Game Overdose: Uncharted 3: Drakes Deception
So, here we have it. The third installment in the critically acclaimed Uncharted Series. Allow me to don my Indiana Jones Fedoratm and take you not just into the most recent installment, but also into the past of the series.
Just a heads up. As my timetable is fairly up and down at the moment, and game releases have been coming hard and fast, I’m going to adopt a valve-like release schedule for my articles. I.e “when it’s done”. So you’ve benefited from 3 articles in 2 weeks, but equally there might be long coursework periods when my damned course gets in the way of my capacity to write. Do not expect Skyrim this weekend, it’s far too large and complex a game for me to adequately review in a few days.
Now, I’m going to start by saying something controversial (feign shock). The Uncharted series isn’t very deep. From its plots to its game mechanics, everything from climbing to shooting (and even climbing and shooting), weapons and enemies; all are relatively simple. To put it bluntly, it’s “nothing new“.
What the Uncharted series is however, is polished. I will say hand on heart that no other game series evidently displays the level of detail and care that Naughty Dog invest into their games. This is a point I’ll come back to later.
It’s why the mechanics have gone largely unchanged since the first game, because it doesn’t need it. Drake controls the same (more or less) through each instalment, all they’ve really been working on is designing levels, both in looks and as a gameplay element. They use this familiarity to tell a story, create amazing looking areas that are also fun to play in, and really push the boundaries of the limits of their gameplay.
The 3 pillars of Uncharted’s gameplay
The Uncharted formula really follows a basic 3 pronged structure.
These are Nate jumping around, flailing towards handholds and are incredibly well implemented. Unlike its close cousins in Assassin’s Creed or Infamous, Uncharted is not a sandbox, so the paths are more restrictive, but the climbable objects tend to be kept obvious without being too garish in the game world. It genuinely is a pleasure to watch Drake Climb, if only because I like the pain on his face.
Using the old staple of cover-based third-person shooter combat, Nate squats behind conveniently place chest-high walls (including at one point a bathtub-falling through the ceiling in order to create such cover). From here he can either poke his head out and shoot with fair accuracy or blind-fire by sticking his arm out, hoping enemies leap into the path of his fire.
Regenerating health keeps you alive, which always has a slight problem in games, as you can end up in a situation where you’re sat on your ass waiting, unable to move or shoot lest you take one bullet more than you can accept, though apparently you’ll be fine in 2 seconds time… At best it can be tense, at worse boring, as one errant grenade can finish you off, and the third time that happens you’ll probably be less enamoured with the whole thing.
Of particular note is that you can only carry 2 weapons at once, a pistol-type and a rifle-type. Most shooters rely upon giving you bigger and better weapons as the game progresses, and while Uncharted does have better weapons later on, they’re never yours. It means that there’s an element to tactics to what weapon you pick up due to your limitations, but also a lot of flexibility.
Take the one-shot kill pistol with rare ammo and a small clip? Fine, but either make sure you balance it with a common-rifle or that you throw it away the second you kill an enemy with an Uzi!
Got a shotgun? Make sure your pistol has some range then!
It’s a simple but well executed “minutes to learn – lifetime to master” ideology that lends itself well to the game.
The third and final section are puzzles, which will often incorporate elements of climbing. Mostly this involves Drake leafing through his notebook, piecing together hints and clues to build a complete solution. They’re very much a “puzzle by puzzle” experience, some being fun to solve and others being an exercise in tedium.
Probably the best analogue I can think of to the Uncharted series is Tomb Raider, both thematically (as they both deal with raiding tombs, yo) and also in how they implemented and improved upon each iteration.
Lara starts off fairly stiff of limb in the first game, but each subsequent game introduces new movement mechanics. In the first she can jump and climb, in the second she can start to sprint and move around more fluidly, and the third game even has her bending over to crawl into spaces, as well as cause a whole generation of dumb teens to discover masturbation.
Uncharted 1 introduced the three pillars above, Uncharted 2 expanded on this with great context sensitive takedowns and the ability to shoot while climbing, and Uncharted 3 introduced a greater display of close-up fighting and the ability to lob back grenades.
At the core of the Uncharted have always been the “cinematic” feel. Every moment of the game drips visual design, from the choreography of the fights to the various “larger than life” moments. In the second game you climb up the outside of a train that’s teetering on the edge of a snowy ravine, while the camera shows just how “on the edge” everything is, lending massively to pacing. On occasion this will be interrupted by the more Shooty moments, but largely I can forgive this.
The use of camera is key, it pans to show areas you’re in, giving a sense of scope, it’ll focus on objectives to lend a hand, and generally helps direct your exploration, sometimes misleading to keep hidden treasures… hidden.
