Tuesday, March 31, 2020
[contains minor spoilers]
Spider-Man is a better game than it is a story. It may be because I've immersed myself in good comics lately, but I was expecting more from a non-adaptation video game of New York City's favorite webslinger. Thankfully you don't need to have a strong plot to have fun—Insomniac's forte has always been delivering a colorful city for the player to feel like an empowered god in, and it's no different here. And while the combat system wears its Arkham Asylum inspiration on its sleeve, the pendulum-based traversal is the freshest, most exciting way to explore an open world game to date.
Spider-Man ends on a whimper. That's about as spoilery as I'll get for this article. It includes a lot of interesting villains from the series but focuses on two of them, telling a surprisingly somber story about betrayal... which would be right down my alley, except that it doesn't say anything meaningful. I came away from the plot thinking "wow Spider-Man did not have fun" rather than "wow, what an amazing tale!" A greater contrast could've been drawn between the villains, or better yet, a redemptive arc added to the most sympathetic of the two. It could just be that I was expecting more literary analysis out of a story concerned first and foremost with high-stakes drama, but that doesn't stop me from feeling like I was told a video game story from the early 2000s.
Thankfully that's the only truly outdated aspect of the Spider-Man. The biggest surprise for me was how nice it felt being able to swing around a realistic portrayal of Manhattan—or as realistic as a yokel like me could decipher. It's great being able to gawk at the breadth of architectural variety as you zoom between buildings, down congested streets, and fly over roofs hundreds of feet in the air. Like with Assassin's Creed, being able to vertically scale a digitally rendered version of a city is fun in and of itself, without any combat, objectives, or skill trees to meddle with. Occasionally I'd linger over a ledge, spinning the camera around, wondering how both humanity and Insomniac made all of this. And including multiple times of day is the icing on top of this beautiful cake.
But the web slinging! What a cool system! It takes a while to get comfortable with, but once you become familiar with Spider-Man's physics, it's a surprisingly deft mode of travel. The way you can masterfully weave around buildings and rocket from zip points to maintain speed is riveting; slinging around the city keeps the player constantly engaged, even when they're not on a mission. I never played Spider-Man 2 on PS2 so you can only imagine how impressive I found all of this. Not once was I impelled to use fast travel, simply because it was so fun and freeing to be this fast, this nimble, this graceful.
The combat—while fun—is noticeably less impressive. While the "press button when light above head goes off" is straight from Batman's playbook, what I didn't expect was how fundamental the gadgets would be to Spider-Man's repertoire. I was slow to adapt to the combat because I paid little mind to my toolkit in the beginning, earning myself a good butt-whoopin' most of the time. When I finally decided to buckle down and rotate through abilities, I was alarmed at how easy the game became. Spider-Man carries with him multiple tools to disable swarms of goons, and even well-armed foes are no match for a morally questionable kick off a roof (which, no joke, nearly made me laugh every time). In a way there's almost too many tools, making the hardest part about the combat determining how next you'd like to dispose of your enemies.
That may not be a bad thing however; at its heart, Spider-Man is all about empowerment. Every side mission grants a different type of currency upon completion, of which you'll need multiple to unlock improvements for your gadgets and new suits (there's also a skill tree but it isn't really worth mentioning). The side-missions vary in type and rarely repeat, which is a delight (well, barring the active crimes, which are everywheeere). One moment you'll be clogging up holes on water towers, another you'll be taking on waves of enemies in a melee arena, and sometimes you'll pivot away from an armed robbery just to chase after a pigeon. The abundance of side missions with no fighting or timer adds a chill buffer to the main story's combat & stealth focus. And speaking of which: the stealth sections are joyless—their only upside is that it shows you how much it sucks to not be Spider-Man.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to guess that pairing Insomniac up with the world's most popular super hero would produce a damn good game. It probably won't blow your socks off unless you're a big fan of Peter Parker, but it does a good job of showcasing why it's so fun to don the blue and red and go crime fighting. The missions are rarely stale, the combat is decent, and being able to leap off of a roof and swing through a narrow alleyway, your toes skimming across the hot concrete, provides a thrill I haven't experienced before. If the story was stronger, I'd be more star-struck with Spider-Man—as it stands, I'm mostly walking away pleased I played it.
