Naughty Dog’s 2009 effort, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, received glowing reviews from nearly every major gaming publication upon its release. It wasn’t just a critical darling; Naughty Dog soon found themselves with a fanbase that utterly eclipsed the ones for their earlier games in terms of sheer numbers. It was largely due to exclusive titles such as Uncharted 2 that the PlayStation 3, which originally had been widely ridiculed, began taking back much of the ground it lost to the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in the seventh generation of video game consoles.
There was only one logical reaction to this overwhelming success and torrent of critical accolades: make a sequel. The game was formally announced during the Spike Video Game Awards ceremony in December of 2010 with a trailer depicting a table covered in Arabian artifacts. A few days later, a worldwide demo premiered on the American late-night talk show Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. In interviews, creative director Amy Henning stated that she and her team wished to push themselves by setting the next Uncharted installment in a desert region, as elements such as sand, fire, and water are considered “technically difficult to credibly render with animation”.
Naughty Dog spared no expense with their marketing campaign. Spike TV held competitions where the prize was the honor of getting to play the game before the official release date. Two important people, narrative leader Taylor Kurosaki and stunt movement coordinator Mike Mukatis, appeared on an episode of America’s Next Top Model: College Edition wherein contestants acted out a scene from the original Uncharted. Players who purchased certain items from the fast-food restaurant Subway would be granted access to the game’s entire multiplayer mode. By the time of its release in November of 2011, the anticipation for this installment, entitled Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, couldn’t have been higher. Its reception continued Naughty Dog’s winning streak by receiving unanimously positive reviews from critics and fans alike. It’s an impressive feat to be sure, but could Ms. Henning and her team truly live up to the lofty standards set by Uncharted 2?
Playing the Game
Uncharted 3 is a third-person shooter with an emphasis on taking cover whenever possible. Should you have the temerity to take the enemy’s onslaught head-on, you’ll quickly discover why the tutorials suggest finding safe spots in gunfights. This is because the main character of this game lacks the durability of a classic first-person shooter protagonist. Being directly exposed to enemy gunfire will finish your character off in a matter of seconds.
If you take damage, a red tinge will overlay the screen, pointing in the direction in which the immediate threat resides. As you get hit with more attacks, the colors will fade until they’re completely gone. You would do well hide from the enemy at this time, as your character will be killed with one or two bullets in this state. By staying out of the enemy’s range for long enough, the colors will be restored and you can continue as normal.
Don’t expect the protagonist to be able to inexplicably carry around an array of firearms to stock a small armory either. He can only carry two weapons at a time: a sidearm and a heavier armament. Enemies drop their weapon upon death. Depending on if you have a matching weapon, you will either receive more ammunition for it or swap it with the one on the ground. You don’t want to fire your weapons recklessly; otherwise, you’ll drain your resources very quickly. You can dispatch enemies by engaging them in hand-to-hand combat, and knowing when to resort to it is vital to conserving ammunition for the most dire situations.
You can also hold a certain number of grenades. Helpfully, you’re shown the arc in which the explosive will travel, allowing you to easily gauge where it will land. It’s always best to carry as many as you can because you don’t need to swap weapons to get ahold of them. They’re useful for when you face heavily armored foes or the enemy has you and your comrades pinned down.
A game that’s nothing but wall-to-wall gunfights would likely get monotonous quickly even if the action sequences are well-made. Luckily, the designers address this by incorporating adventure game elements into their work. There are many times in which you’re made to navigate the sides of buildings in order to reach areas inaccessible to a normal person. It makes sense, as the protagonist is a treasure hunter who is often exploring areas that have been uninhabited for years, sometimes centuries. Because the elements have taken their toll on these places, ledges often crumble, forcing you to think fast lest you find yourself falling into the abyss.
