Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception realises what we dreamed video games would one day become. "All men dream: but not equally." Nathan Drake utters T.E. Lawrence's poignant phrase as the curtain raises on Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. Like others, we dared to dream. For 20 years we longed for a cinematic interactive experience capable of rivalling those we watch on the silver screen. Each of our experiences in the interim have felt like stepping stones on the path to Uncharted 3. It may sound hyperbolic — and some will disagree — but Uncharted 3 emphasises the very reason we play video games.
For us, Uncharted 3 is the strongest series. It's a culmination of everything Naughty Dog has been striving to achieve, and it comes together so effortlessly that it's rather startling. Most great games have one or two memorable moments. Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare had the nuclear bomb. Red Dead Redemption had the horse ride into Mexico. BioShock had the famous "would you kindly" twist. But Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception doesn't stop at having one memorable moment. It has several — far too many to count on one hand. That Naughty Dog managed to craft a game laced with so many speculative scenarios is a real testament to its ambition.
Part of Uncharted 3's success is its ability to surprise. While Uncharted 2: Among Thieves could be criticised for following the same formula as its predecessor, Uncharted 3 dares to toss the odd curve ball. It plays on your expectations, teasing you. No surprise hits harder than the one at the start of the second chapter, where Naughty Dog manages to flesh out the game's cast and take the game in a completely unexpected direction in one fell swoop. It's a brilliant twist.
The game opens much more slowly than previous entries. A jaunt through the rain-licked streets of London and a brief pub brawl isn't much competition for Uncharted 2's collapsing train scene, but what the game lacks in bombast during its opening moments is more than made up for in atmosphere. There's a scene fairly early on in which protagonist Nathan Drake, mentor Victor 'Sully' Sullivan, and 'bright eyes' Chloe Frazer strut through the bleak back-streets of London. It's really impossible not to smile.
What Naughty Dog's built over the past two Uncharted titles is a relationship with its characters. You'll have an even greater connection to some of these familiar faces by the end. While favourites such as Elena and Chloe make fleeting appearances during the campaign, Uncharted 3 is really all about Drake's relationship with Sully. We learn about the origins of their relationship, and also the history of Drake. One mid-game conversation between Drake and the game's main antagonist — Katherine Marlowe — manages to flesh out huge parts of the character's backstory, and it really adds context to the actions and motives of the character.
That such an exploration of a video game character's background can provide such a shock-and-awe moment is testament to Naughty Dog's strength as a story teller. Uncharted 3 easily has the best plot of the series. Like past entries, it is loosely grounded in some aspects of reality. The game builds its plot on top of a period of history in which Sir Francis Drake went unaccounted for, and claims that the legendary explorer went in search of Ubar — or the Atlantis Of The Sands — by direction of Queen Elizabeth.
As in previous games, Drake's hunt for the mythical city is obstructed by a faction of villainous mercenaries — in this instance, a group of fearless British occultists hunting for the same supernatural source of power as Queen Elizabeth. The plot's much more cohesive this time, with the ill-fated fantasy elements from previous games much more convincingly handled. In Katherine Marlowe, Naughty Dog's finally happened upon a memorable antagonist that feels believable and infinitely more frightening than the meathead Lazarevic from Uncharted 2.
The plot largely serves as exposure for Uncharted 3's scattering of set pieces, but it maintains consistent and feels well paced. The game ensures you're always certain of where you're going and why, and while it tends to hop across the globe a little too frequently, it's hard not to appreciate the wealth of explored locations.
Moment to moment you'll be engaged in the same kind of activities as previous Uncharted titles. Platforming is still something of an automatic pleasure, as excellent animation and level design allows you to scale more ambitious locations than ever before. One such platforming sequence — aboard a rundown harbour construction — takes props from Sony Santa Monica's God Of War series, panning the camera out until Drake is nothing but a pixel on an intricate construction.
You'll also spend a fair amount of time crouching behind cover, engrossed in hectic third-person shootouts. It's worth observing that Uncharted 3 is much less a shooter than previous entries in the series. Naughty Dog's taken the time to better balance its array of gameplay encounters, lending a much heavier emphasis on exploration and puzzle solving.