The shooty bits give you camera control, and here it loses the cinematic feel for a more traditional third person shooter style. But overall, it’s a pretty game series that uses its camera intelligently, aided by the linear design.
Me and Uncharted
I’ll talk pretty bluntly for a minute about my experience with Uncharted.
I played the first one, and found it to be “ok”. It had some great moments, but the game felt largely disjointed and each section could be very much split into either Climby, Shooty, Puzzley with no real bleeding between the three. The Plot was largely forgettable as well, but I did find myself loving the characters, or more their interactions.
The Uncharted series has a real fidelity in how it treats the relationships between each individual, and while each individual can be seen as a giant stereotype with some slight embellishment, how they interact is very human. This is where the writers really get a chance to shine.
It also stupidly linked grenade throwing to the Sixasis controller, something they did away with in future games.
And so we come to Uncharted 2. Which was sublime. Really, I love this game. All the little slightly-disjointed elements from the first game were brought into concert. Running and gunning, shooting while hanging from walls, a bit with a helicopter? It was all great. Really showed off their level design, each scene being a beautiful element in and of itself.
There’s a moment on a train where by using everything I’d learned I managed to take out most of the guys easily, firing a few shots from cover then climbing around the outside of the train while they pressed forward on my “position” only to have Drake take them out from behind.
And so now on to Uncharted 3…
Introduction and training
Of particular note for me was the initial stages of the game which acted as a bit of a “tutorial”. This felt extremely mixed to me, as the games mechanics were introduced slowly with moment to test out each, but the plot treated you like an old friend. It really slowed down the initial stages, and it wasn’t even a short segment. A good 10% of the game is spent introducing you to everything, which felt off, especially as it kept doing quick little “and this is how you do this.”
The previous game you actually felt like you were achieving something while it taught you the mechanics, and they were nearly entirely restricted to a nice little museam-break bit. Crawling around sewers comparatively isn’t quite as interesting.
It must be said that the Uncharted 3 world is easily one of the best looking in games. The brawl at the start in the London pub genuinely looks like it occured in a real pub, everything is believable from the individual rooms to the city-streets to the desert and the ship-wrecked graveyard.
It’s especially impressive when you consider the game doesn’t install anything on the PS3, it runs off the disc, with only one notably long loading screen right at the start of the game.
Context sensitive moves are a staple of Uncharted. They were mostly restricted to various flavours of takedown, but have been implemented quite well into the melee combat introduced in U3. Slamming a guys head onto a nearby-table or breaking a bottle on their face. Hell, Drake even knocked a guy out with a fish at one point! Overall the melee was a nice addition, provided they were kept to melee only brawls.
I will criticise the really big guys you have to knock out though. These played more like QTE’s than an actual fight you were in control of. Half of your moves were rendered useless against them so it because more a button mash until circle or triangle popped up to dodge their kick or break their grab. Not really a challenge and just felt like padding.
It’s irritating when the game seemed to want to force you into melee moments in the middle of a gun-fight. At this point you’re essentially fighting in two different ways simultaneously, but because a lot of the moves share the same buttons they were largely incompatible.
The Token stealth moments of the game were largely ruined, as the game would interpret my “get into cover” as “grab that guy and twist his nipples so that he screams alerting all the guards in the vicinity to your presence”. This also goes for the general fighting, where trying to roll into cover from a fist-fight resulted in a hug followed by instant explodey death from a nearby grenade.
The grenade lob-back deserves a particularly special mention. Triangle is used, which is also the same button used to swap out guns. Because of this, and because of the sheer amount of hardware that’ll litter the area when you start killing dudes Drake more than once ended up doing a pistol juggling act when a nade was flashing at his feet. I wouldn’t mind too much, but they’ve decided to make grenadiers absolutely fucking snipers with their chosen form of weapon, no doubt to allow the lob-back move to be used more often. It’s generally poor design.
I just want to talk about stealth very, very briefly. Uncharted 3 is not a stealth game, in fact the Uncharted series doesn’t do stealth. What it does do are take-downs, and those (as well as a tranq gun) featured heavily in the opening sections of Uncharted 2.
Take-downs are awesome, and an area in which the game shines, having numerous context sensitive ones. Grabbing a guy around a corner, jumping on his back, pulling someone over a table… Good stuff. They lend well to stealth, but are by no means restricted to or 100% intended for use purely in stealth.
Now, something that worked well in Uncharted 2 was the “misdirection” that I mentioned above. Even in a gun fight you could use take-downs to perform one hit kills on enemies.
Better still the game rewards you for performing stealth-kills by having enemies drop better weapons (as denoted by a little balaclava image). This means it’s an attractive option to take down at least the first guy without being spotted.