These ancient ruins also frequently feature puzzles that must be solved in order to open the next door or even just to avoid death. Whenever one shows up, you can flip to a page in your journal to get a hint. If this doesn’t work, then your best course of action would be to observe the environment the designers lovingly created for clues. To further encourage players to explore these locales, the designers placed treasures in various hidden locations. They have no impact on the story whatsoever, but collecting them will unlock bonus features.
If it sounds like I just parsed the gameplay of the original Uncharted for a third time, I assure you that it wasn’t an accident. There was some ambiguity whether or not Naughty Dog relied on a formula when they created Uncharted 2 because although it featured similar gameplay to that of its direct predecessor, many of the issues holding it back were resolved in a satisfactory manner. With the release of the series’ third installments, this is no longer a question, as its gameplay is for all intents and purposes identical to that of Uncharted 2.
This may sound as though it’s a good thing. After all, Uncharted 2 was a great game that may not have broken new ground, yet nonetheless remains a solid action title with likeable characters brought to life with good acting performances. On the surface, this would appear to be true with Uncharted 3 as well. The action sequences are still incredible to play through, the gunfights are intense, and the puzzles have some thought put into them. All of these elements sound like they should combine to make for another solid entry for Naughty Dog’s hit series.
However, I don’t think it’s that simple. The core gameplay of Uncharted 3 is on par with that of Uncharted 2, which itself presents a problem. It’s not a significant leap forward for the series, and the main issue with token sequels is that they’re being set up to fail whenever they don’t live up to their predecessors. This is because the less a series experiments with its own formula, the more rigid the standards established by each installment becomes. In other words, had Uncharted 3 featured markedly different gameplay or design, these comparisons would be less likely to be drawn. Because it’s more or less exactly the same as Uncharted 2, every way in which it falls short is going to stick out like a sore thumb.
As it would turn out, there are quite a number of ways in which Uncharted 3 is inferior to its direct predecessor. One of the biggest issues this game has is that the levels lack the same amount of variety as Uncharted 2. After exploring the streets of London, an abandoned château in France, and a Syrian citadel, the remainder of the game takes place on the Arabian Peninsula. This may seem impressive on paper, but in practice, it’s merely a locale change. You’re doing pretty much the same things in each destination: exploring, solving puzzles, and getting in a shootout upon trying to leave. Uncharted 2, on the other hand, made the difference between locations far more visually apparent, making the occasionally repetitive nature of the game much easier to tolerate.
Moreover, I found that the action sequences weren’t as memorable as the ones from Uncharted 2. This isn’t to say there weren’t as many of them; I’m sure the exact amounts are probably comparable to each other. Again, that they left less of an impact on me is something I can attribute to the game playing the same as its predecessors. With the original Uncharted, I remarked that the design process came across as someone running down an action-movie style guide and implementing every trope listed without contributing any personal touches. Uncharted 3 has a similar problem, only the template in question happens to be Uncharted 2, meaning as incredible as these sequences can get, a savvy player would know when and where to expect them. Considering the best ones have a veneer of unpredictably to them, this is wholly counterproductive.
I believe there is only one word that can summarize my opinion of the gameplay: passable. Then again, ever since the beginning of the seventh console generation, Naughty Dog has worn their writing ability as a badge of honor. I can’t deny that if the story delivers, it could possibly make up for the paint-by-numbers gameplay. It’s time to see how much they have improved in the span of three games.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The following analysis will contain unmarked spoilers.
Nathan Drake was a teenager fascinated by the exploits of his ancestor, Sir Francis Drake. Investigating several leads of his expeditions led him to Cartagena, Colombia. A museum in this city was holding a Francis Drake exhibit. There, Nathan discovered a ring and astrolabe that once belonged to his ancestor. Claiming they belonged to his family, Nathan intended to steal the artifacts for himself.
