Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was one of the Playstation 3’s first big exclusives, and while it didn’t quite reach its potential, it was a solid game. Its two sequels, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, however, are the real deal. They took all the promise of the first game and executed on it, delivering two of the best action adventure games of the past generation. However, the question remains, which game is better? Let’s dig in and find out.
When looking at the various aspects of the Uncharted games, gameplay isn’t exactly the strongest element of the series. It’s not bad by any means, and there are times when it shines, but overall the other aspects are what make Uncharted so special. From the beginning, the series has been a mix of traversal, third person shooting, and puzzle solving, and those have remained the core elements of the gameplay throughout all the games in the series. The first game is by the far the weakest in terms of gameplay, but it’s much harder to come to a clear determination between Uncharted 2 and 3.
Neither game really has combat that would hold up when compared to games that are dedicated third person shooters, but it gets the job done. Comparing just the shooting of these two games, Uncharted 3 has a slight advantage. When it first launched, many complained that the aiming felt off, but playing it now with the alternate aiming mode selected in the options menu feels significantly better than Uncharted 2. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why the weapon handling feels better in Uncharted 3 than it does in 2. It’s not one thing in particular, but more a combination of factors, such as the improved crosshairs, much better sound effects, and slightly more responsive aiming controls that all contribute to making the gunplay in Uncharted 3 more satisfying.
The other elements of the gameplay are mostly the same in both games. The traversal and platforming is pretty much exactly the same in each of these games, which is to say it’s fine. The platforming has never been difficult, but that’s not the intention. The traversal exists to give some substance to the game and allow you move Drake through interesting environments. Both games feature a lot cinematic climbing moments, with crumbling handholds and collapsing structures, and it’s equally as visually engaging in each of these games. Both games also feature puzzles which mostly involve pulling levers, interacting with objects, and consulting Drake’s journal for clues. One final element of the gameplay that is somewhat different in each game is the hand to hand combat, which was improved in Uncharted 3. The hand-to-hand combat in Uncharted 2 basically amounts to mashing the square button, but Uncharted 3 adds slightly more depth to the system to make it a bit more entertaining.
With noticeably better gunplay, slightly improved hand-to-hand combat, and parity in most other areas, Uncharted 3 comes away with better gameplay.
Uncharted 2 – 0
Uncharted 3 – 1
A common complaint across all three games in the Uncharted series from fans and critics are issues regarding pacing, in particular the length of combat encounters. The first game in the series suffered from this issue far more heavily than the two sequels, but they are not without troubles in this area either. The question is, which game suffers from this issue the least?
For the first half of Uncharted 3, it appears Naughty Dog had finally nailed the perfect blend of traversal, puzzle solving, and combat without letting any one aspect of the gameplay overstay it’s welcome. The first 4 or so hours of Uncharted 3 consists mostly of traversal, both platforming and more low key environment tours, but also features a significant degree of puzzle solving, short and quick sequences of combat, and of course cinematic set pieces. No one thing ever lasts long enough to become frustrating, and the engaging story and snappy dialogue keep things moving.
However, just past the halfway mark of the game, things take a sudden and sharp decline. From this point on, puzzles all but disappear and combat becomes the prime aspect of gameplay for the remainder of the game. Even worse, all the weakest elements of Uncharted combat become mainstays for the rest of game, with an overabundance of bullet sponge enemies, waves of reinforcements entering the field of play as soon as you clear an area, and an unfair feeling of challenge in regards to the number of enemies and their tactics. The last few hours of the game are filled with cheap feeling deaths and an astronomical body count, with your only respite being brief instances of traversal or cinematics interspersed between combat encounters.
The biggest disruption to the game’s pace is the pirate sequence, which serves no purpose other than padding and to show off some admittedly impressive ocean wave tech. The sequence serves absolutely no story purpose whatsoever, there are no other main characters involved, and it consists almost entirely of combat. There is some jaw dropping spectacle here, with the aforementioned ocean effects and Drake’s very own Poseidon Adventure in a sinking cruise ship, but it’s not enough to make this sequence feel like anything other than padding. When you finally get back to the main plot, about an hour and fifteen minutes have passed, and when you’re talking about an 8 hour game, that’s around 15% of the game spent on a combat focused detour that serves no purpose to the plot or character development and doesn’t offer any compelling gameplay.