The problem I had with the third game was that the stealth moments were massively sketchy. You were suddenly dropped in the deep end and expected to be able to take out multiple enemies with little or no actual introduction to the mechanic. It also was very “Uncharted” compared to how the previous game handled stealth. In the third you were running around trying to shoot people with a silenced pistol or break their necks from behind. But in the second game? You were hanging off a ledge, pulling people into the abyss below. It worked better given the other features of the game.
I can also only think of maybe 2 or 3 stealth sections in the game, which seems like they really didn’t think the whole idea through.
What I find unforgiveable however is that due to the level structure, it was nearly impossible to effectively perform “in combat” stealth that I mention above. Misdirection didn’t work because there was only a chest-high wall to protect you. Given that misdirection was a genuine tactical move, that utilised many of the games mechanics I feel it’s a huge waste to not have included it in the third game.
I haven’t given the multiplayer a go yet, nor am I sure that I will. Uncharted to me is a single player experience, that’s how it started, that’s what most people buy it for, and no matter how polished the multiplayer is, it’s not at the core of the game.
Something I noticed in the single player however was that 2 items acted differently, namely the big-guns and the riot shield. Big guns previously restricted Drake’s movement, and he’d drop them if he needed to climb, and the same was true for riot shields. But in U3 they take up your rifle weapon slot, though you still drop them when and if you need to climb.
This to me seems like something implemented into the multiplayer to act as balance. Thankfully it’s not a massive issue in the main game, as there’s onyl one big-gun that appears 2 or 3 times, and probably the same number of riot shields, but it’s still giving me pause for concern.
Uncharted 3’s global hunt (for the plot)
I feel however that the biggest issue I have with the plot is that it’s more or less a recycle of the previous games. Instead of it being a Russian Warlord looking for some mcguffin that’ll give him and his army regenerative powers, it’s the British secret services looking for a mcguffin that’ll give them some form of psychic powers. Hell, they even have the final moments in an ancient city, just that one is surround by snow and the other by sand.
Now the first thing that springs to mind is, “How does this really make the Brits the bad guys?” There’s nothing that really occurs in the game that cements them as being anything other than individuals looking for a new weapon to add to their arsenal, potentially for the good of the world.
Everything they do to Drake and his pals is completely justified, seeing as they kill around 1000 of their goons for no adequately explored reason. It’s pretty much assumed “they want this, therefore they must be evil, therefore we have to take it upon ourselves to try and stop them.” Yeah, great, and you wonder why they’re trying to kill you?
The main issue I have with the plot however is that it’s more or less resolved around 50% of the way through the game, the rest is just getting there.The previous games had reveals all the way. Compared to the “how did Drake end up here?” of the second game it was incredibly lacking.
This is also around the time that they did away with puzzles, (as drake loses his journal) meaning the entire game revolves around shooting and climbing. It essentially loses any purpose other than being a dumb shooter, with less interesting climbing bits than the previous games.
There’s no climax, no punch, no point in the game where everything peaks and I felt the intellectual equivalent of having been blue-ballsed.
The story nearly exclusively focusses on Drake, with some of the characters from previous games making brief appearances. As it’s more of a solo-story the juicy bits of human interaction I loved so much from the previous games is mostly lacking.
Notable is Cutter, a thugish Londoner that’s actually incredibly loyal and highly intelligent, even besting Nate’s knowledge at several points. He’s funny and endearing and doesn’t come across as too insulting a stereotype, being a character in his own right and seems to be a reflection of Nate. Also, Marlowe and Talbot are delicious enemies, both invoking a kind of “evil 007 and Q” vibe. Nice to see an older woman in games as well.
Back to Drake, it doesn’t help that he’s a thoroughly boring individual to hear a story about. He’s a slightly douchey Indiana Jones, and that’s about as deep as his personality goes. Having him be the only character we really hear anything about isn’t going to be as good as the colourful individuals he meets and interacts with and their infinitely more interesting stories.
What’s worse is that several things are hinted at throughout the game, such as Drake maybe not actually being a descendant of Sir Francis Drake, but rather a kid from an orphanage that admired him and therefore decided to adopt his styles and name, but they’re never fully resolved.
I get the impression that he went through some character development at some point, being less inclined to get himself killed for fame and fortune, but I couldn’t really lay my finger on when and where or even how.
And it has to be said, the romance sub-plot couldn’t have been more lacking. I love his and Elena’s relationship, and think she brings a heavy grounding of normality to his unrealistic personality, but she’s only in the game for 5 minutes. It didn’t have the same punch as previous. They just wanted to create a “happy ending”.
