Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Uncharted 3

The Uncharted series is well-known for being very high quality entertainment in the video game genre. Inspired by the world-spanning adventures of one Indiana Jones, they tend to have compelling stories with hilarious dialogue. Nathan Drake and his friends are interesting and multifaceted. The scenery is beautiful and often takes in a huge range of locales. From the icy caverns of Nepal to the jungles of Borneo, it is hard not to be swept up for the ride.

From a gaming standpoint, the series also excels by virtue of being balls-out insane. The hugest contributors to this is the fact that the game's creators have a habit of sitting in a room, thinking of the most absurdly awesome action set-pieces imaginable, and then building the story around them. The games are an action movie fan's fondest dream. A gunfight in a collapsing building? Oh yeah. A chase scene taking place atop a train being strafed by a half dozen helicopters? Totally happens. Fistfighting in the rain as a giant tsunami bears down on you and the ship graveyard surrounding you? YES.

Does Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, the latest of these games, live up to the series' stellar and epic reputation?

Thoughts on Gameplay

Uncharted 3 has some of the most stunning and jaw-dropping action scenes I've ever seen, much less played. Fighting your way out of a cruiser as it is sinking during a tropical thunderstorm is just insane and would be an epic climax to any game, but for Uncharted 3 that is merely what happens in a single level. It is one crazy moment of dozens. Have you ever struggled to stay alive in a cargo plane that is falling apart all around you, get sucked out and then barely manage to dive for a parachute in mid-air while rubble and bad guys fly all around you? Ever been in a bar fight where you have to break through doors, slam toilets into people, and fend off baddies with pool cues? Narrowly escaped an ancient castle that is burning down all around you? Uncharted 3 lets you do that and so much more... I could keep going but I would just end up taking up an entire page talking about the ridiculous shenanigans you can get up to in this game.

However, unlike its predecessor, this action is tainted by sequences of repetitive gunfighting that are more annoying than enjoyable. That flooding cruiser fight in the stormy seas? I didn't mention that, to get to it, you have to slog your way through at least an hour of mind-numbing shooting and frustrating exploration of old, rusty busted sea vessels. This is not fun to do. One thing that the Uncharted games tend to get right is having you play in an exciting aesthetic that keeps interest and staves off fatigue. Uncharted 3 failed to do this effectively on a number of occasions. My friends and I found ourselves idly wondering how many people Drake had killed throughout the game; this is indicative of how much continual combat you have to suffer through to get to the gems of excellence.

Thoughts on Story

The first Uncharted focused on Drake's budding relationship with the investigative reporter, Elena, while searching for treasure in South America. The second Uncharted gave Drake a nemesis shadow of himself, Flynn, and created a love triangle between him, Elena, and the sultry adventurer, Chloe, with them looking into legendary relics in Nepal. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception chooses to put the spotlight on Drake's background and relationship with his roguish father figure, Sully, as they explore for clues of artifacts in North Africa.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing to focus on. Though it is easy to speculate of treasure hunting and narrowly avoiding the law, we don't actually know much about Drake or Sully's past. The problem is that we don't end up learning all that much new about these characters. We get to see the circumstances surrounding their first meeting and Drake's Aladdin-like tendencies when he was a kid but, beyond that, it seems like the big reveal is learning that Drake has always been a compulsive treasure hunter. As this is abundantly clear from playing any of the games for more than ten minutes, having that aspect of him focused on was disappointing. They try to give it weight by having Drake's friends get endangered by his obsession but, for whatever reason, it never really sinks in.

Part of that, I think, is because the action of the game created a disjointed feeling between story and gameplay. Having an epic chase scene and then having someone (usually Chloe or Elena) berate Drake over it doesn't really resonate when you are still exhilarated by the experience. Also, having an hour or two of tedious shooting through bad guys can lead to disinterest and a disconnection with the overall plot. Spending a long time repeatedly trying not to die can lead one to forget why you are there in the first place.

In addition, the story suffered by lieu of the fact that things are so much more exciting when the gang is all together. Having Drake, Sully, Cutter, and Chloe teamed up at the beginning was awesome, but things just went downhill when, for whatever reason, they decided to just have Drake and Sully hang out and do all the heavy lifting. Elena (who, for the record, is Drake's main love interest) has less screen time than pretty much everyone else, which was shocking considering how popular and central her character is within the series. Drake and Sully are cool, but the choice to sidetrack the rest of the cast and focus only on those two made no sense and was disappointing.

Finally, the villains were uninspiring and the 'final treasure', as it were, was stupid. I still have no real idea what Marlowe and Talbot's motivations were. And having this epic castle of the sands merely contain a funky hallucinogen felt anti-climactic. Why would anyone go to so much trouble and effort to go to this place for such a drug when it would almost certainly be more cost-effective and efficient to produce one of your own? Having the final battle essentially reduced to a quick-time event (press the right button at the right time to win) had me also feeling cheated. A good boss battle should have you test the skills you've acquired throughout the game in one last culminating confrontation that truly matters. Instead it was merely a matter of reflexes against someone who had already lost. Disappointing.


But perhaps the real enemy here was my own expectations. While the first Uncharted bugged the hell out of me, the second was truly magnificent in every way, having me incredibly excited to play this game. Virtually every review glowed and, with a reputation for cinematic brilliance beyond any game and rivaling most movies, perhaps I set the bar too high. After all, Uncharted 3 had some incredible moments and there were definitely a number of scenes that “captured the magic”. But this excellence wasn't constant, which has me coming out of it with more nitpicking criticisms than gushing over how awesome it was.

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