Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
Drake's Deception is the third installment of the popular third person adventure series, Uncharted. Part three sticks with the formula that made the first two a success, while adding and tweaking a few gameplay mechanics to both single and multiplayer. The end result is another great game overall, but also one that disappoints in several ways.
One of biggest changes to the gameplay that UC3 brings is in melee combat. Within minutes starting the story mode, Drake and Sully get into the fist fight of their lives. As the opening cutscenes show, Drake is apparently going to sell his ring, the one he has worn around his neck since we first met him in 2007, to some shady business types. The deal goes sour, and violence ensues as Sully and Drake fist fight their way out of a London pub.
So, players now have a more robust melee fighting system, including the ability to take on multiple foes at once. The face buttons are used to attack, dodge, and push opponents. Contextual prompts appear for timely dodges and escape moves, and failing to execute these quick time events (QTE) results in sustained damage. Drake automatically uses parts of the environment near him to smash enemy faces where possible, and you can also push characters into one another, or over ledges.
The enhanced fighting system is not without some pretty serious flaws, though. For one, it's difficult to actually 'escape' a fight once you or the enemy initiates one, and that's regardless of what's going on around you. Towards the end of the game, you will encounter numerous enemies at once, and if you get in a fist fight with one, you are pretty much guaranteed to get shot or blown up by the surrounding enemies. Getting into a melee situation while in the midst of a firefight can make for a intense cinematic moment, but it's just a pain in the ass if not impossible to literally get away from your attacker or to even pull a weapon on him and just end the damn fight right then. The game seems to seamlessly get you into this 'fight mode' and it just isn't easy to get out of, due to camera fixation issues and the fact that you cannot just roll away to take cover. Instead, Drake will lunge at the opponent to push him, as bullets and grenades continue to fly at him from all angles. In a word, I would describe what happens if you try to break out of a melee situation as 'stifling' -- the camera and your ability to look around or move is greatly restricted and the game strongly "encourages" you to continue the melee encounter, even if it means your demise.
As well animated as the fights are, somewhere at the halfway point of the game you've seen nearly everything there is to see in melee action. I grew tired of fighting the brute characters, which were really just a commitall thirty second encounter with all of the same QTEs and same end result. For as much as this series, and especially this game borrows from Indiana Jones, I often wished I could just 'pull an Indy' and shoot the bastard rather than engage in some kind of melee fight to the death. That said, I think overall the fight system is a positive, but at the same time its flaws are potent and can be very frustrating.
As anyone who has played Uncharted games knows, melee combat always took a backseat to firefights, and while the balance is closer to 50/50 here, you will still engage in more firefights than fist fights. The cover system is very much like the previous two Uncharted games, and Drake is still only able to (realistically) carry a sidearm and one "two handed weapon." For the most part, firefights work well, but there is a very noticeable dead zone within the aim system. Aiming down the sights of your weapon is often a surprising pain because the reticule does not move smoothly. For whatever reason, the reticule tends to go from smooth analog motion to suddenly jumping a small, but critical, amount. There are these odd deadzones in which you cannot smoothly pass through as you gently nudge the right stick left or right. You have to reposition Drake as opposed to just being able to pass through the aiming zone. It's something you just kind of get used to, but it's another one of those issues that puzzled me. This is the third game in the series, all on the same hardware, it just seems like it should be nearly perfect from a mechanics perspective.
In playing through the story, another significant issue I had was with the AI. Of course, the mediocre enemy AI is somewhat hidden by the sheer volume of enemies and their placement in a firefight, but I was baffled at how useless the friendly AI was. No matter who you are paired up with, the friendly AI is nothing more than a prop and I found that sorely disappointing. It's the third game in this series, and the AI is still what it was from four years ago. My frustrations stem from the friendly AI refusing to pick up better weapons. It comes from them being unable to score a kill, and often ducking in and out of cover to no relevant end. Or the fact that they can be out of cover and the enemy AI pays them no attention many times. Or watching them yell out 'grenade!' and being too stupid to actually evade its blast radius, but simultaneously avoiding any penalty for being right in the middle of the blast. Near the of the story, their uselessness becomes painfully obvious as Drake is literally tasked with fighting off dozens of mercs alone, all of who are toting bigger, better weapons than your AI partner. Meanwhile, if anything your AI partner is yelling at you to get an RPG, when they are perfectly capable of doing so themselves, or should be. At least during a couple of puzzle sequences the friendly NPCs offer a helpful hint, but in combat, they're nothing more than props.
Another AI/combat nuisance that crops up is the grenades. You can now throw enemy grenades back at them, however you have to press Triangle during a very small window of time. You can't just throw the grenade back as soon as it's in reach, you have to wait for a little marker to pass through a section of a meter, which I thought was arbitrary and contrived. Regardless, be weary of this ability -- Drake is liable to pick up the enemy grenade and throw it right into the wall in front of him, placing it right back at your feet, killing you a moment later. It just seems to me that Drake should be capable of just getting rid of the darn grenade, and not being hard-coded to throw it only back in the direction of the enemy. I mean, even if he just throws it to an empty space, that's better than just sitting on it right?
Those are my biggest problems with UC3. Just about everything else is great and as amazing as you would expect from this series. I do wonder if the flow of the game is a bit too scripted and linear, as in the end, there is only one right path to take. That's something that you could be critical of in all three Uncharted games, but this is the newest and hottest one -- in a way it's been in development since the first one came out, and you just expect the most out of it. Instead, UC3 innovates or evolves very little, playing nearly exactly like the original 2007 adventure.
