Without a doubt, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is the most lavishly produced, highly polished game I've played all year. It's also one of the least fun.
That's coming from a guy who beat Uncharted 2: Among Thieves in one ten-hour sitting because it was just that good. Sure, it totally fell apart at the end, pitting Drake against ridiculous blue monsters for no good reason before flagrantly ripping off the final boss fight of GUN, but the nine hours before that were sheer brilliance, so all was forgiven.
But Uncharted 3 is a mess from start to finish, opening with a bar fight that plays like a poor man's Batman: Arkham City and closing with a shameless retread of Uncharted 2's final moments. As the credits mercifully closed the curtain on Drake's Deception, I was left totally speechless, wondering how Naughty Dog could've dropped the ball so badly.
Let me take this opportunity to reiterate just how outstanding the production values of this game are: It's beyond gorgeous, filled with the kind of crispness and bright colors that made Uncharted 2 pop off the screen. The set pieces are technical marvels, pushing the PlayStation 3 harder than we ever thought possible and making for exhilarating showpieces. There are no cut corners here, and it shows.
That said, looking pretty just isn't enough when the rest of the game is so lackluster.
Uncharted 3 stumbles right out of the gate, opening with an awkward bar brawl and a blatant disregard for the events of Uncharted 2. It never feels inspired, like that game did; it feels like "just another adventure," which I'm sure most people will be totally fine with, but wasn't really what I was looking for. Abandoning the last game's conclusion in favor of yet another trip around the world to find yet another fabled lost city with only the barest of explanations just feels lazy.
Chloe is still in the mix, though no longer as a love interest nor as feisty (and therefore, is much less interesting), now joined by a cheeky Brit named Cutter, both of whom get inexplicably cut from the story about halfway through. Really, the one character that Uncharted 3 does any justice to is Sully, whose past with Drake is explained in a long scene that culminates with a chase that would have been awesome if it didn't result in instant failure the moment you make a wrong turn.
Ultimately, the story here hits most of the same beats that Uncharted 2 did, right down to a late "reveal" of Elena, who's been off doing her own thing between games, and ends on the exact same note, too. It lacks the passion of earlier games, and more than ever, just feels like an excuse to string set pieces together.
No more is this evident than the sinking cruise liner that Naughty Dog proudly trotted out at its big E3 2011 reveal. It's stunning, for sure, but it also has shit-all to do with the rest of the game. It's a two-hour tangent in the middle of the story that goes nowhere and serves only as an impressive set piece. It's window dressing, and nothing more.
Something to note is how much that sequence changed between the E3 demo and the final game. In the demo, combat smartly took a backseat to the spectacle of everything going on around you, and the whole scene played out quite smoothly as a result. The final game, however, foolishly throws dozens of enemies at you, breaking the flow of another "would have been awesome" scene. Instead of concentrating on finding a way out of the ship, I was busy dodging bullets, grenades and fists, and not having much fun at all.
It's a game that has a few good tricks, but uses them all too often. If you liked the end of that E3 demo, when Drake runs toward the camera, then I hope you'll still like it the fifth or sixth time you do it in the full game. You'll run toward the camera from water. You'll run toward the camera from fire. You'll run toward the camera from a nonsensical swarm of spiders. You'll run toward the camera from another nonsensical swarm of spiders, and then once more, just in case you weren't tired of it yet.
You'll also fight some very nasty brutes, seven-foot-tall beasts of men that come at the most inopportune times and usually require that you take them out with your fists because, really, guns are so passé. You'll fight one every time Naughty Dog seemingly didn't feel confident that a combat scenario would be memorable enough, which proved to be pretty often: You'll fight one in a bar, a burning chateau, a citadel, a plane, a truck, and just when you thought you couldn't possibly fight another one, you'll fight another one. Despite the location changes, these fights play out exactly the same way every time and would've been much better reserved for one or two instances throughout the entire game.
But the biggest downfall of the Uncharted series has always been the gunplay. Whether the enemies take too many bullets, the combat scenarios aren't well-designed, or the aiming is busted, something is always wrong. Well, that hasn't changed.
just isn't enough
when the rest of the game is so lackluster.
Uncharted 3 has all of those problems, but it's the poorly designed combat scenarios that I found the most frustrating. Probably the worst of these had me fighting dozens of pirates in a ship graveyard. They were spread out across several boats, and I had very little cover to work with. The enemies were extremely aggressive in this section, constantly flanking and forcing me to risk getting shot while I moved to new cover. Sometimes, I'd be in the flow of things, handling it well, feeling good, when an armored guy with a shotgun would come running at me from the side. If I couldn't take him out quickly enough, I'd die from his shotgun, a wayward grenade, or the never-ending gunfire from other enemies.
After about seven retries, I did what I always do at some point in every Uncharted game: I dropped the difficulty down to Very Easy and moved on with my life.
There were also times when I'd be fighting alongside AI partners who were more content to watch me die than pitch in. For instance, there's a point in the game where Cutter gets injured and Sully needs to help him walk, so Drake and Chloe are charged with covering them. You're assaulted by waves of enemies, eventually culminating in guys with riot shields and an armored brute. I didn't have any grenades to deal with the riot shield guys, but since the enemies only ever focus on Drake, I figured I'd use that to lure them away from Chloe, exposing their backs to her. Dangerous for me, but easy kills for her, right? Apparently, too easy — Chloe refused to shoot at them, and eventually I was forced to abandon what should've been a winning strategy.
Not everything in the game is bad, though. There are occasionally some truly exceptional moments in Uncharted 3; they're just undercut by all the bullshit. Drake wandering helpless for days through miles of desert, for example, is truly exceptional. The way Drake just happens to stumble onto what he was looking for in the middle of that desert, however, is bullshit. Drake being totally fine to run around and fight dozens of guys after days in that desert with no food or water is also bullshit.
I'd like to tell you that the multiplayer saves Uncharted 3, but I can't. Granted, since I only rented it, I couldn't actually play the multiplayer in the final game, but you can read my coverage of the multiplayer beta to understand why Uncharted's multiplayer isn't really for me. I also tried out the Subway promotion that was supposed to offer the full multiplayer ahead of the game's release, and it seemed largely unchanged from the beta, so I'm going to assume the multiplayer's still not for me.
I'm completely aware that I'm the odd man out here. I get that. But for as good as Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception looks, and as intricate as its set pieces are, I simply didn't have fun playing it.
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception / $59.99 / PS3