Totally Not a Review: Uncharted 3

Reviewers and developers have a strange working relationship. I would love it if every game every developer made not only met expectations, but exceeded them. Game developers would probably love it if my kind didn’t nitpick every game that they worked hard on. When we come to games that everyone agrees is garbage, like a certain mutant-themed game I won’t mention here, then there’s no real struggle between being truthful and being negative. But what happens when we get a game that’s good, truly amazing even, but may be plagued by a few poor decisions?

This is the problem I have run across with Uncharted 3, a game that by all accounts should have been the title that elevates the medium of video gaming to a contemporary of film in more than just revenue sales. That may seem like an unfair burden to hoist up one game’s shoulders, but to many, it is a claim completely justified by the quality and polish of 2009’s Uncharted 2. Uncharted 3 promised to be all that and more - bigger, badder, prettier, and more, more, more of one of the best games of the generation. And to a large extent, it absolutely is, but that’s only part of the problem.

If you’re looking to this review for a score, something to tell you to go buy Uncharted 3 right now or completely skip it, I can’t really help you there. Uncharted 3 is more Uncharted 2 with a few annoyingly key differences, differences that I don’t think aided the game enough or actively contributed to making it feel worse.

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: Uncharted 3 is the most cinematic game I have ever played but does not do this at the expense of player control. It is unclear to me exactly how much of what I did in some scenes was entirely controlled by me, scripted so I would do what was shown, or merely the result of brilliant and dynamic camera work responding to what I was doing. All of which are incredibly impressive regardless of how it went down. The voice acting, the cutscene animation, the cutscene direction, all of it is absolutely mind-blowing. Uncharted 3 is more Raiders of the Lost Ark than Lego Indiana Jones, often quite literally, and the gameplay never really suffers because of it.

Where the gameplay does suffer, however, is in the combat encounters. I’ve been more than vocal about how I did not like Uncharted 1, the main problem being that enemies soaked up bullets like a Terminator villain while constantly approaching your position. It was par for the course for shooters at the time, but I found it frustrating. Uncharted 3 has adopted a similar foundation for its combat design. The intention, if I had to guess, is to force the player to move around and not stick to any one place for too long. Enemies will flank you, send armored enemies with SAS-Shotguns at you, climb up to higher areas to shoot you despite your cover, the AI is in general pretty adaptive. The issue with this is that challenge becomes frustration and it’s hard to feel that the game isn’t screwing you for trying to play it normally.

Situations where you want to get up and move can go south quickly, with everyone in the arena-like structure suddenly opening fire on you or three or four guards suddenly throwing their grenades where you’re going to be or tilting the camera a little bit to see two of the aforementioned shotgun-wielding guards right in your face, ready to kill you in one hit. The absolute baffling thing about this is that it is not a result of lazy game design, but rather a conscious decision to do something with the game that separates it from the pack and only ends up causing frustration. At the risk of editorializing, if such a thing is possible in a review, adding combat stress to Uncharted somewhat diminishes the point of playing that game. Uncharted 2 struck the perfect balance between cinematic and fun by designing the combat around requiring skill, but still allowing the player the action-hero feel of having some real plot armor going on. In Uncharted 3, you get lit up by bullet fire, and you try again at the checkpoint.

And the checkpoints are mostly fair. Mostly. As mentioned, a lot of the game’s bigger fights take place in arena-type sprawls. This means that you can wipe out half the enemies, die, and end up in a completely unfamiliar part of the area because the checkpointing went goofy. You’ll have none of your familiar guns around you (though I have discovered this is not always a guarantee even when you spawn in the same place), lots of enemies that only have one target, and likely only a few seconds to find cover that is not exposed to shooters you cannot see yet before you die. Sometimes you checkpoint between waves, sometimes you don’t. Perhaps most frustratingly, if you checkpoint after stealth-killing a few enemies and then die after being seen, you will often respawn with all those people alive again on full-alert alongside the rest of their compatriots.

