After sweeping the game of the year awards in 2009, it's no surprise that expectation and hype for the latest entry in the Uncharted series is at a fever pitch. Part of what made Uncharted 2 such a critical darling was the obvious improvement over the first Uncharted, with - arguably - the best graphics at the time, a refined sense of cinematic gaming and cooperative and competitive multiplayer for added value. Uncharted 3 is attempting to continue this upward trend in quality, but can it have the impact that the second did?
It's time for the return of everyone's favorite half-tucking smart mouth: Nathan Drake. This time the character focus is squarely on Sully and Nate. Seeing how these two started out is interesting, and it's good to see a less romantic focus. These are your stereotypical guy friends, so there's a whole lot of joking around and goading, with only a few serious moments between them, but that's probably better for the Uncharted series since hitherto it's strayed into romantic comedy territory sometimes. Some parts don't work quite as well - namely the main antagonist and the romantic conclusions towards the end. The final boss battle with the main antagonist wasn't the heart pumping finale I'd been hoping for, and this is probably at least partly due to the gameplay mechanics of the final moments. There's also a minor romantic conclusion between Nate and Elena which feels somewhat tacked-on, given that they aren't the main focus of the story.
Beyond the usual single player story mode, Uncharted 3 also features a more developed story in co-op, with multiple linking chapters instead of stand-alone missions. The story is what the Uncharted series in general would be if it were taken down to its most basic form, with each chapter featuring the latest piece in a much larger puzzle, sans an overarching antagonist. It's great for a few laughs and helps bring variety to the gameplay in the cooperative adventure mode, but it isn't as involved or fun to watch as the main campaign. Overall, the story in Uncharted 3 is what we've come to expect from the series: an Indiana Jones-esque adventure with plenty of snarky comments along the way. It never goes too far out of the usual action movie emotional spectrum of excitement and humor, but that's where the Uncharted series is at its most comfortable and enjoyable anyway.
The biggest gameplay change in the single player campaign is easily the revamped system for melee combat. It's a lot like a stripped down version of the combat system in Batman: Arkham Asylum, with only fewer actions to choose from and more context-sensitive animations to help keep it from getting boring. Square attacks, Triangle counters, Circle is for grabs, and... that's about it. Melee is a central feature and forced upon you a few times in the single player campaign. Although it's fun, it pales in comparison to its obvious inspiration. Movements feel less fluid, the Triangle counter button is prominently displayed, and Nathan doesn't have the variety of tools at his disposal like Batman does. Granted, it's more realistic that Nathan Drake isn't the master of martial arts that Batman is, but the final product ends up being less skill based and, as a result, not as much fun. The melee system works well when it's just another option, but too often it was the only option, and it doesn't have enough meat on it to be the sole focus of combat in these instances. All that said, I loved the context-sensitive attacks (like picking up a nearby fish and clobbering a prim and proper tuxedo-clad adversary with it).
The other big change is the introduction of slightly destructive environments, but sadly it's underutilized. There are only a few key sections where it comes into play, but it's nonetheless nice to have another method of taking out enemies. Destroying old, dilapidated pillars with an AK47 to wipe out an entrenched machine gun is a nice showcase of what destructible environments can do, but it's only applicable in a few scarce situations, so it comes off as more of a one-off gimmick than a full gameplay feature. Uncharted's best asset isn't any given combat mechanic, but how most situations allow you to mix and match how you take out enemies based on your play style. Stealth mechanics don't have to be the best in the genre if it's not the main focus. Sadly, neither of Uncharted 3's new gameplay mechanics hit the sweet spot that stealth managed in Uncharted 2.
Something else that seems slightly off is how the game sometimes enforces its linearity. I don't mind in the slightest a linear game, not one bit, but how you make me stick to the path can be important. Am I going this way because there is no other logical possibility, or am I going this way because the game mechanics either don't allow me to move in another direction or you kill me when I try? Those are big differences to me. An example of this is when I was running in the chateau and, not knowing exactly where to go, I dropped down what couldn't have been more than 12 feet down to a room I'd previously been in. Somehow Drake died from a fall which obviously would not have killed him if I had been meant to go there. Now, again, I'm ok if the developers don't want me to go down a path because I wouldn't easily be able to get back up, but it would be less immersion-breaking if they had blocked that side path off, or put in place a reason that the fall would kill me. Nothing brings me out of the experience more than getting killed by something that couldn't possibly kill me, or trying to traverse a desert with sand all around but not being able to move forward because I can't find the exact angle I'm meant to be pointing my stick at. These times are few and far between, but they break the immersion of what is otherwise a very engrossing game.
Naughty Dog have mentioned a number of times how the multiplayer in Uncharted 3 was going to be a bigger focus than it had been in previous games. It shows. Medals flow like water, so you always feel like you're progressing even if your team is losing by a wide margin. Each medal increases the amount of money you get, which can then be used to upgrade your weapons slightly (like increased reload speed, laser sights, or aesthetic character changes, such as a new hat for Drake). While the options for customizing the blank slate pirate/adventurer are plentiful, I was really disappointed in how little you could do with the established characters. You can't actually change their main clothes, like their shirt or pants, instead your options are limited to a couple of different head and hand accessories. I guess I can understand the thought process behind this - who would want to use the blank slate character if you could dress up Sully to your heart's content - but it still feels like a missed opportunity to me.
Medal kickbacks and powerplays are Naughty Dog's attempt to put Call of Duty sensibilities into Uncharted's multiplayer. Kickbacks are rewards you achieve for earning a certain amount of medals during a given match, and you set which reward you want to receive. These range from simple things like giving yourself a rocket launcher to exploding into a swarm of spiders to devour your enemies. It's a nice way to change things up every now and then during a multiplayer match, and medals come easily enough that everyone should get at least one kickback per game. Powerplays are a way to even the playing field if one team is getting creamed; if the score difference between two teams is more than five then the losing team will be given some time (about a minute) where they receive a perk (like double damage or being able to see every enemy on the map regardless of walls in the way). I like how this helps keep matches from getting monotonous, and it's quite well balanced - I've never really felt like it was more of a game changer than it should have been.
Cooperative multiplayer has also seen some changes. Instead of just being a linear series of gun fights with little in the way of variety, the new adventure missions change things up greatly. One minute you'll be protecting a buddy while he opens a metal container (which takes forever if you're smacking it with the butt of a gun, apparently) and the next you'll have to help an injured NPC. It all comes together to make the cooperative adventure feel more like the single player campaign with friends, rather than just a series of firefights.
Uncharted 2 was one of the most beautiful games of its time, and while Uncharted 3 doesn't quite have the awe-inspiring impact of its predecessor, it's still a superb visual spectacle. There are quite a few breathtaking moments, like watching the water slosh around in a cruise ship's pool on rough waters, or the desert sands shifting with the wind. I also noticed some smaller touches I really liked, like how treasures now have models before you pick them up, so you're genuinely finding jade necklaces, or golden coins on the ground, instead of just a random sparkling dot. Taking it a step further, it would be great if each treasure came with a story, or at least some background knowledge, instead of just a picture and a name. On the topic of graphics, I did notice more blemishes this time around. Things like animations that make a character's hand clip through a ladder, or textures that take a while to pop in. These are rare occurrences that would barely be worth mentioning for other games, but when you're at the top of the graphics table every little flaw becomes more obvious.
Sound design is stellar, as expected. Even though we've all now noticed that Nolan North is in just about everything, he'll always be Nathan Drake as far as I'm concerned. Naughty Dog really know how to pick them when it comes to voice actors. Additionally, the music noticeably kicks in and out during action sequences, with songs that would fit in any great action movie, and the sound of gunfire has a more realistic and “meaty” tone to it.
Eight hours of some of the best single player campaign around is what you can expect out of Uncharted 3. It's slightly less than the time it took me to beat the second game, but you still have multiple difficulty levels to work through, treasure hunting, and multiplayer to give you incentives to return. It's not the best value around, but it's certainly worth every penny regardless.
Uncharted 3 had some huge shoes to fill after the amazing reception the second title received, and for the most part it fills them splendidly. Beautiful skylines and flowing desert sand, a reworked multiplayer (particularly co-op), and some crazy set-piece moments makes this one of the best games of the year, but I don't think it's going to sweep the awards board like it did in 2009. Sometimes, heightened expectations can make even a fantastic game like Uncharted 3 feel like a tiny bit of a disappointment.