I didn't think it was possible, but Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is almost as bad as the first game, Drake's Fortune, albeit for different reasons. After the second game demonstrated some competence in its design, I figured Naughty Dog had ironed out the wrinkles in their formula and would only improve the experience with a third opportunity to polish and refine said formula. If nothing else, they could have repackaged the exact same gameplay with a new story and new locations, and I probably would've been content not to see significant improvement as long as it was merely "as good as" the previous game. I certainly didn't expect it to get worse.
Uncharted 3 is a decent game in the sense that it looks nice and its gameplay isn't completely broken, but almost everything feels worse than it did in the previous game. The story is full of plot holes and undeveloped characters, the platforming sections are completely cursory, and the combat feels like a tedious chore once again. Worse than that, the game wants so badly to be cinematic and visually exciting that it comes at the expense of gameplay -- it feels like the game only reluctantly lets you play it, and whenever you do, it only serves to interrupt the game's script and ruin the effectiveness of its dramatic scenes. Uncharted 3 is a pretty good "interactive visual experience" but kind of sucks as a video game.
For the third time in a row, the premise is to follow clues left by a historic explorer in search of an ancient mythological kingdom while trying to stop the bad guys from getting there first and claiming its special powers for themselves. The MacGuffin this time is Iram, the city of pillars, said to have been swallowed by the Rub' al Khali desert. Nathan Drake and his cohorts follow the trail left by Sir Francis Drake and T.E. Lawrence through London, France, Syria, and Yemen, seeking to uncover lost history and lay claim to "immeasurable wealth."
Taking yet further inspiration from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the third Uncharted game begins with a flashback sequence in which we get to play a young Nathan Drake trying to steal Sir Francis Drake's ring -- the one Nate's worn around his neck in the previous two games -- from a museum in Columbia. (Note that this is in perhaps deliberate contrast to the young Henry "it belongs in a museum" Jones Jr.) It's nice that the story returns to Drake's personal roots, and it's good to finally see some backstory for Drake and Sully, but that's about the only praise I can give to the story because everything else about it is pretty lackluster.
With this being the third game in the series, I'm getting a little annoyed with the whole premise. This is now the second game in a row that Drake has single-handedly and deliberately caused the total destruction of an ancient mythological kingdom and put his friends directly in harm's way, causing them a lot of pain, suffering, and even death, all because he was initially interested in finding treasure. Ironically, the world might have been better off if he'd just stayed home, especially considering the bad guys are only able to get as far as they do in each game by piggybacking off of his work. If you, Drake, realize that "everything [you] touch turns to shit," and everyone is telling you to stop, including the long-deceased adventurers whose clues you're following, then maybe you should consider giving it a rest.
The major problem with the story in Uncharted 3 is the complete and total lack of narrative tension, because the game never bothers to explain who the bad guys are, or what their motivation is supposed to be for finding Iram. You go through the entire game trying to stop them, but the game doesn't explain why until literally the very last chapter. The game's central conflict therefore comes off feeling totally pointless since you don't know what their purpose is or what's at stake -- it's just a forced antagonism because video games need some kind of conflict to drive the action forward, to give the player people to shoot. They just show up randomly, and there's usually no major consequence for them showing up at all.
So many things go completely unexplained in this game. Who is Talbot? What's his relation to Marlowe? What does their criminal organization actually do? How were they able to track me to the estate in France, and the citadel in Syria? What's Charlie's backstory supposed to be? What is the significance of the tarot card Chloe finds in Charlie's pocket? What happens to Charlie and Chloe halfway through the game when they just inexplicably disappear from the story? Who is Salim, and what's he supposed to be doing out in the desert? What's the deal with all these spiders that keep showing up in the tombs? Why is Rameses even in the story? Why does Drake suddenly pick the absolute wrong time in the story to show heroic compassion for one of the villains? Were Drake and Elena married at some time?
It's totally possible to come up with reasonable explanations for all of these things, but I'm not sure it's very good storytelling for the player to have to fill in virtually all of the gaps in the story themselves. A lot of detail in this story feels rushed and glossed over, and often times, it feels like an unsatisfying cop out. There's been an implied romance between Drake and Elena throughout the first two games, and then it seemingly comes to fruition at the very end of the second game, yet by the time we get to the third game everything is essentially reset back to the status quo it's always been because they've apparently separated. This could have been a huge opportunity to do something worthwhile with these characters, but instead everything happens completely off-screen, which I found to be a bit of a disappointing letdown.