Hopes and letdowns aside, UC3 is still a great game. The story is in fact a very good one, and I'll avoid any major spoilers for you as I describe it. Literally a long story short, Drake and Sully (with help from Chloe and Charlie Cutter) are trying to find a lost city that is somewhere in the "Atlantis of the desert," i.e., in a massive, scorching hot area of desert somewhere near Yemen. There is some sort of treasure to be found, they believe. What sets this whole plan in motion is when Drake discovers his ancestor, Sir Francis Drake, actually made a stop in the middle east while exploring the West Indies. His route was unusual, and moreover, it was clear that Francis Drake made every effort to erase any knowledge of his expedition into the Middle East. He found something, but no one knows exactly what, although its anticipated to be of great importance, or danger anyway.
Drake and Sully first got involved in this Francis Drake, lost city business twenty years ago. At that time, Sully was a contractor -- doing theft jobs for clients who wanted artifacts. One such artifact that a suspicious lady named Marlowe wanted was a decoder disk that was crafted by Drake. Combined with the ring that Nathan wears around his neck and Francis Drake's journal, it is thought that one could decipher the details of Drake's mysterious voyage and discover the lost city.
What Nathan and Sully don't realize as they start to tangle with Marlowe is the size and depth of her operation. Hundreds of men in suits with guns and a seemingly endless supply of resources, Marlowe is determined as hell to find this lost city and whatever secrets it may hold. Drake, and with a little convincing, the other three, are determined to intercept her efforts, but the stakes grow higher and higher as the story progresses, bringing Drake and friends closer to death than we've ever seen them before.
Locations within the story include an underground facility in London, a jungle and very old chateau in France, ancient ruins in Syria and Yemen, and the market streets of Cartenga, Columbia. Each location includes multiple set pieces that are on a scale not before seen in the Uncharted series. My favorite would have to be the massive cargo ship you spend a couple of chapters on in the second half of the story. Naughty Dog did a great job of mixing up the environments, too. There are plenty of indoor and outdoor areas with a variety of lighting conditions and other factors such as the waves on the boat and the grandeur of the chateau in France.
While I'm on the subject of presentation, it's certainly worth pointing out that I do believe UC3 is the best looking game I have seen this generation, but that's with a caveat. I thought the characters' appearance, primarily the enemies, were far too repetitive and generic. And I still don't like how their dead bodies just disappear a few seconds after dying. I know that was done to conserve CPU cycles and memory and so forth, and therefore Naughty Dog's decision to do disappearing bodies is probably as much about hardware limitations as anything. That said, outside of the repetitive appearance of the enemies and the fading bodies thing, UC3 is breathtaking. The lighting is a big part of this, as are other environmental effects like fire and water. In several areas, the only light is that of a torch, and it plays on the environments beautifully. Other areas will stun you with their sheer scale. No matter where you are or what the circumstances are, the framerate never drops any significant amount and therefore remains silky smooth.
The audio folks did a bang up job as well. I absolutely love Nate's Theme, the song that plays at the opening screen. It's nearly identical to theme song from UC2: Among Thieves, and probably the first Uncharted as well, but I didn't verify that and I can't recall. Regardless, it's perfect for the grand atmosphere of the Uncharted experience. Other tracks from the score are fitting and nicely done too, and the effects are very good. Voice overs are top notch and the script is good. I will say I thought Nathan sounded a little bit lame with how many times he said 'crap,' although later in the story when he's really facing death he tends to curse a little bit more, but far from excessively. That, to me, just added an extra dimension of believability to his situation.
On Normal, looking for as many of the 100 collectible Treasures as I could find, I managed to finish the campaign in about nine hours, which isn't too bad for a modern day third person adventure. It definitely seemed shorter than I remember UC2 being, and a bit longer than the original, but it stays engaging throughout, which is the most important point to make. As you play through the story you unlock additional bonus content such as some production videos and art galleries, which is cool.
Starting with UC2, the Uncharted series began supporting multiplayer but it was never just at tacked on feature. UC3 includes a co-op mode that can be played in split screen or online, although you don't actually play through the UC3 story itself. There are three modes within this co-op mode: Hunters, Adventure, and Arena. In Hunters, two teams of two square off. The offensive team is trying to steal an artifact or treasure from the defensive team, who are helped out by CPU AI. Arena is similar to a horde mode and offers a few challenges for a co-op team to try. Finally, Adventure mode allows up to three players to take several levels that were built off of areas from UC3 and UC2. The goal is to clear each level of enemy AI. To keep the pace up, there are no puzzles or jumping sequences.
Finally, the competitive multiplayer mode is back and better than ever. There are no new modes of play, but there are Boosters and Kickbacks give you a lot of room to customize your character and thus your experience online. A leveling system could keep you coming back for more as you earn the ability to purchase more weapons. The online community for UC2 was strong, and Naughty Dog catered to that community very well. From what I have experienced thus far and my gut tells me, UC3 will get the same treatment.
To the summary...
A good charted course...
A great game that should have been superb. The experience is tainted by several gameplay mechanic problems that just shouldn't be there for this third game in the franchise this generation. Ultimately the good far outweighs the bad, but I can't escape the notion that I feel that the full potential of this sequel was not realized.