When Naughty is Very Nice
A video game review of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
By: Lawrence Napoli
2011 has been an incredible year for the world of media entertainment. Not only has it been one of the biggest years for Hollywood films, but the argument could easily be made that it was the greatest year for video game releases, ever! As great as all the fall releases have been, the entire year leading up to this moment has been very satisfying by featuring a steady stream of solid virtual experiences. January started the year off strong with DC Universe Online and Dead Space 2. February followed up with Killzone 3 and Marvel vs. Capcom 3: The Fate of Two Worlds. March featured Homefront only to be trumped the very next month in April by Mortal Kombat and Portal 2. May was strictly devoted to the phenomenal hype that preceded L.A. Noire. Infamous 2 stemmed the tide of the slow summer months in June. Then the first legitimate game of the year contender appeared in Deus Ex: Human Revolution in August that was followed up with Resistance 3 in September. That brings us all the way to the fourth quarter and despite the noticeable absence of games originally slated for a 2011 release (Mass Effect 3 and Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City I’m looking at you!) I can’t remember such a fun filled and high quality year of video game nirvana.
The bar for excellence continues to be raised by the video game industry which means that a more meticulous process for determining which project gets the title of “Game of the Year” must be undertaken. Naughty Dog’s flagship IP, Uncharted and its most recent release Drake’s Deception is certainly leading the short-SHORT list for the truly worthy of 2011. When the first multiplayer beta was released, I gave a thorough review here on Cosmic Book News, which had me expecting great things when the full game released later in the ,year. Having spent a large chunk of time during the finalized multiplayer, as well as completing one play through on the single player campaign; I can say with full confidence that Uncharted 3 is an experience that cannot be passed up by even the most casual of casual gamers. Anyone who owns a PS3 has no excuse for not having purchased this game already, and those of you still making heads and tails of your red rings of death ought to consider a new investment for this game alone. Games like Uncharted 3 will come to make Hollywood shake in its boots because they represent a level of creative artistry that the cinema simply cannot compete with due to the entrancing nature of the gaming experience. Uncharted 3 has it all: good story, frantic multiplayer, high production value, excellent voice acting, beautiful graphics, an alluring single player mode, lots of guns, an increased stealth element to combat and an overall cinematic presentation.
But, there is no such thing as a perfect game. This is one of the reasons why yours truly refrains from any numerical qualification of films or games because a “7” from me could be someone else’s “10,” and so on and so forth. As a reviewer, I bring to light my opinions tempered by a history of refined caveats both good and bad. I never would have thought I would question the basic story of an Uncharted game, but I have to tell you, this was a notable weakness in Drake’s Deception. “Wait a minute Lawrence! You just said this game had a good story.” Yes, the story was good in that it was not bad, but it also was not great, and Uncharted’s 1 and 2 can easily claim greatness to their fictions. The plot of Drake’s Deception centers on filling in Nathan Drake’s past and how it specifically ties into his relationship with his “mentor,” Victor Sullivan. I understand Naughty Dog’s need to go back to the past because adding more exposition to one’s fictional cannon makes even an iconic character less of a caricature and more relatable.
My first problem is that this exploration of the past doesn’t change Drake and Sullivan’s relationship in the least. They begin the story as treasure hunting brothers, and despite numerous criticisms by Drake’s other friends to treat Victor more like a father figure of advancing years, they remain treasure hunting brothers at the end. Sure, Nathan may be slightly less ignorant of the reality of mortality, but there’s no evidence of evolution which begs the question: “Why write about this in the first place?” Another problem I had with the story was the significant gap in time between the end of the second game and the beginning of the third, and the implication that everything that happened in between was totally irrelevant. As the story progresses, the gamer is introduced to some significant things that happened to Drake in that time period, and these are either alluded to or glazed over during the game. These details, like the relationship between Drake and Elena, are important to the story and the development of its characters, yet Drake’s Deception delights in subtle reveals as opposed to exploring them methodically. Another concern I have for this story is the fact that Nathan Drake, as a character, has not evolved in any significant way since we were all introduced to him in Drake’s Fortune. “Nathan Drake” was a fresh take on the treasure hunting mercenary that was equal parts capable of murder, cracking wise and being warm and cuddly, but a man of his experiences should have a different outlook on life and how he goes about living it by now. No moment in this game shows Drake’s oblivious nature better than when Chloe asks Drake (in reference to their current treasure hunting quest) “Why keep doing this?” A character that truly appreciates his or her experiences could answer such a question with minimal hesitation and some semblance of confidence, thus it comes to no surprise that Nathan Drake flubs this moment.
Another criticism I have is in regard to the play control and the seemingly arbitrary execution of stealth animations during the multiplayer mode. Drake’s Deception certainly features an increased role in stealth combat that neither of its predecessors truly felt comfortable with. Adding the “stealth attack icon” to indicate the exact moment in which the player can snap an opponent’s neck while sneaking up from behind was an excellent choice. Why can’t we have something like that for the other “instant kill” melee strikes like pulling/kicking opponents off ledges and slamming their heads on top of the cover they are hiding behind? I simply must be terrible at this as I rarely survive these confrontations during team death matches. 9 times out of 10 I reach out too early only to grab a fistful of air, thus allowing my opponent to dispatch me in any number of ways. Including some “stealth indicator” in these moments would be very helpful because there’s no practical means of gauging your character’s reach.