(Oh, and making J. Jonah Jameson a Glenn Beck-esque fear peddler is a brilliant touch.)
Friday, March 20, 2020
[contains minor spoilers]
I am no stranger to difficulty. Nor am I unacquainted with Team Ninja challenges—I often enjoy them for the most part. I think they lean too hard on absurd multi-boss fights (eat your heart out Dark Souls 2) but I appreciate how high they set the hurdle. Team Ninja not only asks you to play perfectly, but to do so in fights where you're hopelessly outmatched for an extended period of time. They make masochistic encounters that only Platinum Games can rival, and even then PG has the foreknowledge not to make the "normal" playthrough of a game as soul-crushingly harsh as Team Ninja frequently does.
Which leads me to the agony of Nioh's DLC triple threat.
This was not an easy endeavor to overcome. Having bested the Souls games numerous times, I can say without hesitation that the Nioh DLC is the hardest Souls-like challenge I've faced*. Each pack contains 6-8 merciless missions that get progressively harder, eclipsing whatever gear you may have scraped together on NG+. I went in knowing I would struggle somewhat, but didn't realize I'd practically have to best most of the bosses suffering less than ten hits (and in some cases, nearly none). The main campaign of Nioh was formidable, but it often gave me the gear I needed to press on and overcome. But here? Maria was a brick wall the likes of which I've rarely seen.
I mean—just—uh—what? I was doing no damage to this boss while she could grab me in the blink of an eye, killing me instantly. I shuffled into heavy gear so that I could survive the grab, but then she would teleport around, break my guard, and kill me instantly that way. The previous two boss fights were lengthy and vicious, but this was practically a new dimension of cruelty; did I really have to play perfectly for over five minutes? Was this what was really expected of me?
And were the other two DLC areas going to be even harder?
Thus, I finally started engaging with two things I didn't really care about or utilize before: Reforging & Soul Matching. Most of the time if gear I acquired had a better attack or defensive stat than what I had equipped, it was the better choice. Getting minor buffs like "Wind +10" felt like a nice, not necessary, bonus. But now I had to reframe my thinking: what were the weapons I was really using? What was the stance I fought in most of the time? What were the non-attack attributes I needed? It definitely got overwhelming at times (is Break +12 better than Proficiency +13%????), especially when I was juggling multiple weapons and comparing all of their stats to one another. But gradually I honed two swords, a spear, and an odachi that I would use to shake the heavens.
It also helped that I learned slamming two weapons of the same level together resulted in a better weapon (ie two +3s swords can be used to make a single +4 blade). All of the Divine weapons I had horded from various side missions and NG+ could now be used to provide my main weapon with a little extra damage, which helped push me through the rest of the DLC. I still ran into a couple of road blocks along the way—the elite enemies in the second DLC are a nightmare for someone that doesn't parry—but I managed to finish the DLC campaign and most of the side missions solo.
Relief washed over me when I finally completed it, if only for the fact that I didn't let Team Ninja best me. There was some fun to be had in meticulously combing over my weapons in search of improvements, but I'm miffed that the DLC was so punishing—on the base NG no less! I wanted to finish the damn game and move on to other titles in my backlog (I've been sitting on Hollow Knight for over a year), and I couldn't help but wonder if I was wasting my time. A part of me knew I probably was, my personal stubbornness the only anchor keeping the game installed. But the struggle is over now, and even if it's a meaningless accomplishment in the grand scheme of things, there's a small, perhaps puerile joy in the fact that I didn't give up.
I appreciate that the Nioh DLC forces you to examine your equipment. I also like the timed arrows volleys at the start of the second DLC. But... that's about where my praise ends. Nioh's main story is difficult and occasionally unfair, but you can coast through it learning a handful of combos and utilizing your spirit buddy at key instances. The DLC, on the other hand, is a raw challenge befitting of experts. And even though I finished it, I definitely walked away realizing that I am no Nioh expert—and nor am I willing to put in anymore time to become one.
*The Defiled Chalice & Lud & Zallen CoC NG+ excluded.
