Set a couple of years after the end of the second Uncharted game, Drake’s Deception focuses much more on character development without losing the action that the franchise has become known for. Following fortune hunter Nathan Drake on his quest to discover what Lawrence of Arabia called the “Atlantis of the Sands,” Drake’s Deception introduces a new foe to challenge Nathan and reintroduces players to some old friends.
Unfortunately the new foe, Katherine Marlowe, isn’t really developed. It’s a shame because she has such potential to be a great antagonist for Nathan; she’s much more cerebral than other opponents he’s faced in the past. She seems more interested in what makes Nathan tick so she can get inside his psyche and twist him around, to play mind games. She appears, at first blush, to be Moriarty to Drake’s Holmes. I was fascinated, but she didn’t get to be a fully fleshed-out character and remained too one-dimensional.
The game is beautifully rendered, and the incredible set-pieces are just that: incredible. The cruise ship section seen in many trailers and game footage is a study in game-design prowess all by itself. As you navigate your way through a cruise ship in stormy seas, an explosion causes the ship to begin to sink, and eventually you’re making your way through an environment that is literally turned sideways. Understanding the underlying structures makes it even more impressive: The ship itself is floating inside of a very accurate ocean wave simulator. The waves — and resultant ship rolling and pitching — are all randomly generated. Naughty Dog game designer Jacob Minkoff says that no two play-throughs of that level will ever have the same wave patterns.
The trademark Naughty Dog attention to detail is evident in many, many ways. The way Nathan walks, for example. In sections of the game where he is confident and in his element, he’s got a bit of a swagger to him. In the Rub’ al Khali desert, exhausted and on the verge of death by exposure, he staggers and sways, arms falling into the sand to help pull himself up a dune. On the cruise ship, rolling and tossing on the stormy sea, he crouches down and keeps low to reduce slipping, arms extended to catch his balance as he slides on the shifting deck of the ship.
More attention to detail is evident in the use of the Arabic language. There are several places that the language is used in signs and spoken dialogue, and it is used correctly. Too often, game developers get lazy (witness Battlefield 3‘s sign for a child-care business that simply spells out “child care” phonetically in arabic). The signage in Uncharted 3 is correctly used, and the dialogue is also correct (well, except for Elena’s really bad American accent). Upon being given tea by the sheikh of a Bedouin tribe, Nathan’s “shokran” (thank you) is pronounced correctly and smoothly in the Eastern Arabic dialect. It’s encouraging to see the inclusion of foreign languages like this in video games, without the developers “dumbing down” the experience.
The Naughty Dog writers also seem to have a good sense of the nuances, too. In Arabic, the words for “Hello, good morning” translate to “morning of goodness,” to which the customary response translates as “morning of light.” However, you can also use variations such as “morning of flowers” or “morning of beauty” to differentiate how the morning is for you. One Uncharted 3 character, a pirate who wakes a kidnapped Nathan Drake, smiles and quips (without any translation subtitles) “Morning of hummus, falafel and baba ganouj” in Egyptian arabic. It’s something that a rude person might say, poking fun at what he believes is an ignorant American. It’s a great moment, and definitely amusing.
The melee combat in Uncharted 3 has received a complete revamp that includes the ability to block punches and perform counterattacks (albeit via a mini-QTE). Another nice touch is context-sensitive attacks: Get into a bar brawl, and if he’s close to the bar Nathan will grab a bottle to crack over his opponent’s head.
Unfortunately, the weapon-aiming mechanics backslid in the face of the melee upgrades. The aiming seems sluggish, and precision aiming can be difficult, especially in any of the running battles you’ll find yourself overwhelmed by. Sometimes it’s easier to simply “run-n-gun” by firing in the general direction you’re running (for which there is an achievement for) and hope for the best.
The main story focuses on Nathan Drake and his mentor/protege relationship with Victor Sullivan, delving into their history and exploring layers of Nathan’s personality and what drives him. The story is personal and helps to bring some light to Nathan’s past, and also making some tantalizing revelations about Mr. Drake. As the inner turmoil that drives Nathan Drake is uncovered and he becomes a more rounded character, I began to question why he’s firing pistols and sniper rifles and rocket launchers in the first place.
But for all its high points, Drake’s Deception did give me some disappointments. Unfortunately, the storytelling doesn’t pay as much meticulous attention to some of the attendant secondary characters and their stories. There are a few plot points that are left unexplained, including two characters that are seemingly abandoned without a second mention. Oh, and the plot point that Nathan and Elena had gotten married — and then separated — in the time between the second and third game, without any exposition or lead-in … that seemed particularly sloppy.
This is in no way a “bad” game. It’s a ton of fun to play, and the level design and combat mechanics are generally great. Compared to its predecessor this game’s storytelling can fall a bit short at times, and there are a few graphical flaws on occasion. But it’s got some incredible visuals and design, the action is well-done, and the double meaning of “Drake’s Deception” as it relates to both Nathan’s ancestor Sir Francis Drake as well as Nathan Drake himself is slowly revealed as the story unfolds.