Is it possible to have your expectations raised too high? Uncharted 2: Among Thieves delivered a monumental leap over the first game in the series, and it might be easy to fall into the trap of assuming the same advancements would take place in every subsequent release. If that's your state of mind going into Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, you might walk away slightly disappointed. But that's not a fair response. Though the third entry in this treasure-hunting franchise offers a similar experience to its revered predecessor, it's no less magical. Just about every element showcases the care and craftsmanship you would expect from the series. Combat is even more versatile than in previous entries, combining incredible shooting encounters with advanced hand-to-hand takedowns set in lavishly designed areas. When you need a break from the taxing physical endeavors, thoughtful puzzles allow you to explore your more contemplative side. And these two elements are punctuated by exhilarating set-piece events that leave you gasping. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is another superb entry in Nathan Drake's ongoing quest to find the world's many lost treasures.
Once again, Nathan Drake is in search of lost treasure in a mysterious land. The story encompasses many of the same tropes from previous games--deception, twists, camaraderie--though the nuts and bolts of the plot have never been one of Uncharted's strong points. Rather, it's the realistic portrayal of characters--their lively back-and-forth discussions and snide jokes--that give you a reason to care about the tale. Drake, Sully, and the supporting cast sport detailed animation that makes them almost look real, and their playful dialogue further cements this image. Tempers flare, threats are made, and you can feel the tension during heated moments. But these lifelong friends always make up, and it's their believable relationships that make it so easy to become invested in their struggles.
When you picture Uncharted, you may think of plundering ancient tombs or throwing as many grenades as you can manage in bombastic sequences. But the opening of Drake's Deception eschews the larger-than-life action the series is known for in favor of an old-fashioned bar brawl. This is where the new animations that have been incorporated into fisticuffs are apparent as you wrestle with a platoon of aggressive men in a confined place. Shoving a burly dude into the bar while you pummel his face or grabbing a stray bottle to crash over someone's head conjures images of Patrick Swayze handling business in Road House, and the controls are precise enough to make it possible to manage an approaching group without getting your face beaten. Ultimately, these instances where you're forced to take matters into your own hands are the weakest aspect of the game because your freedom is so limited, but that's not to say they're boring. There's a satisfying rhythm to throwing fists while avoiding counters, and you have enough flexibility to move around that you don't feel like you're just performing mindless quick-time events.
As much fun as it may be to bash in a man's head with a wooden chair, it can't match the thrill of beating a man with your fists when he's sporting an assault rifle. There are segments where you have to fistfight in Drake's Deception, but there are other times when you're in a battle for your life and you can use any weapon you want to stay alive. Thanks to the incredibly impactful animations of a hand-to-hand assault, it's fun to put aside the bullets and explosives to focus on getting your hands dirty instead. Being sneaky certainly helps. Snapping a man's neck before he can turn around or just shoving someone clear off a building is immensely rewarding. But there are other times when stealth doesn't work, and you find yourself grappling, feinting, and punching below the belt, while bullets fly and enemies scream death threats at you. Particular animations make these encounters a special treat. You may grasp the barrel of your gun and swing at someone's head with a metal uppercut or elbow a foe in the neck like a wrestler suffering from roid rage, and it's hard to contain your joyous laugh. There are times when you run out of bullets and fighting with your fists is the only way to go. Once you finish off your foe, a slow motion moment in which Drake snatches your enemy's discarded gun in midair adds a fitting end to the fight.
Of course, you don't have to go toe-to-toe if you'd rather not. The beauty of Uncharted's combat is that you can dispatch foes in a variety of ways, and all of them feel incredibly empowering. The key is the expertly designed levels. Drake's Deception is a cover-based, third-person shooter; thus, chest-high walls populate many of your encounters. But those familiar structures aren't used as a crutch here. Verticality gives you the option to climb around like a gun-toting monkey if you prefer, getting the drop on lackadaisical foes. If a man with a rocket launcher is forcing you to hunker behind a piece of debris, fear not; you can smoothly leap from cover, shimmy up a nearby wall, and sprint pell-mell across a rooftop. Grab a sniper rifle on the way if you want to handle him from afar or a shotgun if you'd like to pop him right in the head. Toss grenades at the group of enemies hiding by that well, man the turret once you finish off its previous operator, or sprint past everyone until you make it to the door that marks your safety. Versatile level design lets you choose how to go about killing your pesky foes in Drake's Deception, and rock-solid controls ensure every action you want to perform can be pulled off without any hesitation.
If you're feeling sluggish and just want to use your gun for a while, doing so is a perfectly valid alternative to the high-flying adventuring. The mechanics in Drake's Deception have been refined even further from the previous game. No matter which gun you grab, you can target weak points with ease, and enemies recoil when you prick their flesh with searing-hot bullets. Drake's Deception offers so many different ways to take down foes that you might think it falls into the camp of jack-of-all-trades, master of none. But that's not true at all. If you take things slowly--crouch behind cover only risking your neck when the opportunity presents itself--you have just as much of a chance to succeed as someone who makes use of Drake's agility. And you can have just as much fun, too. The weapons are a blast to use. Landing a headshot from across the map with a sniper rifle is eminently satisfying, as is taking out a gunner with a sure blast from a shotgun. You can easily keep an enemy off balance with a fast-shooting assault rifle or knock a grenade right out of someone's hand with a steady pistol. Ample ammunition lets you focus on the fun of firing rather than scrounging for extra bullets, so you can stick with your favorite weapon if you want or mix things up after every fight.