Not to harp on multiplayer, but there are a few other things that need to improve for Uncharted 4. First, matchmaking needs to be fixed. Sure, this is a common complaint that just about every game that has an online competitive mode can claim imperfection on, but I don’t see a vast improvement from the system that was introduced in Uncharted 2. Second, drop-outs need to be cleaned up. Logging on with your friends to make a team and “locking” said team should never lead to situations where if someone with lower ping in your party is silently removed for dropping out before the start of the match and only at the end of said match do you realize that your friend(s) wasn’t there the whole time. Last second drop outs also lead to awkward match restarts, which have been very frustrating to me as I tend to go on kill streaks early in every match. Third, the perk/kickback/booster system needs a little more creativity. This is not an outright dismissal as in-game bonuses are a vast improvement over the previous game, but instantly spawning with a more powerful weapon gets pretty dull. I was particularly disappointed with the “Juggernaut” kickback, where I presumed my character would transform into the Uncharted-style armored menace akin to Modern Warfare 3. I was quite wrong. All this kickback seems to do is make your avatar move at the speed of mud and be a magnet for the enemy team’s grenades which yields death to the player at a high rate. Future games need more kickbacks like “Creepy Crawler,” in that it adds a dynamic element of game play that is unique to this game mode. What about transforming into the zombies from Uncharted 1 or the giant, steroid-induced Smurfs from Uncharted 2?
Naughty Dog is a victim of its own success. The huge jump in innovative game play and scope of the story between Uncharted’s 1 and 2 is not nearly as impressive as that between 2 and 3. In this regard, many have already taken to the internet in the form of blogs, reviews and podcasts as they preach the incontrovertible superiority of Among Thieves to Drake’s Deception. To that I say, “No duh!” and “So what?” Uncharted 3 is still a superior action/adventure game that does a lot of things really well while still trying to be innovative and above all, entertaining. One such innovation is the more prominent role melee combat plays in this game. The player, as Drake, will be called upon to engage multiple assailants at various points without the convenience of a sidearm. No fret though, Drake is a skilled combatant who sports a revamped fisticuff mechanic allowing him to counter attacks and use props in the environment (like beer bottles on a bar table) to amplify the damage dealt. This mechanic is eerily similar to that featured in Arkham City, but is not nearly as crisp or fluid. I thought this was a really good idea for a game that incorporates stealth sequences in addition to moments with cramped environments that make aiming and shooting a little less practical.
Uncharted 3’s presentation of its single player campaign is simply put, second to none. Transitioning between action sequences to climbing to a combination of the two and incorporating down time to provide the gamer with exposition is not only what makes the single player experience interesting, but layered with drama. The subtle nuances of Drake talking to himself when frustrated or shooing the flies away from him while he walks is something that Naughty Dog prides itself upon and is something that is easily overlooked by many gamers. Some have found the scenes where the gamer controls Drake during “down time” to be somewhat drawn out and perhaps unnecessary, but how can anyone appreciate the action-packed highs when the dial is constantly set at 11? The fine art of pacing is that which narrative games are only now becoming comfortable with. Balancing exposition, character development and action is something that Hollywood seems to struggle with more and more, but Uncharted 3 is an excellent example of how it ought to be done.
On top of everything, Uncharted 3 is a very beautiful game to look at. From the streets of London to the jungles of France (there are jungles in France?) to the deserts of the Middle East; each and every environment in this game is riddled with detail, depth and realism. Seldom is the case that I feel the need to stop and smell the roses as I guide a generic avatar through a digital environment, but Drake’s Deception demands this in every change of scenery. The interior set designs may not have been as elaborate as they were in Among Thieves, but the exteriors continue to marvel; so much so that I dare anyone in their right mind to disqualify this game as art after simply looking at it. One of my absolute favorite examples of Naughty Dog’s digital art is its depiction of water, how it is animated within the scene (waterfall), how the player interacts with it and the lasting effects it has on Drake (he doesn’t dry off the instant he exits a lake).
There is no doubt in my mind that Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is the front-runner in every Game of the Year awards event that matters. There is equally no doubt in my mind that this game is inferior to its predecessor in just about every aspect with the exception of visual fidelity. It is for this reason alone that I believe that the other contenders for Game of the Year have a legitimate shot at challenging for the title. My personal pick is for Batman: Arkham City because it is every bit as beautiful as Drake’s Deception, yet manages to find several innovations to the format, presentation and execution of its game play to make it vastly superior to Arkham Asylum. “Innovation” will be the key word associated with true AAA games from this point forward and those that demonstrate this ability will be graded on a more favorable curve. Perhaps this is the reason why Spike TV’s GoY Show includes neither Modern Warfare 3 nor Battlefield 3 in its category for Game of the Year?