Tuesday, March 3, 2020
It's a common misconception—if you're an adolescent male—to correlate maturity with "mature themes" meant for adults. Nudity, swearing, and excessive violence can feel like good markers for a "grown-up" story (just look how well it works for HBO shows), but this correlation gradually breaks down over time, especially when you expose yourself to heavy material wrapped in an innocent veneer (Inside Out, Marley & Me, etc.) Likewise, a lot of gritty, edgy media that you might've enjoyed as a teen for how "real" it was (Wanted, Wizard's First Rule, etc.) quickly loses its luster when you realize just how ugly glorified violence and gross sexual encounters can be.
2018's God of War displays a maturity that the series always lacked. Now, there's nothing wrong with wanting to create material that revels in its own juvenile themes, but the austere, self-serious plot of the original God of War trilogy was hard to buy into. It wanted to be mature—the first game opens with Kratos attempting suicide—but you had to suspend your empathy for a number of ghoulish events. Over the course of three games, the series never really attempted to analyze its gnarly penchant for bloodlust, at least it any significant way beyond pleas from doomed NPCs. It was a revenge story for revenge's sake, and while that's fine, PS4's quasi-reboot God of War is a massive step up that I never knew I wanted.
When the title was first revealed at Sony's 2016 E3 press conference, I was hesitant. First impressions told me it was a step in the wrong direction: an over the shoulder cam, slow walking segments, no blades of chaos, and your... son is along for the ride? It was a bold shake-up from what fans might expect, but it didn't really feel like God of War—at least from the footage I watched. Fast forward to when I played it several months after its release and it... still doesn't feel quite like God of War... but that's okay! What's important is that it feels good.
Well, maybe not at first; the game took a while—a long while—to get into. There's a lot of new systems to familiarize yourself with and a completely new control scheme that obliterates old habits (RIP Square Square Triangle). Usually it doesn't take too much time for a game to click with me—even something as bizarre as Final Fantasy XV falls into place after a couple of hours—but I basically got to the end of God of War before I felt like I knew what I was doing. Your mileage may vary here, but the game's tendency to over-complicate things with its wealth of upgradeable materials, sockets, runes, and stats can be pretty off-putting, especially if you're wary of ineffectual RPG creep in modern games. I wasn't keen on the amount of random pick-ups in Horizon: Zero Dawn, and God of War only exacerbated that problem.
Thankfully, the length of time it takes to familiarize yourself with God of War's systems and equipment is probably the worst part about the title. Kratos's journey into Norse mythology is a beautiful, immersive, and sizable adventure that rarely gets tedious (unless you're running through Niflheim). The open world structure is a massive boon to the series, giving the player a land sprinkled with mystery without the typical Ubisoft side quests confetti everywhere. Even during obvious fetch quest segments of the main story, there's plenty of dialogue to keep the player invested. And it's largely thanks to the new heart of the series: Atreus, Kratos's son.
The father-son dynamic is a fantastic inclusion. Games are still knee-deep in their "disgruntled dad" phase, but what's special here is that Atreus doesn't get damseled early on or killed off for tragedy; he's your reluctant partner in crime the whole adventure. You start God of War with an affinity for Kratos simply due to all the time you've spent with him (murdering people), but Atreus is the one with genuine curiosity, growth, and a sympathetic ear for the world around him. The franchise's lean into mythology has always been one of its best selling points, but the premise benefits greatly if it has a character like Atreus interested in all this deep, aggrandized lore. Plus some of the smaller, gentler moments between the father and son can certainly pull at your heartstrings... assuming you find Kratos's ornery nature forgivable.
Truth be told, Kratos is probably the second worst thing about the game, but his terribleness is very purposeful. It's placed in juxtaposition to all the characters around him: paralleling the Stranger, contrasting with the Witch of the Woods, and conflicting with his son. While comparisons between Kratos and others could be made in the older games, it was largely with manipulative antagonists that the player held no sympathy for—meaning the they'd side with the Spartan even as he brutalized women. God of War turns the lens on Kratos more frequently, every terse conversation with Atreus changing him bit by bit. Also, if it wasn't apparently already, I really have a soft spot for stories that condemn the morally questionable actions of their main character.
