Uncharted 3: A Step Short of Greatness
Uncharted 3, perhaps the biggest PS3 exclusive title of 2011, was a bitch to review. Ever since I finished the single player campaign and put in my time with the robust multiplayer, I’ve been putting off writing this review. I wasn’t sure why, but my impressions of the game just didn’t seem fully developed. Frankly, I’m glad I waited. After considering the game with a bit of hindsight, replaying a few levels, and discussing the game with Jeff, I think my feelings about the game have evolved and ripened. I think I now have a good understanding of Uncharted 3, both in terms of what makes it a wonderful, must-play experience, and in terms of the significant issues that hamper the game, and stop it from achieving true greatness.
Ever since the first game was released in late 2007, Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series has served as a sort of milestone for the PS3. When it was first announced, initial appearances lead many, incorrectly, to assume that the game was Sony’s attempt to recreate the Tomb Raider experience. After all, the game starred a trigger-happy fortune hunter jumping and climbing all around tombs in the jungle. When the game was finally released, fans discovered that the game was so much more than that: it was an evolution in cinematic game design and storytelling.
This makes sense considering some of the minds behind the series. For instance, the very talented Amy Hennig directed the title. Hennig’s credits include writing and directing Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, Soul Reaver 2, and Defiance (though we won’t hold that against her). As such, she had some serious action-platformer chops, and some great experience writing compelling and original storylines.
Minds like Hennig’s made Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune a new kind of experience for gamers: not just an action-platformer, but a cinematic action platformer, complete with the kind of storytelling, set pieces, and dialogue any filmgoer would expect from a summer blockbuster. These aspects of the first game were so fun that fans were able to overlook the game’s lackluster gameplay and focus on the elements that clearly worked: the interesting puzzle solving, creative environments, and the great, evolving relationship between Nathan Drake, his silver-haired pal Victor “Sully” Sullivan, and the adversarial love-interest, journalist Elena Fisher. The game was named PS3 Game of the Year by several large press outlets and has since sold over 3.5 million copies worldwide.
In 2009, Naughty Dog released Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which took the core experience of the original Uncharted and greatly amplified it. Frankly, everything was better, from the gunplay, to the animation, to the cinematic cut scenes and dialogue, to the environments and the entire story. While Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune contained the promise of playing out an action movie, Uncharted 2 delivered on this promise again and again. While it was, by no means, a perfect game, it is no surprise that Uncharted 2 received a good deal of awards and has since sold nearly 5 million copies worldwide.
So, it’s fair to say that Uncharted 3 comes, this holiday season, with a good amount of expectation behind it. Uncharted fans know very clearly what they want: cinematic storytelling, witty dialogue, creative puzzles and original environments. Moreover, they want to see the series continue to improve in areas where it has not been so strong in the past, including gunplay and melee combat, as well as pacing. In many of these areas, I believe fans will be more than pleased with the experience that Uncharted 3 offers. However, in at least a couple of significant areas, I believe that Uncharted 3 takes some significant missteps.
Drake’s Last Crusade
As I said before, the key feature of the entire Uncharted series has been its approach to storytelling, and I believe that Uncharted 3 is the strongest title in the entire series in this respect. In many ways, the game has been compared to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. This comparison is apt in a few different respects.
Whereas Uncharted 2 took the first game’s premise and amplified it, Uncharted 3 takes the series in a new direction, narrative-wise, and in doing so serves to give background and context to the game’s two key characters: Nathan Drake and Sully. Oh sure, Elena and Chloe make appearances, but the game is, in many ways, about who Drake and Sully are as characters, how they came to be friends, and where their haphazard partnership is leading.
Like the third Indiana Jones movie, Uncharted delves into the background and childhood of its main character. It explores the father-son relationship between Drake and Sully, and it leads the characters on a somewhat foolhardy search for an ancient treasure hidden in an Arab desert. There are even specific nods to The Last Crusade that take place in the last couple acts of the game that cannot be coincidental. Don’t take this as a criticism, however. The game never feels like it is stealing, rather it clearly uses some of the narrative template laid down by The Last Crusade and forges its own path.
In all respects, the story, writing, general narrative and dialogue of Uncharted 3 are fantastic. Where the twists and turns of the first two games were either obvious or absurd, Uncharted 3 tells a more interesting, subtle and sophisticated story without sacrificing entertainment value. I genuinely did not see many of the twists coming, and the story left just enough open questions that I anxiously wanted more. It was satisfying and fun, with quite a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments. Of course, the voice acting lives up to the series reputation, and may be some of the best I have ever heard.
Finally the overall narrative experience succeeds not only because of the excellent writing, but also because of the way that the game presents its story. By integrating the storyline deep into gameplay, be it flashbacks to characters’ youths, hallucinations and dreams, chases through alleys and across rooftops, or a lonely and desperate trek through the desert, the game conveys Drake’s story in a manner that is both entertaining and creative. This is a far cry from the climbing-puzzle-shooting-cutscene progression of the first game. When the games press talks about Uncharted, the word cinematic gets used quite a bit (I’ve used it four times already), and this is precisely why: the game feels, at times, like you are playing a well shot film.
The actual gameplay of Uncharted has always been a bit like a yo-yo. It has its ups and downs. Such is the case with Uncharted 3 as well.
