The Failings of Uncharted 3

[Disclaimer: This feature is riddled with Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception spoilers. Read at your own risk.]

My friends and I sometimes debate the ending Jedi battle in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. We all agree the movie was as exciting as watching George Lucas pick a flannel shirt, but we have differing views when it comes to Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon fighting Darth Maul. My friends enjoy the fight. They enjoy the John Williams score. They enjoy the action.

Meanwhile, I remain uncharmed. Though there were plenty of spectacles in the scene, I didn’t really care about the characters or the outcome like I did for, say, the climax of Empire Strikes Back. In Episode I, they were just English accents with fancy swordplay fighting a mute double lightsaber. In place of emotional investment, the producers (not giving Lucas credit) crafted an epic battle atop grandiose set pieces. The thrills were cheap and the characters were hollow.

The characters in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, while not hollow, certainly don’t come full circle. The story is far reaching even for Uncharted‘s standards. After recently completing the game, I’ve realized the simple truth that Drake’s Deception was narratively underdeveloped, and, like the producers of Episode I, Naughty Dog substituted a lack of poignant emotional development with a numbing amount of aimless grandiosity and narrow, repetitive gameplay.

Recently, VG24/7 journalist Patrick Garrett tweeted that he had just finished (and loved) Drake’s Deception.  He economically and definitely cited his favorite pieces of the game to be: “Characters, plot, epicness.” These are the aspects I thought were weakest.

Die Another Game

In the months leading up to the game’s launch, Naughty Dog continually harped on how the game would deepen the relationship between Sully and Drake. That it did. However, when there is this much focus on a bond between the protagonist and his surrogate father, there must be some end goal. There must be a reason behind it, or else it’s filler.

I assumed Naughty Dog was delving this far into the relationship because they were planning Sully’s death. In the final act, it seemed likely. Sully is shot in a scene that is underplayed to a fault. My first thought was, “Thank God.” By then I was so bored with the story and sets that killing Sully gave me, as a player, something to care about. This game does a wonderful job illustrating who this mustachioed Paul Newman character is and what he means to Drake. Destroying that relationship would therefore create true turmoil in a game that otherwise paints its heroes as mobile punching bags with unending stamina.

It didn’t. In a “gotcha” moment that tilted toward ambiguity, Sully returned and all was well. I decried this reveal. I was convinced it was ruse and Sully would be Marlowe’s vulture son in disguise. Or that Drake was still tripping from the drugs and mentally disintegrating, unable to deal with this sad but toweringly more evocative scenario. The truth is just more of the same. For a game that continually questioned Drake’s motives, thereby creating a compelling thematic element (only to drop it later with an unceremonious “Huh-rumph!”), Sully’s death would have been the perfect catalyst to sew these ends.

The Numbing of Suspense

Uncharted 3 tests its hero’s mettle, with a subtle nod to Joss Whedon’s work. The difference is that when Whedon does it, you actually feel scared for the characters. When Drake is dangling from the back of a cargo plane and climbing his way past gunfire and a drop to death, something is lost.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves creates an environment weighed down by tension. Drake’s Deception, blinded by one-upsmanship, does not. Half the events in the game become too exaggerated to earn emotional investment. The famous train scene in Among Thieves stays in players’ minds because it’s grounded. It’s realistic, to an extent. The third lacks that gravity.

Or as Zero Punctuation’s Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw puts it:

“No amount of suspension of disbelief can compensate for the fact that far too many events rely on severely unlikely coincidences…There comes a point when you’ve beaten on a guy too long and his continuing survival starts to undermine any sense of genuine threat. You start to think that maybe his whole body is made of solid wood, not just his hair.”

You see this same problem occur in action film sequels and trilogies. Creators are unsure how to make their characters naturally evolve, resulting in fantastical, almost farcical situations. Pirates of the Caribbean is guilty of this. So is Back to the Future.

Comparing Uncharted 3 to films seems appropriate, as some feel it is more of a movie than a game, like New York Times reviewer Seth Schiesel. And just like a popcorn film, Uncharted 3 tries to top each of its own thrills. Naughty Dog wants to give you a reason to pay the admission fee; God knows we aren’t paying for its story.

Much Ado about Nathan Drake

The most unforgivable fault of the game is delivering mere potential for a truly memorable character. I’m talking about the mystery of Nathan Drake himself and the plot hole that followed. In one of the game’s many throwaway cut scenes, Drake is discussing the nature of evil with Helen Miran-wannabe Marlowe. At the conversation’s closing, Marlowe offhandedly infers that Nathan Drake is not our hero’s true name. He, in a singularly jarring moment, shifts uncomfortably and looks away.