I haven't really discussed the combat outside of "it was confusing at first", and while I don't have a lot to say about it, I appreciated most of the changes. Enemies are diverse, there's a great assortment of special abilities, and the impact of your weapons is better than its ever been. Sound effects are chunky, animations have a visceral weight, and you're guaranteed to find at least a couple attacks that you'll obsessively fit into every other combo (Executioner's Cleave babyyyy!) It does suffer from having a wealth of button combinations that are easily mixed up (good luck remembering that your son can shoot arrows), and the leveling system is a real fickle mistress—if an enemy you hate shows up with a red number next to their health bar, prepare to restart. But those issues are minor blemishes in a system that works astounding well; never did I think I'd play a satisfying character action game with an over the shoulder camera.
God of War may not have become one of my favorite franchises, but the PS4 title makes the best case for the series yet. It grants Kratos ample room to grow, both in its plot and gameplay, and gives him a much-needed conscience in the form of his lovably naive son. It presents the player with a world so fascinating and fun that I did nearly every quest I could (besides the grueling challenges in Muspelheim), long after the credits had rolled. It may take a while to get into, but God of War has evolved well beyond what it once was, arguably becoming the most robust and engrossing title on the PS4. Even with games I love I'm usually not clamoring for a sequel, but I'll happily dip my toes back into Midgar's chilly waters whenever Santa Monica Studios should decide to return.
Title image obtained from: softpedia.com
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
Perhaps part of this dilemma is that the story does little to detract from the crude gameplay—precisely because there's so little story in the first place. Secret of Mana is a simplistic, by-the-numbers hero's journey where the bad guys are really bad and the good guys are really good. There are a couple of interesting bits here and there (like the mana fortress destroying the ecology to stay afloat) but in the end the game pales in comparison to peers like Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger. If there's a reason you keep playing the game, the plot will assuredly not be it.
What it might be, however, is the game's charming music. Secret of Mana is host to a bevvy of uplifting and energizing tracks, as well as some more thoughtful, melancholy pieces. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that it has one of the most unique and electrifying final boss themes, that makes up for the relatively lackluster fight. And even if you're not blown away by the score, the sprite work and animations are fairly impressive. Areas are lively and elaborate, and the massive bosses are vibrant and sometimes—to their chagrin—adorable.
But the combat... good golly the combat. I praised the menu wheel for being a novel addition to the game, but it's cumbersome to navigate for single spells, meaning you probably won't be using them all that much. And when you do opt to dispose of a magically vulnerable foe, the rest of the party is forced to watch in stunned silence as the attack goes off... and occasionally misses due to invulnerability frames with no tell. This will happen every now and then for your spells, but your physical attacks are prone to whiffing. It'll get exhausting watching your fully charged-up attack ineffectually pass over an enemy, especially since the longer attack animations don't translate to, well, longer attacks. While there's a sound cue that goes off for a dodge/block/miss/etc, sometimes it won't go off at all and you'll be left wondering what you did wrong. I feel that it's a major failing of an action RPG to have such loose and slippery action.
The most creative part of the gameplay is that using spells from within a certain magic school will level that school up. So the more you heal, the stronger you healing becomes, which technically helps to diversify your spell list since you'll want at least a couple of strong elemental attacks. But like Final Fantasy II, this only works in theory, as your underleveled (and new!) spells will do such pitiful damage that they won't be worth the mana to cast (unless you're grinding). The weapon system works the same way, so you're likely to see the same attacks over and over unless you want to double your playtime diversifying.
And it's not like you'll need to either. Secret of Mana is far from being a difficult game, so long as your equipment is up to snuff. When it's not, bosses will steamroll over you hilariously fast (enjoy being pinned down by the tiger boss). With proper gear most battles are a cakewalk, and even when foes put up a fight, there's usually a spell that'll keep them stun-locked. Some duels can go on forever when you haven't leveled the boss's weakness (ugh the slime dude) but carrying a stock of walnuts ensures you have enough mana to burn through the opposition. At the end of the game I was skipping nearly every enemy, realizing they're less of a threat and more of a mana sink on the way to the boss. And it's always a bad sign when you want to spend as little time as possible interacting with the game's combat system.
