Expanded Content #2: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception [Review]

  • Platform: PS3
  • Published by:  Sony Computer Entertainment
  • Developed by: Naughty Dog
  • Genre: Action-Adventure/Platform/Third-Person Shooter
  • ESRB Rating: T for Teen
  • Number of Players: 1
  • Release Date: United States: November 1, 2011

A “classic” game need not be perfect. Few ever are.

Most need only do everything well that any game should consistently do well by the time it hits store shelves, virtual consoles or Steam, but do those things so well as to become a title wherein any publisher or developer can point to any aspect and say “This is clearly what we want.”

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception exemplifies balanced gaming that performs everything so nearly perfectly, one almost couldn’t ask anything more.

That “almost” is precisely what makes that remarkable: it’s flawed. Some things can become downright aggravating. Be that as it may, more than one of those very flaws actually makes so much sense when placed in context of the game as a whole and how it sets up and presents its characters, story and experience that you ultimately won’t have it any other way but perfect thanks to its imperfection.

Watch. You’ll realize, as I did, that changing some “flaws” would actually taint an otherwise highly memorable experience.

Equally – if not more – importantly, everything else that makes the game such a recommended must-play overshadows anything that could be considered “wrong” so completely, that ultimately, one almost feels bad holding nitpicking trifles with the aiming mechanics, a dodgy camera that sometimes begets cheap death and understandable (but silly and sometimes aggravating) rag-doll physics.

For as fantastic as any game’s presentation can be, a bad story presented well will always simply be very pretty crap – a polished turd.

This is an excellent, if idiot-proof simple, premise that’s presented strikingly.

One who has never played the previous two Uncharted installments may count him or herself lucky, if still somewhat deprived: while certainly better if played following the first two games, this stands alone well enough that experience is hardly necessary. It’s among the most obvious parallels with the first three Indiana Jones films: the two sequels stand alone every trace as well as the first without leaving the audience/players scratching noggins over oblique or obscure continuity references. It’s a standard race-to-the-treasure tale, albeit one that pays off hero treasure-hunter Nathan Drake’s signature heirloom ring – once property of his intrepid ancestor, Sir Francis Drake – that’s hung around his neck since the series’ inception. In itself, that’s a nice way to round out a PS3 signature franchise’s opening trilogy: lend an item that’s been impactful since the saga’s beginning even more significance – this time, significance that has Drake casting friends’ lives into the balance.

The story opens with Drake and his ever-present mentor/friend/father-figure Victor Sullivan having crossed one Katherine Marlowe’s path, as well as that left by her cunning associate, Talbot, who seems Drake’s physical, tactical and strategic equal at every turn throughout the story. It’s a simple predicament, really: Drake has his ring; Marlowe and Talbot have the translation wheel that activates by placing the Drake Family ring in the center and reveals the first steps on the road to the lost city Iram Of The Pillars, beneath Syria’s Rub’ al Khali desert.

And within Iram lies something of such great value, that Sir Francis sought it in the name of Queen Elizabeth I of England – but apparently so troubling, that he went to extraordinary lengths covering up truths about his journey and obscuring the city’s location.

Once more, to those who have not yet entered the Uncharted franchise: if you’ve enjoyed any or all of the Indiana Jones saga, the Goldie Hawn-Michael Douglas cult favorite Romancing The Stone, or even one of Clive Cussler’s adventure novels featuring Dirk Pitt such as Inca Gold, there is virtually no way you won’t eat up Uncharted 3 with a spoon.

It’s interesting, though: it’s hardly a stretch saying that Uncharted 3 actually boasts far, far better actual character development than any of the above, save perhaps Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade. That’s the greatest beauty of the story: we learn very, very early – amid the perfunctory tutorial, as a matter of fact – that seeking Iram first brought a very young Drake from the streets of Cartagena, Colombia into Sully’s care and tutelage, when Young Nathan Drake first ventured to take his ancestor’s property . . . and all before Katherine Marlowe’s very eyes.

Finally setting forth upon a road Drake first stepped onto 20 years earlier sometimes sends Drake spiraling carelessly toward becoming but an Ahab closing in upon his white whale. It becomes apparent very early to everyone except Drake – including Sully – that this greatest journey that began two decades ago is hurtling the people Drake loves onto a collision course with people appropriately more ruthless and more deadly than any whose paths they’ve ever crossed.

