Posted by John on November 3, 2011

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception review [PS3]

Posted November 3, 2011 by Martin Wharmby.

Living up to past greatness is never that easy. Can Naughty Dog outdo their previous magnum opus with UNCHARTED 3: DRAKE’S DECEPTION? Find out in our review…

If there’s one unsung hero of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, and perhaps all of the Uncharted series, it’s Nathan Drake’s chiropractor. No, it’s not Nolan North’s affable performances, Drake’s mentor Sully, the effortlessly impossible free-climbing or Naughty Dog’s incredible mastery of the PlayStation 3 hardware: it’s the doctor who keeps Drake’s spinal column from crumpling into a mulch of pulverised bone in-between his adventures.

Seriously, Drake  is a magnet for punishment. Before you’ve watched the final scenes of Uncharted 3 you’ll have seen him fall, trip, stumble, leap or be hurled from all manner of heights and land on things in what should be bloody, broken heaps, but he somehow just gets up and gets booking for yet more pain. Whatever the doc’s been doing, it’s turned him into an unstoppable force of nature with the sturdiest of vertebrae. Maybe that wry grin and his persistently cocky, upbeat manner are nothing but side-effects of severe nervous system damage and unchecked brain injuries. It would help explain why he’s so happy to dart headfirst into danger so much.

The Golden Hindsight

Once again, we rejoin Drake and Sully in the middle of another caper gone wrong. Arriving in London to try to strike a deal for a Francis Drake heirloom – this time the ring Nate wears on his necklace – with agents of Uncharted 3?s ‘Big Bad’, Katherine Marlowe. At the risk of spoilers, guess what: things go south pretty damn quickly. Before you’ve had enough time to admire Nate in his suit, you’re battering the flat caps and hoodies off some rather pissed off cockneys.

It would be remiss of us to delve too deep into the story and spoil the mystery that unravels across Uncharted 3’s 22 chapters. Needless to say, Drake’s quest is another rip-roaring globetrotter, taking him and his merry crew to France, Syria, the Yemen and eventually a long-thought lost city in the middle of the Rub’ al Khali desert known as Iram of the Pillars, or Ubar. Elena, Chloe and a couple of others come  along for the ride at various points, but this is very much Nathan and Sully’s tale.

Those clamouring for more backstory in Naughty Dog’s blockbuster series are well catered for here: Drake’s Deception delves into how the mentor and protégé came together, and sheds a deftly dealt light on their motivations. Playing as a young Nate isn’t exactly the most welcome change of pace, but it’s not overdone and lasts just long enough to be compelling. Naughty Dog has done an excellent job blending the narrative so that newcomers can pick up on past connections, while veteran ‘charters will be able to savour their added understanding.

The troubles for Uncharted 3 mostly revolve around its real primary antagonist, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Two years ago, Naughty Dog released one of the finest action adventure games of the modern era, let alone this console generation. Uncharted 2 hit that rare sweet spot, pushing the technical boundaries of its console to stunning effect, blowing the disappointing original out of the water and hitting us with a slick, perfectly paced mix of exploration, gunplay and genuinely enthralling storytelling. Reaching the same lofty heights again was always going to be a tough ask, but topping it?

Charted territory

The core of the Uncharted experience remains largely unchanged, albeit with a few new twists to add a little complexity to the action. Melee combat has been expanded, but is little more than button-mashing the attack button, with the odd telegraphed counter or hammering the Circle button to escape a chokehold. After a few fights, it’s clear brawls a little more satisfying, but all too often you’ll find yourself outflanked during a tense gunsfight and pulled out into the open by someone wanting to give Nate a good slap, and there’s no clean way to quickly evade, stay low and avoid the bullets shredding you to pieces as you try to get down behind a chest-high wall.

Drake himself still handles with his traditional slick, slack movements, more prone to stumbling over physics objects peppering rooftops and alleys as the Assassin’s Creed-style city chase sequences take full advantage of his nimble handling and superbly designed pathways. You never quite feel in complete control of Drake’s movement during these sequences, as it’s a rather deliberate loss of fidelity after spending so much time clambering over and across the environment with pinpoint, fingertip-shredding accuracy and ease.

