Third time a charm?
“All men dream: but not equally…”So begins Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Nathan’s voicing of a T.E Laurence quote is delivered with weight and from the off Uncharted swaggers back onto our televisions and into our hands with utter confidence. The same quote can in the broader sense be seen as a true reflection of the Naughty Dog ethos, making everything ‘more awesome’, simultaneously pushing the hardware as far as it will go and blurring that fine line of interactivity and entertainment. This is an approach that has been seen in the Uncharted series from the start and reached a crescendo with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, with ambition and technical ability shaping some of the most memorable gaming moments I’ve personally had. The problem that faced Naughty Dog was that these heights were never going to be easy to surpass, but like Nathan walking blindly into the Rub’ al Khali desert they were only concerned with achieving their goal: making the best Uncharted game. The answer to whether they have succeeded or not is a loaded one and in may ways offers up more questions than resolutions.As with the previous games in the series Uncharted 3 has a good stab at creating an adventure based in some element of a factual historical event, giving a strong grounding to proceedings and succeeding where most Hollywood blockbusters would struggle. Deception sees Nathan and his various cohorts searching for the lost city of Ubar, commonly known as the ‘Atlantis of the sands.’ This adventure is predicated on a secret voyage that Queen Elizabeth had sent Francis Drake, on which he was to find the aforementioned city however Francis Drake’s journey is missing a six month period and it is this missing time that thrusts the plot forward. Naughty Dog have managed to not only use this story to expose the player to a wide variety of scenarios but they have also used devices such as flashbacks to drive the narrative forward.The Rub’ al Khali desert sections are an absolute joy to watch as well as play, with the added bonus of no sand in your shoe.In terms of the sheer diversity of environments that players are thrust into I would confidently say that this is the best that Uncharted has ever achieved; from the city markets of Cartegena to the rain glistened cobbles of London streets there is never a dip in either the quality of the design or the execution. It’s not a rare instance to find yourself just standing still and using the camera to look around at the staggering amount of detail that has gone into creating these virtual playgrounds. Uncharted has never been just content with giving us something pretty to look at, there has always been a drive to make the environments a character in themselves. The best way I can describe most of the environments is that they are the most enjoyable boss-fights you’ll probably play for the next while, these environments while exceptionally rendered always have the propensity to fall down around you forcing you to think fast and outwit them. From a spectacular disintegrating French chateau to a rapidly sinking cruise ship you will garner a feeling every time you step into a level of ‘how is this environment going to try and kill me?’. The levels are much more interesting an enemy than the run of the mill henchmen who have always been the bane of the Uncharted combat, and while the standard rent-a-mercs (of which there are an amazingly near endless supply) are uninspiring the environments more than make up for it. There is a flipside to this however and it highlights the age old problem of Uncharted; that of the glorious environments and their inevitable linearity. It’s a long running conversation and while some would say that if you find fault with Uncharted’s restricted world then you are missing the point. But it’s a conversation worth having, primarily from a critically objective standpoint but also for the progress of the series. The environments are incredible and the vistas you overlook are simply jaw dropping at times, but they only serve for your eyes and not for your sense of adventure. It is this dissonance that played on my mind whilst working my way through Deception, what you want to do and what the developers want you to do are often at odds. What may seem logical in your head as a gamer such as ‘that looks like a viable path’ will more often than not lead you to realise you’ve not gone the intended way, Naughty Dog pull the harness and send you in their desired direction. It’s not even that it is a masked linearity with a variety of paths leading to the same outcome, it is quite literally one path, one choice and one method. It seems somewhat of a myopic understanding of what games have become, or more-so what they can be. Perhaps I have been spoilt by Batman: Arkham City, but even its freedom is merely perceived and is more linear and contained than many may realise but it is the finest recent example of how to do a linear game in a seemingly nonlinear world.In the sliding scale of spectacular set-pieces in Uncharted 3 the French château is one of the more impressive.Within that linearity we must look at the game mechanics and how Uncharted