I remember liking Secret of Mana as a kid. It was fun spending time in the crystal forest and the desert, nodding my head along to the sweet music as I gradually leveled Salamando. But coming at it as an adult, it's just so... bare-bones and unrefined. You get more personality from the sprites of the characters than you do the writing, and fighting enemies often feels like throwing blunt darts at a dart board. Secret of Mana has an amazing shell that showcases Square Soft at their best, but the yolk has turned more sour than I expected.
Images obtained from: blazingcariboustudios.com, nepascene.com, rantingaboutgames.com, geeksundergrace.com
Wednesday, February 19, 2020
[contains minor spoilers]
I went into Uncharted: The Lost Legacy expecting a brief, action-packed campaign. I walked away from it surprised that I had played yet another nearly full length Uncharted title. I don't know how Naughty Dog was able to churn out an adventure of this quality a year after Uncharted 4 was released, but I must confess that I'm impressed. Chloe Frazer's Indian expedition is a beautiful experience—something that only for this series could be considered "par for the course"—and returns the carefree attitude absent from A Thief's End. The villain is nasty, the player character is quippy, and there's a bunch of explosions and crumbling ruins and trains—Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is Uncharted to its very core. Which can be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you feel.
The bad thing about it, is that the game doesn't bring a lot of new ideas to the table. Sure, you've got the unlikely duo of Chloe (Nate's fiery ex) and Nadine (Uncharted 4's no-nonsense antagonist), but Chloe fills Nate's role very easily and Nadine is... well, Nadine's seriousness is actually fairly entertaining. But the friction between the two can feel a bit forced at times, especially when the biggest point of contention revolves around a decision that occurred offscreen. The banter and acting are enjoyable, but if you've played any of the other games in the series, there's nothing really remarkable about the heroines' interactions, even if the story wants you to get hyped for girl power.
The Lost Legacy is still great though. The Uncharted formula isn't something that invigorates me nearly as much as, say Dark Souls, but I can recognize that what's here is close to the cream of the crop. There's a really cool section of the game that's a miniature open world segment, letting you tackle its three "towers" in any order you wish. There's both optional side battles and observation puzzles, which gives you more of a reason to pay attention to your surroundings. It almost feels like a prototype for a new Uncharted game, but it's refined enough that you won't notice that while playing. And while you can spot some load times masked by muddy hills that are hard to climb, it speaks to Naughty Dog's professionalism that the entire zone is seamless and smooth (or at least was for my playthrough).
Before sitting down to write this entry, I wasn't sure about whether or not I preferred The Lost Legacy to Uncharted 4, but one big factor definitely tipped it over the edge for me: the combat. Nate's final adventure had him fighting in some unique but mazelike locales, whereas The Lost Legacy returns to predictable, flat settings. While buildings may have multiple stories to scope out and the open world section lets you tackle its encounters from any direction, the layouts are accessible and the enemies never exceeded double digits (not in the sandbox scuffles, at least). The biggest sign that I was gelling with the combat was being able to complete an encounter without getting spotted, which would've been an impossible task for me back in Uncharted 4. I may have adjusted to the new gunplay, or slowed my pace because I hadn't played the game before, but either way the fighting definitely clicked with me.
I have to admit that I did receive a smidgen of aid via the generous checkpoint system. And by generous, I mean really generous, as occasionally it would checkpoint me after I had died, whether from a mistimed jump or enemy reinforcements gunning me down. Being able to start ahead of my death saved me a bit of frustration, but it's a shame I wasn't given another chance to prove myself. The only other oddity The Last Legacy has is that the game has two final acts. You'll reach a point where it feels like the story is ready to wrap up... but then it keeps going... and ends on what I can only call a "retread." I guess the final act rug pull is a small subversion of the previous titles, but all it really does is take two very Uncharted-y events and swap their places.
Uncharted: The Last Legacy grants a much needed break from Nathan Drake & co. in favor of tracking a lost treasure through India with two fun gals. If you look under the hood, it's unfortunately not that different from the games that came prior, even with the bold new leads. But if you like carefree adventures, stunning visuals, and colossal architecture, The Last Legacy easily stands toe-to-toe with A Thief's End. Throw in a big fun free-form exploration segment, and you arguably have yourself the best Uncharted experience the PS4 has to offer—as long as you don't mind it being on the shorter side.
