Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: Out Now
Players/Online features: 1, 2 split-screen co-op, 2-3 online co-op, 2-16 online multiplayer
Well this is certainly a welcome return to one of Gamecell’s favourite series’ of the last few years and the cause of more than a few arguments. In U3 Nathan Drake and his friends are off on another wild (but probably golden) goose chase that takes them from a seedy London pub on a rainy night to the scorching sands of the Syrian desert and beyond in search of secrets uncovered by no less than Lawrence of Arabia...
U3 doesn’t really do anything radically new or original, but what it does do is keep the standard high throughout. After a brilliantly original opening the game soon falls into what will be a comfortable but all-too-familiar pattern for veterans of the series. The game looks absolutely eye-popping apart from an occasional hint of tearing (strangely enough this is in joints in scenery like walls and floors, not all across the screen due to v-sync), but there are some missing or poor sound FX; drop into water and there's no splash, and after some gun-heavy games of late the weapons in U3 sound more like samples of clapped hands or industrial sewing machines than high-powered firearms.
If I’m being honest then I must say from the start that the way U3 goes through the same level progression, plot mechanics and similar events time and time again (just how many times can things collapse when Nate jumps on them or hangs from them before the player goes “hang on a minute”?) make it feel like there's a slight lack of imagination going on at Naughty Dog. This might sound like a complete contradiction (but it’s not) but at the same time the game has some truly, truly stunning locations and unforgettable level designs. But these designs are what have made the Uncharted series what they are, and what makes U3 the PS3 equivalent of new Spielberg action adventure movie.
For a game with so much shooting action it's disappointing that some of the guns seem to fire cotton wool balls, or otherwise the enemies’ thin clothing is made from Kevlar. In the main U3 plays well apart from the vagaries of the Dual Shock 3, or the game’s own odd aiming calibration, which includes a huge dead spot and uneven side-to-side versus up-down movement. U3 has no ‘aim assist’ whatsoever and this makes shooting the average enemy who’s taking cover or moving a bit like pushing string after the pin-sharp aiming in games like MW3, Battlefield 3 and Gears of War 3. You will get used to it (it’ll help if your brain has a matching dead zone) but a game of this profile should have intuitive, accurate aiming, not the rather sloppy, unresponsive and inconsistent sort we have here. The odd thing is that it's the tiny corrections that are the hardest to coax the sluggish aiming reticle to make, not swift tracking movements. This is in complete contrast to the melee fighting action movie-style fisticuffs which play and feel immediate, intuitive and well... perfect, as Nate acts with instant response and is able to punch, duck, counter and throw enemies with great aplomb.
While the aiming issues don’t exactly make U3 a hard game to complete on the default difficulty setting, if anything, the overall challenge seems to have gone to the complete opposite end of the spectrum to Uncharted Drake’s Fortune (the original game in the series which led you by the hand and told you what to do and where to go at every turn until you discovered you could turn the patronising hints ‘off’). U3 has several clever yet fun, satisfying-to-solve puzzles and more than a couple of moments where I was stumped as to what to do until the time-related, optional 'hint' pops up and shoves you in the right direction if you’re completely stuck.
The game is split into 22 exciting chapters that, as I mentioned earlier, lead Nate & company from a rainy London to the desert sands of Syria in a constant battle against a superbly realised new villainess named Katherine Marlowe. Marlowe and her band of smartly-dressed thugs are a constant thorns in Drake & Co's sides, and are on their trail wherever they go. As I said earlier the locations are absolutely stunning and are made more so by the level design itself. None of the locations are particularly large or “open world” by today’s standards but perhaps therein lies the genius. From the rooftops of Cartegena in Colombia, to a huge ship graveyard and onboard a cruise liner steaming through a stormy, real-time ocean swell that makes entire levels roll with the waves, the levels are varied and interesting, even if the gameplay sticks to tried and tested platform jumping, ledge shimmying, rope swinging and cover shooting to the point of predictability and repetition.
