All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night, in the dusty recesses of their mind, wake in the day to find that it was vanity.
But the dreamers of the day, are dangerous men, for they may act out their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.
This. I did.
T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935)
Two years ago, Naughtydog’s Uncharted 2 Among Thieves set a new golden standard for the Triple A Market, wowing critics and fans alike with its griping story, enthralling characters, phenomenal writing, and the absolute best production values in the business. It would go on to win a total of 32 Game of the Year Awards. As a super fan of Naughtydog since the hay days of the PS1, I cannot tell you how enthused I was that the company had received the recognition and praise it worked 14 years and 10 games to achieve. So of course, once the festivities of the 2009 award ceremonies died down, Naughtydog realized they had their work seriously cut out for them. So off they went to do everything in their power to make their third installment, Uncharted 3 Drake’s Deception, live up to every last bit of hype they received.
Drake’s Deception begins with Nathan Drake exploring the mysteries behind his latent ancestor, Sir Francis Drake, and his questionably long six month expedition across the East Indies. As the title suggests, Sir Francis deceived history in an attempt to hide his true findings in those six months: a voyage that would ultimately lead to a “Land of immeasurable wealth, destroyed by God for its arrogance.” Not one to let grass grow under his feet, our hero Nate sets out on a voyage to discover clues to this land, the Atlantis of the Sands, located somewhere in the heart of the Rub’ al Khali desert. Aided by his trusted mentor and father figure Victor Sullivan (Sully), Drake follows clues that take him from the back alleys of London, to the ruins of France and Serbia, and even the city of Yehmen, all the while competing against Katherine Marlowe, leader of a highly secret society that’s been hell-bent on discovering the secrets of Ubar for decades and exploiting it for their own pursuit of power and influence.
Before I go any further, I would like to say how much I wish I could sit here and simply review the game by it’s own merits: a masterfully crafted action adventure romp that blends gunplay, melee combat, puzzles, and platforming like a charm, all the while having a complex story with fun characters to go with it. I understand that some fans have been frustrated how so many reviews insist on comparing it to Uncharted 2, and how unfair that may seem. I get that, but at the same time, that’s just the standard this series has set for itself. Asking us not to compare this to Uncharted 2 would be like asking movie critics not to compare Chris Nolan’s 3rd up-coming Batman movie to The Dark Knight. Ain’t gonna happen.
What this means is that at least 90% of Uncharted 3’s biggest highlights are things that I already knew the game would have a year before I bought it midnight of its opening day. Voice Acting and Mo-cap work: No competition. Story: Epic in scale. Writing: Laugh out loud funny. Set pieces: Huge. Graphics: Honest to god, the best looking game I have ever seen, with cut scenes and gameplay flowing seamlessly with no load times in between.
I’d be lying if I said that Uncharted 3 didn’t add anything new from its previous installments. In fact, the very first chapter of the game is a bar room brawl, and it is specifically crafted to introduce the game’s revamped melee system, which has evolved in ways to make each encounter a surprise by having Drake interact with his surroundings mid fight and use any object he can find at his disposal. Another small but welcomed technique to weapon combat is the ability to intercept grenades thrown at you and rebound them before they explode.
For roughly the first third of the game, there is a much more significant emphasis on puzzles, which were actually very minimal and solved simply by looking in your journal in Uncharted 2. This time, they are a tad more clever than that, and while your journal will give you hints, they won’t just hand you the answer.
Character wise, while there are a few new faces, both good and bad, this is definitely a journey for our long-time heroes. Drake and Sully’s coveted bromance takes center stage with Elena filling in a very solid B-Plot. These three take up the bulk of the emotional depth in this game. Chloe, who was really big in Uncharted 2, shows up for a bit of fan service, but besides showing off that she no longer has that awkward green gleam in her eyes, she is more or less there to be the linchpin that connects Drake and co. to the late yet much appreciated addition to the cast, her [new] boyfriend, Charlie Cutter.
