There are numerous examples throughout media (regardless book, film, game, etc.) where the sequel is better than the original, and in the case of the Uncharted series the idea rang true, again. Naughty Dog addressing the gaps apparent in the first game and taking advantage of the opportunity to make the second better, Among Thieves was a noticeable improvement over Drake’s Fortune. Both were pulp action titles in line with Indiana Jones, Lethal Weapon, Tomb Raider, and any number of other world-circling, numinous-object-finding, buddy-buddy-joke-telling, gun fighting adventures. But the latter took major steps to tighten gameplay mechanics, expand storytelling, and create less simple puzzles. What then, are the ways Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, sequel to Among Thieves, expands on the franchise?
Having now played the game, I would answer: not many—which is not by default a bad thing. Drake’s Deception is an extremely similar experience to Among Thieves. The storyline is completely different, but in broad terms does not move far from the Uncharted formula, i.e. there is a quest to find a magical place, bad guy wants to get to magical place before Drake, friendly banter, light romance, yada yada. But at the detail level, player participation is enhanced (what might have been cut scenes in Among Thieves become one-time events in Drake’s Deception), not to mention that the story experience is driven by different locations and objects. Instead of a quest for Tibetan Shangri-la, Drake seeks an Arabic Shangri-la called Ubar. Getting there takes him through Columbia, London, France, and Syria, and (natch) a variety of gunfights and shootouts, which are, after all, the Uncharted series’ bread and butter.
Another thing Uncharted 3 attempts to do through storytelling is add depth to Drake’s character. His backstory, even some playable moments with Drake as a 12-year old boy, and added scenes with Elena try to make something more of the man who has thus far been little more than a wisecracking, mass-murderer fitting a saccharine action/comedy formula. The success of Drake’s character development depends on perspective, and for money he remains something from a comic book, his character not enhanced enough by the chances to render him empathetic. In short, cinematics and bombastic gameplay continue to be the engine driving the game.
When comparing Drake’s Deception to the other two Uncharted titles, there is little comparison to be made with Drake’s Fortune save the similarities at the most basic level: gameplay, plotting, etc. Otherwise, Uncharted 3 is the superior product. Comparing to Uncharted 2, however, things get interesting. From a mechanics, graphics, and gameplay perspective, I think it’s fair to say Naughty Dog improved, slightly. But in terms of story and pacing, improvement is more subjective. Where Uncharted 2 escalated steadily through puzzles and shootouts, Uncharted 3 takes a few more side trips, all of which are intended to be interesting—to embed the player deeper in the game, character, or to act as a wild, unpredicted side trip. But not everyone may perceive it that way. There are a few non-puzzle, non-shootout scenes that make gameplay more dynamic, but at the expense of pacing, potentially. It’s possible that for some players the switch in gameplay may actually slow down, or worse, derail the experience. Walking through the desert and being drugged in the bazaar come to mind as lengthy scenes that don’t really add anything to the story, and only to some limited degree give the player the feeling they are thirsting desperately or hallucinating. These scenes and a few others may have been better as cut scenes than interactive scenes.
From a puzzle perspective, I think Uncharted 3 is on par with Uncharted 2, if not a hair better. From a combat perspective, the same approach returns to duck-and-cover gunfights, rendering the two the almost exactly the same. The only difference is that Uncharted 3 forces the player to get involved in more fist fights, including the classic opening scene. Some of these fist fights feel organic to story, while others are a bit more drawn out and perhaps spurious.
In the end, Uncharted 3 delivers an extremely similar product to Uncharted 2, meaning those who liked the sequel will like the sequel to the sequel. The storyline naturally different, the player nevertheless takes part in the same action/adventure full of treasures and gunfights that is everything a Hollywood blockbuster starring Tom Cruise or Jean Claude Van Damn is (or was). Overall I would say Among Thieves is slightly better for having a more cohesive story and in general being the more streamlined product, but I’m certain there are gamers who would prefer Drake’s Deception for their own nuanced reasons. The open question remains, however: what can Naughty Dog do to take the next step—to improve the series in significant fashion with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End as they did between the first two Uncharted titles?