Review: Uncharted 3: Drake’s DeceptionBy Yannick LeJacq | November 6, 2011 | Reviews | 14 comments | Share
Austin: …and they don’t have horses conveniently along with them when they run out of gas! And they don’t run out of gas either!
Lee: These guys run outa’ gas! This is my story and one a’ these guys runs outa’ gas!
Austin: It’s just a dumb excuse to get them into a chase scene. It’s contrived.
Lee: It is a chase scene! It’s already a chase scene. They been chasin’ each other fer days.
-Sam Shepard, True West
Salim: The English must not reach the city. If they unleash the power of the Djinn—
Nathan Drake: We don’t have much time, do we?
Salim: No. But they have the greater numbers we cannot attack them in the open. Tonight, rest. Tomorrow they enter the canyons; we will take them there. We ride at dawn!
The ultimate irony of this scene from Sam Shepard’s play True West comes when a producer rejects Austin, who helped his brash and barely literate brother Lee write his screenplay out of some mixture of pity and condescension, in favor of his brother’s material. Austin can’t believe that his romantic film is being dumped for what he sees as a trashy Western, but, as his agent explains to him ruefully, “it has the ring of truth.”
Playing the Uncharted series makes you feel like Shepard’s agent. If you try to imagine actually watching Uncharted as the movie that so many reviewers claim it is trying to be, the story comes across as a series of excuses to get the characters back onto their horses, trains, cruise ships, cargo planes, or whatever other vessel upon which you could possibly stage an elaborate gun fight. But as a game, it has the ring of truth.
Indiana Jones and the Mysterious Tome of Copyright Infringement
Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series is recognized, both to its credit and deprecation, as the apotheosis of modern cinematic experiences in video games. There is certainly a charm and thrill that grants the game a charisma for which most can only hope. Like many players noted of Arkham City, the thrill of Uncharted 3 is the joy of not just being able to watch Indiana Jones perform all his stunts and tricks while still having enough breath to trade snarky one-liners with his attractive female cohorts, learn ancient languages to solve puzzles nobody else even seems to notice, and maintain a tenured position at a reputable university in what is often an underfunded and unappreciated field of academia. As Nathan Drake, now you can sprint away from exploding buildings, jump across moving trains and caravans, and kill thousands of enemies, quipping away cleverly to your own Sean-Connery-as-Henry Jones-like mentor (Victor Sullivan, or “Sully”) and rivalrous love interests (series staples Elena and Chloe) the whole time.
On a more strictly narrative level, Uncharted 3 lacks some of the creative tension present that made Uncharted 2 a classic. Promotional material for the game promised that Drake’s journey would be the most personal one yet—the back of box advertises that it “strains the limits of his endurance, forcing him to confront his deepest fears.” Drake’s endurance is certainly tested (I, for one, could not keep his grip grappling across that many rooftops and stone walls), and there is a hefty amount of foreshadowing for Sully’s possible death. But the characters all move through the story with such good humor and self-assured swagger that it’s hard to believe anything is truly at stake in this game.
What made Uncharted 2’s story so artfully subtle (in spite of the massive explosions) was the competing romantic and sexual tension between Drake’s two female companions, a clever adaptation of the moral dualism that has affected Naughty Dog’s heroes since they literalized its ambiguity with Light and Dark Jak in their wonderful Jak and Daxter series. Drake was repeatedly seduced by the darker and sexier mystique of Chloe–she embodied the allure of adventure that captivated Nate even as it became more perverse and dangerous. It was a fascinating experience to guide such a charismatic character on a downward spiral of self-destruction.
Any romantic tension was resolved at the end of Uncharted 2, however, making Chloe’s appearance in Uncharted 3 as random as it is brief. He continually apologizes to Elena and stumbles around in drug-induced fugue states to wrestle with his demons, but what demons are there? The game’s central characters spend more time laughing and patting each other on the back than showing any of the true harm their actions might cause, as it clearly did with the eerily realistic war criminal in the previous title’s villain. A wonderful flashback sequence to Drake’s childhood illuminates the possibility of fleshing out more of his relationship with Sully, but the game retreats to a copacetic conclusion before any real questions can be raised.
Said The Shotgun To The Head?
These narrative flaws seem to be part of an unclear direction for the future of Uncharted. The game oscillates between completing a story arc spanning the current trilogy of games and serializing the concept into an ongoing series of adventures with Nate and the gang. Game director Justin Richmond even hinted the Drake may end up in space some time in the near future. But the general critique of Uncharted limiting player agency in favor of offering a “cinematic experience” seems unfair to me since the game never really tries to be anything different. Sometimes, as players of Call of Duty and Heavy Rain have also realized, it’s fun to be stuck on the rails.
The problem comes when trying to balance the sense of ludic authenticity with narrative diegesis. There are frustrating points in Uncharted 3 when, despite its beautiful and intricate landscapes, wonderful voiceover talent and character animation, and seamlessly coordinated fighting and platforming, it stops making sense. Why, for instance, does every level end with an arbitrary stalemate of Drake and his friends being caught at gunpoint by the game’s cohort of villains? For the past thirty minutes groups of impossibly durable bad guys had been pumping me and Sully so full of lead that a pistol really did start to seem like a plaything. Does that one dramatic gunshot really make all the difference?
At its greatest moments the relentless charm of its main characters meshes with the good humor of the gameplay. Drake runs through burning houses, crashing tidal waves, and scorching deserts without breaking a sweat or losing his ruggedly handsome five o’clock shadow. He curses when enemies toss grenades around him or launch him out the back of a moving plane the way I shout dammit! when I stub my toe. But, somehow, these breathless moments feel right.
But how do you make the sensation of video game invincibility make sense as a series begins to enter the uncanny valley? The God of War series, a similarly cinematic combination of action and platforming for Sony’s console, could be so self-consciously over the top because its central character was a demi-god who regularly went toe-to-toe with gorgons and centaurs. Despite the occasional flares of the supernatural, the world of Uncharted is very human. Naughty Dog clearly designed the game’s cities and tunnels to feel plucked straight from the real world, both in their breathtaking scope and Nate’s incredible ability to grapple with everything in sight.
How do you make the sensation of video game invincibility make sense as a series begins to enter the uncanny valley?
Oftentimes, however, this level of reactivity conflicts with other elements of gameplay, producing awkward or infuriating results.Walking through the caked and yellowed streets of Yemen, Drake slaps the walls as you brush by them. This was clearly meant to enhance the game world’s sense of authenticity, but it occaisonally leaves Drake flailing his arms as if there is still a tarantula caught somewhere in his shirt from the crypt he was raiding. When you engage in a brief QTE to throw live grenades back at your enemies, Drake often tosses them straight into the wall against which he is crouching. Trying to leap off ledges or dodge quickly in the middle of a firefight suddenly presses you against another wall directly in the line of fire, sticking your character to the wrong surface for the precious few seconds that could have saved your life. The checkpoint system confused me, restarting me either at the very beginning of a sequence so many times I began to lose interest, or suddenly shifting me to another area of the map. Battles, I suppose, were meant to be fought sequentially. But this chafes with the open-ended space of the levels themselves.
It is strange, then, that in a game that offers a ridiculous amount of death-defying stunts and thrilling chase sequences, the part that seems the most unbelievable to me is the combat. “Better keep this quiet,” Drake mumbles as you enter a new area, indicating that you are supposed to transition into the game’s thin veil of a stealth mode. But once you accidentally heave yourself towards the wrong angle of a nearby wall or punch an enemy instead of incapacitating him, the entire areas erupts inexplicably into gunfire. Heavily armed enemies sprint towards you to lock you in a fist-fight, despite the massive firepower strapped to every available part of their body. The QTEs for hand-to-hand combat are frustratingly simple and unresponsive, as well as unbalanced with the gun combat. There were many times I found myself defeating an enemy in 3 to 4 punches after unloading an entire round into his colleague seconds earlier.
Defensive readers, as they did so aggressively against Eurogamer’s critique of the game, will probably rush to tell me that I shouldn’t blame a game for my own inadequacies as a player. Fair enough. When it comes to multiplayer, I do not stand with the best of them. But how many shotgun blasts to the head should one enemy really be able to take? The bizarre, almost comical endurance of individual enemies counteracts the obvious care put into the design and strategy of weapons for this game. Grenades explode under men’s feet to their mild confusion, and rocket blasts make them stumble sideways as if they just stepped over a loose rock. Combat, if nothing else, should be diegetic in such a narrative-focused game.
When I Grow Up, I Want To Be Nathan Drake
But maybe the ridiculousness of Nate’s spectacular endurance–and his enemies’ invulnerability–is part of the charm of Uncharted 3. Naughty Dog has done something important with this series. By abandoning the outlandish and cartoonish characters of Jak and Daxter (before the series took any turns for the worse) in favor of relatably human ones, they showed how games could give us the sense of childlike wonder that used to be the sole property of movies like Indiana Jones. I still found myself grinning proudly at the end of the game as Drake, Sully, and Elena walk off into the sunset yet again. For all the knocks against “player agency” in game like this, there is an incredible power to seeing Drake reunite with Elena and being able to tell oneself, however foolishly, I made that happen. In Uncharted 3, however, the growing pains of this franchise unfortunately leave the moment feeling for more anticlimactic than was probably intended. Hopefully by the time the next Drake adventure swings around, they’ll have a clearer vision of the game’s direction.
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