Saturday, November 12, 2011

Review - Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

The rousing success of 2009’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves left Naughty Dog in a slight predicament. On one hand the studio had created a masterful sequel that improved on its highly capable predecessor in every department; it was a cinematic thrill ride that subsequently set the benchmark for all action adventure games. On the other, our expectations for the inevitable third instalment were now stratospheric.

Naughty Dog has made no secret of the intense pressure it is under to deliver with Drake’s Deception. Much of this is of course self-imposed due to the impeccably high standards the developer has set for itself. But Uncharted now has an allegiant fan base that expects number three to eclipse one of this generation’s finest titles. Nathan Drake’s latest adventure is certainly under intense scrutiny. Among Thieves passed the “difficult second album” test with flying colours and to universal appraisal. However, in all forms of media we’ve witnessed a triumphant sequel later followed by an altogether less inspiring outing. Drake’s Deception doesn’t disappoint because of a lack of effort or care poured in to it, but it’s missing that magic that marked the evolutionary leap from the first to the second incarnations of the series. Perhaps then it’s to its testament - that despite the almost inevitable failure to have a similar impact as its esteemed forbearer – it’s still a very good game.

Much of Uncharted’s appeal lies in the superb characterisation of its protagonists. Nathan Drake may indeed be a cocksure, wise-cracking lead, but he’s fundamentally an affable sort of bloke. Despite the spiralling body count and explosive Hollywood inspired set pieces, he’s far from the generic muscle-bound action heroes we’ve become all too accustomed to. He makes mistakes. His vulnerability is often exposed. And, most tellingly in Drake’s Deception, he starts to question his own motives. Although this sits at complete odds with the relentless gunplay, it’s refreshing to control a character that - at least in part - you can relate to. Gears of War’s testosterone fuelled killing machines do their job peerlessly, but the ill conceived Dom and Maria saga in GOW2 all but proved that storytelling is far from the series’ strongpoint.

This isn’t the case with Drake’s Deception. Although combat is adequate, almost every facet of it has been produced to greater effect elsewhere (more on that later). However, when it comes to scripting, character chemistry and overall charm (as with Among Thieves before it) it’s exemplary. From playing as a young Drake and understanding the basis of his relationship with series stalwart Sully, to the banter between British hard man, Charlie Cutter, and Nathan - Uncharted 3 is a delight. Although its villains have an archetypal pantomime feel to them, the malignant Marlowe and contemptible Talbot play their parts well in a generally involving plot, complete with cunning twists. The game manages to strike a fine balance between typical light hearted humour and the more dramatic moments it inevitably throws your way. Although nothing quite captures the comic brilliance of the “There’s a guy below you, there’s a guy below you!” moment in UC2’s early stages, there’s plenty of memorable dialogue to enjoy.

Drake’s Deception is no doubt a fine spectacle. You’ll soak up everything that’s going on around you and appreciate its undeniable charisma. However, all too often you’ll feel like a passenger being whisked along for the ride. In other words, Uncharted 3’s strengths have very little correlation to the actual gameplay at all. The result is basic, but adequate mechanics wrapped in a blockbuster exterior. You could argue that Among Thieves used the same template, but it was so unexpected, such a massive leap forward in terms of scale and spectacle that it was hard to fault. Although there are many dazzling set pieces in Drake’s Deception, some wonderfully realised environments and a sustained sense of adventure, the gameplay now feels somewhat rudimentary.

Cover based combat falls short of what Gears of War 3 recently perfected (which defines its experience) and the QTE based melee system pales in comparison to Arkham City’s freeflow brilliance. For all of the epic scenarios that Drake finds himself in (scaling a nose-diving cargo plane, escaping from an inferno in an ancient French chateau or engaged in a horseback gunfight through scorching desert) basic shooting and jumping is the extent of true player interaction.

Drake’s Deception will often throw some cruel and inconsistent difficulty spikes your way too. Grenades rain down; heavily armoured goons outflank you as snipers take potshots from concealed vantage points. Challenge is all well and good but sometimes it all feels a little unfair, especially considering that combat is far from UC3’s finest and most versatile trait. BUT, despite these minor annoyances, despite its mechanics feeling a little outdated now, Drake’s Deception is hard not to love. Its affable characters and involving story make up for its gunplay/fistfight related shortcomings. The beautiful visuals and abundance of epic scenarios often mean that you’ll forget that you’re not really doing that much while they’re occurring anyhow. There are still plenty of ‘wow moments’ playing out in front of your eyes regardless of how truly involved the player is. In that respect Drake’s Deception in no way does a disservice to the Uncharted name and is a worthy instalment in the trilogy.

You always get the nagging feeling that Drake’s Deception is competing with Among Thieves as opposed to capitalising and improving upon it. To be fair, there are few small refinements here and there, but these serve to iron out UC2’s minor flaws (the cumbersome and ill conceived boss battles being the most thankful removal) rather than set it head and shoulders above its predecessor. However, fans of the series will no doubt feel that they’re getting their money’s worth. Drake’s Deception is still a white knuckle ride infused with all the wit, character and charm that series has rightly become renowned for.

Amongst Thieves’ omnipresent shadow still looms, a shadow that Nathan Drake will find incredibly tough to step from. But credit to the studio; it will inevitably keep striving to eclipse the gold standard of action/adventure gaming it set in 2009. Even if Drake’s Deception doesn’t quite manage it - in Naughty Dog’s esteemed hands - the future is still very bright for Uncharted.

*Reviewed on PS3