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Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

By Zak Wojnar

When Uncharted 2: Among Thieves hit shelves in 2009, it caught us all off guard, blowing away our high expectations for the sequel to the breakout hit, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. With its perfect mix of gameplay and storytelling, grand set-pieces, great dialogue, and unprecedented level of polish, Uncharted 2 went on to win a ton of Game Of The Year awards, and set the bar incredibly high for the inevitable sequel. Does Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception live up to developer Naughty Dog's pedigree of excellence, or does it decide to rest on the laurels of its predecessors?

Uncharted 3 begins with a plot twist guaranteed to make fans of Drake and Sully jump out of their seats, and from there, it just does not stop. Unlike previous entries in the series, which confined the action to more-or-less one corner of the world, Drake's Deception is a globe-trotting affair, with the action shifting from London back-alleys to Cartagena rooftops, to a cruise-ship rocked by a storm, as well as some unexpected detours and surprises. On one hand, the aesthetic changes made the adventure feel epic and varied, but on the other hand, the rather sudden changes deprive the locales of the character present in Drake's Fortune's lost island, or Among Thieves's thoroughly realized Nepal. They feel shallow, less real, and, at their worst, shoehorned into the plot.

The story and characters, as usual, are a shining example of how videogames should be written. The dynamic relationship between Drake and Sully takes the lead this time around, though Elena, Chloe, and new ally Cutter are as well-written and fully realized as one would expect from the talented crew at Naughty Dog. The new villains are the best in the series to date, with villain Marlowe and her henchman, Talbot, being equal parts sinister, mysterious, and compelling. Anything positive I have to say about the performances of Nolan North, Richard McGonagle, Graham McTavish and the rest of the gang really doesn't need to be restated, such is their universal acclaim. They're amazing, and their performances are more than most actors could ever hope to accomplish. Well, I guess it did need to be restated. Anyway, as for the quest itself, there's not much to say without spoiling the surprise, other than offering reassurance that Uncharted 3's narrative is every bit as excellent as one would expect, given its heritage. At times, it veers off course, temporarily suspending the narrative in order to deliver a grand gameplay experience without really contributing to the themes of the story in any meaningful way, but when the gameplay has Uncharted's level of polish, it's a moot point.

Gameplay in Uncharted 3, like its predecessors, is all about balancing exploration with combat, and finding ways to engage the player in both at once. Exploration involves jumping, climbing, and swimming. Unlike Assassin's Creed and Rocksteady's Batman games, Uncharted 3 still uses a jump button, giving the player a little bit more control over Nathan Drake as he jumps between rooftops, scales buildings and other tall structures, and swings on vines, chains, and ropes. During almost all of these actions, Drake can draw his pistol and blow away any thug who dares intrude on his exercise routine. In addition, swimming has been expanded upon: not only can Drake dive underwater to escape from enemies, he can also perform stealth takedowns from the water and engage in firefights while practicing his breaststroke.

Combat is cover based, but with an emphasis on Drake's agility, moving from cover to cover, flanking his enemies, and engaging in some hand-to-hand combat. Fisticuffs were actually more enjoyable in Uncharted than in Uncharted 2, with longer and more frequently repeated animations leading to Drake being shot to death while trying to knock out a bad guy. In Uncharted 3, hand to hand combat lies somewhere in the middle. In gunfights, hand-to-hand returns as a somewhat useful strategy for when things get a bit too close for comfort, with takedowns being easy to initiate and satisfying to watch, especially when you perform what I've called a "Raising Arizona", in which Drake pulls the pin from the grenade on an enemy's belt, kicks him away, and watches the poor fellow struggle in panic until the grenade explodes. Boom! New to Uncharted 3 are arena-based hand to hand battles, where Drake, sometimes with a partner, must fight his way through a few thugs using just his fists. Drake can counter punches, engage two foes at once, and engage in a wide variety of context sensitive actions, usually involving taking down an enemy with whatever is laying around, such as beer bottles, wrenches, and fish. Yes, fish. These scenarios are simple, exciting, satisfying, and are sometimes punctuated with minibosses, tall brutes who can take a ton of damage before going down, often in a fairly cinematic fashion.

Gunplay is as solid as you'd expect by now, with an easy-to-use cover system and a wide variety of firearms. In rooms where large encounters occur, some powerful weapons are laying around to make the proceedings more explosive, and also offering the player the chance to pick up a more appropriate weapon in case they accidentally brought a short-range shotgun to a long-range rifle battle. In a market where most games don't let the characters carry more than two weapons, this feature allows players to feel secure knowing that, when a gunplay scenario comes up, they will be able to easily find a weapon that suits the situation. In addition, a few well-placed grenade launcher shells or sniper rifle shots can really change the tides of battle, particularly in the punishingly tougher difficulty settings.

One of my favorite features in each Uncharted is how Nate has brand new animations for everything he does. Even if a sequel improves upon the original in every single way, repeating animations from the earlier titles just seems cheap and lazy (cough, Batman, cough), and Uncharted 3 offers a staggering amount of player animations. Everything Drake does is animated differently from Uncharted and Uncharted 2, and there are multiple animations for everything. Take cover, and Drake will shield his head with his hands. Pop out, shoot some bad guys, pop back in, Drake will position himself differently. These little touches, dating back to the first Uncharted, help to make the character feel human, and not just a virtual robot who does what he's told. Much of this is due to the incredible motion capture cast and directors, and, combined with the excellent gameplay and narrative, translates into one of the best games on the Playstation 3. However, that is not to say Drake's Deception is perfect. Drake's new running animations make him feel kind of floaty to control, and added animations regarding turning and the way Nate deals with running into walls occasionally disorient the player and slow down the character, leading to the odd death during one of the game's early set-pieces, a chase scene where missing a single jump or being just a little bit too slow means restarting the checkpoint, which, thankfully, is never far behind.

Sure, they probably could have found a better way for the narrative to put Drake on an awesome cruise ship, and that crazy pirate Rameses does almost nothing at all throughout his brief appearance, and the final act wraps things up just a little bit too neatly, but the characters in Uncharted 3 are too compelling to be dragged down by little oddities in their narrative, just like the incredible gameplay experience is not held back by occasionally uncomfortable running animations and a creeping sensation of familiarity.  It's not as huge a jump in quality as Uncharted 2 was from Uncharted, but Uncharted 3, like it's protagonist, Nathan Drake, is plucky, heartfelt, thoroughly entertaining, and pushes itself harder than we ever could have asked it to.

Overall Rating: 9

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