Unbeknownst to him, Katherine Marlowe, the head of a Hermetic Order whose founding dates back to the sixteenth century, was also interested in the artifacts. To this end, she sent an affiliate named Victor “Sully” Sullivan to take them using a key mold for the display case in which they were placed. Nathan successfully pickpocketed the key from Sully, but was caught by Marlowe’s forces. After being forced to relinquish the astrolabe, Nathan escaped from the order with the ring in tow. Impressed with his determination, Sully rescued Nathan from the pursuing agents and decided to act as a mentor to him.
Twenty years have passed since that incident. Nathan and Sully now find themselves on the trail of Marlowe with the help of an old friend who infiltrated their ranks. Upon discovering the order’s underground library, they retrieve a notebook that once belonged to T.E. Lawrence, the renowned English archaeologist who, among other things, played a liaison role in two conflicts against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War: the Sinai and Palestine Campaign and the Arab Revolt. In his journal, Nathan and company find a map detailing a secret expedition carried out by Francis Drake. Queen Elizabeth I and John Dee had commissioned him to search for the lost city of Iram of the Pillars. Owing to its alleged mysterious disappearance and only having been mentioned in the Quran, it’s sometimes known as the Atlantis of the Sands. Determined to reach the city before Marlowe and her order, Nathan and Sully set out for an abandoned château in eastern France to search for any clues about the civilization’s location.
Uncharted proved to be one of the first bestselling games of the PlayStation 3, but it wasn’t until Uncharted 2 that the series truly cemented itself in the critical and public eye. The first game received plenty of accolades, but they were utterly dwarfed by the sheer volume achieved by its successor. Going into this installment, Naughty Dog had the seemingly insurmountable task of not only living up to the positive reception of Uncharted 2, but somehow surpassing it.
Yet again, it’s obvious they put a lot of work into the storyline. By Uncharted 3, the series had its own identity outside of the works the artists had taken inspiration from. Nathan Drake’s adventures were similar to those of Indiana Jones, but his causal demeanor and wisecracking attitude set him apart from his spiritual predecessor. This care and attention extends to the dialogue as well. It’s clear that the scriptwriters had a lot of fun coming up with varied reactions to these strange situations, and the stellar acting performances go a long way in selling them.
Naughty Dog more than demonstrated their prowess at creating breathtaking visuals when tasked with creating entirely different environments. While the majority of Uncharted 2 took place in the oppressively cold, lofty peaks of the Himalayas, the primary setting of Uncharted 3 is in the searing hot, sprawling desert of Rub ‘al Khali. Even in the dead of winter, it wouldn’t be unusual for the person playing the game to feel as though they themselves are enduring a sweltering heat wave.
One of the story’s highlights was that at long last, the writers delved into Nathan Drake’s backstory. Actually getting to experience his formative years firsthand was a nice touch. I liked that, among other things, we got to learn about how Nathan and Sully met for the first time. He’s a remarkably good foil to Nathan, and his absence from Uncharted 2 detracted from the experience.
It’s also the main reason why, even if she lacks the sheer intimidation factor of her predecessor, Lazarević, Marlowe is a much more intriguing antagonist. Up until this point, every time he crossed paths with a familiar villain, whatever history they shared was only discussed, and never shown. In the first game, this resulted in every single antagonist being utterly one-dimensional. Granted, this is still technically true with Marlowe, but being in charge of a secret order offers a level of intrigue generic pirates or war criminals who relish in committing evil acts for its own sake couldn’t possibly match.
Unfortunately, as great as these ideas are, the story is still not without its flaws. First and foremost is the persistent problem Naughty Dog has had for the last two installments in that the gameplay and the narrative surrounding it exist in separate worlds from each other. Admittedly, this disconnect doesn’t lead to severe problems, but it’s still jarring at times. Marlowe’s agents will stop at nothing to stop Nathan and his comrades, going as far as remaining in the château as it’s burning to the ground so they can verify their demise. It does make for a tense situation, but it also ruins the suspension of disbelief. One could argue they’re not leaving Nathan’s death to chance by leaving him in the burning building with a remote possibility of escaping, but the implication is that every single member of the order lacks basic survival instincts.
