Has it already been two years since Uncharted 2 was released? Wow, I suppose it has. Doesn’t seem like two years. But I guess that’s partly because Uncharted 2 is a game that really sticks out in your memory when you play it. It doesn’t go away. It doesn’t stop feeling new and impressive. Uncharted 2 is one of – if not the – best games on the PlayStation 3. It was an order of magnitude better than the first Uncharted, which was also an exceptional game. What few flaws existed in the first game were fixed or rendered moot by the sequel, and Uncharted 2 is one of those rare games that is as close to perfect as a game can possibly be.
So, of course, Uncharted 3 has big shoes to fill. It was hard to imagine how a game could be better than Uncharted 2, whereas there were obvious areas for improvement with the first game.
In the end, Uncharted 3 meets expectations, but doesn’t really rise beyond what had already been done in Uncharted 2. As a stand-alone game, it is exceptional. But as part of a series, it’s merely a passable sequel; the Return of the Jedi of the Uncharted games.
Not that it’s a bad thing.
Sometimes, the controls are more dangerous than the enemy
Of course, there are numerous refinements to controls and some new or modified game mechanics. Some of the more subtle ones work great! The new aerial takedowns and context-sensitive attacks are awesome. You can drop down from a ledge or higher platform and tackle an enemy to the ground (stealthily). And when fighting on stairs, you can more effectively attack enemies at higher or lower elevations (often resulting in an immediate takedown). These tweaks are smoothly integrated into the existing game mechanics and work well.
And when you’re going for a stealth approach, moving in and out of cover and performing stealth takedowns (even while moving) are much more seamless and easier than in Uncharted 2.
Other new mechanics give me a bit of a mixed reaction.
During combat, you can disarm opponents and grab their weapon when you don’t have one of your own (or are out of ammo), and Drake will sometimes pull the pin off of an enemy’s grenade and then kick the enemy away. These are both cool moves (and usually very convenient), but the player doesn’t seem to have any control over them. They seem to be random, and the grenade thing just happens way too often.
The new brawling controls are also a mixed blessing. Naughty Dog tried to steal the combat mechanics from Batman Arkham Asylum, but their implementation in Uncharted 3 doesn’t come off as smoothly. When it works, it’s great! There’s some nice context-sensitive attacks (such as smashing an enemy’s head into a table or wall), and you can even counter while being grappled by an enemy. The problem is that the brawl controls conflict with the stealth controls, which conflicts with the standard controls, and the user doesn’t have any way to manually chose whether to use brawl controls or stealth controls.
The “[brawl] grapple”, “take cover”, and “dodge roll” commands are all mapped to the same button (O)! In Uncharted 2, the roll and take cover commands were both assigned to O button. This was tolerable because both of those actions were defensive tactics. Now, by overloading that button with a grapple command, the same control is mixed between defensive and offensive actions. That causes problems. Sometimes, I enter an area, Drake comments “Let’s do this silently”, and I sneak up behind an enemy and want to take cover behind a wall, but Drake ends up grappling and going into brawl mode. Once in brawl mode, the O button just grapples enemies, so now I can’t even dodge roll or take cover. This is even more painful when melee encounters are combined with enemies shooting at you with rocket launchers and sniper rifles from range. You can’t roll away from incoming fire! Drake just slide-warps to the nearest enemy and grapples him, then gets exploded by a rocket or shot in the back by a sniper.
And this contributes significantly to my biggest complaint with the game: a general feeling of lack of control and too much focus on action. There are just too many instances in which I thought “I didn’t want to do that!” Uncharted 2 hit a perfect balance of sneaking around and gunplay, and the game was exceptionally paced because of it. I rarely had to restart an encounter in Uncharted 2, and the game was allowed to flow smoothly and seamlessly from encounter to encounter. I’m sure some people complained that the game was too easy, but those people are morons. That’s what difficulty settings and multiplayer are for. Uncharted 2’s focus on sneaking around was more realistic and allowed the game and its story to unfold at a more natural pace.
Where did all these bad guys come from?
Uncharted 3 seems to have regressed back to the style of the first game: over-the-top, fast-paced gunplay against swarms of enemies at every turn. This was one of my biggest criticisms of the first game for both a gameplay standpoint and a story standpoint (where are all these bad guys coming from on this tiny island?). I felt much the same during most of Uncharted 3. Where are these guys coming from? Why are there so many of them? And what’s worse, the game continually throws hordes of enemies at you at times when the very appearance of enemies is completely illogical!
At one point, you’re trapped in a sinking ship (at the height of the game’s difficulty). There’s some impressive platforming and set piece action in this section, but there’s also hordes of enemy pirates shooting at you. In a sinking ship.