Uncharted 3 may be all over the place in terms of pacing and design, but Uncharted 2 stays pretty much the same throughout the course of the game. It never feels as perfect as the first half of Uncharted 3, but it also never gets as tedious and frustrating as the worst moments in that game. Uncharted 2 has it’s own flaws, like a truly terrible final boss fight, far more bullet sponge enemies than Uncharted 3, and weaker puzzles, but overall it’s much more consistent. There’s probably just as many overlong combat sequences as there are in Uncharted 3, but they aren’t as condensed together in Uncharted 2, giving it a slight advantage.
Had Uncharted 3 not devolved into nothing but the worst aspects of the series in the back half of the game, it would win this category, but as it stands Uncharted 2 is better designed.
Uncharted 2 – 1
Uncharted 3 – 1
Story is one of the strongest aspects of Uncharted, though it’s strength lies more in dialogue and character interactions than plot. The plot of both games centers around fictionalized versions of real world legends. In both games, Drake and company follow centuries old clues around the world in search of long lost cities of untold riches. Both games feature a very similar tone and are mostly over the top roller coaster action romps that aren’t meant to be taken too seriously. Both stories serve their purpose of sending the characters on globe trotting adventures, but one does this slightly better.
Uncharted 3 has two major issues in regards to the story that hold it back a bit. The first is the hour plus detour mentioned previously where the story is basically put on hold. The other issues are some plot threads that are set up and then never concluded. The main story about the Atlantis of The Sands is certainly concluded, but the mysterious carnivorous light fearing spiders that crop up throughout the game are never explained by the story’s conclusion. They seem to appear only where clues to the location of Ubar are hidden, but their origins are never addressed. Another minor plot point that is never resolved is the mysteries surrounding Talbot, like where he got some of the Ubar toxin to use on Cutter and Drake or how he was able to pull off his disappearing act and then survive a gunshot with no adverse effects in Syria.
Uncharted 2 is more a complete narrative, without the glaring questions that Uncharted 3 raises. It also does an excellent of job building interest right out the gate with the fantastic framing device of opening in the middle of the game, with Drake having just been shot and waking up on the crashed train. By opening here and then cutting back to the set up for the plot the game gets you engaged almost immediately. You want to see how this relatively simple sounding job turns so bad just a few short months later. Uncharted 2 also does a great of keeping the plot moving forward, and it never has any pointless detours like Uncharted 3.
Both games have great stories, but lingering questions hold Uncharted 3 back, giving Uncharted 2 the edge in story.
Uncharted 2 – 2
Uncharted 3 – 1
Uncharted stories are always good, but the real reason the games are so endearing is due to the likeable characters and snappy dialogue, and both Uncharted 2 and 3 truly excel in this regard. Both games feature fantastic casts of characters, but one game is better than the other. The deciding factor basically comes down to how the characters are used in each game and which game has the better one off characters. The principle cast of Nate, Chloe, Sully, and Elena are all featured in both of these games. The main characters that appear only in Uncharted 2 are Lazarevic, Flynn, Tenzin, and Schafer. The main characters that appear only in Uncharted 3 are Cutter, Marlowe, Talbot, and Salim.
Looking at the unique characters first, Charlie Cutter is the one that comes to mind immediately as being the strongest. He is the only main ally that isn’t in both games, and he is a clear highlight of Uncharted 3. He is the only character in the series shown to really be Nate’s equal in terms of historical knowledge, and it’s cool see them bounce ideas off each other and get excited about clues and discoveries without having to explain why. He’s got quirks too, like claustrophobia and a unique sense of humor. Cutter is one of the most interesting characters in the series, it’s just unfortunate he made such a quick exit fairly early in the game due to the actor being cast in The Hobbit.
None of the other one off characters are as interesting as Cutter, but they have their strengths as well. Between the two villains, Marlowe is probably the stronger character. Lazarevic is fairly cliché villain, being a heartless warlord searching for immortality, but Marlowe is more interesting. She is a more conniving villain, and doesn’t appear completely evil like Lazarevic does. Of the two lieutenant villains, Flynn is much better than Talbot. Flynn’s history with Nate leads to some great banter between the two, whereas Talbot’s main contributions to the game are unanswered questions. Of the remaining characters, Tenzin is the strongest, with Schafer and Salim not leaving much of a mark. Tenzin’s characterization is especially impressive given he never speaks any English.
