Endless Treasures in ‘Uncharted’ Lands

Courtesy of Panorama

In 2009, developer Naughty Dog’s “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” emerged as my game of the year. It set a nearly impossible standard for third-person games with its incredible action set pieces, unrivaled cinematic presentation and an absolutely lovable cast of characters. “Uncharted 2” was executed almost flawlessly, and it remains just as thoroughly engaging today as it was upon its release.

After such a virtually universally beloved game as “Uncharted 2,” the question becomes how could it be succeeded in “Uncharted 3.” While “Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception” is not the gigantic leap forward, as “Uncharted 2” was from the original in every aspect, “Uncharted 3” is a worthy successor due to its campaign challenging expectations and also by delivering one of the greatest multiplayer suites available.

Similar to the past games, the main story focuses on treasure hunter Nathan Drake, who is once again on the trail of rediscovering a lost city. This time, in his quest to find the Atlantis of the Sands, Drake is pitted against an older English woman named Katherine Marlowe. It is here where the story begins to develop quite differently than before. Not to spoil any of the game’s particular moments, but unlike previous villains, Marlowe has a history with Drake making her far more interesting than her predecessors from a story perspective.

Of greater interest, however, are the relationships Drake has with his friends, particularly with his longtime mentor Sully. The full cast from previous games once again returns, and is joined by a few new faces that subsequently bring new dynamics to keep the story interesting. Many of the obstacles that the characters encounter are psychological trials, so characters are forced to overcome their deepest fears in order to succeed. As such, the narrative often explores new themes throughout the course of the game that are far more sophisticated than those found in previous “Uncharted” games.

The action in “Uncharted 3” doesn’t disappoint, as the set pieces are even larger this time around. Escaping a burning chateau in France and fighting across a cargo plane as it takes off are both really exciting in and of themselves, but it is the added emotional weight, such as Sully being trapped in the same castle that is on fire as Drake, that push the set pieces ahead of those in “Uncharted 2.” In general, I feel that most of the normal encounters are much finer tuned to give you more flexibility for each approach to combat, which is great.

Basic actions remain relatively unchanged from “Uncharted 2.” In single player, movement and shooting feel a bit more floaty than they do in multiplayer, but are largely fine for the most part. The melee combat has been slightly modified this time around, which makes it feel very comparable to “Batman: Arkham City” in that you can chain together a lot of regular attacks and mix in counters too.

The biggest surprise for me with “Uncharted 3” is how enjoyable the multiplayer is. Although I love playing single-player games and local splitscreen multiplayer games, there are very few games I even consider playing multiplayer against random strangers. “Uncharted 3” will be one of the few games I will play online because it is such an entirely unique multiplayer experience. Its emphasis on verticality and lightning-quick navigation of the maps features a huge degree of strategy.

Nearly all the maps have a few sections that change over the course of the game. For example, in the chateau map, there is a room that slowly catches on fire each match and eventually is completely burned away. The airstrip map is really awesome in that every match starts with the heroes on a plane and the villains on jeeps. The villains try to jump across their jeeps onto to the plane and steal it from the heroes. After a few kills, a winner is decided to get bonus cash, and everyone moves to another map where the rest of the match takes place which is also really good.

There are some enjoyable systems that make multiplayer more interesting. In each match, you can fulfill mini-achievements that give you both a medal and cash. While cash lets you level up and buy new equipment between matches, the medals tie in to giving you kickbacks which lets you access a super power. The buddy system is also really cool because every player is assigned a buddy at the start of the match and working together with the buddy provides extra cash and, in some cases, a moving spawn point to help you get back to the action quicker. If you play splitscreen, your friend next to you is automatically your buddy which is great.

The multiplayer is fairly feature-packed too, with weapons and outfits to purchase, as well as new abilities that unlock as you level up. There are both competitive and cooperative modes in the game. I found Team Deathmatch (five versus five) to be the most fun, but other modes and the cooperative campaign were fun too. Ultimately, the multiplayer is as satisfying as the single-player campaign.

“Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception” does so many things right that any small frustrations are easily outweighed. It is a masterpiece that could easily justify the purchase of a PS3 alone and is a game of the year contender for 2011.

Rating: 5 out of 5