What makes most licence games bad is that they are made by a company that wants to capitalise on the profitability of a pre-sold audience. It is the economics of synergy 101, if the brand is popular, the game will sell. Sadly, it is very hard to develop a good game with dollar signs in your eyes. So what about the developers that would love to make a game based on their favourite film or character but cannot for some reason purchase said rights? Well they just take everything they love from that franchise and make something totally unoriginal but far far better than a rushed out licence game could ever be.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is the latest instalment in Sony‘s bragging rights franchise, and for all intents and purposes is an Indiana Jones Game. The whole Uncharted series is a love letter to the Indiana Jones films and the action serials that inspired them but by being free from the restrictions of using a creative licence, the Uncharted series has grown from strength to strength to deliver some of the biggest thrills gaming has to offer.
When Uncharted 2: Among Thieves came out I was actually working at Game (for the record, it’s not a good job) and one customer was asking me to describe why Uncharted was good. After swallowing my own sick, I came up with a metaphor that I still feel best describes the experience of playing an Uncharted game. ‘Most games are like a playground, offering a variety of toys and obstacles to entertain your self with. The Uncharted games are like an amazing roller coaster, you can’t control where you are going and what you do but the ride is so thrilling, few experiences can match it’. Like a roller coaster, the experience is a flash in the pan, but so memorable that you will be giddy for days.
Uncharted 3 looks amazing. The sheer level of detail is immense. I don’t pretend to know the technical details behind game lighting, but even a layman such as myself can see that the lighting in Uncharted 3 is stunning. It looks real, imitating the effect of having to expose a camera for indoors when the sunlight outside is really bright and the slight adjustment when going from one light to another is much like a good camera or your own eyes. The environments also look great, though there is a tendency to colour code climbable ledges that somewhat detracts from the design of a building. Still, even if the design can’t cover up the fact that environments are exceptionally convenient, few games look this good. This is re-enforced by a staggering attention to detail in the animation of the characters, most notably Nate. Nate has so many contextual animations he almost seems a real person, he touches walls and surfaces he walks past without looking at them, he looks around freely taking in his environment and regardless of his athletic prowess, trips and stumbles when least expected. It’s almost jarring because you don’t feel as in control as you do when controlling a character with a set running animation but the end result really helps to cement your attachment to Nathan Drake.
Liking the characters in Uncharted (or disliking them accordingly) is fundamental to the experience. All the main characters are back as is the light banter and though the incessant quipping is almost too much, the dialogue is often funny or charming enough to forgive its over use. In the opening tutorial section we are treated to some well needed context for Nate and Sully’s relationship and surprisingly it is a real pleasure to find out their origins. I’ve always liked Sully but wondered why Nate has an ageing partner/mentor who seems less smart and less capable. Now the relationship works better and illuminates some nice moments in the previous games, especially concerning Sully’s sordid past. Alongside the character development is a great yarn concerning (no surprises here) Sir Francis Drake’s mysterious hoard that takes Nate and co globe trotting from London (cor blimey governor) to Yemen.
Complimenting the surprisingly good story is an exceptional cast of voice actors headed once again by gaming developer favourite Nolan North. I find Nolan North to be very one note, but for me that note is Nathan Drake. North’s wit is perfect for Drake’s cheeky, lovable rogue character, it is just such a shame that he is used for boring characters like Desmond Miles and the Prince in Prince of Persia. Richard McGonagale and Claudia Black are once again on perfect form as Sully and Chloe respectively but for me Emily Rose shines as Elena, delivering a genuine and emotional relationship with Nate. Accompanying the excellent voice work is a solid sound scape of foley and artillery and an excellent score. The main Uncharted theme is back and as rousing as ever, always making me take a moment to appreciate it before pressing start.
The gameplay is largely unchanged from the first two games, balancing platforming, cover based shooting and hand to hand combat. Fist fighting has been significantly upgraded, utilising counters and throws as well as straight attacks. It still isn’t a great combat system but it works and the game forces you to use it by having much more forward enemy AI. My main criticism of the hand to hand fighting is how crappy Nate’s kung fu is. I don’t expect him to be Tony Jaa but he swings his punches like a child at times. But this is just the niggle of someone who has watched WAY too many kung fu films.
The fundamental fact is that the gameplay is fun and minor tweaks like grenade counters improve on an already polished formula. It is how the gameplay interacts with the level design that is so impressive. Platforming is especially surprising as solid looking hand holds crack, bend or just plain fall away. Perhaps Nathan Drake has put on weight, as this seems to happen a lot more than in the previous games. Still, it adds to a sense of realism and danger to Nate’s monkey like climbing abilities.
The shooting is perhaps not as polished as in the previous games as head shots seem to not instantly kill the way they used to. It might just be me but I have yet to get the knack of the aiming, I still over or under aim and the slow speed with which you aim can make that a deadly mistake. It partly comes from having to lean out of cover to line up your shots, a vague cross-hair when in cover would be great. Also, you seem to kill enemies a lot faster when running and gunning, just holding down R1 and using the wide crosshair rather than taking cover and unloading a clip. This leads me to some crazy gunfights at times but I can’t shake the feeling that the aiming is too slow and feels a bit dated. My final criticism with the gun fights is that they are almost always large scale. It would be nice to have some more small encounters to deal with rather than going from lonelyville to badguy city. It makes the game feel more contrived. This is telegraphed as soon as you walk into a room with ample waist high cover which does little to alleviate the feeling of a gun fight room.
Along with an intense, if not overly long, single player campaign there is also competitive and co-operative multiplayer. Be warned pre-owned buyers, Uncharted 3 requires a network pass so if you want to get the full game you have to buy new or buy a pass (unless you are very lucky) which may frustrate gamers on a budget. The multiplayer is the best the series has seen so far. Competitive multiplayer offers up to 10 players per match but that is more than enough to create intense and crazy battles. Your character is also always progressing so even a bad match will reap some rewards. The co-op mode offers a tweaked version of the single player campaign and some new maps but of course requires a buddy somewhere to enjoy so if you have friends with Xboxes you will be putting your skills to the test against strangers in online matches, but that’s ok because the games and maps are all great.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is the real deal. A game of such high standards that you can’t help but be impressed. Even though it is not perfection, it is so well done in almost every way that it makes other great games seem like under achievers. It may at times feel like style over substance but the well written and performed story keeps the action well in context and the game is at points so stylish you will wish you could rewind it to see it again. I’ve avoided the obvious comment that Uncharted 3 is cinematic for one reason, it has transcended cinematic presentation. Uncharted 3 never feels like a movie, it feels like an adventure. Like a genuine, Ray Mears, stub your toe on a rock adventure. By which I mean, you are sucked into Nate’s world and through him you sore to the skies (and then fall back down again).
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is out now.
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