The one thing about this series that I’m no longer able to overlook is how often I repeatedly run into the same ten enemy models. Course, this isn’t different from any other game out there (hell, there is probably more enemy models in this game than half a dozen other shooters out there), but because of the amount of detail and life Uncharted breaths into their main and supporting cast, it makes the clone army I’m fighting look all the more uncanny. One case in particular involves this massive brute guy that I engage in Hand-to-Hand like five times within the course of the game. And it’s literally the same model every time, (with the exception of once when he’s wearing a turban). I suspended my disbelief by convincing myself that he was the exact same guy every time, and he just keeps coming back for rematches. I named him Tiny.
Little things like that, or the very few gaming glitches like when I roll with the circle button when I want to take cover, are pretty petty in the long run, are not really the problem here. What’s really wrong is that the heart that propels this game beyond greatness -as much as it pains me to use this cliché- is two years in the past. There are some truly epic action set pieces in this game: an escape from a burning building, jumping a plane, blowing up said plane, and a horseback ride chase after a convoy. While I’m not trying to say they are carbon copies of what happened in Among Thieves, they still feel like spiritual throwbacks to many of the things we did back then. Ironically enough, the one sequence of Drake’s Deception that actually does feel completely unique to anything we did before –that being the whole shipyard/battle on the waning cruse ship/escape the sinking ship quickly filling with water sequence- is the one part of the game that feels the most detached from the rest of the plot, meaning that this whole sequence could have been easily cut from the campaign, and we the players would have been none the wiser.
And therein leads me to the plot. Drake’s Deception begins with a lot of promise, setting itself up to be the biggest most highest stake plot of the series. Drakes ring is the key that leads to the city of Ubar. We see how Nate out-stole the ring against Marlowe’s society as a child, and in the process left both himself and her in a stalemate that has lasted twenty years. We also get to see how Sully jumped Marlowe’s ship in order to stick his neck out for a young Nathan, betting all his cards on this raw talented kid who would grow up to be not only his greatest disciple, but his best friend. Not only that, there is a darker sense of omission in this adventure. All the clues lead to the conclusion that Sir Francis did not want this secret of this city to be let out, and how there is probably a very good reason why he lied about what he saw. Elena tries so hard to point this out to Nate, yet his own need for the truth and lust for adventure won’t allow him to let go. To top it all off, we get to see Nate in his most vulnerable state ever, as his adversaries this time bring up the one thing that can really strike fear into Drake’s heart.
These are all epic, out there, big idea stuff, and they are exactly what we wanted to see in a third [possibly final] installment to Uncharted (PSVita spinoff not whistanding).
If only they were handled properly.
To begin, the villains, while being inherently and conceptually more interesting than the foes of the past two games, get very little time to fully develop and express themselves. The secret society Kate is a part of turns out to be centuries old, dating all the way back to the Elizabethan era. It all began as a covert group of spies working under the Queen, and of which one of their highest ranking officers was in fact sir-named “Marlow.” So there could be a really neat parallel between both Nate and Kate following the shadows of their supposed ancestors, the problem is that all that stuff I just mentioned never actually plays out in the game. I had to look it up.
Second is Kate’s lieutenant Talbot. From the get go, he is set up to be this badass that can be more than a match for Drake. He’s strong, resourceful, he’s quick and clever, and does a damn good job at one-upping our protagonist at every corner. Yet I can’t tell you for the life of me what his motive is in all this. For perspective, let’s compare him to the side villains of the last two games. Navarro from Drake’s Fortune started off seeming like any other hired gun, yet all along was a very crafty guy bidding his time. He waited for the absolute perfect opportune moment to betray Roman, pop a cap in his head, and make off with El Dorado all to himself.
“I am the only person on this Island who knows what the hell he is doing.”
Flynn from Among Thieves, however, was a complete moron only in it for the perks, and found himself stuck working under Lezarevic out of fear rather than any loyalty.
“Beats working against him, love.”
Then you have Talbot, who is not only very crafty and intelligent, but is still deathly loyal to Marlow, and we never find out why. Time and time again he shows that he would be perfectly capable of finding the city of Ubar all on his own. Where does Talbot’s loyalty to Kate come from? Is there a deeper connection between the two? Does he just have a strong sense of honor? I want to know these things. Also, what’s up with that special toxin of his that allows him to drug people and manipulate them? Where the hell did he get that kind of weapon, and why is it so similar to another toxin that’s found in Ubar?
