More than any other title it was Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune that first showcased the potential of the fledgling PS3 system upon its release back in 2007. With some familiar action/adventure trappings, it broke from the norm with jaw-dropping presentation and an epic scale which was the very definition of next gen.
But, for most gamers, it was protagonist Nathan Drake who made the biggest impression – a distinctly human hero with a dry wit and a realistic sense of his own mortality, borne out by revolutionary motion and performance capture work featuring star Nolan North. Drake returned in the sublime Among Thieves in 2009 (reviewed here
) and now he’s back again for Drake’s Deception.
The plot revolves around our hero’s ongoing obsession with the adventures of his namesake, Sir Francis Drake, and in particular his whereabouts during his famed circumnavigation of the globe. Drake believes that the great explorer was on a secret mission from Queen Elizabeth which led to the discovery of the legendary ‘Atlantis of the sands’ – a city doomed by God’s wrath and swallowed up by the sands of the Rub’ al Khali desert in Southern Arabia. Naturally, Drake’s not the only one on in search of a city rumoured to contain untold riches and he’s soon in a race against Katherine Marlowe and her infinite gang of minions.
As per usual, Drake is rarely alone on his quest and while the characters of Elena and Chloe appear here, along with the enjoyable addition of Jason Statham clone and closet claustrophobic Charlie Cutter, it’s ageing Victor Sullivan who has your back for most of the game. This is very much Nathan and Sully’s story, embellished by a key flashback which reveals their first meeting and several emotional moments between the two. While it’s always been clear that their relationship is more than a mere friendship. Drake’s Deception makes it concrete with a rather more mature storyline than we’re used to in the series, which only serves to make the characters feel even more real.
The road to the sandy Atlantis is a globe-trotting one, starting out in London and hitting up France, Syria and Yemen on the way to the desert. The opening in a London pub is a superb piece of interactive story-telling, detailing the games new brawling mechanics while also seamlessly reintroducing the characters and getting you up to speed on the current situation. Drake can now take on multiple enemies at once with an accessible strike and counter system, with some bone crushing animations and plenty of contextual attacks which allow the use of walls and even random items such as beer bottles or frying pans to be introduced. It’s not overly complicated, and pales in comparison to the balletic deadly dance of Assassin’s Creed but it’s a neat addition to the improved gunplay, making encounters more slick and satisfying than ever before.
It’s not long before bullets are flying once more and the controls are tight, particularly the previously tweaky cover mechanics. Part of the appeal of Nathan Drake is that he is far from superhuman, with a few bullets, or a well placed grenade, enough to end his adventure permanently. Avoiding enemy fire is a must, as is mixing up your play style to take out different kinds of foes. The new, tank-like, enemies are a good example – they almost always have to be taken out hand to hand, forcing you to dodge other enemies while beating them down in a series of engagements.
Drake’s frailty may be a little much for some players – even on normal difficulty you’ll die many times during a single pitched battle. Respawn times are rapid but we’ve become so used to upgradeable heroes that it feels strange to still be just as easy to murder at the beginning as you are at the end. And while the new fisticuffs are a lot of fun, you can find yourself trapped in the QTE-style back and forth, unable to retreat from a second nearby enemy who is happily pumping round after round into your noggin.
At least this third entry has done away with the singular bane of our Uncharted 2 experience – mandatory stealth sections. It’s always an option here and while you may find the ensuing firefight challenging, it’s good to have that freedom. Stealth attacks have been expanded and made simpler, leading to some smile-inducing, neck snapping action.
In our recent chat with Naughty Dog lead designer Richard Lemarchand
, he revealed that the developers take on a unique technical challenge for each title. In the first game, it was the recreation of lush jungles while for Among Thieves it was snow and ice. Drake’s Deception focuses on bringing the physical reality of shifting desert sands to your console, complete with individual particles, massive vistas and accurate, organic footprints. That’s in addition to scores of other unique graphical treats – from a procedurally generated ocean to true volumetric lighting. The terms may be meaningless to many players but the reality is perhaps the most visually attractive title on any next gen system, particularly the amazingly detailed character models, driven by the most fluid animation we’ve seen and weaved together with movie worthy production design, peerless voice acting and a memorable score.
Drake’s Deception shines brightest in its set pieces – large scale and breathlessly exciting escapes from near death. This time around, you’ll flee from a burning mansion with seconds to spare, take on a fast-moving convoy and, in perhaps the highlight of the game, attempt to escape from a massive cruise liner which soon literally turns your world upside down. These are truly interactive action movie moments and the frantic pace is leavened by some well timed slower moments.
Naughty Dog pride themselves on delivering a cinematic experience and Uncharted 3 certainly delivers but the chases and escapes sometimes feel overly forced and linear, with instant death and a reload the only way to proceed should you turn the wrong corner. It can feel unnatural; particularly in counterpoint to the more open feel of the shooting and platforming, becoming little more than lengthy QTE’s. And while the themes of the story are strong, especially the way in which the game explores the relationship between Sully and Drake, by the time you’ve heard three characters tell our hero that his mission has become too dangerous it’s starting to get more than a little repetitive.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception marks the technical pinnacle of the series and features some truly memorable set pieces and the most cinematic presentation yet – as well as an impressive multiplayer package and commendable co-op options. But it can’t quite match the surprise factor of Drake’s Fortune, nor the evolutionary refinement of Among Thieves. For all its darker themes, the story here is a little slight and the limited attention to characters like Elena is a disappointment while there puzzles are remarkably bland and easy. The ending, too, it lacking – little time is spent in the ultimate location and the final fight is a button bashing near bore, with far too much told through cut scenes – and players can reach it in a mere seven hours. But while it may not be the best in the series it remains a highly polished, eminently enthralling adventure which is certain to place highly on many game of the year lists.