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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (9.4/10)

I have a sneaking suspicion that this fall may well represent some sort of nexus in the space-time continuum. It seems like every other game that has come out serves as the end of a major trilogy (or at least the third game in a major series). But despite the high profile shooters (Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3) taking most of the spotlight, easily the "finale" I've been most looking forward to is Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. Stellar graphics, gripping set pieces, challenging puzzles, and the best voice acting in the business are all hallmarks of the series. But does Uncharted's previous pedigree set the bar too high for what could be the last installment in a series that has become iconic in its own right?

I know not everyone will agree with this, but for me the Uncharted franchise has set a new standard in video game storytelling. The phrase "interactive movie" has been used more than once to describe these games, and that holds true for the third installment. I don't necessarily mean the story itself (everyone should know by now that Uncharted is basically a cross between Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider-it's the video game equivalent of a summer popcorn movie), but rather in the way all the pieces come together. The cut scenes and voice acting are still top notch, but it's the way they are woven so seamlessly with the standard cover-based shooting, puzzle, and platforming sections that really bring the whole package together. It's one of those instances where the overall product is greater than the sum of its parts.

This time out Nate and Sully are searching for a city long lost to legend: Ubar, the mythical "Atlantis of the Sands." Naturally, it turns out that the ring Drake wears around his neck, supposedly the very ring of Sir Francis Drake himself, is the key that will lead them there. This is essentially bringing the story full circle, tying together the threads from the previous titles, and dramatically expanding the backstory and relationships of the main players.

There is even a brilliant section early on where you walk in the shoes of a young Nathan Drake when he first meets his mentor. It's ripped almost unabashedly from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (something a surprising number of reviewers have commented on), but that doesn't make this peek into their past any less enjoyable as it shows how their connection and partnership was forged. The expected twist towards the end is eye rolling, but still enjoyable... and without giving away any spoilers, there are some awesome "trippy" scenes that are really well done.

However, the setup of the narrative is beginning to feel stale at best and predictable at worst. They all follow the same basic pattern: opening scene, discovery, conflict, Elena shows up, and then the major twist at the end. Pepper in some fun, yet completely unbelievable and unrealistic set pieces, along with some relatively clever puzzles to slow down the gameplay at regular intervals and you could almost set your watch to it.

After two reviews, I find I'm running out of random adjectives to describe the graphical prowess of these games. Needless to say, it is once again superb. From the particle physics of the sand in the desert (even better than the snow in Uncharted 2 if you ask me) to the amazing lighting effects, excellent animations (both in-game and during cut scenes) and phenomenally detailed environments, there are very few titles that can compare to this series. The fact that the game runs smoothly with virtually no pop-in or lag is the icing on this very pretty cake. Uncharted 3 is simply gorgeous; there is really nothing else to say!

I'm also running out of superlatives when it comes to the cast and acting. It seems like we can't walk five paces these days without tripping over a stack of games that have Nolan North as a principle actor, but frankly I'm happy the industry has latched on to someone as talented as him. He is Nathan Drake, and his sense of comic timing is fantastic. I don't think it would work nearly as well if not for the facial animations and cinematography, but even during regular gameplay his random lines made me smile. The rest of the cast returns to their roles and also do an exemplary job. Along with some new characters, including the creepy new villainess Katherine Marlowe (brilliantly voiced by Rosalind Ayres), I honestly can't think of a series that has better voice-work.

In fact, probably the biggest knock against Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is the fact that we've seen it all before. The gunplay hasn't changed much (and neither has the fact that Nate has a bad habit of staying stuck to cover, one of the only complaints I've had about this series). The platforming, while generally excellent, still suffers from occasional moments of "Where am I supposed to jump now?" The puzzles Nate needs to solve using his handy notebook are still prevalent, but not nearly as common as they were in the previous games.

Also, they have added a lot of residual animations to Drake when he moves... like reaching out and putting his hand on the wall to steady himself for example. While this is a nice touch, it feels a little weird as you wonder if it's you, the player, that is actually doing these things. And while most of the time it looks perfectly natural, at others it doesn't look nearly as smooth. I think it's one of those unfortunate instances where you'll only notice it when it's not working.

Actually, there is one issue with Uncharted 3 that really stands out for me: there are some fairly major difficulty spikes that are just downright frustrating. Wave after wave of increasingly difficult foes will be thrown at you... repeatedly. The previous installments also did this, albeit only towards the end. With the third game, it seems like they've upped the ante early on, and then it only gets more intense as you go. This wouldn't be such an issue if not for the fact that dying will sometimes set you surprisingly far back; the checkpoints seem to be broken.

What's worse is that the game also has a bad habit of respawning you knee deep in the sh*t. It gets to the point that you're memorizing where the bad guys will show up, just so you can mow them down in order before they have time to flank you. Getting to what you think must be the end of a section only to killed by the nineteenth hockey-pad wearing, shotgun totting jackass you've encountered (this round) and then being respawned under the watchful eye of multiple snipers and guys with machine guns leads to some pretty choice words being thrown at the TV... along with the occasional controller.

However, none of these issues really detract from what is an awesome game. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is a fitting conclusion (or is it? bum bum BUM!) to Naughty Dog's brilliant franchise. I don't think Drake's Deception is as good as Among Thieves, but that might be solely down to the fact that the formula might be getting a little stale. The difficulty spikes can make some sections more frustrating than fun, and Drake would have died something like a bazillion times in real life at last count as he pulls off his incomparable feats or dare-devilry. Still, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is absolutely worth your time (I didn't even mention the multiplayer, which is apparently supposed to be quite fun). There are few games (let alone series) that are as beautiful, engaging, immersive, well paced, and fun as these are. If this is Nate's last hurrah, I'm sorry to see him and his friends go... but I honestly hope Drake and company return for more adventures.


Score = 9.4 / 10

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