To all’s disturbance, Drake either doesn’t believe it’s anything he’s never faced before, or he knows but is too blinded by this life-long quest being so near completion for him to care enough to pause and think things through. He truly almost becomes his own deadliest foe sometimes.

There’s an entire specific chapter that should deservedly go down as maybe the greatest overall depiction in actor Nolan North’s three portrayals of Drake. It was one thing when several entries of the God Of War trilogy outside the PSP entries – which, combining all three, hold an enduring throne atop my All-Time Favorite Games list – depict a slouching, beaten-down Kratos weakened to near-death. It’s another entirely when North, who has also been the motion-capture model and physical inspiration for Drake’s general appearance, not only physically brings Drake gradually succumbing to the Rub’ al Khali’s relentless heat physically to life with his motion-capture performance (and please believe, it is mesmerizing to witness on a level with Tom Hanks in Cast Away), but also finds a place of both physical and mental exhaustion with convincing ambient mumbling as the player guides an aimlessly meandering Drake over and around t0-individual-grain-of-sand immaculately rendered sand dunes.

In a sense, North almost does the licensed property a disservice. It’s not secret that Mark Wahlberg has long sought to bring Uncharted to multiplexes everywhere. It goes without saying that includes Wahlberg portraying Drake.

Wahlberg is inadequate enough on his own, and has the stink of Max Payne and The Happening all over him already. That already poisons any optimism toward Marky Mark getting all Funky Bunch playing Drake. Before playing this, I was actually convinced that Nathan Fillion would far more likely do Drake justice. Now? Neither. It must be North. He has made Nathan Drake an icon of this era in gaming with his performance the way David Hayter’s performances as Solid Snake shaped the visage and voice of that particular PlayStation icon before North shaped his own legacy.

But if that awful, awful thing others call the A Nightmare On Elm Street remake proved anything conclusively, it’s that any lead will only ever be as good as his script. And this is a script that takes one right of remembering that one is in fact playing a game. There is nigh constant ambient conversation among characters that helps the player lose him or herself within the story. That constant presence of dialogue makes this the truly unique experience of being a guided tour throughout an adventure film, but one in which the player’s pulse races right alongside the heroes’ with every bullet that flies past an earlobe and every near-miss escape from catastrophic falls, sinking ships and a burning chateau. It lets one really experience the characters.

What’s equally seamless is the presentation and how it displays the game-play’s perfected balance. There’s a terrific flow between cut-scenes and playable action that makes switches between the two unpredictable. There are times Drake will be seemingly guided toward what simply must be his intended destination, only for the action to gleefully poke holes in Nathan’s boat by having enemies detonate a bridge or a boat and seemingly cut him off. It’s sometimes an aggravating tease, until you think about it and go “OK . . . you got me. Good one.” Besides, moments like that inevitably give way to some form or another of Drake’s improvised platforming to make another way.

And the platforming is really too superb for words – but allow me to try.

Complaints have been made that, as opposed to the game’s mechanic of directing Drake’s every leap a button-press at a time, the game would be better served employing a less micro-managed, hold-the-button-and-run free-run/platforming mechanic like the kind that the Arkham games or the Assassin’s Creed series employs.

And I tell you now that doing so would be doing what we know Drake is a disservice.

Drake is not a vigilante who has trained himself to a razor-sharp physical peak. Nor is he a stealthy assassin versed in the art of stealth. He’s an orphan pick-pocket from the Cartagena streets with some athleticism, but hardly such specialized combat training. He’s entirely self-taught. The systems that maneuver Altair/Ezio or Batman befits the ease and grace with which the two are expected to be able to move. There’s a parallel there. For Drake to pull off the same stunts should require more effort on the player’s part, because it would require significantly more on Drake’s part!

Besides, the effort demanded only makes the completion that much more satisfying.

That isn’t to call the mechanics “flawless” by any stretch. As a matter of fact, the flighty camera is bad. Very bad.

Kingdom Hearts bad. The first game.

When trying to platform swiftly upwards, it will sometimes inadvertently shift into a first-person view that can throw perspective during critical jumps and result in frustrating cheap deaths. Worse, I had it sometimes do the same thing during heated, outnumbered firefights, to a similar end. For such a platforming-intensive game, that should be among the most crucial elements Naughty Dog should address with the next game.

That, and explaining this: why is it that Drake can successfully climb his way up a sheer castle wall, but can’t hop over a chain-link fence? I realize this is diving into “What do you mean, a Ninja Turtle can’t swim?!” territory, but that keeps eating at me.