Title image obtained from: geekireland.com
Wednesday, February 5, 2020
Uncharted has never been a particularly complex or inventive franchise—but it sure as heck has been pretty. Jumping from the PS3 to the PS4, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End flexes Naughty Dog's "new tech" prowess like a professional body builder at a local gym. I thought I would get tired of announcing "wow this is a gorgeous vista!" four entries into the series, but Nathan Drake's final adventure kept me coming back for one more round. While the flabbergast-inducing eye candy is the premier feature of A Thief's End, the game also—surprisingly—diverts its attention away from non-stop gunfights towards more moments that reflect on Nathan Drake's achievements, mistakes, and regrets.
Which sounds cool... except that the narrative fails to capitalize on it.
Thematically I still think the game is bunk, but I appreciate its narrative more than I used to, especially because A Thief's End could've played it safe like Drake's Deception did. There's a maturity to the series that hasn't been expressed before, something that likely couldn't have been expressed until Naughty Dog went and made The Last of Us. Nathan Drake is older, more conscious of his reckless adventuring lifestyle, and there's a bit more poison to his lies. Not enough, mind you, to turn the series into a fascinating critique on its plucky, mercenary-murdering attitude, but you'll still watch the story unfold with awe, captivated by its firm cinematography and believable acting. It's an engaging tale—but it's also one that lacks any sort of punch.
This ties directly into the blog entry I've already written, but slowing the story down to put Nate's mundane life on display doesn't really amount to anything. Don't get me wrong—it's really cool to see and I appreciate it—but there's no trenchant discoveries unearthed here. The plot twists and shocking reveals serve only as naked tools for drama (like Sully's """betrayal""" in the first game), unable or unwilling to dive any deeper than that. And I get that Uncharted is a lot less serious than The Last of Us, so diving into trauma may be a step too far, but then... why take adventuring so seriously? Why strip away bits of whimsy that the series previously exhibited, just to put more of an emphasis on realism and consequences? The old games may have tried to be too funny at times, but A Thief's End drives itself in the opposite direction, becoming so sober and understated that sometimes you come off of conversations simply feeling nothing.
I'm definitely being a bit too hard on Uncharted 4, but it's largely because I wanted big things from it in a post-The Last of Us world. The only aspect that I wasn't let down by were the visuals: water is gorgeous, character models are immaculately designed, Madagascar is downright breathtaking, the creeping foliage in the latter half of the game is dazzling, etc. etc. It's a lot of fun to stumble around and hop across rocks while keeping an eye for Nate's animation sequences, and almost every chapter has a great piece of eye candy to look at, whether it's thin seaweed shifting in a trench or a massive clock tower clinking away. The puzzles are also pretty good too, sometimes demanding quite a bit from your spacial reasoning, though they're few and far between.
Combat on the other hand... is not my favorite. If I was to rank the action in the series, I'd probably say 2 > 4 > 3 > 1, but there's a wide gulf between 2 and 4, and a grenade-shaped asterisk between 4 and 3. Besides me not liking the weapons as much and cursing the damage-based recoil, A Thief's End also botches most of its sandbox fights. The open areas you're allowed to fight in are gorgeous, vertical, asymmetrical zones with a lot of nooks and crannies... which all make it hard to keep track of foes without getting detected. And when you inevitably get spotted, you'll run around and shoot manically for a couple of minutes, just to have a shotgun guy to hop down from some unseen ledge and fill your ass with lead. Uncharted 4's wild and nonlinear sandboxes made it impossible to think up a strategy after I had failed them a few times, something that the older games—even if they were more frustrating—would at least allow. Even if the combat in Uncharted 4 is secretly good and I'm stubbornly not understanding it, the gunplay being shelved for the sake of the story meant I hardly had a chance to warm up to what little was there.
Nathan Drake's swansong is a fitting one for the series. I may bemoan a lot of aspects about it here, but Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is a remarkably polished game that delivers entertainment, at the very least. The problem, of course, is that while polish may obscure the blemishes, it can't hide them forever. A Thief's End doesn't feel vestigial like Uncharted 3 does, but its proud ambition doesn't lead anywhere—well, anywhere truly praiseworthy. It's a good game that'll leave you exhausted. It's a beautiful title that frequently loiters about. It's a fitting end for a franchise that always played it safe.
