After six months, we’ve finally reached the finale of our Uncharted PlayBacks. Back in March, we explored Drake’s Fortune with Jim, and then in June I delved into Among Thieves. Jim said that the series’ debut was “one of the best titles available on PlayStation”, and I added that its sequel was “a solid game that will keep you absorbed from beginning to end”.
The second game of the series, Among Thieves, was a marked improvement on its predecessor. It took every aspect of the first game: the climbing mechanics (and their flaws), the level design, the characters, and it built on them to create an experience that still rivals releases today. Unfortunately, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception did not improve on the series to the same degree. The third instalment tweaked with some of Among Thieves’ issues, but ultimately delivered an adventure that did little to deviate from its acclaimed predecessor.
Some of the key selling points of Uncharted 3 were the set pieces. Whether it was after hiking to a mountain’s summit, or while running over a city’s rooftops, the chance to view your surroundings in full was worth the trails of corpses that Nate would leave in his stead. The vast areas would also allow for multiple combat strategies, keeping fights engaging as long as the player puts in the time to calculate their moves. Even in more subdued sections, such as the desert in the later portion of the game, panning the camera could give the player more than just a chance to gaze in awe at the landscape; the flatter environments and better use of viewpoints allowed set pieces to be used to their full capacity; adding to the feeling of hope, or desperation, or whatever mood the scene necessitated.
The mood in Drake’s Deception as a whole was more involving than the series’ previous instalments. Uncharted 3 is no longer just a story of adrenaline, teamwork and betrayal. It takes the usual plot elements and uses them to make us question the motivations behind what why we’re doing. The villain, Marlowe, sows the first seeds of this doubt, building on it as the game progresses. Where Lazarevic was nothing more than a meaty obstacle for Nate to overcome, Marlowe plays the role of the insidious villain. Her character eschews the expectations of a typical big-bad in an action game, focussing less on fighting, more on Nate’s past, and adding to the overarching plot. She ties perfectly into the Uncharted storyline, and is (arguably) the main redeeming feature in what can at times be a gruelling journey.
I wasn’t sure whether to describe the upgraded melee mechanics as an improvement or a failure. They’re a huge step up from the previous games, and no longer lock you into a one-on-one fight to the death. Group fighting plays a larger part in Uncharted 3 (as emphasised by the bar fight in the game’s introduction), but melee combat remains clumsy and can be slow to cancel out of. Placing a poorly timed punch can result in Nate being shredded by bullets before you can say “Sir Francis”.
There were a lot of ways Uncharted 3 failed to improve on the series. Although the plot was more involved, it felt like a template of the previous two games had been filled with scraps from the cutting room floor. There were some splashes of new ideas and ingenuity, but the game’s progression is disappointingly reminiscent of the last two instalments, especially in the final act. In an effort to make itself stand out, Uncharted 3 wanders into the realms of the ridiculous. Some scenes are so unbelievable, even within the realms of the game-world, that they require the suspension of disbelief. Surviving a shipwreck, a plane crash, and ploughing through terrorists after two days without food or water – if moments like this were rare it would be more bearable, but the impossible occurs time and time again. Oddly, the game ends on a more ambiguous tone than those before it, making these farcical moments all the more confusing.
The small steps Uncharted 3 takes to improve the series are minuscule compared to the leap between the first and second instalments, but it remains a great game in its own right. It has all the ingredients for the perfect game, yet it fails to live up to expectations. Its plot explores new realms in the dynamic between protagonist and antagonist. We learn more about why Nate chases after the story’s macguffin, giving the search for treasure meaning, rather than being another meaningless rat race. Its combat irons out many of the issues in melee fights, and its use of set pieces goes to show just how grand a game it is.
If Drake’s Deception managed to blend action and adventure more smoothly, rather than relying on clear-cut fighting and platforming sections; if it didn’t juxtapose extreme, impossible scenes with a predictable and unsatisfying closing act; if it were possible to play without comparing it to the games that came before it… Then it would be perfect.
When it came out, we scored Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception a whopping 10/10 and, although it may not be the best game of all time, or even in its franchise, it’s still as unmissable as ever.