Big Spoilers from this point onward. To avoid them, skip ahead to the next highlighted area…
The final two chapters of the game, when Nate and Sully finally reach Ubar/Iram of the Pillars/Atlantis of the Sands/Land that has WAY TOO MANY NAMES, that part in particular feels especially rushed. Unlike the Shambala section at the end of Among Thieves, I didn’t really feel like I got the chance to explore this land to its potential. Throughout the game, we get hints that Drake’s one big fear is this foreboding sense of isolation that plagued him as a child before he met Sully. Hypocritically, he abandons his attachment to Elena because his obsession with Francis Drake and this ring comes from his need for a sense of belonging and purpose in the world, when in reality, he may not really be his ancestor at all (yet another interpretation of where the Deception in the title comes from).
All these things are brought up toward the final moments of Drake’s Deception. There is a point when we are lead to believe that Sully is killed by Talbot and Drake’s fear of isolation is realized. The following gameplay really hits that aforementioned fear home and there is a real sense of anguish and distress… but then it disappointingly fizzles out after only 10-20 minutes as Sully abruptly shows back up in the picture and we find out that it was a fear inducing toxin in the spring water that caused Drake to temporarily hallucinate. Why didn’t they keep going with that? Those fire demons that Drake saw in that state were freaking awesome, and I thought a fire demon version of Talbot would show up and we’d have this big epic boss fight. Why did they have to end that development so abruptly? There eventually is a real final confrontation with Talbot, and while it is indeed visually satisfying, it just doesn’t live up to anywhere my imagination was taking me fifteen minutes prior.
To the game’s credit, I did appreciate the one element in the end where Drake does finally overcome this incessant need to follow in his supposed ancestor’s footsteps and is able to let the ring go, and how he finally realizes what a strong companionship he has in Elena.
End of Spoilers.
If this is starting to sound like a “Bad Games That Should Have Been Great” kind of review, please keep note that wasn’t my intention, and it most certainly isn’t the case. It’s more like a “Great Game That Should Have Been Legendary,” kind of deal. Naughtydog overshot themselves almost too far this time. One very reasonable solution is that the game should have been given a longer development cycle (it certainly deserved it.) Not only would it have allowed Naughtydog to take their time and really nail the strongest aspects of this game, it would have given us the fans more time to let go of our predisposed feelings for Uncharted 2, which was still way too fresh in our minds. If given another year, we’d be less anticipating something that would be the successor of Uncharted 2, and simply be more excited to see another Uncharted game entirely. I’m not quite sure if whether it was Sony pushing to get the game out in just under two years, or Naughtydog simply being way too ambitious for their own good, either way, the early release may not have been the best decision.
In retrospective, this is not much different from the results of the Naughtydog’s two previous trilogies. (Crash Bandicoot on the PS1 and Jak on the PS2.) In all three series, the first installment establishes a world and shows what the technology of the console is capable of. The second installment takes that world and the tech that surrounds it to its utmost potential and reinvigorates the entire genre of that generation. And the third installment is a technological marvel that adds maybe a few cool things to the already successful formula, but lacks a bit in the overall awe factor that preceded it.
So, to bring this review back to the metaphor I established at the beginning, no, Naughtydog did not manage to cross the desert that was this game’s hype. If given more time to prepare, they may have had a chance. As it was, they jumped in far too anxiously and got way more sand than they bargained for. But you know what? They still got pretty damn far, even if they didn’t make it all the way. And the best part is they managed to survive this ordeal, and live to make another game. Like Jak 4. Please please please make Jak 4.
Also, if anyone tells you Uncharted 3 Drake’s Deception is a rip-off of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, tell them to shut up. Just because both stories have flashbacks to the hero’s childhood in his midteens, and there’s a fight on a rocking boat with crazy huge tides, and they find a clue inside a crusader’s coffin, and they escape a burning building, and they get tied up, and there’s a foreign friend that gives them horses so they can chase after a convoy to rescue a certain character who then goes on to die anyway but not really and then they all run for their lives out of a collapsing temple as the foreign friend shows up with the horses that they ride off on during the end of the adventure DOES NOT MAKE THEM EXACTLY THE SAME. Does The Last Crusade have online co-op where you and your friends fight off clowns? I think not.
[Sigh.] That was fun. But seriously, play this game.