Title image obtained from: ResetEra.com
Thursday, January 30, 2020
[contains minor spoilers]
In many ways, there's not much that separates Uncharted 2: Among Thieves from Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. The third entry in the series is very similar in style, tone, and pacing to its older sibling, and likewise blows Drake's Fortune out of the water in terms of quality. Perhaps the most noticeable difference is that while Among Thieves leans into cooler climates for its latter half, Drake's Deception steers toward an arid desert in its final act. But if you play the games back to back, climate isn't the only thing that separates these two—you'll inevitably notice that combat has gotten more... explosive.
Thematically, Drake's Deception remains very familiar and frankly unambitious. A lot of old story beats get plucked from the other games, including mythical lost cities, fake-out deaths, Nate reconnecting with Elena, and a dull villain guarded by a detestable henchman. It's all entertaining, mind you; the playful banter between the main cast (as well as the stellar mocap) is on point as always, carrying the player through the plot even if the road feels well-trodden. Likewise the set pieces and spectacle are what you'd expect: loads of deteriorating architecture, extended chase sequences peppered with gunfire, and a really elaborate (and cool) vehicle sequence that leaves Nate exhausted and alone.
But there's not really anything that sets Drake's Deception above Among Thieves. By sticking so close to the Uncharted formula, the game struggles to etch out its own identity, especially since the villain—and by extension the story—is so flat. Cutter is a delightful addition to the Uncharted crew, but he spends more time out of the game than in it. The only narrative curve balls thrown at the player are the dizzying drug trips and desert scene, the former always managing to overstay its welcome. But admittedly, the desert scene is probably one of the highlights of the game: it allows the game to take a break from Nate's intrepid lifestyle to torture him over his misfortune, all while keeping the player wondering what will happen next. It's a very un-Uncharted-y experience that I wish the game had tried to flirt with more, rather than playing it so "safe" for the most part (or perhaps "conventional" is a better word, since Nate is no stranger to "unsafe" environments.)
You know what's really unsafe though? Trying to remain behind cover in Drake's Deception. The game's new tool for removing entrenched players is grenade spam, which gets fairly ridiculous the deeper into the story one gets. The player can now retaliate by chucking grenades back to their owner, but it can be a risky move as missing the throw window will get you blown to smithereens. This motivates the player to be even more mobile than before, which just doesn't work when the game only throws scant pieces of cover at you. The really laborious instances are few and far between, but when they pop up it can feel like you're grappling with raw RNG instead of engaging in a complex combat system.
For the most part, I was lukewarm on most of the gameplay, as it really felt like I had been there, done that. The one exception was the ship graveyard: that particular set piece has held up exceptionally well, as it is the best part of the game. The whole concept is gnarly and novel, giving the player a handful of rusted sandbox environments to hunt their foes in. The player can dip beneath the waters to avoid detection, and the constantly undulating environment interferes with your scouting, presenting you with a unique challenge (can this enemy see me? Wait was that a guy over there?) It's just a shame that the entire section is a pointless, wild goose chase that has no bearing on the plot; it felt like a tech demo that Naughty Dog really wanted to showcase, but had no idea where to slot into the story.
The last bit I want to mention is that the puzzles are a lot better. They're still somewhat rudimentary, but they're considerably more elaborate than those in Among Thieves (the chateau crypt and metallic shadows being my favorites), and they thankfully don't rely as heavily on checking your notebook as before. If anything, playing Drake's Deception reminded me of how disappointing the puzzles were in 2; enigmatic mechanisms and secret rooms are nearly as important to the concept of exploration as climbing up the face of a crumbling temple is.
There are undoubtedly times when Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is the most impressive and unique entry in the series—but for the most part, it can't escape from being the grenade-obsessed little brother of a more successful title. Among Thieves is definitely a good game to emulate, but I can't emphasize enough how much the familiar story beats drag the game down. The better puzzles don't negate the more volatile combat, and the warmer settings aren't necessarily more intriguing or jaw-dropping than what the player's already seen in the snowy mountains. The phenomenal ship graveyard section encapsulates Drake's Deception well: is it fun and exciting? Sure! Does it feel necessary to the overall Uncharted experience? Uh, no, not really.