While the puzzles still only represent a small portion of the campaign, they are much more compellingly designed. Utilising Drake's notebook to etch out solutions is still a rare treat, with the resource packed with the same kind of charming humour as has become synonymous with the series. For example, on one page Drake has sketched portraits of each of the game's characters — humorously adding devil's horns to the head of Katherine Marlowe. It all adds to the charm of the experience.
It's not until about an hour into the campaign that you're involved in your first firefight, and even then it's a short one. Naughty Dog eschews expectations for much of the game, with the 'waves of enemies' syndrome that has affected earlier entries in the series all but non-existent. In almost all of the game's combat scenarios you'll be able to play the encounter in stealth if you desire, with the same mechanics from Uncharted 2 brought forward and refined.
But if you want to get into a firefight, you're free to do so. Weapons feel punchy and satisfying, with most enemies dropping quicker than in previous entries. Naughty Dog's obsession with heavily armoured brutes remains consistent here, but there's never anything as frustrating as the supernatural natives from Uncharted 2.
That said, Uncharted 3 is susceptible to some unusual difficulty spikes. Given the game's fairly forgiving platforming model — which will see you pushed towards ledges even if your jump trajectory doesn't quite match up — it feels like Naughty Dog wants to make the experience accessible to casual players even on its normal difficulty setting. This ambition conflicts with some really quite challenging combat encounters. There are moments where it feels like the game is throwing one too many enemies on screen — be it a rocket launcher-wielding grunt in the distance, or a sniper in the rafters — and these lead to the sensation of being overwhelmed.
Bigger environments mean you're free to etch out your own strategy, and the aggressive AI suggests that Naughty Dog wants to keep you on your toes at all times. Being hit by unnaturally accurate rocket fire the moment you respawn is not particularly enjoyable though, and even though the game's extremely fast at dropping you back into the action, you'll still encounter moments of genuine frustration.
It's perhaps the one blemish on a campaign that's otherwise spectacular from start to finish. It's not like Naughty Dog's left the combat mechanics untouched either. For example, the close quarters melee combat has been massively refined for the third game in a row. This time it takes its props from Rocksteady's Batman series, giving Drake the ability to punch with Square and counter with Triangle. Many of the combat encounters are designed to push you into close quarters combat as often as possible, with numerous parts of the campaign restricted to fist-fight set pieces. The action isn't quite as refined as in the brilliant Batman games, but it does a good enough job of making Uncharted's brawling elements that bit more satisfying.
Drake also has the ability to toss back grenades, transforming potentially dangerous scenarios into advantageous ones. These two tweaks alone change very little to the core combat of Uncharted 3, and with the same roster of weapons on offer firefights can feel largely familiar.
It's in setting, then, that Uncharted 3 overhauls its gunplay. A couple of shootouts occur vertically, with Drake taking advantage of conveniently placed wall structures that allow for cover. Another long firefight takes place in the midst of a blinding sandstorm, making it a really intense affair as you fumble for sight of your opponents and they do the same.
When it comes to set piece gameplay sequences, Uncharted 3 is undoubtedly the best in the business. Some will find time to criticise the way the narrative is wrapped around these encounters — the cruise ship sequence Naughty Dog demonstrated at E3 is largely unattached to the overarching plot — but Naughty Dog does such a good job integrating these jaw-dropping sequences that only the extremely critical will find time to complain.
From a visual stance, Uncharted 3 sets a new standard for visual quality. While it never quite strikes the framerate of God Of War III, it's a much more varied visual experience overall. Slow strides through a Yemen market and the French countryside are both respites to be enjoyed and visual tour-de-forces to be absorbed. Some of the effects Naughty Dog kick out are equally staggering, with the French chateau burning realistically and the brawl atop the mid-flight cargo plane spotted in numerous trailers the game's most incredible set piece. We'd love to talk about more of the game's set pieces — we could fill another 1,000 words if we chose to — but the game's real beauty is in experiencing these first-hand. Any kind of pre-conceived expectations of what to anticipate could really ruin the moment, and so if you've been on a media blackout since Uncharted 3's announcement, you're in for a real treat.
