Cutter does not appreciate the Manchester United insults.
Let’s not deny the amount of praise Uncharted 2 garnered. Nathan Drake’s previous search for the mythical city of Shambhala was rife with cinematic set pieces few franchises have been able to replicate, and character interactions so believable it's difficult to acknowledge these protagonists exist in a fictional medium. So is it a big surprise that Uncharted 3 is unable to reach the same level of praise? Not really, though Uncharted 3 is far from flawed. The fact of the matter is, Uncharted 3 feels like more of the same platforming, storytelling, and gunplay of its predecessor. The bar just hasn't been raised much higher.
Uncharted 3’s opening establishes the treasure hunter tone with a quote from T. E. Lawrence, as our inseparable duo, Nate and Sully, stroll into an English pub accompanied by a charismatic theme. The two have a meeting with a mysterious client in pursuit of Sir Francis Drake’s ring, but wherever Drake goes, trouble soon follows. The deal is called off thanks to a double-cross, and Sully and his protégé must brawl their way to freedom. This classic bar room free-for-all feels very Indiana Jones in nature, complete with a large English bloke reminiscent of the giant Nazi mechanic from Raiders of the Lost Ark; Drake is clearly outmatched until a little environmental help drops the bouncer.
During these encounters, the expanded melee combat shines. Drake can now counter enemies while he is being grappled, and occasionally makes use of objects like wrenches or beer bottles to put opponents down for the count. Our protagonists manage to escape virtually unscathed, albeit right into the main villain’s hands, Kate Marlowe. A brief cutscene leaves Drake and Sully injured, and her majesty with Sir Drake’s ring.
This exposition instigates a worldwide race to locate the Atlantis of the Sands, better known as Ubar, a long undiscovered city lost in the heart of the Rub’ al Khali desert. I will hesitate from revealing many further spoilers, but Uncharted 3 excels at providing a gripping narrative. The what-if aspect of Uncharted has always intrigued my inner historian. Exactly what resides in the Atlantis of the Sands? Why was this utopia of immeasurable wealth abandoned to the mythology of history books? What role does Kate Marlowe play, and what is her previous relationship with Sully?
Who had the time to build all these ancient puzzles?
Uncharted 2 explored the love interests between Drake and his old flames Elena and Chloe, and Uncharted 3 does a better job of illustrating which leading lady won out, but Uncharted 3 also explores a much deeper bond: the history of a once orphaned Drake and his mentor Sully. No line epitomizes their friendship better than a conversation between Drake and Elena: “Sully would go to the ends of the earth for you, Drake. Just don’t ask him to.” Their search for Ubar carries the brave adventurers from London to France to Syria, while reuniting with a cast of heroes both new and old.
Much to my chagrin, the campaign starts rather slowly compared to prior Uncharted titles. Still, our heroes discover the lost city’s location before the story’s halfway point, and as a result, the following few chapters involving a modern pirate called Rameses feel incredibly tacked on. But it is during these irrelevant sections that the camera pulls out to reveal the sheer size of the ships that Drake scales. These spectacular views showcase a vertical playground that would intimidate even the most die-hard parkour enthusiast.
Alas, several plot points go unanswered, too. Charlie’s infamy is alluded to during brief dialogues but never explained. Also, the identity of Drake’s real name is called into question, and a cutscene reveals a recently deceased agent of Marlowe's with sickly green skin, yet the cause of death is immediately glossed over.
After three successful releases, these two still argue like an old married couple.
While the action truly intensifies after the halfway mark, many lengthy, early game tutorial sequences precede any resemblance to a large scale gunfight. However, it is within the shootouts that players are thrown into the most dire set piece moments. Drake is responsible for many of the unlucky circumstances he finds himself in, including a sinking cruise ship, exploding plane, and assaulting an armored convoy on horseback.
