-op, and I think it detracts for the experience. I may be in the minority here, but I miss Drake as the loner hero. Now he’s part of a team, and it’s just not as exciting.

In addition to co-op there is a more robust online multiplayer mode, which focuses more on combat and less on puzzles and parkour. Again, I’m not a fan of this in this series, but I understand Naughty Dog’s reasoning in so to extend the replayability of the game.

As before, there are also 100 treasures to be found throughout the twenty-two chapters. Some are easy to find, some are pretty difficult. Luckily, people in ancient civilizations hid their treasures on ladders, and behind fish markets for Nate Drake to find during his journeys.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is an amazing experience. I am almost remiss to call it a game because it is equal parts game, movie, and novel. It is story driven, which saves it in some of the weirder, and nonsensical aspects. The sets are simply works of art; art that all games should aspire to. There are some action and stunt pieces that are breathtaking and amazing, both at the same time. The cruise ship level and the plane crash are two “wow” moments that spring to mind. It’s these moments that make a game series like Uncharted a signature series. And it is one that Sony and the PlayStation should be proud to call theirs.

Shop for Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception on Playstation 3 for a discounted price at Amazon.com (November 1, 2011 release date).

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