Saturday, November 5, 2011

REVIEW - Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception.

Whether or not Uncharted 3 succeeds depends on what you ask of it. If you want a game that performs technical miracles, rendering you speechless at its beauty on an alarmingly regular basis - this is it. If you want an grand, globe-trotting adventure with spectacular pacing, look no further. If you want a great story with sharp, elegant writing - or a game that truly dedicates itself to its cornerstone cover-based shooting - perhaps you should look elsewhere.

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was a modern masterpiece, and its spectacular sequel is easily one of the best games of this generation. It's very troubling that Uncharted 3 - superior to its progenitor in terms of technology, gameplay and narrative pacing - should be a lesser experience overall.

Troubling, but true.

Graphically, Uncharted 3 is nothing less than astonishing. This is one of those games you constantly gape at and wonder how on earth they pulled it off. How in the world did they create those pitch-perfect sand effects? How did they make the sun-dappled ruins of a chateau in France so blindingly sharp? How did they cram these textures into a game with no loading screens?

If nothing else, Uncharted 3 propels you through a world that brings to mind all sorts of delicious descriptors - but the best may be sumptuous. This is a gorgeous game that will regularly leave you amazed at what, it turns out, is possible on the PlayStation 3 - and the game's pacing is such that one feels inestimably comfortable throughout the whole affair.

For the entire game, you are lazily, happily backstroking through supernatural beauty.

Honestly - this is a screenshot. It's just... mrowr.

The game reads like a master's thesis on narrative pacing. It knows well that - in storytelling - you don't start off with your biggest bang and work forward from there, or keep things at a constant fever pitch, as this soon grows stale.

It starts off gently, with a tutorial on fisticuffs during a (gorgeous) barroom brawl before rewinding into some touching backstory that teaches you the finer points of its platforming. The game ping-pongs back and forth between tense, thrilling action and moments of gentle calm, allowing us to catch our breath before thrusting us into another life-or-death escapade, raising the stakes ever-higher.

It's so finely tuned that you will find yourself breathlessly barreling headlong through your first playthrough, blind to all else until you see the credits roll. Having immensely enjoyed yourself, you fire right into a second run... and then you start to notice that while Uncharted 3 is a pretty great story you want to see through to the end, as a game it leaves a bit to be desired.

The pacing is so structured and so deliberate that relatively less time is spent on platforming and shooting than the first two games. There are fewer opportunities to master and appreciate the finer points of these facets, offset as they are with slow strolls through rich backstory and blindingly gorgeous scenery.

Again, on an initial playthrough, this is entirely inoffensive. On subsequent dealings with the game, you may find yourself wishing it would hurry up and get back to the action.

The action is largely exemplary. The franchise's shooting has never been so refined and rewarding, with vicious enemies sporting heavy calibers and eagle eyes. Once one is deeply comfortable with all the mechanics Uncharted 3 offers, its shootouts become an incredible action movie simulator with a great deal of depth for those who would seek greater understanding of its systems.

Similarly, the platforming - while often frustratingly linear, and too-rarely combined with the combat - is silky smooth. This is gameplay that has been refined to a razor's edge - made all the more appetizing with tiny touches like the way Drake will use his body language to show you he can make that next jump, if you tap X.

While it clearly has a very great deal to offer, Uncharted 3 falls short of the standard set by its predecessor by fumbling - but not quite dropping - what has always been the series' greatest strength. The context for the action of Uncharted 3 feels arbitrary, and forced - a significant departure from the charming, easy-going storytelling of the first two installments.

While the cast's casual moments remain as endearing and natural as before, Drake's Deception has great difficulty presenting exposition and plot turns in a way that feels anything but ham-handed. At one point a character turns to the hero and asks "I'm losing the plot, here - why are we doing this, again?", before we, the audience, are bluntly filled in with heavy, inelegant explanation.

What should have been Drake's most personal journey - a thrilling adventure both within and without - is instead a churlish series of turns you see coming a mile away. The game attempts, with a knowing wink, to lampoon its franchise's own clich├ęs - but instead it feels like it wallows in them before setting up expectation and dashing it without reason.

Uncharted 3 is an odd duck of a threequel. While it soundly eclipses the first two games in presentation and mechanics, its structure - a slave to its overwrought, undercooked narrative - leaves one wanting more, in terms of pure gaming.

No one, it seems, can do set pieces and shooting action and gleefully spectacular escapes like Naughty Dog. No developer can match them in terms of technology, as they have seemingly pushed the PlayStation 3 well beyond its comfort zone to a point where one could fairly suspect they have made some unseemly arrangement with supernatural forces.

As a movie it is beautiful, occasionally legitimately affecting and often rather coarse. As a game it is often exemplary, but suffers from pacing that perfectly serves the story while failing the gameplay. I enjoyed it - thrilled to it - and wholeheartedly endorse it as an experience unlike any other you will find in 2011, but not without caveat.

In nearly all the ways we love Uncharted, Naughty Dog has outdone themselves. In a few, crucial aspects, Uncharted 3 is inelegant.

  • the PS3's best-looking game
  • technologically astounding
  • exemplary presentation across the board
  • Nolan North, Richard McGonagle and Graham McTavish are all fantastic
  • the cover-based shooting is challenging, rewarding and very finely-tuned
  • I love the gorgeous and constantly-changing environments
  • excellent enemy AI - these guys are bastards
  • the series' best escape sequences
  • the Rub' al Khali sequence is 2011's Microwave Hallway - incredible
  • often charming, fun and emotionally engaging
  • brilliant little touches are everywhere
  • crushing difficulty redefines the experience, and is a significant and welcome challenge
  • thank goodness for chapter selects. More games need this.
  • in terms of narrative, the pacing is perfect

  • the game's pacing - so crucial to telling the story - negatively impacts the gameplay. Long droughts between gunfights - the next of which features a new mechanic or enemy - leads to severe difficulty spikes.
  • the writing is not up to the series' previous standards
  • Emily Rose kinda' phones it in
  • I am sick of fighting that big goon. It was cool in the bar. It was okay the second time. After that it was just busywork.
  • we didn't spend nearly enough time in the Iram
  • in fact, that whole ending was pretty dissatisfying, compared to what came before
  • Drake's animations are not up to previous standards
  • if - during an escape sequence or chase - you ever go off the game's intended rails, the whole thing comes to a screeching halt. It's like a very-interactive cutscene.
Uncharted 3 is a jaw-dropping, supernatural success in many areas - but not all.

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