Unfortunately, the shooting mechanics are easily the weakest part of the package. Aiming down the sights feels too stiff, almost as if the controller has a dead zone. (Naughty Dog issued a statement that a patch is in the works.) Sure, the targeting may not be much of a hindrance on the lower difficulties, but while on Crushing, the firefights require the quick swapping between targets that is simply not there. Several times during the campaign, Drake and company are thrown into arena-like skirmishes against steel-clad mercenaries, snipers, and the standard assortment of henchmen. And the shotgun-wielding foes do not hesitate to rush head on through a hail of gunfire to blast Drake behind cover.
In these moments, the controls hindered my enjoyment. Rolling in and out of cover and grappling adversaries are both mapped to the Circle button, and on numerous occasions, instead of evading out of harm’s way, Drake chose to grab the soldier nearest his cover and lock himself in a grapple I could not break. What’s worse, enemies will put rounds into Nate’s back while he is preoccupied with arm wrestling one of their allies. Even on Normal difficulty, Drake is not the typical bullet sponge. A few bullets are more than enough to put the would-be thief out of commission.
My frustration with the controls was not just limited to the firefights, but reared its ugly head during the platforming sequences as well. While aboard the capsizing cruise ship, Drake’s perspective is constantly shifting to provide the most picturesque shot of the action. Sadly, the traversal aspect then suffers. It was not always clear where I had to jump to next, and even when I could tell, Drake would either miss the queue to grab the appropriate ledge, rope, or door handle, usually resulting in a swift death. These annoyances are fairly rare, though, yet all the more noticeable because of Uncharted’s incredible level of polish.
The combat is a mixture of both headshots and stealth takedowns.
Keep in mind these complaints are mere minor annoyances. Uncharted 3 exudes an attention to detail rarely seen from other developers, and it surprises me that Naughty Dog is able to squeeze this much power out of the PlayStation 3. The more memorable environments, like a manor built upon a Crusade-era castle, are vivid with color, and the developers have gone to great lengths to make sure every animation looks natural as Drake stumbles, jogs, and reaches out to walls for support. Even such little details like the imprints left in displaced sand by Drake’s boots, or the furrowed brows of the characters, make the world that much more engrossing.
Of course graphics alone cannot sell an experience. Nolan North proves once again he is a master of his craft, but his supporting cast is not half bad either. Every smartass comment is delivered with a genuine smugness, and the rich chemistry between the characters plays out like a cheesy self-aware TV drama. I made sure to turn on subtitles so I did not miss any piece of dialogue exchange. Likewise, the soundtrack is teeming with orchestral melodies that intensify during the more chaotic situations. The final cutscene’s harmony in particular challenges the best of Hollywood’s composers.
For more cooperative-minded gamers, though, Uncharted 3 still supports a co-op campaign, where up to three gamers must contribute to the group's well-being, and a new Horde mode fresh off Naughty Dog's presses. However, the real changes can be found in the multiplayer. Instead of static, unmoving arenas that withstand the fracas of heroes versus villains, several environments end in places they did not start. The standout level here highlights a cargo plane speeding down a runway while opposing teams assault the aircraft on jeeps and lorries. Once the plane retracts its landing gear, however, the combat shifts to a warehouse until the match ends. Teams that come up short, though, will be pleased to know Naughty Dog is watching their backs. In these online competitions, the losers frequently receive a random Power Play, such as the self-explanatory Double Damage, to bolster a late-game rebound.
Pure graphics euphoria. Not many games can convey emotion in a character's eyes.
Uncharted 3 is a triumph, not because it redefines the action-adventure genre, but because it builds upon an already successful foundation established by its predecessors. Gamers would be hard-pressed to find more exhilarating set pieces or a compelling narrative elsewhere. Naughty Dog also delivers a rarely rivaled visual experience, while the voice acting continues to bring the fictional characters to life. Several firefight scenarios and platforming blemishes smear the polish of an otherwise perfect package, yet Uncharted 3 is not getting out of here without a recommendation. The trilogy may end here, but we all know Drake can't keep his nose out of trouble for long.
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: November 1, 2011
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 3 (Cooperative), 2-10 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: PlayStation 3 (Reviewed)