Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #3: Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

The Uncharted series is amongst the very best in new IPs to come out of the PlayStation 3/Xbox 360-era. It does a lot of things right, but the two things it does absolutely better than literally any other IP on the market is character interaction and cinematic sequences. Both of those areas have hit their pinnacle with the third opus, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.

Beginning with a bang that leaves both Drake and his cohort Sully injured by a gunshot wound in a London alleyway atop a heap of garbage, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception does everything that made the Indiana Jones series it often imitates so much fun. Taking the time in its third round to flesh out the back-story between Nathan Drake and Victor Sullivan, including an in-depth focus on Drake’s childhood and ancestry, the game openly displays the heart of its character (and therefore its characters), allowing you to peer into the emotional attachment between the two best friends of different ages. It's a roller coaster of emotion that plays with your heart strings on more than one occasion due to the impeccable direction of the game, trumping even the best of action films that Hollywood has to offer. Simply put, the game coaxes you into thinking that Nate and Sully are your friends, too.

One of the most impressive things about the Uncharted franchise – one thing that particular shines in this third installment – is the game always gives you a peek into what is going to happen in the game. Box art spoilers ahoy, but when you see Drake board an airplane, you know it’s going to crash. As they say, the fun is not the destination but the journey itself, and Naughty Dog always knows how to keep us on our toes. In all of the game’s big sequences, we knew what direction the game was taking us, yet we’re all so stunned by the way it gets us there. If for nothing else, Naughty Dog should be commended for its imagination.

That is one of my personal favorite things about the Uncharted series as a whole, but in particular this release: each adventure is like a big “connect the dots” portrait, with a series of smaller dots leading to four to six big dots. The game will occasionally slow down with ho-hum corridors filled with generic gun-toting bad guys, but the thrill of seeing what these smaller dots eventually connect to is more than enough to keep shoving you in that direction – and it never, ever disappoints once you get there.

In terms of gameplay, Uncharted continues to do some things right and some things wrong. I find it increasingly difficult to play an Assassin’s Creed game after an Uncharted adventure, as I did this year, as Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception raises the bar for how acrobatics should be handled in gaming. True, it looks quite ridiculous to see Drake flailing about along the protruding ridges of a building’s landscape, but it certainly feels more fluid than the clunky, "realistic" approach that Assassin’s Creed adapts. Sometimes it is wise to remember that videogames, above seeming realistic, should be fun. Uncharted does the best job of making it abundantly clear which areas are accessible via scaling, rarely forcing you to take a leap of faith in order to find out.

This brings us to the black sheep of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception’s skill set in the gunplay. In a game that focusing so much on action sequences where Drake can be utterly surrounded by shotgun-wielding, armor-wearing, shield-toting vigilantes, you should have the absolute best in gunplay in order to effectively defend yourself. The only thing worse in a shooter than an incredibly sensitive aiming reticle is one that is so numb to movement that it takes a jerking motion to set it in the general vicinity of your target, which is exactly what we have with the third Uncharted installment – and a step backwards for the series.

In a normal year of gaming, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception could win Game of the Year without a problem. It has the looks, it has the brains, it has the muscle, and it definitely, above all other contenders this year, has the heart. Unfortunately for Naughty Dog, something as small as sluggish aiming controls during gunplay is enough to hold this one back from winning such honors in a tightly contested year such as 2011.

Do not let a flaw or two persuade you away from one of the best experiences in gaming of the year, as Drake's Deception's story will deceive you enough times along the way to a terrific conclusion to leave you smiling. I'm not sure why Nate continually gets himself crossed up in these outlandish adventures (and lives to tell the tale, no less), but I could go for a few dozen more.

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