Turning toward the four main characters, they all have better arcs in Uncharted 3. Uncharted 3 revolves around the relationship between Nate and Sully, and that is the best material in the game. The flashback to their first meetings is one of the standout sequences in the game, and it does a great job setting up the plot as the one thing Nate and Sully have been waiting decades to accomplish. Uncharted 3 also goes does some very interesting introspection into the psyche of both Nate and Sully, and why they are willing risk so much for the quests they undertake. In Uncharted 2, Sully is criminally underused, exiting the game very early on and only making a brief appearance at the end. Also in Uncharted 2, when Lazarevic raises the question about Nate killings hundreds of people, it only serves to highlight the contradiction between his personality and his actions, whereas the examination of his motivations in Uncharted 3 feel more appropriate.
Both Chloe and Elena serve similar support roles in each game, though they are a bit underused throughout. Chloe has some good dialogue in both games, but her fairly uneventful support role in Uncharted 3 is preferable to constant betrayal fake-outs in Uncharted 2. Her arc in Uncharted 2 is probably more interesting, but continuing to play the “who’s side is she really on” plot device over and over throughout the course of the game becomes tiresome. Elena is Nate’s love interest in both games, and in both games it comes from the angle of the two getting back together after having split up in between games. It’s weird that they chose to basically go the same route with her and Nate’s relationship in both sequels, but it’s pulled off slightly better in Uncharted 3. The fact that in Uncharted 2 Nate and Chloe just happen to run into Elena in Nepal is a little too coincidental for my taste, and her ability to see right through Nate in Uncharted 3 makes their dynamic a bit more interesting.
Characters are the reason Uncharted is as loved as it is, and both Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3 truly excel in this regard. However, due the fantastic Charlie Cutter and some better character arcs, Uncharted 3 stands slightly above Uncharted 2.
Uncharted 2 – 2
Uncharted 3 – 2
At the time of its initial release, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was one of the most technically impressive games available. Both Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3 share this distinction, and Naughty Dog has earned a reputation as one of the most technically proficient developers in gaming. The standout elements of Uncharted’s presentation are the stunning environments, detailed character models, excellent use of motion capture, phenomenal cinematography, jaw dropping set piece moments, and stellar voice performances.
Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3 are pretty much on par in the majority of these areas. Each of the games features a wide variety of beautifully rendered locations, from snow covered mountains, to lush jungles, from a storming ocean to the middle of the desert. The voice and motion capture performances in each game are some of the best the industry has to offer, and even with the next generation of consoles upon us, the characters models still look quite good. The cinematic set piece moments, which became one of the defining new elements of Uncharted 2 over the original, are present in both games and are equally impressive, and overall the presentation of both Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3 are on pretty much even ground.
Though some of the technical aspects of the visuals may be somewhat better in Uncharted 3, that’s only because it came out two years later, and because most other elements are on par and both games were equally impressive at the time of release, the presentation category is a tie.
Uncharted 2 – 2
Uncharted 3 – 2
So, with both games tied after running through five categories, it’s time to break the tie. When looking at these two games independently, it’s clear they are both exceptional in mostly the same ways. However, these games weren’t released in a vacuum, and there’s no getting around the fact that much of Uncharted 3 has a “been there, done that” feeling to it. Uncharted 3 succeeds mostly by treading the same ground as its predecessor, and while that makes the game equally impressive in most areas, it also means it doesn’t have that “wow factor” that Uncharted 2 possessed at the time of its release.
It simply feels like Uncharted 3 is working off the Uncharted 2 blueprint with minor alterations. Instead of a long lost city in the mountains, it’s in the desert. Instead of following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, it’s Francis Drake and T.E. Lawrence. Instead of a bombastic cinematic moment on a crashing train, it’s a sinking ship. Instead of jumping from truck to truck during a cinematic chase, you jump from truck to horse to truck during a cinematic chase. Let’s also not forget that both end pretty much the same way, with Nate and company discovering something sinister about the hidden city, destroying it, and then escaping the collapsing city.
Both Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception are phenomenal games, and among the best the Playstation 3 has to offer. They are great in mostly the same ways, with each game edging out the other ever so slightly in several areas. When it comes down to it, however, Uncharted 2 was a stunning revelation, a game that pushed the boundaries of storytelling and gave the player control during sequences that would typically be cutscenes. Uncharted 3 does all this as well, but it has this lingering feeling of sameness to it, which is why Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is the superior entry in the series.
Winner: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves