The Uncharted franchise is one where we can enjoy the travels of adventurer Nathan Drake ad nauseum. Each new tale delivers players to astonishing places, unique combat situations, and the dramatic love life of our hero. But does the third installment, Drake’s Deception, give players something new and fresh, or is it just more of the same old, albeit often breathtaking gameplay, all over again?

Drake’s Deception plunges players head first into a new tale, once again on the hunt for treasures left hidden by his long lost ancestor Sir Francis Drake. Developer Naughty Dog Studios took much from its previous Uncharted titles, and indeed anyone who has played the prior two games will feel right at home with Uncharted 3. There aren’t stark changes – don’t fix what ain’t broke – but Naughty Dog did spread its wings with this third installment. And the changes are all for the better.

While the story is interesting, the level of intrigue and overall complexity is limited in scope. Players shouldn’t expect to figure out what’s happening…either information is given, or it isn’t. The plot isn’t complicated, though unlike past titles there are some pleasant surprises so players don’t just sit back and watch, but sit up in their seats anxiously.

Gameplay is nearly identical, though the elements that made Uncharted 2: Among Thieves feel more like the Assassin’s Creed franchise are more prevalent in Drake’s Deception. There is more platforming and more fast-paced combat. Action sequences are fluid. Hand-to-hand combat has been completely overhauled and not only works, but is stunning to watch and to feel. At the same time none of the negatives associated with Ubisoft’s killer franchise plague Uncharted 3 thanks to very focused objective-based linear gameplay.

Combat, while occasionally droll in past titles, has received small but important updates to improve flow and keep firefights challenging. It’s not the weapons, but the scenarios in which Drake takes on the enemy. Each combat situation is entirely different from the last, and plenty are all too memorable. One fight has Drake cross a shipyard where mercenaries are heavily armed and fortified. This particular scenario has a slew of combat options: stealth, where players literally sneak past the majority of the enemy AI; head-on combat, with players using precise aim or overwhelming firepower to take down enemies one by one; or a mix of both with guerrilla tactics, where players jump in and out of the water, sneak to high vantage points, and level the enemy until they wise up and take command of the situation. Multiple paths to through any firefight is standard. The game may guide you in a linear fashion, but combat is anything but storybooked.

In fact, enemy AI has received some drastic improvements and is surprisingly smart. They aren’t Rage-smart, but they duck and weave, move around cover, flank, split up and regroup, and are very resilient when players don’t immediately finish them off. Especially later in the game, when fighting armored tangos with rocket launchers and machine guns, even the best players will die often. Combat is quite often irritating because of how good the AI can be, which is a good thing.

This game is, though it tricks players into believing otherwise, a thinking-man’s game. Combat requires equal part skill and strategy. One level where Drake traverses walls, shooting enemies straight above him, is 60% aim and 40% position. Even the game’s puzzles are smarter, for the most part. One or two puzzles feel more like pulling levers and marching onward, but others are genuinely thought-provoking, and few are even enlightening. One in particular – I won’t spoil the puzzle – reminds me of some of the puzzles in God of War, which make so much sense and are usually so far removed from the realm of gaming.

Uncharted 3 is also gorgeous, which comes as no surprise considering the past titles. Everlong landscapes and colorful and lush cities, forests and deserts not only look the part, but feel right. Drake walking through the desert, thirsty, and finding a small stream in a mountain feels real. Many games do a great job on the visuals, but Uncharted 3 went one step further. Like Inception, it’s really about the feel of it all.

And Drake’s Deception feels great, through and through. The single-player campaign is top-notch, a great time with fun acting, visually stunning cinematics, and a great returning cast of nitwits, jokesters and adventurers that’s all in good humor. Along with the solo campaign is a 3-player cooperative mode that, like Uncharted 2, has plot-based missions to accomplish but as a team. This mode adds nothing to the story, but is great fun for two or three players, though it’s really suited specifically for three. Cooperative multiplayer is essentially mixing up that great single player combat but with the odds stacked against you and a friend always watching your back. That is, assuming your teammates play well with others.

Competitive multiplayer is what I’d refer to as alternative online game. It doesn’t meet the standards of a franchise like Call of Duty, which commands millions of players. However, Uncharted 3′s 3rd-person perspective and slow- to medium-paced competitive gameplay, with cover and limited weapons, is enjoyable in an entirely different way. It’s just as skill-based as the best multiplayer games, but because of the slower flow allows players more space for free-thinking, coming up with interesting ways to approach objectives or defend targets or take down enemies. And multiplayer maps are built accordingly. Every map is a jungle gym to explore. Climb the roofs, swim around the edges, hide out in obscure corners. Every power spot has defined weaknesses, and every path has at least two exits. Uncharted 3′s multiplayer may not have the allure of other big-name titles set for release this holiday season, but few would be lucky to compare to the sheer complexity and fun that Drake’s Deception has to offer.

In many respects, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is a natural followup to Naughty Dog’s 2009 entry. More of the same characters, more platforming and adventuring. Yet at the same time Naughty Dog takes some big steps away from their traditional games. For the first time we see Drake as a boy growing up and learn a bit about this staple character of PS3 gaming. The improvements to combat and level design are superb, enough to make the entire game feel fresh and welcoming. Combined, Drake’s Deception is the quintessential PS3 adventure.

Editor’s Choice

Rating: ★★★★½

Excellent



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.