Which is another thing, the stealth. The game makes no claims to be a stealth game, yet that does not excuse how poorly it attempts to execute this mechanic. Sometimes enemies will turn around before you stealth-kill them, sometimes they will be completely oblivious. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to this behavior, you just have to follow and hope for the best. If one enemy sees you stealth-kill another, all enemies have immediately seen you. This might be reasonable within a well-organized underground society that may have earpieces, but less so among pirates just sort of standing on platforms in a ship graveyard. Which, and you’ll notice a theme here, results in you getting shot to death a lot.

The game has revamped its melee system, bringing more of a Quick-Time Event feel to it. You hammer square for attacks, press triangle to counter, and press circle repeatedly to win grapples or struggles. There’s no sense of complication here, which I suppose is fine for a shooter, but the game often forces you in to bad situations for using it. Sometimes brutes that can’t be disposed any other way will come after you and you can’t exit the combat scenario until you’ve hit them enough and countered them enough for the game to declare it over. The problem with this, and pretty much all the melee combat, is that you are not even close to immune to bullets while tussling with some foe. This is reasonable and a good way to balance out the fact that, if you’re at all competent at remembering face buttons, melee would just kill everyone in the game. Except when a new wave of enemies has come in or you meant to stealth-kill someone and they turned around at the last second, resulting in a round of fisticuffs. Or when a battle with an armored enemy has gone on too long because they’re fucking armored and the cover you were behind has been moved or destroyed and now a sniper laser is pointed at Drake’s head. In theory, you could just run away from the enemy you’re punching and regenerate some health, but if you’re being attacked at the time, the enemy you just ran from can simply aim in your general direction and kill you in one hit.

And that’s ultimately the problem with Uncharted 3’s combat, it sometimes forces you in to no-win situations, the kind where you make a frustrated wave at the TV and scream "No fair!" Maybe it expects too much of the player, maybe I expected something different, but the death count often spiked, especially near the end of the game, and I was left unable to appreciate the spectacles the game was trying to show me. To its credit, once or twice, the designers used the feeling of being overwhelmed to great psychological effect on the player, but I am not sure it justifies the mountain of frustration it takes to get there. (This is to say nothing of some late game enemies, whom I won’t describe to avoid spoilers, who nearly caused me to throw my controller through the TV, but if you’ve played Uncharted 1 or 2, you should know what to expect thematically here.)

There are a number of things I could nitpick about the game as well, such as the time the grenade-return mechanic managed to lob a thrown enemy grenade right in to a wall next to me, killing me. Or all the times I lost all the momentum in chases because it wasn’t totally clear where I was going and wandering slightly off the scripted path results in death. Or that the game hits some of the same beats Uncharted 2 did, but not as well. Or that some faces of established characters look strange. But at a certain point, I begin to wonder if I were a hardcore fan of Uncharted 1, would I be levying similar complaints about Uncharted 2? Maybe. I just know that the things Uncharted 3 did differently are not things I liked.

And I guess this is the point where I tell you that, despite all this, it’s not actually a bad game. And, well, it isn’t. It’s a damn good game that made a few bad choices. Choices that stymie people like me, but may not even bother you, depending on skill level or tolerance or priorities of where you place your enjoyment in games. Uncharted 3 is more packed with cinematic spectacle than any game before it, a triumph in its own right, but also something that significantly blurs the line between movies and video games without losing what makes us play games in the first place. I just wish that the combat could have been more in line with Uncharted 2.

It’s extremely easy to explain why I hate something and exponentially more difficult to explain why I don’t. Just as it’s very easy for a game developer to make something that some people like and not see the flaws for the people who won’t like it. Uncharted 3 is a game of those kinds of contradictions, where some will enjoy the changes and some will be completely put-off by them. It is completely impossible for me to say what others may take away from this game, as I know for a fact that the combat design is embraced by many, but I can say this: Uncharted 3 is a AAA game with some, in my opinion, terrible decisions. Uncharted 2 is a AAA game with some fantastic ones.