plays; in many ways it’s business as usual for Nathan Drake with some improvements and some questionable decisions. If you have played previous instalments of the series you will immediately feel right at home, the opening scenes serve as a tutorial highlighting the slight change to the combat system. In this iteration Nathan can grab and push enemies mid-combat, there is the ability to counter a second enemy while being grabbed by the first and there are environmental elements such as frying pans that will be used to finish off an enemy. Even these little flourishes are not at the hands of the player, they are not enacted by your desire to do so but merely by your particular placement in the area. This aside you will find yourself thoroughly enjoying these moments of environmental combat, and it is just enough to add more life to a relatively simple combat system that keeps things entertaining. In many ways that is the point, sacrificing innovation for entertainment and I wouldn’t say which is the more important as it’s going to be a subjective assessment but like watching a puppet show I could enjoy the spectacle of the combat even though I could see the strings.There have also been adjustments to the gunplay this time around and it fares less well than the additions to the hand to hand combat system. For a game that has a heavy gun to puzzle ratio it was a bold move to make quite significant changes to the mechanics of the combat and most of the time you can trust Naughty Dog, much like Valve, to hit the mark but here their aim is slightly off. Targeting feels twitchy while also feeling slow, it’s a bizarre combination and hard to accurately describe and while you will get used to it there will be a fair amount of moments when you will feel that you have been beaten not by the enemy but by a development decision. Enemies also seem to have been tweaked, moving very fast and determinedly between cover points but you will struggle to keep your aim up to speed with the recurring waves of henchmen and even if you do they also seem to be able to take more bullets than Peter Weller in Robocop. These are gripes and quite legitimate ones but they can be overcome or more accurately can be gotten used to and to get the most out of Uncharted you just have to roll with the punches. There isn’t much room for stealth beyond when Naughty Dog want you to be stealthy but the take-downs are very physical and impressive.There is a trade off for all of these niggles and it is the fact that the game is just so damned entertaining, there is a lot of adventure packed in here and there are moments that you’ll not forget anytime soon. From the constant globe trotting to the buddy banter of Nathan and Sully there is always something to keep you wanting more, and once again the love interest element is back and is handled so sensitively and honestly that it really does put most other forms of entertainment to shame. This is the core of Uncharted, pure entertainment and it succeeds in that area almost completely evidenced by my partner and non-videogaming housemate watching me play the game for two hours because it was ‘just like a movie’. This may also be said of the likes of L.A Noire or the excellent Heavy Rain but while they would be like watching Se7en, Uncharted 3 is like watching all the best scenes from Indiana Jones. It is a true testament to Naughty Dog that they have made a game as entertaining as this and never once letting the player waver in terms of their excitement or interest in the game, and that this is managed not only through bombastic set pieces but through characters you actually care about is no small feat. Bizarrely dangling out of the cargo bay of a plane high above the desert is one of the less perilous situations Drake gets into.By the end of your journey you will have witnessed some of the most action packed things you are likely to see in a videogame, you will have laughed and you will have had moments in which you will realise how emotionally invested you have become, both to this game and these characters. That’s rare, it’s very rare in-fact and its importance should in no way be undersold. Uncharted 3 also now has a solid co-op mode where you can play through a handful of missions and there is the well balanced and highly enjoyable multi-player with a variety of game modes. This helps extend the overall story gameplay which will see you clock in around eight to ten hours in total, but ultimately while a nice side attraction it’s not what you bought the ticket to the amusement park for. When all is said and done Uncharted 3 will give you exactly what you want; excitement, drama and a benchmark for visuals on the PlayStation 3. However, what it doesn’t give you is freedom but conversely this could be the ace that is still to be pulled out of Nathan Drake’s sand covered sleeve. It’s in many ways positive that freedom is a sphere Uncharted is yet to tap in to, if there is a heavy emphasis on freedom married with the entertainment in the next game in the series, then one can only imagine how amazing that game would be. Lets hope that you can teach a Naughty Dog new tricks.
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