Platform: Playstation 3
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
It’s no surprise that nowadays we regularly see sales reports directly comparing how the latest Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto game generated revenue quicker than the biggest blockbuster movies of that year. They draw the comparisons not just because of the money but because they are starting to offer a comparable style of entertainment.
The Uncharted franchise for me embodies this trend. It is a series that could only exist on the current generation of consoles and not the ones before it because the charm of the game is so heavily tied to the visual spectacle on screen. Thats not all though. Like a broken record, with each iteration I’ve shouted from the rooftops how Uncharted is worthy of attention for its highly polished voice acting and art direction. The Uncharted series is that rare breed of video game that has the finesse and polish of a mainstream film when it comes to its presentation.
The opening moments of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception continues the same lofty standards that were set in Uncharted 2. The game starts in London. We see our heroes Drake and Sully enter a pub and in the privacy of a backroom, they initiate an exchange – a briefcase full of money for an antique ring. When our heroes discover the briefcase full of money is fake a fight breaks out. It is spectacularly choreographed. Hired goons rush in, meet a flurry of fists and get their heads cracked against the pool table. A guy gets knocked over the bannister and slides across the bar, spilling over frothing mugs of ale. A showdown with a giant behemoth ends up spilling into the bathroom which provides a brief moment of levity.
The opening act of Uncharted 3 is superb. It shows how video games can achieve a cinematic feel without reducing the interaction to single button pushes. There is a decent pace as the game moves between action and exposition. Graphically, a rooftop jaunt for Drake as he overlooks the London nightsky shows that the now-aging Playstation 3 is still capable of producing some breathtaking landscapes. And in keeping with the franchise’s ability to continually introduce new and interesting characters, we meet two great ones early on here – the villain Catherine Marlowe, who by her very existence as a middle aged woman makes her stand out amongst video gaming conventions and Cutter, a Jason Statham look-alike who could very easily have been cast as an oafish lunk but instead has a lot more to him than first impressions would suggest.
So far, so great. And its because Uncharted 3 is capable of reaching such highs that its low points sting particularly harshly.
Once the game hits the hour mark, it settles into a more conventional video gaming structure. And this is where Uncharted 3 occasionally falls on its face and frustrates.
Firstly, these sections of the games are still couched by cutscenes that work at a pace that is comparable to a film. So while the opening fight scene at the bar is fast moving and high tempo, there are long passages in the game that are anything but. Imagine an Indiana Jones film in which Indy breaks into a luxury chateau, looking for a clue to a hidden treasure. He finds a riddle and the answer points to a desert in Yemen being the location of a secret treasure. At that precise moment, some security guards burst into the room. Indy will need to quickly dispatch these guards and make his escape to get to Yemen. Now imagine if that scene took over an hour with thirty identical guards, some of whom can inexplicably withstand multiple pistol shots to the face. That’s Uncharted 3 sometimes.
The Uncharted franchise has always had a duck and cover system that is comparable to the style popularized by Gears of War. Only the difference is that Gears of War has a more accurate and satisfying shooting mechanic and more importantly, its set in a universe where you control a space marine in a war against hordes of aliens. The context is there. In Uncharted, you don’t want Drake to be a genocidal treasure hunter but Naughty Dog stubbornly refuse to budge on this. If anything, it feels as though Uncharted 3 ups the bodycount over its predecessors.
I put it to Naughty Dog that if there was an option to play the game with one third of the enemies, it would be more warmly received by a sizable chunk of its player base. And if that meant that the game goes for six hours instead of fifteen then good.
The opening sequence in the game is far from being the only highlight. Anytime the game breaks away from arena battles with dozens of armed hostiles, it shines. The entire end game in the desert is fantastic. I can’t think of a game before that has tried to evoke a long passage of time and someone slowly dying from dehydration but Naughty Dog have accomplished that with Uncharted 3, in a playable interactive fashion. It’s quite an accomplishment. Only they then undo their good work somewhat by having a near-death Drake stumble upon an abandoned desert city where he has to, you guessed it, fight off another two dozen armed guards.
Perhaps the scene that best epitomizes this unfortunate clash between the game’s cinematic high points and rigid shooting structure is aboard a freight ship in Yemen that begins to sink. The developers have gone to the trouble of creating a physics model that renders the water sloshing around the ship in real time. It’s an incredible technical feat. But despite having gone to that length, the enemies aboard the ship still stand rooted to the spot, shooting at Drake, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the ship they are on is overturning and sinking. The quality of the enemy AI is so far removed from the rest of the game it’s not funny.
All said, Uncharted 3 is a high quality game that is a cut above most other adventure games in terms of its ambition. I still look forward to future installments in spite of the game’s blemishes. Having said that, some of the sheen is definitely starting to wear off the series. Reading reviews and feedback online, I’m far from the only one feeling it. How Naughty Dog responds with future releases, I’ll watch with interest. They are forerunners in cinematic gaming. How will they address the critics and where do they go from here?