The pacing of Uncharted 3 is terrible, and this goes beyond just the plot reveals. There’s numerous “big moments” in the game, escaping a flaming Chateau, escaping a capsizing boat, getting onto (and then explosively off of) a plane… It’s relentless. Believe me, each individual moment is beautifully done, but there’s no detante between the sections, not really.
The heat is always kept on, when you’re not in a big moment you’re fighting progressively more difficult fights, or facing overwhelming survival odds, the game never really takes a step back as there’s always something tense happening. And when you’re tense all the time, you start to become immune to it. The puzzle moments don’t give the “moment’s rest” they should, acting more as annoying and tedious interludes, breaking the flow rather than “breaking it up”. Plus (as I said above) they vanish for roughly one half of the game, only making a token return at the end.
Basically, watch this episode of Extra Credits: Pacing to get an idea as to what I’m on about.
Uncharted 3 is the single most difficult story to suspend your disbelief for in history. The bible? That’s practically a HD documentary of FACT compared to Uncharted 3.
In Uncharted 2, the snowy train bit features Drake stumbling around with a bullet-hole in him. He’s flukily survived a train wreck and manages to struggle (though athletically) out of its off-the-edge carcass, shoot a few Nazi’s (they might be Russian but who really cares at this point) before collapsing and being saved by a Tibetan dude. Quite a few coincidences, yes?
Uncharted 3 has you escape a sinking boat, and wash up coincidentally in the area you were in prior to getting on the boat. It has a plane blow up in mid-air, and have Drake conveniently sky dive (chuteless) to a big box of crap that happens to have a parachute on it. It then has him survive several days (it’s not specifically stated but I think it’s 3 given the day/night cycle) without water or shelter in the middle of a desert, where he coincidentally stumbles upon the city he was looking for. He then enters a giant fire-fight with a small army, still dehydrated, and thwarts them, before meeting up with someone that saves his ass.
Choice and Control
The main issue I have with the gameplay compared to the previous games is the complete lack of choice or control. Uncharted 1 and (especially) 2 gave the feeling of being an interactive, movie-like experience. You had a relative amount of choice in what you did for a linear game. Take the train example above. I could have just run and gunned, but instead I got to use my parkour skills.
This is lacking in the third, like there’s a moment on a boat, climbing up the side where conveniently placed ventilation shafts offer cover for shooting bits, and oh-so coincedentally as you reach said shaft all the goons come out to shoot you. It would have been nice if you had to rush to get to the shaft, as opposed to “climb climb, predictable shooting bit”.
The scope has been massively shifted as well, and this also comes down to control. Sure, you escape a burning building, capsizing boat etc, and each moment is beautiful to watch but they’re almost a completely linear experience with no real sense of urgency, as everything is scripted to happen when.
Compare that to the second game where you defeat a helicopter, and later a tank. You get around the battlefield, finding the weapons to do this, you deal the blows. If you don’t move then the helicopter will shoot you. On the boat you can stand in one spot for hours, but nothing will happen because all the tense moments are scripted. Less so when the enemy you’re fighting is an actual AI.
Uncharted 3 plays more like a movie with some interactive elements. The new melee fighting feels like it’s on rails, most of the puzzles can be solved by waiting for your companions to call out the answer, or they’re explicitly written in the journal, requiring no thought. All you need to do is make sure you read properly.
The “Big Moments” tended to be infinitely shorter lived than those in the previous games, with more impressive displays that had nothing to do with player input. I genuinely get the impression the devs had more fun with this game than I did.
I’d have to say I’m severely underwhelmed with Uncharted 3. It feels to me that Naughty Dog thought of several big and impressive displays they wanted to show off, but at the complete detriment to the overall game design and player’s impact. This is especially hammered home by the plot, which seems to be a sketchy series of suppositions and coincidences, whose only purpose is to link these displays together.
Most notable is a section where Nate is capture by a pirate, which served as a pointless aside from the main game that heavily disrupted the flow of the story.
It looks good in adverts because that’s what it does. Look good. Not much else here I’m afraid. You’d get the same experience as watching youtube clips of the game compared to actually playing it.
In fact, its capacity to look good for adverts so outweighs its enjoyability that I can’t help but feel that maybe that was the intention? And any games company that makes something purely so that it will sell rather than make something good so that it will sell deserve a kick in the balls.
If you’re a fan of the series then you might enjoy it if only for the spectacle, but if you were like me and only really enjoyed the series when the second one showed how good a game it could be, then save yourself the price tag and replay that.
For everyone else, your library doesn’t need this game. Maybe pick it up in a years time when it’s a fraction the cost, but there are better things you can spend your money on and spend your time with, such as the first two games.