To call Uncharted 3 one of the most anticipated titles of 2011 would be like calling the Atlantic Ocean mildly damp. When it comes to bombastic blockbuster experiences, no series does things bigger, better, and with more polish than Naughty Dog’s homage to pulp adventures. The script and acting in particular have always been highlights, making these games some of my favourite story-based titles of all time. With such lofty expectations to match, there's a lot of pressure on Uncharted 3 to perform.
So does the game manage it? Well, I wish I could answer with a resounding "yes", but it's a bit more complicated than that. I'd say the answer would be a slightly less snappy "yes, but with qualifiers". Let's break the game down and see what works and what doesn't...
From the first minute to the last, you're going to be wowed by this game - particularly if you have a quality TV and sound system to do it justice. I don't normally start a review by talking about the graphics, but I have to here. They're stunning - not just technically, but from an art direction perspective as well. Whether you're in a London pub, a French villa, the middle of the desert, or on a derelict cruise ship, every scene has the potential to make you sit back in awe.
It's not the graphics alone that do this - its the seamless combination of art, audio, and set piece direction that creates sheer spectacle, time and time again. I can't even begin to describe some of the best moments where this happens due to spoilers, but suffice to say Uncharted 3 is jam packed with moments that make you sit back on your couch and try desperately to drink it all in. The classic example is where you'll be climbing something, often a building, and the camera slowly pulls back to reveal a city, or a sea of shipwrecks, or a majestic canyon. All of it is the developer saying, "We have an amazing graphics engine, don't we?" I can't help but agree.
All of this is to say that if you were worried the great moments in Uncharted 2 couldn't be topped, you may rest easy. The train sequence in that game might remain my favourite of the whole series, but between boats, planes, castles, burning buildings, and oh so much more, Uncharted 3 has you covered. So far I've deleted about half a dozen sentences detailing the coolest moments; you're just going to have to trust me here.
The leap in gameplay tightness between U1 and U2 was greater than the level of improvement you'll find here, but everything is still very solid. The gunplay remains much the same, but melee combat has been beefed up, allowing you to make use of your environment a bit more in order to better knock someone out. The developers were obviously very keen to showcase the improvements, as you'll find yourself in a number of enforced melee encounters. To be honest, I thought there were a couple too many, which only became a problem due to repetition - you'll always be repeating much the same pattern and seeing the same set of (admittedly pretty cool) animations.
Otherwise it's much the same Uncharted gameplay you know and (possibly) love. It's all very tight the third time around, particularly during the numerous 'unique' control moments in the game's many set piece action sequences.
Oh, and one more addition that's surpisingly awesome: enemy grenades can now be flung back in their faces if you get the timing right, with hilarious consequences.
In previews, the developers stated that Uncharted 3 would focus on the relationship between Nathan Drake and his mentor, Victor "Sully" Sullivan. The game certainly does that, but it's with the story that I have my biggest complaints.
I should stress that story in games is very important to me, and it makes me very happy to see a title get its story right. Uncharted 2, I felt, managed to do this. The script, acting and presentation combined to create characters I actually cared about, and kept caring about right to the end credits - a rarity for me. Sure, the villain may have been largely forgettable, but the love triangle between Drake, Elena and Chloe was fantastically told. The flashback structure was also really tightly and elegantly implemented. Basically, it felt like a ton of work had gone into the pacing and scripting of the story, and the payoff was huge.
With Uncharted 3, I felt some of that was sacrificed, with bigger and more numerous set pieces acting as a substitute. It's so very annoying trying to make my point without giving anything away, but in general it seemed like the game had a few cool plot strands that never developed as much as they should have done. The brilliant things about Uncharted stories are still there - the wit, the subtlety, the humour - but this time around they're a bit more isolated from one another, instead of wrapped into a cohesive and progressive whole. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that while each individual scene is good, the driving narrative just isn't as clearly told as it needed to be in order for me to get truly invested.
Dont get me wrong, this is still a fun story that is easily one of the best among blockbuster games. The reason I'm nitpicking is because all the elements were there for a great story, but they weren't harnessed together the same way they were in Uncharted 2. The Drake/Sully theme, for example, starts out great, with an early flashback showing us how they met in a really cool way. But for whatever reason, it doesn't really go anywhere, not in a way that's terribly significant. You get to see how much the two care about each other, but we already knew that - where are the dilemmas that force this friendship forward? Where are the obstacles that must be overcome? At one point, the villain tries to seed doubt in Drake's mind about Sully, but like other such potentially cool story elements in the game, it's never developed or mentioned again.
That villain, meanwhile, has to be the most forgettable of the Uncharted villains, and that's saying something. Katherine Marlowe has, on paper, a lot of aspects that might make her intriguing to the player, but it's like she doesn't get enough screen time to make you feel like she's anything but a plot point. As a result, it doesn't feel like the stakes are all that high throughout the game, which is a huge shame.
To conclude: the story is still fun, but nowhere near as cohesive and engaging as Uncharted 2. That is a real shame, because I know the developers have the sheer talent and passion to craft ever-better narratives.
I really enjoyed the multiplayer beta of Uncharted 3 earlier this year, and am happy to report that the final version is the same but more polished. Competitive deathmatches are actually lots of fun with the Uncharted engine, and Naughty Dog continues to add in just the right amount of their cinematic flair to give levels a unique feel. My favourite remains the airstrip map, where opposing teams must either board or protect a giant plane that's taking off from a runway.
Small co-op story vignettes also make an appearance, and are worth playing through if you have a friend handy. I see them very much as a side show, but they do really help round out an already comprehensive package. All told, there's a lot of value to be had here.
Uncharted 3 is a very good game, no matter what mode you're playing. I may have come down hard on the story, but that's because I hate to see potential unfulfilled. Uncharted 2 remains my favourite, simply because I value well-realised characters above anything else. But if you're less of a fussy bastard than me, and if you want a game that will wow you with sheer spectacle and keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish, then get this game.