Uncharted is at its best when the difficulty rises. During many of the game's fights, you can relax and dispose of foes with easy grace. Though this is certainly fun, being forced to play smartly makes things even more exciting. Enemies aren't scared to charge at you when you're hiding behind cover. When you see someone sprinting in your direction, you have to decide quickly if you're going to run or fight, and that decision is frequently the difference between life and death. Dealing with flanking enemies while a sniper is keeping you pinned down forces you to act with determination, and though you may die repeatedly in certain sections, it rarely feels like the game is at fault. However, not every aspect of the combat is flawless. There are times when the AI forgets you're trying to kill them and they just stand around, taking in the impressive view. On the other end of the spectrum, your location may be uncovered when you're trying to be sneaky, even if you stay out of sight. There's also a small quirk with the hand-to-hand killing animations. One of these involves pulling the pin from an enemy's grenade. This looks painfully delightful, but if this randomly triggered event happens at the wrong time, you could be stuck with nowhere to flee.
The occasional flaw doesn't prevent the combat from being immensely thrilling, and the excitement continues in the platforming sections. As in previous games, there are times when you must climb up walls, swing from pillars, and shimmy up trees, and these sections are linear. You can't jump unless there's a handhold to grab onto, and there's only one way out of your predicament. Thus, it's not as empowering as in games where you move with unrestricted freedom. Aside from the combat, every other element is structured to limit creativity, with the focus placed on the beautiful sights and unexpected pitfalls. You might think you're safe climbing a strong wooden ladder, only to see it deteriorate in your hands. And it's these moments that inject some excitement into your leaping. You never know what is going to hold your weight, so you move quickly and purposefully, hoping you can reach solid ground alive.
Puzzles also return from previous games with few changes. While Drake is wandering around ancient cities, he stumbles upon seemingly impassable barriers, but the solutions are hinted at in his handy journal. You may need to complete a mural by casting a shadow or light up certain sections of an enormous globe, and these aren't particularly difficult, but they are still a great diversion from the thrilling action sequences. And that's one of the most impressive aspects of Drake's Deception. The pace smoothly moves between action and puzzles, with entertaining cutscenes thrown in the mix. You never spend so long on one activity that you grow tired of performing the same tricks repeatedly. The chapters bleed into one another, so it's easy to lose a dozen or more hours before you realize just how long you've been playing. And once you wrap up the campaign, you'll want to go through one more time. Ramp up the difficulty, suss out the hidden treasures you missed the first time, and soak in the sights once more. This is a fantastic game that grabs your attention and never lets go.
But if you do become lonely, there's a chaotic cooperative mode. There are three different options, but the best of these is Adventure. Here, you team up with one or two friends and take part in five reconstructed levels from the campaigns of Drake's Deception and Among Thieves. Puzzle and platforming sections have been removed, so the focus is placed entirely on combat. And it's incredible. Enemies are more susceptible to your fists than in the single-player campaign (two punches should finish them off), and it's a hoot to sprint around the battlefield cracking necks and punching groins until you fall to a barrage of gunfire. Just hope your friends resurrect you because you have a limited number of shared lives and the difficulty can get steep. There are sections where you can't rely on your fists to come out ahead, and these require you to carefully coordinate to stay alive. One friend may unleash suppressive fire with an assault rifle while you move in with a shotgun or just snap someone's neck when he's distracted, and there are so many ways to play that going through these levels multiple times is still fun.
The other two cooperative modes aren't quite as good, but they have their charms. Arena is a series of co-op challenges against an onslaught of enemies. You may have to reach a certain kill count or steal a treasure, and it's fun teaming up with some friends to take on the unrelenting horde. The other mode mixes competitive play with cooperative strategizing. Hunters is a two-versus-two assault where one team tries to steal treasures while the other tries to stop them. The defenders also have AI teammates, which makes it pretty tricky when you're trying to nab their goods. Although both of these modes are good fun, they get tiresome more quickly than Adventure. Things enter a predictable rhythm after a few rounds, and though the core mechanics are satisfying enough to overcome this, they have limited appeal.
The real draw of the online offerings is the competitive mode. Uncharted 2 introduced multiplayer competition, and Drake's Deception builds on that strong blueprint. The versatility of the single-player combat is well realized here, so a wide variety of tactics can be employed to kill those who challenge you. Hand-to-hand fighting, long-range sniping, grenade tosses, shotgun blasts, and all of the other great maneuvers from the campaign are here, and the well-designed levels give you plenty of different options. One big difference is the speed. Playing online is much faster than offline, so hunkering behind cover isn't nearly as effective. The sprint button is far more useful, and you better use it frequently or you'll be run down by someone who knows what he's doing. Sprinting to a safe place, firing a few choice shots, and then moving on delivers a satisfying rhythm, and the fear that someone may be sneaking up behind you keeps you from becoming lax. Experience points give you money to buy new weapons and perks, which changes things as you sink more time into it. And if you want to start on the same page, a hardcore mode strips out those bonuses so skill, and skill alone, is what determines a winner.
All of these different modes and gameplay types look phenomenal, thanks to impressive technology and strong artistic design. A stirring soundtrack beautifully complements your journey, drifting between hard-edged riffs and delicate acoustics, depending on the situation. Everything that Drake's Deception attempts, it pulls off with flying colors. This is a beautiful, cohesive, and, most importantly, fun adventure that cements the Uncharted franchise as one of the best around. More of a good thing is welcome here. You'll laugh with joy, yelp with excitement, and, above all else, be thankful that you're playing something as expertly crafted as Drake's Deception.