Other things in the story are just too convenient to swallow. When Drake and Sully realize they need to go to Yemen, Elena just happens to be in Yemen covering a story and is available to help them. While frantically trying to escape from thugs in the crowded, labyrinthine streets of Yemen, they just happen to stumble into the exact room that they need to be in for their next clue. After Drake escapes from a sinking cruise ship, he just happens to wash up on shore exactly where he needs to be to find Elena. While trying to catch up to the bad guys in the Rub' al Khali desert, they get lost in a sandstorm and just happen to wander into the gate to Iram. While exploring temples and tombs, they run into various mechanisms that require two, three, or four people to operate, and they just happen to always have the exact number of people necessary to work the contraption.
Some convenience in the plot is to be expected, otherwise the pacing would suffer, but it's like they were so concerned about parts of the game bogging down that they glossed over entire sections that should have made you feel more involved in the story and setting. Drake and company obtain the clues that tell them what they need to do to find the next clue, but then they never actually use those clues because they just inexplicably arrive at their destination. If the player frequently has to stop and ask "wait, how did we get here," or "what was the point of getting those clues if we weren't going to use them," then the story is going to suffer because the player doesn't feel like they're part of the story's progression. In this game, things just happen and the player is coincidentally along for the ride.
The times when you're given control of the game often seem to be at odds with the pacing of the story. After the plane crashes in the desert, Drake wanders for a few days with no water and is almost dead by the time he reaches the ghost town. He was too weak to walk, and presumably stopped carrying his AK47 because he'd gotten too weak to carry it. Suddenly, bad guys appear and Drake is back to full fighting strength running, jumping, climbing, punching, and firing shotguns. The story dictates that Drake should not have enough strength to do any of the things he does in this fight, while the gameplay dictates that the player be at full strength in order for such an elaborate battle to actually work.
In this iconic moment of the game, the story and gameplay do not mesh with one another. If the designers were so intent on having that "walking through the desert" sequence, then the sequence following it should simply not have had any combat at all, else Drake should have found some water and had an opportunity to rest before the fight occurred. Perhaps rather than designing such an elaborate battle that would break the story's ramifications, they should have designed a much simpler battle that would have incorporated Drake's dehydration and exhaustion into the mechanics. Some of the effect is lost when we see Drake on the brink of death in cinematic story sequences and never get to feel it through the actual gameplay.
Virtually all of the non-combat action sequences in this game are designed simply to look good. The gameplay is usually very light, so you don't derive much satisfaction from feeling like you've accomplished something -- the satisfaction derives mainly from seeing the action, as if you were watching a riveting scene in a movie. Normally I'm all for allowing players to fail in video games so that success feels like an actual accomplishment, but with these heavily scripted "cinematic action sequences," dying does nothing to reinforce the satisfaction of the gameplay and only serves to kill the scene's tension and excitement when the carefully-scripted pacing comes to a screeching halt and you have to do the sequence over again.
The way I see it, it should either not be possible to fail in these cinematic action sequences so that the scenes' intended effects are not lost, in which case you may as well have no control at all and just watch a cutscene, or else the game should just not be so cinematic in the first place. Interactivity is what sets video games apart from movies, so it makes the most sense in my mind that gameplay be the most important factor in designing a game, thus I feel like UC3 is almost too cinematic for its own good. As UC3 demonstrates, it's really difficult to balance engaging gameplay with cinematic visual design because of how frequently the two seem to undermine one another in this game.
At one point the bad guy orders his henchmen to torch the building you're in, and as you escape you run into dozens of enemy henchmen who are still trying to kill you, rather than getting out of the building themselves, because they apparently have no concept of self preservation. The designers just wanted you to have to fight your way out for the sake of exciting gameplay, even though it made no rational sense for them to still be there. Did they all somehow miss the memo that the building was going to get torched? This same scenario occurs at the end of the game, when Iram is literally crumbling out from underneath everyone and the walls are crashing down, yet the idiot henchmen stand around waiting to die instead of getting out of there, just to impede your progress getting out in time.
During chapters 12 and 13, you get transported to a ship graveyard, where you have to escape from captivity and find a way to rescue Sully. The place looks awesome, and is one of the most memorable-looking areas of the game, but it serves absolutely no purpose in the story. The plot introduces some random, pointless, tertiary villain just so that you can end up in this place, as if they had this good idea for a really cool gameplay segment but couldn't think of a good way to incorporate it into the story. As you later find out (and as I originally suspected), Sully wasn't even there, so it's just a random, consequence-free detour with a stupid arbitrary subgoal.
