A teenage Nathan Drake is doing his finest Spiderman impression on top of Columbia, sashaying between shingle roofs and rooftop gardens. Below, the streets murmur, the ebb and flow of life blind to the impetuous minor playing rooftop Russian Roulette above. A Latin-American guitar refrain drifts up between the stucco buildings. The sun bleaches a whimsical skyline. Teenage Drake sidles along a ledge and leaps across a 10 foot ravine. As you do.
There’s skittishness to him altogether foreign to the man who ungrudgingly grapples with undead Nazis in a bid to earn a little treasure later in life. As youthful Drake wanders through tapered streets he steals glances over his shoulder. He peers around corners before stepping out and shoots a nervous look at anything that betrays a sound. There’s naturalness to the unease at which young Drake behaves while mastering a set of skills that will serve him for life.
And while the rest of Drake’s world is adorned with gawky yellow ledges and favourably placed handholds, here his path is built from ramps and ledges, ornate buildings and colourful marquees. They’re no less convenient when it gets down to brass tactics, but there’s an artistry to Columbia that Naughty Dog never quite rekindles. Further along, the developer can’t allow five minutes to slip by without a shootout – to the detriment of everything that makes Uncharted tick – but here there’s no urgency to begin dancing that familiar jig.
It’s also in Columbia that Naughty Dog’s uncanny eye for the cinematic segues best with its narrative, technical ingenuity and the actual gameplay. There’s purpose to every bound and shimmy that transcends making the journey from A to B to further a narrative that never has a great deal to do with shooting goons in Kevlar suits or punching 8-foot “brutes” (sigh). There’s purpose because this early level charts the union of Drake and Sullie.
There are few finer moments to be found among the many oohs and ahs in Uncharted’s library of thespian set pieces, bombastic chase scenes and crumbling cities, than sauntering through these tranquil Columbian streets in search of Victor Sullivan.
These heady scenes come to a head, of course, and Uncharted 3 slips back into the grooves that have served Naughty Dog and the Playstation 3 so well over the past four years.
This time out, Drake and co. are in search of a veiled Arabian city. No prizes for guessing: it’s super-cursed. Their dastardly counterparts (Katherine, Talbot and their cabal of goons) are fittingly hammy, managing to thwart Drake et al. at every opportunity. While this is enough to cause a few eye-rolls, it does pave the way for all those eye-popping set pieces that Naughty Dog so love to peddle.
And they’ve never been better, bigger or more pleasing. A real-time plane crash over the desert is absolutely huge and Naughty Dog blend the bedlam of disaster with the tranquility of last-ditch escape with complete mastery. It’s a scene that could leave Hollywood’s loudest, most flamboyant action-men in awe; a glorious blitz on the senses. To wield that kind of control once is special, but there’s a perennial sense here that nothing is ever quite good enough and Naughty Dog betters itself again and again over the course of a 10-hour campaign.
It’s forever predictable, though. “I’m surprised the whole place hasn’t come crashing down yet”, Nate remarks while skulking through a tumbledown city. Cue noise and catastrophe. But that doesn’t rob of it of the thrill and, if anything, only accentuates just how much effort and detail has gone into every sinking cruise liner or fracturing ancient city.
The casual platforming and Gears of War-lite shooting, adorned with Sullie’s quips and Drake’s wise-cracks, remain Uncharted’s lifeblood. Drake will cling to the slightest ledge and leap some 10-feet without trouble and a point in the right direction and tap of the X button is all that is required to navigate what would be perilous enough obstacles to send Lara Croft tumbling into death’s grip. Yet it still manages to be riveting thanks, again, to Naughty Dog’s eye for the cinematic. There’s no gameplay benefit to the sprawling nighttime London vista, but that didn’t stop me loitering on the rooftop in a stupor for a good five minutes soaking in all that detail.
That detail is far more than just eye-candy too and goes a long way to clawing you into Drake’s distant world. Uncharted has always felt like an adventure into exotic lands (and there’s always been a childlike quality to how exciting the globetrotting is) but never quite to this degree; dramatic skyboxes and endless draw-distances, an entire city collapsing as you scurry by falling belfries and hunks of concrete. Everything is brought to life. It’s choreographed down to the most minute of details – every camera pan, character shuffle and all the nuances in their movements have been poured over and perfected- but the result is a world and a cast packed with intrigue and life.
And yet Drake’s Deception is the most disenchanting entry in the series. At times, it feels like Naughty Dog have forgotten what made Among Thieves pur. It wasn’t the weapon-play, it was the characters and their budding relationships. It was Nathan Drake perched and panting beside Sullie and Elena cracking wise about scraping through yet another near-death scenario.
The firefights remain the series’ weakest link. Aiming is skittish and enemies spam grenades with the kind of reckless abandon reserved for Call of Duty’s goons. There are too many enemies, too, and they’re far too good at flanking you. Smart AI (or at least the illusion of) is one thing, but it’s maddening to be forced out of cover because an enemy has entered the invisible circle that automatically initiates a quicktime fistfight (which doesn’t prevent anyone else shooting you, mind). There’s a decent choice of weapons – and the combat isn’t disagreeable – there’s just too much of it.
That’s compounded during a lengthy stint midway through where new-boy Charlie and returning faces Chloe and Sullie go MIA, leaving you and Drake to traipse through a long chain of firefights against droves of bullet-sponge enemies and mini bosses that fly in the face of Uncharted’s strengths. For a good hour or two the story is placed on hold while you plod from one dreary shootout to the next. Bereft of Sullie and the gang to pull you through, it’s easy to call it quits.
And therein lies Uncharted’s chief flaw and it’s one that Naughty Dog have managed to brush under the rug up until now by only rarely permitting Drake and the other key characters to drift apart. The schism between story and game is too wide here. Those two hours spent rescuing Sully prove completely meaningless; cutscenes bookend the action and nothing of worth happens in between. Drake – who’s all cuddles and Mr. Moral High Ground during the cutscenes – merely racks up another murder-count of abominable proportions.
Even when friendly faces are redrafted back into the plot there’s not a lot going on during the second half of the game (not until the last cutscene, at least). Most jarring is characters that played an integral role in the first act are sent packing, never to be heard from again. The relationships between cast members are integral to Uncharted but they’re overlooked time and again in Drake’s Deception. It’s the reason those scenes in Columbia are so powerful. There’s meaning behind the action.
The paucity of character-building scenes and the ubiquity of shootouts ultimately take their toll during the final act where Drake’s Deception embarks on a suicide march, swamped by quick time events and meaningless firefights. Deception bears some of the highest points of the Uncharted odyssey but also the lion’s share of the nadirs. Among Thieves managed to strike just the right balance until it sashayed off a cliff ledge during its final moments, but Drake’s Deception leans too heavily towards action and firefights, to the ridiculous point where I found myself clamouring for cutscenes. It takes the accustomed-Uncharted tumble all too early.
On a technical level it’s eye-popping, a real work of class, and regardless of its flaws is absolutely worth playing. Drake and co. are as endearing as ever and if you’ve come this far it’d be a scandal not to see the trilogy out. For every grievance there’s a wealth of greatness, but Among Thieves soared so high, the fact that Drake’s Deception could have easily been another stunner makes all the niggles that much harder to stomach. Cherish those early moments, Naughty Dog never quite reach the same giddy heights.