Almost two years ago to the day - that is to say the November before I started blogging as The Speculative Scotsman - I played Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. At the time I considered it at the uppermost pinnacle of modern-day gaming. Sophisticated, fun, and oh... so beautiful to look at. But now?
Now I don't think I'd dare play it again, though I had rather planned to do so now that this loose trilogy is complete, for fear of what I'd think of it. Because if my eight hours with Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception are anything to go by, my feelings as regards the last game in this series - never mind the first Uncharted, butt-ugly and clumsy by comparison with either of its Game of the Year-caliber sequels - would be much changed.
Please, you mustn't misunderstand me: this third iteration of Naughty Dog's star-making PS3 franchise is still a very good game. It's impeccably crafted, even prettier than its immediate predecessor, winningly written, perfectly performed, and so on. The thing is, Drake's Deception is not a great game. And I'm sorry, but after Among Thieves, I expected greatness.
Drake's Deception begins by going back to the beginning; back to a period some decades before the present-day narratives of either of the other Uncharted games. On the streets and rooftops of Cartegna, Columbia, a barely teenaged Nathan Drake is on the hunt for precious treasure, as ever. This particular MacGuffin is a priceless ring owned by Nathan's apparent ancestor, the storied explorer Sir Francis Drake; it's being exhibited in a local museum, and baby Nate means to take it.
But so does Victor Sullivan. Sully, to us; remember, the affable old bloke! But 20 years back, when he and our manboy about town first meet, he was just another hired thug in the employ of fake Helen Mirren. In those days fake Helen Mirren was called Katherine Marlowe, and seemingly she was a treasure hunter too. So she and Sully and baby Nate clash over Sir Francis Drake's ring.
Fast forward to today, and they're still squabbling about the same thing. Except this time, everyone brought guns. Cue an exponentially less and less credulous portrait of betrayal, manipulation and murder.
The most effective moments of Drake's Deception are only tangentially involved in all this soap-opera silliness. The glorious, satisfying, naturalistic platforming; the thrilling set-pieces arrayed throughout the game; and the question: are we all getting a little old to be larking about like this? That dilemma goes to the gamer inasmuch as the player character Nathan Drake is faced with it, as it relates to the only father-figure he's had in his life, Sully, who may or may not be risking life and limb solely to spend time with his son in all things action/adventure.
The development of these characters - along with the lovely Elena Fisher, bad girl Chloe Frazer and a few new folks too, most notably Nate's British mate Talbot and Helen Mirren Marlowe - is simply superlative, and the voice acting is exemplary as well. All the original cast are back, and on fine form, putting in practiced performances as witty and interesting as there have ever been in this medium. Would that this could be the benchmark for voice acting in video games forward!
The story of Drake's Deception is up to snuff too. Without bordering on spoilers, I'll note that it's nicely paced, with peaks and troughs in all the right places, a finely-honed hybrid of tragedy and farce, and it is circular, particularly given that this is the third of Naughty Dog's typical cycle of three games per platform -- though I'll believe that this franchise is finished when I see it.
And that's a large part of the problem. Assuredly there's more than enough room for the narrative and its iconic characters to grow, whether that means reaching back from the conclusion of this third game, or delving still deeper, but the actual moment-to-moment experience of playing these games has never been less interesting. The formula for gameplay in the Uncharted series has, I think, officially worn out its welcome. Clambering around lost cities is still fun, but the moments where you have to stop having fun to shoot a bunch of bullet sponges before you can progress are... exasperating at best. And the frequent chase sequences are - I'm sorry - they're just terrible. Maybe they'd look cool and feel that times two if you did them right the first time, but you won't, and with the margin for error so slim, when a minor misjudgment results in an abrupt game over and load screen, as it invariably does, these many, many moments feel canned; mass produced on some anonymous factory floor. If there's meat in them, I sure don't see it on the ingredients.
All of which means that Drake's Deception makes for eight frequently frustrating hours of best-in-the-business storytelling oft-interrupted, if not entirely spoiled by an accumulation of well past its best-before-date gameplay. Which is a real godforsaken shame. But when a game disappoints in the playing, and this one does, you can't very well give it a pass, can you? Though I dare say a lot of video game critics have...
I won't go so far as to conclude that Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is an outright fail. For all its faults, it's still leagues apart from that. But equally, it's long distance away from my Game of the Year.