My mind stirred. Drake is not who he said he is? Not the most original twist in the world, but it certainly landed. This loose thread in his fashionably dirtied shirt could have unraveled into something redemptive for Drake and delicious for fans.

“This was a glimpse behind the mask. The first hint that he wasn’t actually some meathead action hero always ready with a hateful quip, but a frightened child in a man’s body, hiding behind the facade of this fantasy persona,” Yahtzee wrote. “Inventing this idea of being descended from Francis Drake to gain importance and purpose in a meaningless existence.”

Unfortunately, like Sully’s feigned death, this was quickly disregarded. We never find out why Marlowe said that or Drake’s true name. It’s like the game realized it made itself imperfect and hastily remedied the situation. It prevented us, as players, from questioning the motivation and mental stability of our hero. That would lead to hysteria. That would create controversy and change. As players, we can only be lead down the path Naughty Dog set for us.

Naughty Dog’s Deception

Kill Screen’s Richard Clark reviewed the game and noted Naughty Dog’s refusal to let players do anything of their own accord. As it was for Sully’s mortality and the uncertainty of Drake’s identity, the gameplay in Drake’s Deception was also victim to indisputability. Even death was not an option. If there was a mistake, it was reset and dismissed, no consequence.

“There are many moments in Uncharted 3 that exist to drive the fiction to a place of resolution, and they are barely played at all. It’s nearly impossible to screw up the key moments in the game by making a wrong turn or messing up the timing,” Clark said. “When things go so badly that Nate ends up dead—that’s all you. The developers are washing their hands of those moments. That never happened on their watch. They understand that you’re doing your best; your best is just not good enough. You finish out the rest of the level, but it’s not the same.”’

The controller may be in your hands, Clark observed, “but Uncharted is directing your every move.”

Like a film keeping the viewers’ eyes where they need to be, our perception is narrowed. The game is caught in the shallow end of the pool, showing players how to swim. Because if we were to swim out into the deep end, we would see that Drake’s Deception has nothing there. No unbridled plot twists, no serious questioning of life and death, no pathway to make the experience wholly your own. There’s just a movie to be played and a viewer to watch the events unfold. Maybe, ultimately, Naughty Dog is nodding to Lucas and his flannel shirts instead of Whedon.


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Author: Greg Galiffa View all posts by
Greg Galiffa is an Associate Editor at GamerNode. He's also an apologist for the first TMNT film. You can follow him on Twitter @greggaliffa

3 Comments on "The Failings of Uncharted 3"

  1. MIke H December 6, 2011 at 6:27 pm -

    while i agree the story is lacking, the game is pretty amazing. but its true, the game was the weakest entry in the series. it seemed rushed and left you feeling empty. there really was no deception. you still are left with no answers and drake really was unlikeable because he puts everyone in danger and doesnt give a crap. its all about him and that was a giant mistake in the game. for a game so plot driven amazing character development, this entry was severely lacking. it focused on gameplay. which is really great, but UC is known for both. uc3 was missing the plot and character development. its like someone else was handling this entry. id say 8/10

  2. Axe99 December 6, 2011 at 6:29 pm -

    Soooo….you’re ratting on Uncharted 3 for being a linear action game? Or you’re having a go because the narrative arc wasn’t completely wrapped up (I hope you were equally harsh on the excellent ‘Empire Strikes Back’).

    I finished UC3 this weekend, and for a linear action game (not unlike MW3, BF3, God of War (various) and so on) it is an excellent experience (with far more tactical combat than most as well, although most people playing it seem to have completely overlooked how that played out – presumably because it’s ‘potentially’ far more tactical combat, but most gamers aren’t that tactical ;)). Yes, the direction of the game is directed by the game, but, repeat after me: “Every game does not need to be a consequence driven open-world RPG”. What you’re ragging on here is not a failing, but a design choice. I assume Super Mario Galaxy fails as well, because it is overwhelming linear? To suggest that a game that plays as a linear experience, that is a sequel to two other linear games, is the deception of the developer, is creative, but also (amusingly ironically!) misleading!

    As for the character development, it’s one of the best-written (and acted) scripts for gaming this generation (Portal 2 come to mind as another excellent example – although it also clearly fail as they were also both somewhat linear experiences ;)). It sounds like it hasn’t met your somewhat blinkered views on what forms an effective narrative, but I’d say that’s more a reflection of a somewhat narrow-minded take on these things. Maybe watch a little less Star Wars and Joss Whedon, and a bit more Mystic River or even, hell, Pulp Fiction.

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