It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was a weekend of awe, it was a weekend of fury, it was an age of perfection, it was an age chaff, it was the height of the series, it was the lowest of quality, it was a creation of pushing forward, it was a creation of stumbling backward—in short, the game is a bit of a mixed bag.
Being a fan of the Uncharted series since the beginning, I was eagerly anticipating this game, and then I played it. It wasn’t a disappointment because Uncharted 3 starts off with a great opening sequence and some real goosebump inducing imagery that sets the player up for another great globe hopping adventure full of challenges to overcome and vistas to explore. But after a while, once the new game smell has worn off and the game has to stand on its own merits, a sinking sense of gloom and also one of annoyance started to come over me.
Nothing was technically wrong with the game. There were enough interesting settings and ideas throughout, all of which were rendered beautifully enough to distract from the underlying problems—initially. It was only in retrospect, looking back from the second half, that I understood my uneasiness with it. Around the midway point in the Syria section, I found that I wasn’t enjoying myself. In fact, I was actively starting to hate the game. The story became an excuse for random tangents that distracted from any central focus, a problem that the previous more tightly written games had so clearly avoided. This lack of focus culminates in the cruise ship section, the purpose of which I can only describe as providing a demo scene for Uncharted 4: The Search for Atlantis. It has no point in the game and actively rips open plot holes in the fabric of the story that didn’t exist before. Even worse is the fact that this most pointless part is also the portion of the game with the best pacing and level design.
The first half of the game is almost completely dominated with the shooting galleries that the Uncharted series used to be known for and got so right. They were exciting and became mini-narratives in their own right, creating a nice flow from one fight to the next. Piece by piece, Uncharted 3 seemed to throw all of that out the window. The shooting somehow became worse in the transition from 2 to 3. The aiming is sloppy, the audio/visual feedback is “samey,” leaving the player with an incorrect sense of how well they are doing, and the game sometimes acts incorrectly in response to the input given. These problems have since been fixed by giving an option to change the settings back to Uncharted 2’s shooting mechanics. However, I only learned this after the fact, and the solution might as well be non-existent if you don’t know that the option exists. It doesn’t help with the encounter design, which require that in some parts that you be clairvoyant. At one point, the only way to proceed (as in, not die immediately) is to pull off a move that you’ve never performed before and you will never have to perform again.
After the halfway point, Uncharted 3 becomes good. Not just good, but the game becomes a phenomenal experience that offers moments that outdo every other spectacular section from the first two games. It instills the emotions of fear and awe in the player by running the gamut from presenting relatively subtle visual cues in the environment to outright screwing with your mind. Once you enter Yemen, it’s like you’ve entered a completely different game. That game feels like it remains on track with the basic premise of the plot, finding the City of Brass, the Atlantis of the Sands. The sections provide tension without being derivative of what has come before. The glorious vistas reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia are allowed to speak for themselves, and the mind screwing dream (?) sequences add a layer of depth to the action and to the characters, while still being visually unique and disturbing. The scope of the game washed over me, and it finally felt like an Arabian adventure.
The complete change in tone and execution makes it feel like a completely different game. The combat becomes interesting in these levels, offering unique twists in nearly every single encounter. There are sequences that actually feel like you are in the shoes of a movie action hero, something that the grand set pieces completely fail to do because they feel like they are more about the development team yelling, “look what we can do,” at the player instead of adding anything meaningful to the purpose of the game itself. Once the game changes up the formula, we are treated to an actual cinematic experience, while still feeling like it is an experience that is all within our control. My only major complaint with the second half of the game is that it is too short and underdeveloped, a crying shame thanks to all that time wasted in the first half.
If I’m being vague, it’s because it is very easy to spoil not just the plot, but also the emotional resonance that coming into the experience of the second half fresh delivers. But that in and of itself is a major problem. With few exceptions all of the phenomenal quality material is in the slightly shorter second half of the game. To get to it, I had to slog through hours of pointless story padding and a combat system that is so frustrating and rage inducing that I think that I actually damaged the circuitry in my DualShock. The game tried to get me invested in searching the château, but it feels like an incidental moment in the game because I already know that this is going to end up in the Arabian Desert, and I can’t figure out how this moment connects in any meaningful way. And after Syria, Chloe and the new guy get shipped off to Uncharted 4’s waiting room, making me question what the point was of having them in the story at all. Toss in the fact that Syria is a segment that is stretched out far too long and the previously mentioned head-scratching boat segment along with an underwhelming ending, and we have a mess of a game with a schizophrenic focus.
Instead of learning about the political machinations of Elizabethan era Europeans, I want to know more about the Arabian mythology that informs the game. I want to know more about the City of Brass. I want to know more about who these desert riders are and what their deal is. I want to know more about the villains, besides that they are generically evil and power hungry. I want to know more about how the ancient past ties into the present day goings on in the game. I want to know more about Drake’s past and learn what makes him tick. I wish I could end on a twist on Sydney Carton’s ending speech, “it’s a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done…,” but I can’t because Uncharted 3 as a whole really isn’t.