Why are there bad guys here? These are pirates! They have no sense of honor or duty. They aren’t going to go down with the ship. They have no personal investment in seeing Drake dead. They only kidnapped him in the hopes that they could make a quick buck off of him. These men should be scrambling out of the boat in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Not standing their ground and fighting. Not ambushing Drake as a wall of water is rushing towards them. And even if they want Drake dead: why even bother fighting? Why not just let Drake sink with the ship?
At several points in the game, enemies will swarm Drake, despite the fact that their surroundings are about to be obliterated. Couldn't Naughty Dog have come up with an interesting way of making the player have to compete with the enemies to make it out of the area alive instead of just resorting to a mindless gunfight? You know, like climbing over their backs or pushing them off of ledges while everybody scrambles to safety.
This had already happened once before and also happens again at the end of the game, when you’re running to escape from a sinking city (again). There are bad guys shooting at you. While the whole environment is collapsing around them. They don’t try to escape or save themselves. All they do is stand their ground and shoot at Drake. Don’t these people have families or girlfriends that they want to get back to? Or some reason to want to preserve their own lives?
Drake himself comments on all of these situations: “What’s with these guys? Don’t they know the city is collapsing?” I understand that this is supposed to be ironic and funny. But it isn’t. The main character pointing out a complete disregard for logic in a situation is bad. All it does is remind the player that the situation is complete bullshit and the developers are trying to compensate for the inability to make the platforming sequences adequately challenging.
Narrative hits and misses
I also had mixed reactions to the story. It felt too predictable and formulaic. The game’s plot was almost identical to the previous game. There were even some situations that were copy-pasted from the previous game. Everything felt so contrived. I found myself rolling my eyes every few cutscenes at just how “lucky” Drake gets on such a frequent basis. All those last-second saves and rescues start to get really boring when you can see them coming from a mile away. These things were more successful in Uncharted 2 because they hadn’t been done before. There was a real sense of suspense. I just never felt that in Uncharted 3 because everything felt so familiar. Been there, done that.
The “Lost in the Desert” chapter was the only part of the story that really felt unique or inspired. It was supposed to be one of the big, impressive new highlights of the game, but it kind of fell a bit flat for me. It was executed as a montage, which is reasonable from a gameplay perspective and was very well executed form a cinematic standpoint. The problem though is that the segment doesn’t evoke the kinds of feelings that it is designed to. No one “clip” of the montage lasts long enough to give a real sense of being lost in the middle of a vast desert and being prepared to die.
There was no time for a sense of anxiety or dread to build up. No time for you to feel like maybe you (the player) had gone in the wrong direction and were lost. No sense that you had to hurry, and that if you didn’t, Drake might actually die or the game’s narrative might be affected.
Stranding Drake in the desert allows for some impressive visuals and effects, such as the dissolving mirage (middle). The moving sand looks fantastic, and the glare from the sun is surprisingly bright on-screen.
But then again, the frequent checkpoint system inherent to the game’s design really mitigates any real sense of jeopardy that any such scene could possibly convey. After all, you know that even if there is some hidden timer that could cause you to fail the chapter, you’d just start at the beginning or the last place where you were on the right path. The bottom line is, this sequence didn’t really create any tension or feel threatening at all. It was just some visual eye candy (the desert did look fantastic) and an excuse to make “lost in the desert” jokes (oh, Drake went in circles; didn’t see that coming!).
MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!
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The one element of the plot that actually was unique and different was the game’s ending. The previous games had supernatural elements that manifested themselves towards the end of the game. Uncharted had Nazi zombies. Uncharted 2 had abominable snow men and undead warriors. Uncharted 3 has … hallucinations. Yep, that’s it. The closest thing we get to a supernatural enemy are the result of drug-induced hallucinations by Drake. Unless you want to count flesh-eating spiders from earlier in the game. Other than that, there’s no final encounter with a mad Djinn. No undead soldiers. No desert monsters.
I thought for sure that when Marlow sinks into the sinkhole that she’d merge with some angry Djinn that had escaped from the vessel that they were trying to recover, and that Drake would have to fight the Djinn while simultaneously escaping from the collapsing city. But no. The final boss fight is a brawl with Talbot. It makes for a more believable ending. It wasn’t some silly endurance fight with a monster that you have to shoot 15 times in the face with a rocket launcher. It was just a fist fight. And it was pretty well executed. Not as epic or interesting as the cutscene-infused brawl between Snake and Ocelot at the end of Metal Gear Solid 4, but it was much more playable.