It's not just the clarity of the on-screen objects, but also the way they move. Some of the character animation is absolutely sensational, with Drake clutching onto walls and reacting realistically to every environment as you move him through the world. Merely observing Drake's idle animations is a thing of beauty, and these become particularly complex on the cruise ship stage.
In fact, the cruise ship is perhaps the most impressive technical demonstration of a level we've ever experienced. The boat itself is influenced by the movement of the sea it's perched upon, which in turn affects the objects, characters and water on the deck. It's a staggering achievement, and perhaps most criminally, so effortlessly implemented that few will actually notice just how technically impressive it all is.
Greg Edmonson's score complements the outstanding visual direction, with a variety of exotic audio motifs running throughout the game's campaign. The original soundtrack is also back for the title screen, which is sure to bring a massive smile to many faces upon release.
Similarly Nolan North's performance as Nathan Drake is as believable and as endearing as ever, with support from Emily Rose (Elena) and Claudia Black (Chloe) equally engaging. It is Richard McGonagle's turn as Sully that really steals the show though, with the character given a much more leading role than in previous entries.
It's staggering that such a compelling campaign is supplementary to such an expansive multiplayer component. In competitive multiplayer the inclusion of Boosters and Power Plays help to spice up the gameplay, with the latter giving the losing team the opportunity to fulfil specific in-game requirements and make a comeback, while the former augments your entire online experience a la perks in Call Of Duty. Kickbacks also allow you to spend medals you earn mid-game on immediate upgrades, such as an extra grenade or rocket launcher.
Naughty Dog's attempted to transfer the cinematic appeal of Uncharted's campaign into the multiplayer, by giving maps the sensation of being more dynamic. This can be best observed in the airport map, which sees players spawning on either a moving plane or chasing truck.
A slew of unlocks, character skins and loadouts give the multiplayer component a real longevity that's often only observed in the likes of Call Of Duty, but the decision to allow players to level up their characters pre-release appears to have affected the learning curve enormously. We found the servers pretty much dominated by experienced players during our hands-on time with the multiplayer, and while our tests took place prior to release we felt like the matchmaking didn't do a good enough job of balancing teams. Pitting our lowly level six character against a clan dominated by level fifties wasn't fun in the slightest.
Hence we got much more satisfaction out of Uncharted 3's co-operative mode. Here you can choose to take on waves with three other friends, or participate in a mini-campaign that re-purposes assets from the main plot but features new cutscenes and dialogue. It's going to depend on taste; some really enjoy competitive multiplayer, but we come to Uncharted for the single-player experience, and playing along with friends against balanced AI — there are different difficulty levels for you to select — is definitely a much more appealing proposition for us.
Whichever mode you choose to invest in, there's plenty to unlock across both facets of the multiplayer campaign. Money is earned alongside experience points, allowing you to purchase new weapons, skins, boosters and kickbacks. Furthermore, each unlock has additional modifications that can be purchased and earned as you play.
Splitscreen, Facebook and match replay integration all enhance the experience, which is certain to keep players engaged beyond the game's initial release window. Hopefully the stream of connecting new players will alleviate the competitive multiplayer component's learning curve, otherwise the established players could really kill off the ambitions of the game's burgeoning community.
That would be a shame because multiplayer's got some really clever ideas. It maintains its niche from other multiplayer games, putting an emphasis on verticality. In Uncharted 3's multiplayer, vantage points are important, and scaling walls in order to capture them can be a genuinely thrilling experience.
It's the campaign that remains the real star, though. Naughty Dog's ability to develop characters, piece together intriguing narratives and write convincing dialogue remains unparalleled. It's a game with a pulse stronger than all of the technical ambition on show, and an experience that many have spent the entirety of their gaming lives dreaming of.
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is a polished, borderline genius tour de force. It doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it does perfect the formula that Naughty Dog's been coveting since the release of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. It's more than just the best entry in an outstanding series though — it epitomises the very reason many of us play video games. And that's its greatest achievement.