U3’s multiplayer game has been given some real attention and is just now just about as feature-packed as any shooter out there, and even supports clans, clan tags etc. Modes include; Team Deathmatch, Free For All, Team Objective (take an object to somewhere etc), Three Team Deathmatch (three pairs versus each other), Plunder (Capture the Flag with an Idol instead of a flag), Hardcore (yay! No perks, just skill), Co-op arena (like Gears Horde survival mode), Co-op Hunter Arena (you and two buddies against allcomers), Co-op Adventure (story-based missions for 2-3 players over 5 maps; Borneo (I seem to remember this one from U2), London Underground, Monastery, Syria and Airport. You also earn Boosters as you level up, unlock new character skins and outfits and there are new “medal kickbacks” that activate as you achieve a certain number kills, assists etc. during a game and give abilities like suddenly being able to equip a sniper rifle or rocket launcher. If this sounds like Call of Duty’s “perks” system then that’s because it is, and the game even records your MP stats in minute detail like Activision’s behemoth. The matchmaking is speedy so it’s easy to get into a game, but it seems to be completely random, and throws high levels in with rank “n00bs” which isn’t a good idea.
U3 also supports split-screen co-op ‘Adventure’ missions and the co-op arena mode that plays every bit as well as what is arguably the benchmark for this sort of game, Gears of War 3’s Horde mode, although the screens are savagely cut down so a large TV is recommended. The co-op Adventure levels don't allow you to play through the bulk of the main plot in a drop-in, drop-out mode like Gears 3 did, they merely consist of 5 disappointing cut-down levels (and I'm bloomin' sure one of them was in U2!) rather like MW2’s ‘Spec Ops’ missions, and are clearly designed for play with a full team of 3 (and why only 3?); if you start with 3 and have a player drop out, you'll really struggle. Have both other players drop out and the game ends because AI doesn't take over the other characters as Gears 3 does. The co-op mode is a welcome feature but when much of the campaign story features four central characters you wonder why the whole story isn’t playable co-op or, given the huge popularity of co-op games, the co-op mode isn’t at least given a bit more focus.
For a game with such lush scenery and level design I’m also baffled as to why they haven’t sorted out Nathan Drake's bodily proportions, as we’ve mentioned in both previous Uncharted reviews. Nate’s legs are far too short for his body – unless the guy is a stumpy Mel Gibson body double. But we remember reading an interview (I believe with one of Naughty Dog’s lead artists) in which he admitted that Drake's proportions were wrong in the first game, and yet 2 games on they still don’t do anything about it, so you have to wonder what’s going on. Are the character modellers shorties themselves? Or members of the dwindling Mel Gibson fan club? Is there some sort of bizarre stumpy-positivity quota being met?
The animation of Drake and other characters is also a bit iffy at times, the game’s cut-scenes are motion captured so well they look lifelike so why does just Nate’s normal running action look stiff-legged? In complete contrast at one point when Sully runs up to join you he does so in some sort of hilarious “crazylegs” fashion that would have looked odd in a game 15 years ago before mo-cap existed. Why are some spot animations so basic? The various characters have certainly been given plenty of personality by both the animators and the now hugely experienced cast of; Nolan North (Nathan Drake), Richard McGonagle (Sully), Emily Rose (Elena), Claudia Black (Chloe), Graham McTavish (Charlie) and Rosalind Ayres as Marlowe, but I’m not sure why Drake has got all touchy-feely as he explores locations, and he also has some fussy movement animations that make fine adjustment of his position annoyingly fiddly at vital moments. The faces and facial animations are good, excellent even, but eyes sometimes still look oddly wrong, steely and bright, like they have a daylight lighting effect on them when they’re indoors or dark.
But, and it’s a MASSIVE ‘but’, despite some glaring flaws and deficiencies Uncharted: Drake’s Deception is SO endearing, has so much charm that I can't help loving it, aiming issues and occasional bullet-proof enemies and all (it even throws heavily armoured MW2-style Juggernauts at you after a while, as if to take the Mickey). The varied locations are absolutely stunning, and there are more than a few set pieces that would be rendered cut-scenes in other, lesser games that are playable and thrilling - there's no better word to describe them. Yes, the game does go dangerously close to inane repetition in gameplay and plot mechanics more than it should (and Nate even remarks reflectively to this effect at one point) but it also throws in some really original, unforgettable moments, laugh-out-loud humour and clever level design that are likely to be copied by a lot of future games of a similar genre. A genuine PlayStation 3 "must buy".
- Stunning looks and level design, with some neat puzzles. - Endearing characters and a great cast of actors. - Light and humorous adventure story, with plenty of dramatic twists too. - Full-feature multiplayer modes.
- Iffy weapon aiming. - Disappointing, separate co-op levels. - Almost completely linear and plenty of repetition. - Still no driveable vehicles in a game that’s littered with them.