I didn’t expect this brawl to be the end of the game. I thought for sure Marlow or Talbot would come back from the dead just as Drake was escaping. But that expectation was shattered when the “Charted” (game completion) trophy was displayed on the screen during the friggin cutscene. Geez, Naughty Dog, thanks for ruining the final cutscene! Talk about deflating any tension that might be left in the scene. Can’t you wait until the end credits start rolling to trigger the game completion trophy?
END OF SPOILERS (MOSTLY)
There are other nagging issues over the course of the game.
Get ready to stare at this spinning ring for a while. The loading screen can take upwards of two minutes. But once the game is loaded, it's seamless from then on!
You now have between 1 and 3 wingman allies during most of the game. But aside from the occasional scripted event in which one of them picks up a rocket launcher and blows away your opposition, they feel mostly useless. I still felt like I had to do all the work myself. Furthermore, they were horrible at dispatching enemies and even worse at covering my back. And they don’t do anything at all during stealth segments! I was constantly being surrounded by bad guys with my “wingman” just sitting behind a corner, popping out occasionally to shoot an errant shot into the distance. Thanks for the help, bro. Granted, the wingmen weren’t terribly useful in the previous games either, but this time, there’s three of them, and they still don’t do anything!
The camera also has some issues. There didn’t seem to be a “center camera” command. The previous games didn't have this either, but it's pretty standard in action games to have a center camera command. So why isn't it in this series yet? Usually, this is handled by clicking on the right stick, but I don’t think clicking either of the sticks has any effect in this game.
Also, does anyone else think that Elena looks weird. I guess she’s a few years older, so she should look a little different, but when did she become half-Asian? Am I the only one who thought she looked a bit odd?
Is it just me, or did Elena Fisher suddenly become half-Asian sometime in between Uncharted 2 (left) and Uncharted 3 (right)?
Masterpiece? Not so fast...
So what are all the other reviewers talking about when they say Uncharted 3 is a “masterpiece”?
Well, bottom line is that the game is still a lot of fun to play. There are some very nice visuals, and some breath-taking set pieces. There’s some subtle new passive animations that fit very well in the game. Drake will push his hands up against walls when he walks too close to them or turns a corner, and he’ll pat himself down looking for ammo when you try to reload a weapon that you have no more ammo for. The animations of characters swaying with the rocking of the cruise ship on the storm also looks good, and movement in this section feels very natural and appropriately clumsy.
The cruise ship escape is also where the game peaks in difficulty. From here on out, the game is much more fun to play and progresses at a much smoother pace. The game also gets much more visually interesting from this point onward. There’s a few nice scenic views of London and Arabic cities in the backgrounds of previous chapters, but they are brief-lived. Chapter 12 (the start of the boat segment) starts to showcase some very pretty new water and weather effects. The pouring rain soaks the environment (and Drake), and the sea starts to ripple with the waves of the coming storm.
The desert landscapes are heavily saturated in light and color, and indeed look oppressively desolate. The art department did a fantastic job on the second half of the game.
The game’s story is also much more personal than the previous games and contains a lot of characterization and backstory. We learn how Drake and Sully met, and learn about Drake’s childhood. I don’t particularly care for Drake’s “Aladdin”-style origin. I always thought of him as being more of a con-artist than a pick-pocket. And I didn’t quite understand why Sully helped Drake to begin with, but whatever.
There are also some very interesting interactions between Drake and Sully, Drake and Elana, and Elana and Sully. There’s mounting indications that Sully wants Drake to just stop adventuring, either because Sully just can’t keep up with him anymore or because Sully wants Drake to settle down and stop risking his life. There’s a lot of subtle innuendo between Drake and Elana regarding their apparently failed marriage and lingering feelings for each other. What’s great about all this is how subtle and passive all these narrative elements are. The game doesn’t shove these things in your face or stop to explain things too much. The writers trusted the player’s intelligence to fill in the gaps and figure out what is going on between the characters.
Treasures seemed to be much better hidden in this game. Like this hard-to-find one in chapter 11. If you don't pick it up on your way down the well, you won't get a second chance without restarting the mission.
The biggest problem that Uncharted 3 faces is that (while it may be a technically superior game in almost every way) it just doesn't blow Uncharted 2 out of the water the way that Uncharted 2 blew Uncharted 1 out of the water.
The game’s overall plot seems to be much more grounded in reality, which is an interesting change of pace that some people will like and others will hate. But the grittier story really clashes with the ridiculously over-the-top action that Drake has to go through so consistently.
Uncharted 3 ends up being an adequate sequel, but it really felt to me that every step forward that was taken was matched by a step backwards.