a portfolio of videogame writings
Dev: Naughty Dog
Never has a videogame protagonist stumbled his way through an adventure quite so realistically as Uncharted’s Nathan Drake. And never has an environment given one such reason to: Wall fixtures, roofing, drain pipes and practically every piece of traversable scenery becomes dangerously unstable under the strain of Drake’s weight, crumbling, snapping or exploding mere seconds after he leaps to safety. All of which is part of an illusion crafted by Naughty Dog; that its protagonist is always teetering on the edge, only just making the jump or dodging the bullet at the very last adrenaline inducing second.
Many consider the second instalment, Among Theives, to be the pinacle of modern cinematic action adventure gameplay. The realistically jostling train carraige shootout and the crumbling hotel chapters demonstrated technically pioneering interactive moments that many would have relegated to a cut scene. With Drake’s Deception Naughty Dog have managed to squeeze even more from the Cell Processor. Upscaling and echoing those moments to exhilirating effect.
A cruise ship level will inspire the same sense of awe at the Havok Physics Engine as the Gravity Gun did back in 2004, with the ship swaying and rocking over a storm riddled procedurally generated ocean and cargo and scenery sliding around realistically. Events conspiring to subside the ship lead to an inception style twisting of corridors, rooms and your overall perspective within the boat. Elsewhere Drake’s stow away onto a mercenary plane ends in the much publicised and gloriously disastrous crash landing that sees him dangling precariously from loose cargo 1,000 feet above the Rub ‘al Khali desert.
Naughty Dog’s technical achievements extend beyond the mere bombastic chaos of set piece moments however, pervading the experience in far less obvious ways. Like the subtle animation quirk of Drake palming passing walls for stability and tripping over himself from sideways momentum. Objects from the smallest piece of scenery to the largest of ships all bobbing and swaying with the waves in a dockside shootout and the coating of sand that gradually dusts characters clothing as they roll around in the desert. At every level Naughty Dog’s technical skills are unquestionably impressive. But just as the moss covered relics at the center of Drake’s journey, time will inevitably age such technical achievements into standardisation.
The lure of the franchise relies upon another illusion: That in this modern world where we are lead to believe human curiosity has peeled back all mystery from the earth, buried treasures, unexplored caverns and ancient temples lie in wait for an intrepid adventurer with perfectly coiffed hair and a never-ending succession of witty quips to dust off their puzzles and uncover their secrets.
Drake’s Deception investigates the unaccounted for time Sir Francis Drake spent navigating through the middle east in pursuit of the ‘Atlantis of the Sands’ and the true purpose of Drake’s heirloom, Sir Francis’s ring. Naughty Dog scribe Amy Hennig has taken great pains in ensuring that all the treasure hunting acts as framing for what remains a predominantly character driven experience.
Where Drake’s Fortune was an introduction to the Indiana Jones meets Lara Croft style adventurer and Among Thieves wrestled with a love triangle between Drake, Elena and Chloe, Drake’s Deception explores Nathan’s relationship with his mentor and oldest friend, Sully. An aging man in Uncharted 3, questions are posed as to why Nathan would risk his oldest friends’ life in vain pursuit of material treasures, poignant stuff.
Quieter moments of introspection for Drake lead to some of the series subtlest and more thoughtful sequences. A trip back to Drakes’ childhood sheds light on how his friendship with Sully began, whilst a chapter in which Drake is stranded in the middle of the desert shows the always confident protagonist on the brink of sanity and life itself. It is an interesting approach by Naughty Dog, that they not only outdo the huge interactive set peices of the second game, but also intersperse downplayed moments of greater subtlety delivering a more varied experience than either previous instalment.
The subtle mumblings of Drake when he is alone or the friendly banter with companions during gameplay is always situationally relevant and as such adds a depth of personality to characters and the feeling of companionship. The desire to see the next great set piece may be a driving force, but the Uncharted series would be a hollow experience if we did not believe in the characters and relationships.
Technical excellence, a thoughfull narrative and insightfull character developments compell through the adventure, but it is in perfecting the mechanics of gameplay that Naughty Dog has always fumbled with Uncharted. The problem being the sheer number of mechanics the game attempts to incorporate: Blending Prince of Persia style platforming, Gears inspired cover based shooting, God of War QTE moments, Zelda like puzzles, a smattering of Splinter Cell stealth and those Call of Duty esq moments of HOLY S*** spectacle. Incremental improvements upon its predecessors to each mechanic brings Uncharted 3 closer the the perfect balance, but it still remains a Jack rather than a master of its trades.
Slight adjustments to the melee combat system do nothing to aleviate the slightly irksome and awkward flow the series has always had in comparison to its peers, it feels less a skill based choice of moves and more a structured sequence of QTE button presses. And gunplay remains a little too floaty, although the bullet sponge enemies of the past two installments have been replaced with more fallible foe’s, balanced with greater intellegence. Flanking and progressing with the aggression of Halo’s covenant, adversaries may be indistinctive in appearance but they utilise environments with challenging versitility.
Multiplayer once again adds distinctive layers of verticality and platforming amidst the shootouts. Naughty Dog’s inclusion of dynamic environments and a narrative structure lend a cinematic flair to events as open runway chases blend into tight corridor based airplane shootouts and a London underground moving carriage shootout grinds to a halt and pours out into a station area. Twists that add a welcome and genuinely unique spin on the more common suit of gameplay varieties on offer.
A new Co-operative mode attempts to recreate the spectacle of the campaign with up to 3 companions. Increasing the number of players loses some of the focus from the single player campaign and dilutes the spectacle somewhat. As an addition it provides a well rounded package to the whole title, but it is in the single player campaign that the real treasure is to be found.
Ironically it almost feels refreshing, that in a videogame landscape where many now strive toward open worlds, branching storyline paths and incorporating RPG elements into every genre, Drake’s Deception stands rigidly as a narratively linear, character driven action adventure. Pushing the boundaries of what is technically possible on the current generation with huge interactive set piece moments that, whilst a little shallow and divisive, will leave all in awe of such technical prowess. Yet the most interesting moments branch out of quieter scenes of desperation for Drake, or reflections upon the consequences his actions have for his loved ones.
In the end your enjoyment of the third instalment hangs upon the extent to which you buy into those illusions woven by Naughty Dog: That its fearless adventurer is a relatable flawed everyman with troubled relationships. That the adrenaline inducing set pieces really do put our hero on the precipice of life and death. And that just for a moment you will believe that there is still some unexplored mystery, an unseen adventure left in the world of videogames where an increasing number of big budget blockbusters are content with pushing far less technical boundaries and narrative ideas than those Drake’s Deception attempts.