Uncharted Series Review: Part 3: Uncharted: Drake’s Deception

Well, well, it appears an old dog can learn new tricks! After two games of decided alright-ness Naughty Dog came together to produce Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, a game which is undoubtedly Uncharted but recognizes that the first two games spent too much time faffing about and not really doing anything. As a result the first two games were uninspired, emotionally stunted clones of each other sporting the same plot and very little innovation in the way of game play and story-telling. Uncharted 3 at least attempts something different, and somewhat successfully I might add.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception once again has him ruining his relationship with Elena over some lost treasure that no one will get any material benefit from, and will cause everyone to walk away with further mental scarring. This time, it opens in a bar fight, the result of Nathan and Sully (mentor and surrogate father figure from the last two games) closing in on a deal which turns out to be fake. However the protagonists have conned the con artists and use them to get information on an unaccounted for 6 months on Sir Nathan Drake’s voyage to the West Indies. The plot unravels conspiracy after conspiracy and actually deals with some of the things that make Nathan Drake the treasure hunter we all know.

I was actually somewhat impressed with this game’s story. After Nathan and Sully “die” the player is taken to a segment in Cartagena, where Nathan went during his travels in order to “inherit” Sir Francis Drake’s ring from an exhibition. It’s here that Nathan meets Sully, who offers to take the child under his wing and teach him to become a better thief, and where they make a mutual enemy (and for Drake it’s personal) out of Marlowe, a woman who is a member of a secret order dabbling in occult sciences.

For whatever reason, Naughty Dog seem intent on adding new characters, and this year’s model is a British brute with brains called “Charlie Cutter”. He’s big, he’s mean, he speaks crassly, has an awesome accent and has brains that seem to outwit that of Nathan and Sully when he corrects Sully on a quote from Macbeth, and Nathan reveals he is completely unfamiliar with the play as he asks “Who’s Macduff?”. It’s something I’ve noticed in the Uncharted series and that is that Nathan is incredibly stupid. I mean, he’s intelligent when it comes to languages, ancient symbols from ancient alphabets and working out centuries old puzzles, but it’s common that there’s a huge gap in his knowledge, and generally with something that even I knew about; and I’m certainly no career thief/artifact hunter. It’s not really clear whether this gap in his knowledge is because of his youth, or just utter stupidity. All I know is, with a dude as smart as Nathan Drake is, him not being familiar with Macbeth is kind of…dumb.

I praise Naughty Dog for this game’s plot. They utilized the form of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune script, and did away with the convoluted methods of working zombies into the story. Instead, the script for Drake’s Deception is rooted in what the writers do best on this series – taking historical realities, and applying fictional creativity. What’s more is they finally dealt with some things from Nathan’s past. We find out the tragedy of his parents, got some significant hints as to why he’s a treasure hunter, and we started to see some very human flaws in his character that until now had only ever taken place off-screen.

However while I praise it for its emotional content, I must simultaneously tear it down for its inconsistency. See, the game sets up this whole thing with occultism. If you’ve read my reviews for Uncharted and Uncharted 2, you’ll remember that I criticized the game’s total lack of commitment to either reality or fantasy, trying to blend the two in a clunky mess of a story that made the game seem unable to decide what it wanted to be. However Uncharted 3 gave me the impression that it had finally learned to decide. It wanted to be a Dan Brown-esque (The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons) mystery with a bit of occult history and practice thrown in, and I was all down for that. They did some really cool things where an antagonist came back to life after being killed, there was alchemy involved, magical societies and a very nice sequence where somehow, a “The Tower” tarot card ended up in Cutter’s pocket after he broke his leg falling from a burning tower. Sadly, this is where the occultism ended, and I was rather disappointed to find that it was all the result of some mad hallucinogen that the bad guys were planning to sell to the highest bidder. It was really annoying that the game had finally decided what it was going to do, and set it all up really nicely, and then suddenly none of it was relevant because rather than start off realistic and have an ending steeped in myth, this time it started mythical and had an ending steeped in reality. It was the same problem just reversed.

Level designs are greatly improved, with the pieces of each of the three-dimensional navigation puzzles able to be found with a little patience, whereas the other games, hand and foot holds were often invisible due to overly dark shadows or hidden in the camouflaging color palette of the area. But nothing is “hidden” because of bad level design in Uncharted 3, it’s all right there and the beauty is that it’s hidden in plain sight. Everything looks real and part of its natural environment. There’s the distinct feeling that “These bars aren’t here for me just to climb, they’re here because they’re part of the working environment.” and that’s a good feeling for a game that focuses as much on traversing a three-dimensional environment as Uncharted does.

While I’ve maintained that the Uncharted series boasts amazing graphics, I feel that it didn’t come across nearly so well as it does in Drake’s Deception-with there being a stand-out level that takes place inside a sinking ship. When Nathan climbs his way to the lavish ball room of the gigantic cruiser, the ship’s glass ceiling holds the back the crashing waves, and looking at it is a terrific spectacle, the color of the water and the roughly flowing waves against the glass is just absolutely beautiful. I remember halting playing for a while just to stare at the scene, as it was equal parts terrifying and gorgeous.

Game play has been greatly improved as well. Enemy AI plans and works together to try to overwhelm Drake, but there is definitely the sense that Drake is a more creative thinker and so can adapt to the situation. This addresses the issues of balance that I noted in the first two games where Uncharted featured AI with the intelligence of bullet-loving gnats and with Uncharted 2’s AI being so incredibly overpowered they eat Zeus’ lightning for fun. Drake is much easier to control, improved upon even from Uncharted 2, and there are a few moments where the narrative affects the game play, which is always impressive because it continues the rhythm and pacing of the story and allows the player to interact with and be a part of that story, rather than just a dude controlling a character. However, it falls apart at one point where Drake spends several days navigating a humongous desert and the player is forced to control his trudging, flailing, exhausted body across vast desert sands and it feels like a huge struggle. However he eventually arrives at a ghost town and starts climbing up walls and jumping off them with the same proficiency he had the rest of the game. When enemies start showing up, he’s firing off round after round, throwing grenades, dodge rolling. While a fun battle there’s the constant feeling of “This shouldn’t be happening!”. At this point Drake has barely slept, he’s overheated, dehydrated and utterly exhausted. It was really disappointing that this segment wasn’t written/planned a little better to allow those things to come into the game, because it disrupted the reality that Naughty Dog had worked so hard to build.

Definitely the best one yet of the series (I won’t be playing Uncharted 4: Thieves’ End anytime soon,), Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception shows the ability to learn from flaws, and is the best sequel in the series because it retains and builds off what the first two did right, while eliminating most of the bad. Flaws present themselves through a mis-use of plot details, and a disruption in continuity between narrative and game play. However Drake’s Deception did what no other Uncharted game did, and that is it got me emotionally involved. It made me feel like I was Nathan Drake, like his struggles were my struggles, and by opening up to the realm of emotion, the game itself opened up like a heavy treasure chest laden with Spanish dubloons. 4/5.

Initial release date: November 1, 2011
Series: Uncharted
Developer: Naughty Dog
Designer: Amy Hennig
Awards: VGX Award for Best Graphics
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