Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is the reason I play video games. From the smile plastered on my face during the opening montage to the disbelief that swept over me as Chapter 2 began to the middle of the night text message I shot a friend about a relationship reveal, I couldn't stop loving this touching, beautiful, fun and engaging game. From the moment the music swells on the title screen to the moment the credits roll, Uncharted 3 is a masterpiece.
That shouldn't surprise you. The original Drake's Fortune set the bar for visuals and third-person adventures on the PlayStation 3. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves greatly improved on that, added multiplayer and climbed its way to the 2009 IGN Game of the Year award. Developer Naughty Dog spent the two years since then making bigger moments -- think platforming in a capsized cruise ship and surviving a cargo plane crash -- and working on the few complaints from the last title. Complaints primarily stemming from the fact that, to some, Uncharted 2 felt too much like the original Uncharted.
Uncharted 3's tale sounds familiar. We have the same cast of characters in our handsome hero Nathan Drake and his seasoned mentor Victor "Sully" Sullivan and the same general idea of a lost city that needs finding before the bad guys get there. But this isn't the games that came before. Uncharted 3's greatest strength is its unpredictability.
From the barroom brawl that opens the game and introduces its new melee system to a mid-game conversation between villainess Katherine Marlowe and Drake that literally redefines a pillar of this franchise, I didn't know what to expect in Uncharted 3. Naughty Dog sets aside the betrayal/twist formula used in the first two games and focuses on Nate and Sully's relationship. It takes you to the precipice of the Uncharted hallmarks you might expect, let's you stare at them, and then veers off in another direction.
Yes, the gameplay still revolves around climbing walls and shooting bad guys, but refinement found those mechanics. For the first time, the words "fun" and "useful" describe melee combat. Uncharted 2's clumsy stealth parts no longer exist. Running through levels and taking cover doesn't get old because Naughty Dog has done so much to merge the gameplay with the story, perfecting the pacing and making everything look fantastic in the process thanks to cutting edge graphics and excellent cinematography. The end product rises above what the buttons do and how you maneuver Drake. Calling it a game sells Uncharted 3 short. This is an experience, a complete package.
When I rant about why Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is better than just about anything on the market -- about why I think it's my new favorite game of all time -- I don't talk about the firefights, the new ability to throw grenades back at enemies or collecting the game's 101 well-hidden treasures. I talk about the heart-wrenching section where Drake is by himself and completely lost. He's on his last legs, he's desperate, and I'm right there with him. I'm pushing him through the journey at hand and it's clear that it's a game, but as he stumbles, seeks shelter and loses hope, my heart breaks.
In a way, this is what Naughty Dog has been building to for the last four years. Players know the Uncharted cast. Most love the banter between Drake and Sully, the love affair between Elena and Drake or the one-liners Drake shouts to himself as the game goes on. Naughty Dog created a universe here that players feel connected with, but, again, the developers toy with that. They insert things that take the mentor/pupil relationship to another level. They flesh out backstories, they break bonds, and they make us face the characters' worst fears. And, no, those fears aren't clowns.
A story-driven affair, Uncharted 3's believability and connection with the player comes from its performances. For the third game in a row, the cast dazzles. The actors record their lines along with their movements, and this leads to characters that feel real. The chemistry between them lights up the game in a way most mediums would kill for -- from tiny touches like fist bumps to major moments of bickering between lovers. Add in a musical score that accentuates the action and layer on the game's trademark, "best in the industry" graphics -- sand clinging to Drake's hair, fire creeping up walls, sunlight filtering through tattered roofs -- and you can see where this game becomes more than pressing the X button and jamming on analog sticks.
When the tale finishes, you can look forward to multiplayer. Uncharted 2 introduced competitive and cooperative modes for the series, and Uncharted 3 improves them to make something special. The standard menu returns (team deathmatch, capture the flag, etc.), but Naughty Dog adds bonuses known as Boosters and Kickbacks to round out the experience. These are upgradable bonuses that you equip to make the multiplayer experience more your own.
Boosters augment your entire session -- one reduces respawn time, one lets you climb faster -- whereas the in-match medals you earn count toward unlocking your Kickback, which can instantly spawn an RPG or double your cash earned for a short period of time. These spice up the gameplay; you can pepper them into one of your four saved loadouts and have a skill set for any situation. This stuff will keep me coming back. Even when I have a terrible match in Uncharted 3 multiplayer, I see the cash I've earned counting toward my next level and I see my Boosters earning experience and becoming more powerful.
Toss all this into the pot, and matches in Uncharted 3 multiplayer feel fresh every time. The verticality mixed with gunplay leads to different attack plans. There's a sweet science to deploying a Kickback at the perfect time for a critical kill. New Power Plays give teams getting blown out a leg-up like double damage so that everyone feels like they have a shot at competing. Plus, three team deathmatch (2v2v2) is awesome, and you can play split-screen with two different PSN profiles, a rarity on the PlayStation 3.
For many of you, these multiplayer facts aren't news, as fans have been playing the final version of multiplayer as part of a North American Subway promotion for weeks. However, there was an outcry when the beta went live because Naughty Dog adjusted the damage dealt by bullets and players were now able to absorb more. Many threw their hands up in disgust, and Naughty Dog listened. The developers went in and dialed the damage back to what it was in the summer beta.
Don't mistake this anecdote as a mistake; it points out the commitment Naughty Dog puts into this multiplayer community. The developers make a game and they want people to enjoy it, they listen to feedback, and they act. There's not much more you can ask from a game creator, and it's one of the reasons I want to keep playing and keep leveling. Add in the fact that Naughty Dog supported Uncharted 2 multiplayer until now and already has seven DLC packs planned for Uncharted 3 multiplayer, and it's clear this game has legs.