Although Marlowe is a more believable villain than her predecessors, she has a completely different problem. Because Marlowe is a woman in her sixties, by herself, she wouldn’t be an effective threat to Nathan’s life. The writers get around this by giving her a right-hand man who is seemingly able to instantly recover from fatal wounds. Though it’s not outright stated in the game, he’s a master illusionist who uses deception to fool his opponents. In either case, it doesn’t really work because while the writers had to rely on plot convenience in the past to preserve their villains until the end of their respective games, the fact that they were legitimate threats made the contrivance easier to overlook. With Marlowe, Naughty Dog had to jump through even more hoops than usual to ensure she didn’t die too early.
The other issue raised with her character design is how she and her cohorts are able to reach these important places when Nathan has to navigate precarious ledges and other pieces of crumbling architecture. Granted, this is hardly a problem exclusive to this game or even this series, but as is par for the course, Naughty Dog chose the path of least resistance by pointing out their plot holes while doing nothing to fix them.
Despite featuring a predictable plot, Uncharted 3 does have a fairly good twist. At one point when confronted by Marlowe, she reminds him that Nathan Drake is not his real name. He merely adopted the surname as part of an elaborate fantasy in which he could convince himself that he was a secret descendant of Francis Drake. It’s an interesting idea that casts the character in a whole new light. There are two downsides to this, however. This could have made for a shocking revelation, but it’s spoiled somewhat by the game’s subtitle: Drake’s Deception. Anyone paying the least bit of attention to it would think, “So, that’s what it means,” rather than being taken aback. The other problem is that the writers don’t really go anywhere with the development. He does have a minor existential crisis, but it’s resolved quickly compared to the one he had in the previous game.
Lastly, the game was noticeably short. The Uncharted games have never exactly been long, which is something I appreciate in principle because it means there’s little filler to speak of, but the metaphorical third act seemed rushed. To be fair, the final chapters of Uncharted 2 similarly did not receive as much care or attention as the earlier ones, but the designers remembered to have a consistent sense of pacing for their story throughout. This isn’t the case with Uncharted 3; it has a lot of build-up to an exciting conflict only for it to truncate in the endgame. It’s not as irritating as the final encounters of the previous two entries, but it’s still anticlimactic nonetheless.
In the end, the story is exactly like the gameplay: entirely sound, but not particularly inspiring. We learn more about Nathan Drake’s character, but Naughty Dog’s unwillingness to experiment in a meaningful way makes for a plot that’s a little too safe for its own good.
Drawing a Conclusion
With the way Uncharted 3 was received, one could reasonably draw the conclusion that it’s one of the greatest games ever made. This is absolutely not true – not by a long shot. To backpedal a little from this assertion, I relent it’s hardly a bad game, but it’s an unambitious sequel that, for the most part, doesn’t exist for any higher purpose than to capitalize on the success of its superior predecessor. In my mind, it inadvertently highlighted one of the problematic aspects of gaming criticism in the early 2010s. Namely, the press seemed to have a propensity to promote and hype games simply because it was trendy to do so. Meanwhile, there were titles that boasted far more ambitious storytelling techniques which struggled to get a second look from them. If nothing else, I don’t believe their unanimous glowing praise of Uncharted 3 to be a consensus that has fared well in hindsight.
Now that I’ve voiced my opinion of the game, the question is: do I recommend playing it? It’s an action game through and through, and it will certainly deliver if you’re looking for a good one. On the other hand, if you weren’t impressed with either of the first two chapters in the saga, there’s almost no chance this one will win you over. Ultimately, my advice for approaching this game is similar to my stance regarding the series’ debut – try not to get it alone. The ideal way to experience it is by getting the Nathan Drake Collection, as it comes bundled with its two predecessors. Otherwise, I have to say that watching the protagonist fall into a pit because the floor broke down doesn’t get any more dramatic the fifteenth time it happens.
Final Score: 5/10