In terms of what the game does well, the melee combat has never been better. What started as a nearly useless system in the first game, and a moderately fun system in the second, has become nearly a star attraction in the third. The combat feels very similar to titles like the Batman: Arkham series, with quick simple combos and counters, even mapped to the same buttons. Further, Uncharted 3 has made the combat extra contextual, and Drake will automatically use his environment to take out enemies, be it by slamming their heads on bar tops, pushing them off a ledge, breaking a bottle over their heads, or, in one case, by hitting them with a big fish. All of this happens fluidly and responsively. The only thing I can really think to compare it to is the contextual combat of the Bourne Conspiracy game, which featured similar contextual combat, albeit very poorly controlled.
In fact, the melee in Uncharted 3 is so good that I often found myself wanting to use it instead of guns, since the gunplay in Uncharted 3 is somewhat poorer than that in Uncharted 2. In short, something changed between games that made aiming far more difficult and finicky than it needed to be. Hundreds of fans have complained and Naughty Dog has offered the explanation that the game has actually become more accurate (It’s not a bug, it’s a feature), but regardless of their explanation, I found myself struggling in even simple gunfights to reliably hit my enemies. While the gunplay has always been the weakest part of the Uncharted series, I did not feel like this was a major issue in Uncharted 2, and I even enjoyed the gunfights quite a bit there. For whatever reason, the simple act of aiming and shooting at your enemies is just more frustrating than it needs to be, especially in the Single Player component.
This wouldn’t be as much of a problem if Naughty Dog did not litter the latter half of the game with increasingly difficult combat arenas. For most of the game the firefights are brief or broken up well through other elements, such as traversal (which is great as always), chasing someone or being chased (again, great), or large set pieces (which are impressive and often serve to make firefights interesting and dynamic). Unfortunately, starting at a specific point in the last third of the game, the designers clearly felt the need to space things out a bit, and put the player in the position of assaulting huge arenas full of enemies at various elevations. These tend to go on for far too long and require an obscene amount of trial and error until you figure out exactly how the designers intended for you to attack the arena. The repetitive, difficult and unforgiving nature of these areas and enemies, combined with the frustrating combat mechanics just makes these portions of the game a slog.
It is a credit to the rest of the game design that I was willing to put up with these areas (which, again, were just not fun and were too numerous), to see how the rest of the game played out.
The last gameplay related complaint I have about Uncharted 3 is its glitchyness. Unfortunately, unlike the first two games, Uncharted 3 has a few moderate issues when it comes to stability and terrain detection. Regarding stability, in my complete play through of the game, it crashed my PS3 three times, requiring full reboots. Thankfully the auto saving is good and I did not lose any significant progress, but this sort of thing worries me. Second, the game is now using so much custom animation that it seems to have trouble keeping up when Drake makes sudden movements on complicated geometry. This can result in Drake glitching out when changing elevations, and difficulty moving around areas that are not just straight lines. To me, Uncharted 2 felt butter smooth, and at its best, Uncharted 3 surpasses it, but unfortunately it feels like the game needed a bit more time in the beta test phase to iron some of these issues out. None of this is really game breaking, but it’s a black mark.
Speaking of custom animation, holy shit there is a lot of it. When it’s working properly, it is a complete pleasure to watch Drake move through his environments, be it climbing, walking through narrow alleys full of people, or squeezing through tight crevices in caverns. Drake interacts with everything around him in subtle and interesting ways that serve to make the game feel more realistic. For all the talk about glitchyness, Naughty Dog did a fantastic job in this area.
The game generally looks gorgeous as well. Uncharted 3 is clearly pushing the PS3’s graphical limits, and the results are spectacular. Characters have a great amount of detail, the facial animations are significantly improved, along with the lip synching, and the environments are lush. In particular, the folks who worked on the lighting in Uncharted 3 should be given raises immediately. The lighting is fantastic and really serves to enhance the environments. It even features prominently in at least two major puzzles in the game, both of which are fun and creative.
Finally, the music and sound is phenomenal. The soundtrack is appropriately reactive to whatever is going on on-screen, and the music feels similar, but not samey, to films like The Last Crusade and Lawrence of Arabia. I am the sort of person who usually finds game music irritating after a while and will listen to my iPod while playing. Not so here. The same with the voice acting, though frankly this has always been one of the strong points of the series. Nolan North returns for another fantastic performance as Nathan Drake, and the voice actors behind Sully, Elena, and Chloe all live up to their previous performances. Richard McGonagle, who plays Sully, actually outdoes himself here, stealing the show at several points in the game. New characters are also well played, including Cutter, who really should have been played by Jason Statham, and the new villain Kate Marlowe.
There is clearly more I could say about Uncharted 3, but it all comes down to this: Uncharted 3 is a fantastic game with a few significant problems. These problems are not so insurmountable that it will prevent fans from completing the game, and frankly by the time the game is over most will have positive thoughts about what they just played. Even so, the poor gunplay, repetitive game design, and the stability and glitchyness are problems that should not be overlooked.
While I highly recommend Uncharted 3 to ALL Playstation 3 owners, I hope that Naughty Dog addresses these issues in any further Uncharted games they may make, and in any games they may make in the future. If everything else about the game were not so strong, these would be real problems, and as it is, it is a damned shame that there were large spots in such a good game that I honestly was not having fun.
Even so, this game needs to be experienced. It is a wonderful feather in the PS3’s cap and, as long as they can address these issues in future iterations, I do hope they continue the franchise even further.