The gunplay itself retains Uncharted’s proclivity for a surprisingly open arsenal and villains who soak up bullets and only react when one finally whisks them off the mortal coil. Their lead absorption skills leave some of the more stressful action sequences feeling devoid of feedback between the player and their impact on Marlowe’s hired guns. Considering just how beautiful and convincing the world and characters who inhabit it are, seeing a henchman brush off a couple of bullets to the face without even a wince is more than a little jarring.

Far more unfortunate are the sudden, inexplicable difficulty spikes that will break up your rollicking adventure. Certain sequences pile on the pressure, with enemies suddenly pounding your cover with bullets, as heavies descend on you and grenades land right next to Drake and his trademark half-tucked shirt. Although checkpoints are generous, you’ll often find yourself way out of position after respawn and occasionally with different weapons. Stealth is still more awkward-looking than it should be, with Drake refusing to crouch or give you any kind of indication he’s in range to perform a takedown.

Drake’s delight

As was the key to Uncharted 2?s success, it’s Naughty Dog’s ability to play with spectacle that makes the series so captivating. Drake’s ability to be in the wrong place at the right time leads to some truly impressive moments, from scrambling around the Poseidon-esque glass ballroom of a capsized, sinking ocean liner, to scrabbling across supplies falling out a cargo plane, before it’s engulfed in flames and crashes into the Empty Quarter.

Uncharted 3 obviously cribs heavily from the playbook of its predecessor, but it makes plenty of deviations from the script telling its own tale. As ever, Amy Hennig’s script is wry, sharp and her dialogue a perfect blend of humour and dramatic, and every member of the cast puts on a motion capture and voice acting masterclass. Naughty Dog’s capturing techniques might be miles behind L.A. Noire’s facial-tracking tech when it comes to real life accuracy, but Uncharted 3?s characters convey more emotion and personality than Team Bondi could ever muster.

Naughty Dog even manages to take us out of conflict for a few minutes later on, with Drake alone in the Rub’ al Khali, forced to just keep moving amongst the sea of sand. It’s a beautiful, stark contrast against the explosive, chaotic action the series is famed for. It’s almost the polar opposite of the chaotic and expansive multiplayer, which packs in a handful of extra ‘battle scenes’ before the fights proper. Co-op’s been expanded too, with a short multiplayer campaign and a fairly typical array of modes to dig into.

Many would still argue that Uncharted’s multiplayer is still largely superfluous, but Naughty Dog’s tight controls and the solid mechanics make it a surprisingly enjoyable experience. With an expansive array of customisation options, they’ve gone a long way to justify Sony’s decision to force an Online Pass system. Few third-person multiplayer shooters are as bright or acrobatic as Uncharted, or as much fun in co-op.

Among sequels

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception doesn’t quite reach those same high notes Uncharted 2 hit. It tries so hard, it comes damn close in places and it’s clear that Naughty Dog have poured every fluid ounce of their passion and talent into Nathan Drake’s third outing, but its puzzles aren’t quite as satisfying, its difficulty spikes a little too often, and it has plenty of issues maintaining a balanced pace throughout its adventure. That’s not to say that Drake’s Deception is anything short of masterful when it comes to spectacle, it just doesn’t carry the same weight or have the same impact Among Thieves had. It’s by no means a humdrum follow-up, but it doesn’t come together quite as poetically.

The action is tightly put together and the unravelling mystery is a joy to behold, even if one of the final reveals bears more than a passing resemblance to a similar event in its predecessor and the final moments fall a little flatter than you might expect. For all its issues, Uncharted 3 is one of 2011?s better games, in a year with an exceptionally large quotient of great games. The high bar for the genre and the series is still Among Thieves, but Drake’s Deception comes in close behind, and that’s still a bloody good achievement for any developer.

It might not be quite up to the same high standard as Uncharted 2, but Uncharted 3 is a rip-roaring action adventure and a stunning blockbuster. Healthy multiplayer options give it some serious long-term bite, too.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, from Naughty Dog and Sony, is out now for PS3.

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