Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is considered one of the best games of the PS3 era, and possibly of all time. For me, it was very good, though hardly the masterclass in video games that many label it as. Naughty Dog delivered a polished gem, but not a flawless one — the combat in particular irked me. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is the third chapter, and since it has been gazing at me from across the room for at least four years, I thought I should see if it could beat or at least match its older brethren. Spoilers follow!
Twenty Minutes In
The story opens in Blighty, replete with hoodies and ‘orrfentic cock-er-neyaccents, in a pub which looks like what Americans believe every English pub looks like. There’s not a craft beer in sight. Drake is there to sell Francis Drake’s ring, but because he’s dealing with English people he obviously gets double-crossed, so at least traditional stereotypes are alive and well. The character models, while not a patch on today’s graphics, still look reasonable.
I’m less enamoured with the ensuing bar fight, which is as clunky as melee combat was in the first two games. A switch-up between battering people and short cutscenes helps break up the monotony of smashing the square and triangle buttons, and the production is as slick as ever. The Uncharted series has always played out like an interactive blockbuster, and the music in particular is a highlight as it punctuates key moments with crescendos and ominous beats. What I wasn’t expecting was for Nate and Sully to end the chapter being shot (English, evil, natch). This could be a short game.
Twenty-Two Minutes In
Oh, it’s flashback time. It looks like I’ll get to see Nate and Sully’s origin story, back when Nate was a bratty teen with amazing core strength and Sully was channelling early-70s Bruce Forsyth. After casually looting random treasures from the museum, a tail sequence leads me to follow Sully outside. It’s here that the game starts to creak; a wobbly camera combines with a stuttering framerate to make me feel like I’m not just looking for a relic from the Golden Hind, but actually on board during a squall. I don’t remember the previous games juddering as much as this.
One Hour In
My overwhelming takeaway from the game so far: Nate likes to stroke things. Walls, tombs, whatever is in reach. It’s a gentle caress, but persistent enough to be irritating as hell. Junior Nate was the same; I guess if you don’t break habits at an early age, they’re with you for life. I’ve started walking down the middle of the street just so he can’t get his feel on. Oh, and the dying thing was a big bluff, so we’re all good.
Two Hours In
I forgot how much I dislike the gun combat. It’s not truly awful, but it simply doesn’t rise above average. The format is almost always the same: waves of guys show up, you wobble the crosshair between them and let off short bursts — usually while something dramatic happens around you — and then move on to the next room and the next wave. The difference between the automatic weapons is minimal (so far), and there’s very little heft to any of the guns at all. Shooting someone with a pistol feels just like shooting someone with an AK, except you use more bullets. The exception is the shotgun which does have a meatier presence. I’ve had several armed fights now and am unimpressed by how dated the gunplay seems.
Things do perk up when environmental elements such as gas canisters come into play, but even then the buttons for aiming and throwing them just don’t sit right with me. In some ways it feels even worse than Uncharted 2.
Three Hours In
There is a lot of climbing. Fortunately, the camera pans, zooms and generally darts about enough to make it feel like I’m not just grabbing the same variations of ledge each time, and when there is a genuine race against the clock the game really thrills. The chateau fire and collapse was superb, spoiled only by poor signposting which caused the momentum to fizzle out as I spent five minutes circling a blazing room with no punishment, trying to locate the next exit. In many cases you can’t move on until the area is cleared of enemies, triggering a path to open. It’s so 90s, it hurts.
Yet, the story, voice acting and utter ridiculousness of Nate’s escapades keep me glued to the screen. The puzzles are enjoyably challenging but not frustrating, while the glorious music papers over the shortfalls in the action splendidly. It’s a cinematic treat, to be sure.
Three Hours And Five Minutes In
Why do bad guys, especially English ones, always wear suits? Surely it’s far more practical to have loose fitting clothing when you’re darting between pillars. Maybe that’s how Nate’s survived so long. Also, the dry cleaning bill must be horrendous.
Four and a Half Hours In
My Jason Statham buddy who I assumed would turn out to be evil actually wasn’t evil, except when he was turned evil by a poison dart. But everything’s fine now and I’m sure he won’t betray me in the future. In other news, I’m going to Yemen!
Fortunately, Nate’s ex-wife Elena is on hand in Yemen (because, reasons) to explain why the period between the end of Uncharted 2 and the start of Uncharted 3 was basically papered over with a throwaway comment.
Six Hours In
I’ve been blown up in a boat, blown up in a plane, and almost blown up on a horse. The constant globe-hopping is exhausting, almost like Naughty Dog was trying to throw as many different locations at players as possible to make up for the plot not really making any sense at all. That approach almost works too, since the set pieces are nothing less than spectacular…to watch. The plane sequence is jaw-dropping, but it would have felt a little more involving if I’d actually been a little more involved. Instead, there was some ropey gunplay followed by a couple of button presses. The influence of Raiders of the Lost Ark is all over the last third of the game, especially with the convoy, but a lot of the time it feels like I should be watching it rather than playing it.
Eight Hours In
It’s all over, and I’m left more bemused than delighted. The Uncharted series shares plenty of similarities with Indiana Jones but one of the more unfortunate ones is their villains who are almost uniformly weak. From the outset, Marlowe was a throwaway baddie whose motivations were as hazy as the Sahara during a dust storm. Her sidekick Talbot was equally unconvincing, not least because a key plot point earlier in the game which suggested he may have supernatural powers was simply forgotten and never revisited.
While suspending disbelief is a must for this kind of game, there are limits. For instance, Marlowe managed to get so far ahead of Drake that she was able to transport a huge crane through a hidden temple, work out all of the puzzles, reset them all, and almost grab the item she was after. And that item was....hallucinogenic water. Really?! After thousands and thousands of miles, almost dying numerous times and discovering another ancient city, the MacGuffin basically turned out to be LSD. Wow. Did Marlowe know this all along? If so, how?
None of the main questions were answered. In fact, there are so many problems with the last couple of hours that I wouldn’t be surprised if the game was rushed out of the door. The final sequence is a near carbon copy of the second game, but with a lot less panache. Drake simply cannot find an undiscovered realm without laying waste to it a few hours later. While I enjoyed one shocking moment towards the end, it was nullified almost ten minutes later. And don’t even get me started on the Drake/Elena relationship which feels as stable as the foundations of the city I left in ruins in the desert.
I didn’t dislike Drake’s Deception (even if the Drake in the tagline refers to Francis not Nate, and the reason for switching it up also being unclear). I was just expecting far more from it, especially following the rightly lauded second game. It used its flashy production to mask weak combat and rinse-and-repeat location traversal, while the genuine moments of interest were either sit-back-and-watch affairs, or unravelled by the incoherent plot. Uncharted 4 and The Lost Legacy are both sitting on my shelf...I’m really hoping for a lot more.