The other “flaw” with Drake’s physics eventually isn’t seen so much as a “flaw” at all. As is a trademark of the realism Naughty Dog developers prize, Drake’s collision physics reflect . . . . well, an actual collision. When he’s running, striking a wall corner or some object in his path sometimes sends Drake flailing like a most dashing Cosmo Kramer. It’s appreciable realism, even if it becomes aggravating getting him back under control to keep fleeing during chase sequences. But during some platforming sections it gets a bit excessive: trying to test what Drake can and cannot climb up reveals that when he can’t climb up something, he kicks off a surface and goes flying somewhat erratically and stumbling backwards. That’s well and good upon solid ground, but it killed me multiple times with falls off ledges.

But even then, it’s a forgivable, unintended consequence of Naughty Dog trying to achieve more by setting limits upon what Drake can and cannot do. Those things, for as aggravating as they are, are a little like the original Resident Evil title’s horrid voice acting: it just wouldn’t be the same without Barry Burton sounding mildly retarded, and Drake wouldn’t be Drake if Naughty Dog had him swan-diving off church roofs and safely into haystacks below.

And so it goes also with the recurring fussing from fans about the aiming functionality with the guns. Folks, if you’ve never fired a gun before, listen to the voice of experience: they recoil. Sights don’t stay put after every single trigger-pull. That recoil would be continuous with an automatic weapon. Drake is not wearing heavy body armor that absorbs that recoil. Therefore, the recoil will cause the sights to shift. It’s realistic, made more so by the fact that Drake is not a soldier, assassin or mercenary by trade. His aim won’t be quite as sharp as the trained killers he’s confronting.

But even then, it’s not an impossible functionality. My first time through the game, I earned trophies for completing over 100 head-shots – probably closer to 150-200 by the game’s end – and with at least three weapons, racked up 30-plus kills. Don’t bitch, and deal with it. Naughty Dog went above and beyond by putting together a patch that will address this, but they didn’t need to, because the hit detection itself is no more or less inconsistent than in any other game.

It’s a small detail, but speaking of the gun-play, kudos for providing some firefights with unique environmental challenges posed, such as aiming through sandstorms by zeroing in on flashlight or laser-scope beams. It’s a unique approach that not every shooter employs, but more should just to shake up the formula.

There are few pure firefights in the game, honestly, compared with how much combat there is overall. Actually, it’s far more effective mixing up the Arkham Asylum/Arkham City-like melee combat system with shooting, because enemies here have learned to function as squads to flank and close in on Drake and company if one hunkers down too long behind cover. It gives a sense of urgency to actually staying on the move and not letting battles drag out too long. One is actually far better off firing away and swapping out weapons as enemies drop them after kills or knock-outs, just to keep the fight moving along.

The action overall hardly stops. Platforming often gives way seamless to combat, which then gives way to more platforming, which sometimes leads to firing away while platforming. But it’s all balanced so well, that one aspect never overwhelms how present the others are to the point that one gets sick or bored of doing any one particular thing. Don’t like the weather? Give it five minutes – or just until the end of this chapter.

This is also easily among the most visually pleasing games you may ever play. Director Amy Hennig touted during this past summer’s E3 presentation the great pains designers went through crafting carefully detailed water and sand environments in particular – and it was worth every mile, Naughty Dog. The sinking-ship section in particular – that would be the one used for the demo – is among the most thrilling, enjoyable game-play sections of any game I’ve ever completed. If any two sections can match it, they’re in the very same game: a firefight through a burning French chateau, and a sprinting escape from a crumbling Iram.

The game does fall prey to some gaming cliches. It’s predictable that whatever ungodly hole Drake must travel down, he and Sully and Co. will inevitably be ambushed by Marlowe’s men after being followed – and at least once, someone will ask how they were followed. I did chuckle when, near the end of the game, Drake blurts out “I am really getting sick of these assholes!” as if even he thinks it’s getting a bit stock. And as said before, it’s conspicuous how some realistically climbable surfaces can’t be ascended.

But again, when everything else is this great, this balanced and this thrilling, it’s easily ignored. I won’t comment upon the online multi-player modes because I feel I said all that needed saying when I reviewed the Beta, and every single positive thing that I said still stands. This isn’t gaming perfection. It has its frustrating moments. But of all the games I’ve played, not many have been this satisfying.



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