You spend an awful lot of time in this game either watching cutscenes or playing heavily-scripted action sequences that restrict you from doing anything besides following the intended script. There are an awful lot of scripted chase scenes and "wander down this linear path doing absolutely nothing else" sequences in this game, and they're all pretty boring to play because you're not not actually doing that much. You'd probably have as much satisfaction (if not more) from watching someone else play the game than actually playing it yourself, because you don't have much control over the game during these segments. The only time the game lets you make any kind of choices for yourself is during puzzles and during combat encounters, but even here the game typically dictates that you have to approach each scenario in a certain way.
When doing puzzles, the game will often take the rewarding feeling of trial-and-error and discovery away from you by leading you directly to the solution. If you take more than a minute or two flipping through pages in Drake's journal looking for clues and trying to deduce the puzzle's intended pattern or solution, then another character will step in and basically tell you what you have to do. The puzzles in this game are the best they've ever been -- some of them are actually quite clever -- but it annoys me having other characters telling me what to do when I've already figured it out, or having them reveal the solution before I was able to get there on my own. I really wish you could optionally ask them for help, for players who feel they need the assistance, rather than forcing it on everyone who might not want the assistance.
A lot of fights in this game take place in rectangular maps that require you to make it from point A to point B, with enemies placed in sequence so that you clear the first group and move on to the next, then complete some sort of objective like "destroy the trucks," then move on to the next group, and so on. These sections of the game are as linear as you can get without being in a cramped, straightforward hallway, and the enemy placement usually requires that you take out certain priority targets before focusing on others, because they will one-shot you if you leave them alone too long. In that regard, it often feels like the game decides for you what you have to do in each situation, because you have to kill these guys first and then you have to move to this location, and so on.
Combat seems to fall back on the formula used in the first game of "waves" of dudes entering the combat zone from odd areas off-screen and behind you, after you clear a certain stage of the battlefield (either by moving across a certain threshold or by killing a certain number of enemies). There's a strong tendency for fights to bog down into tedious trial-and-error since you have to constantly react to all these scripted things that are supposed to happen in the fight, with no warning that they're about to happen. There's no way to predict that a guy with a grenade launcher will spawn on a balcony behind you and one-shot you while you're working your way forward across a room; often times, the only way through a combat encounter is to die and learn the patterns for what enemies will spawn where and at what times.
Even within the heat of battle, your choices of what to do are often taken away from you when the camera suddenly pans out to put you into a melee encounter with an enemy or two, while other enemies are still shooting at you. It's kind of a hassle to get out of a melee encounter without sitting there and playing along with it, because the way your character moves and controls is a little different than when you're shooting people, and if you want to raise your gun to shoot the idiot who's trying to punch you in the face, then the camera will absolutely not cooperate with you, forcing you to aim 90-degrees away from the enemy every time you press the left trigger button, and then slowly rotate around to shoot them.
At first glance, the melee combat system seems more robust than it was in the first games because there's a more dedicated counter-attack function, and you can now grab onto people and throw them into other enemies to buy yourself some space, but in practice, the whole thing plays like a glorified quick-time event. You're technically still free to move around and choose when you'll attack, but you're really just mashing whatever button happens to be prompted on the screen. The system is so unengaging that you can sit there alternatively mashing square and triangle, with no concern for timing or positioning, and you'll successfully hit and counter-attack at every possible opportunity. If not for the fact that you sometimes need to mash the circle button when an enemy grapples you, you could do entire fights against a dozen enemies with your eyes closed because what you do barely even matters.
Naughty Dog also felt the need to add yet one more function to the already-crowded circle button. Now whenever you press the circle button, there's a 33% chance that you'll take cover behind an object, a 33% chance that you'll perform a roll dodge, and a 33% chance that you'll grab onto an enemy and shove them a short distance, which rounds up to a 100% chance that the game will do the wrong thing you intended in every situation where two or more of those actions might be possible. If you're getting swarmed by enemies and are trying to roll into cover, you might find yourself perpetually grabbing someone and pushing them for no effect instead of actually taking cover, or if you're trying to take cover around a corner so you can perform a stealthy takedown from cover, you might instead grab the guy and push him thus alerting everyone to your presence.
There are times when the game forcibly encourages stealth, but it doesn't improve the stealth system enough for it to actually work. You can't control whether you're standing or crouching so it's sometimes more difficult to stay out sight than it really should be, enemy patrol routes are not easily forecast so you never know when an enemy will suddenly turn around and see you, or when you'll turn around a corner and come face to face with enemy until you've already failed at the encounter several times and have learned all of the patterns through rote memorization, and the circle button will sometimes decide to ruin your stealth by grabbing someone when you were simply trying to take cover.
