Uncharted 3 lacks predecessor’s pacing

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was not only one of the best games on the Playstation 3, but one of the best video games to date. It featured a fun sharply-written script, engaging gameplay, a brilliant soundtrack and the best cinematic pacing ever presented in a videogame. Needless to say, expectations for Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception were extremely high. While Uncharted 3 is a tremendously satisfying game and one of the best releases of 2011, it fails to fully live up to the legacy of its legendary predecessor.

It is evident that Naughty Dog was keen to replicate the success of Uncharted 2 rather than pushing new boundaries with Uncharted 3. That is not to say that nothing has changed. The primary new gameplay hook is a highly cinematic melee combat system based on Quick Time Events. The player has to grapple, counter and punch at the right moment to overcome foes. Often times, the combat animations will take advantage of the surrounding environment. In the opening sequence, where players start brawling in a bar, Drake will open doors into foes faces, or smash them over the head with random detritus. It’s a lot of fun to watch, but it comes up short in comparison to the recently released Arkham City’s combat system, which is based on similar design principles.

The platforming and over-the-shoulder gunplay is still tight and satisfying, in single-player, multiplayer and co-op. Those who have grown bored with more terrestrial first person shooters, like Gears or CoD, may find Uncharted’s combination of climbing, leaping and shooting refreshing. Naughty dog has also implemented a new system referred to as “Medal Kickback,” which functions similarly to CoD’s kill-streak bonuses, save that the bonuses (like getting an RPG, or two extra grenades or a momentary speed boost) are activated by collecting medals instead of just killing enemies.  Players can also now create a custom avatar to play as, though the cosmetic options are rather limited (I hope you like bald characters).

Then again, the main appeal of the uncharted series has always been the cinematic storytelling. The game’s premise is that Nathan Drake is trying to find the legendary lost city of Iram, supposedly first discovered by his ancestor, Francis Drake. The main antagonist is a snotty British harridan by the name of Marlowe, who has a history with Drake’s mentor sully. The premise alone sets the game apart from a sea of space marines and realistic war-stories, but the script simply isn’t as sharp and compelling as the first game.

The story also feels less compelling over-all. We learn how Nathan Drake meets Sully, but we don’t actually learn how Drake got his start as a thief, or what is driving him to follow in the footsteps of his ancestor, Francis Drake. This is all the more frustrating, because fortune the game teases us with promises of revealing Drake’s darkest fears. Nate’s romance with Elena Fisher is hinted at, but heavily downplayed in the sequel, removing some of the playfulness that made the first narrative such a joy to watch. And as fun as it is to hate on snobby British aristocracy, Marlowe isn’t nearly as menacing as Zoran Lazarvic was in Uncharted 2.

The area where Uncharted 3 really stumbles though, is the thing that made Uncharted 2 absolutely magical: the brilliant pacing of play and narrative. Uncharted 2 had a great blend of platforming, puzzle solving and highly-scripted explosive battles throughout the entire campaign. Most of Uncharted 3’s puzzles come in clumps near the beginning and the middle of the game while the final part of the game is an incredibly long action sequence interrupted by a meditative, but ultimately pointless sojourn through empty desert.

That is not to say that the campaign does not have its share of memorable moments. Fighting your way through a ship graveyard and alternating between shooting, swimming and climbing, was a fun section. The following fight that occurs in a storm-tossed ship is even better, with waves throwing cargo containers across the deck, forcing you to scramble after your cover, and when the ship starts to sink, you are treated to some fun platforming in a world turned sideways.

All in all, Uncharted 3 offers a fun adventure with a compelling multiplayer component. Those who loved the first game will greatly enjoy Nathan Drake’s latest adventure even if its story and cinematography are not as amazing as Uncharted 2.