There's one section of the game where you're trying to sneak on board an airplane, and Drake and Elena stress that they should make their way across the air field as quietly as possible, but it's virtually impossible to do. The scenario seems designed specifically for you to fail at stealth because, after successfully working your way through the entire area (which requires a lot of trial-and-error), there are two guards stationed side-by-side at the place you need to get to, facing directly out at every possible angle of approach. If you try to shoot them with your silenced pistol, the second guard will immediately alert the whole base the moment you pull the trigger, thus causing a dozen extra enemies to spawn behind you, literally from nowhere.
I spent 30 minutes trying to make it across one, single room undetected, just to see if it was even possible, and it turns out the only way to make it through that area without alerting the whole air base is to throw a grenade right between the two guards so that they die simultaneously. It makes absolutely no sense that causing a loud explosion would be a valid strategy for getting through an area undetected. It pisses me off that you're told to be stealthy in this section, but that attempting to do so is ultimately a waste of time because the game intended to spawn a bunch of extra enemies in an all out firefight, anyway. You're essentially punished for doing exactly what the game told you to do.
After doing all that work, I felt somewhat rewarded with the ammo and weapons I'd managed to accumulate (30 rounds for my silenced pistol, seven rounds for a bolt-action sniper rifle), but then the game took it all away from me for no other reason, I presume, than to force me into a tense action sequence where I had to fight enemies with only four bullets in my pistol's magazine. There was literally no reason for me to have lost that ammo, since all I did in the meantime was climb over a fence and talk to Elena. The game is so obsessed with controlling its pace and setpieces that it felt the need to punish me once again, simply because I wasn't playing the game according to its own script. What was the point of doing all that hard work if I was going to get no chance to benefit from it? What's the point of doing anything if my actions don't actually matter?
Platforming in UC3 also marks a return to the drab, inconsequential, unsatisfying style of platforming initially used in UC1. Uncharted 2 demonstrated a remarkable advancement in this field since the platforming often required you to dodge obstacles or time your actions in a series of events; in this game, the platforming feels entirely cursory, as if it was thrown into the game to check off the box that said "platforming" in the production process. It seems like it's only there to make you feel as though you're actually doing something in the game when you're not watching long cutscenes, or playing boring, scripted, cinematic action sequences, or shooting people in the face, even though -- once again -- your actions don't really matter when it comes to platforming.
If I have any praise for UC3 whatsoever, it's that the puzzles in this game are actually quite good (at least, compared to the previous two games). In each case, the game requires you to figure things out for yourself -- even if the characters and journal system give you very strong hints about what you need to do, you still have to be the one to figure out how the final piece fits into the puzzle. A lot of them play with perspective in an interesting way that I haven't seen very often in video games, like requiring you stand in a certain position with a torch so that the light casts shadows or reveals certain things, and then putting two and two together to deduce the solution. The "medieval game show" puzzle is probably my favorite since you have to stand in certain positions to see the clues on the floor, and then spatially translate those clues to the grid on the wall. It even has a couple of "blanks" that you have to fill in for yourself using your own deductive reasoning. They're fairly satisfying to solve, and I felt consistently impressed with how interesting they were.
There are some other minor praises I should give the game credit for as well, because they've finally addressed some of the things I've been complaining about since the first game. Collecting ammo is now much less of a hassle because Drake collects everything that matches your current weapons (within a given area) whenever you reach down to pick something up, rather than making you do it one by one; if you're standing above an unsuspecting enemy, you can press square to drop down and knock them out in one fell swoop; you now have the option to throw grenades back at enemies if your timing is good, so you have the possibility of not getting flushed out from cover every 30 seconds; and the collectible treasures are finally rendered in full 3D in the game space, rather than showing up only as a sparkle on the floor (although, there's now even less incentive to collect the treasures because you can't unlock bonus content anymore -- it's all paid DLC).
It should go without saying that all of the game's aesthetics -- graphics, visual design, animations, camera angles, voice acting, sound effects, music, and so on -- are of exceptional quality. There were times when I sincerely felt like I was watching a big budget action-adventure movie, and that's quite an accomplishment for a video game, but therein lies the problem: this is supposed to be a video game, not a movie. The gameplay usually feels like it's playing second fiddle to the cinematic story, where you have no choice to do anything but press the buttons necessary to make the game's script move forward along the tracks. It looks fantastic, but it's not always very fun to play, especially since the gameplay often seems to ruin the story and the story often seems to ruin the gameplay.
Compared to the first game, Uncharted 3 doesn't feel like as much of a tedious chore, but it's rather disappointing after UC2 demonstrated what's actually possible with this series' formula. I don't regret playing UC3, and I think it's definitely worth playing if you've already played UC2 and are looking for more of the same -- just be prepared to reel your expectations in a little bit. If Uncharted 4 continues this trend, however, I may end up skipping it entirely.