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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Review: Drake's Deception

After playing Golden Abyss on the Vita, I downloaded Drake's Deception to see how it felt on a big screen. It's a 40GB download (mostly because the download included support for 3D movies), so it took multiple tries before I succeeded but I wasn't in a hurry. If this is the new era of console gaming, there's no question that 500GB HDDs on the next generation of consoles will definitely not be sufficient.

First of all, the game is gorgeous. I don't even mean compared to the Vita. Halfway through the game I liked it so much that I picked up the Uncharted Dual Pack on Amazon. I took a sneak peak and played a couple of chapters from Drake's Fortune, and the differences are immediate, significant, and very obvious. Character expressions are discernible in a way that I never expected to see in a video game. As a computer scientist, this makes me fear the impending death of Moore's law much less. In fact, the way I see it, the lack of continuous improvement to the hardware enables software engineers to pull every trick in the book to get these relatively low powered machines to produce gorgeous graphics. It could be that a few more cycles of stunted performance improvements on Intel's processors could even get Adobe to improve Lightroom's performance. It's ironic that by far the best time to buy a PS3 would be right now, when the game library is biggest and game developers have figured out how best to make use of the hardware.

Drake's Deception is not the most gorgeous game I've seen on the PS3. That title right now would go to the Tomb Raider reboot, which came out 2 years after Drake's Deception. But here's why the Uncharted series has me playing while other games sit on my hard drive: it's relentlessly upbeat, cheerful, and playable. While other games go for the dark, grim and gritty atmosphere, Drake's Deception choose bright, well-lit locations and saturated colors. If this was a movie, I'd say that the movie was shot entirely in Fuji Velvia.

The game play is the same across all the Uncharted games. You have some shooting, some platforming, and some (fairly easy) puzzles. All the puzzles are very fair, and fairly straightforward. I suspect that the puzzles and the platforming which are fairly easy are there so that the game isn't one relentless shoot-fest, which would be extremely monotonous. There two difficulty spikes which I found impossible to overcome in the second half of the game. This was in contrast to Golden Abyss, where the difficulty level didn't change dramatically the way it does. I would understand if the difficulty spikes came at climatic moments of the game's story, but they don't, which left me scratching my head as to why the designers did what they did. My guess is if my son was 6 or 7 instead of 2, that's when I'd just hand the controller to him and just say, "go do this for Daddy."

One of the most fascinating thing about the Uncharted games is that they school you in the visual language of film. The game subtly directs you to move in a certain direction, or jump in a certain way so as to continue the story. In some cases, of course, failure to move as directed results in death and a restart, but after a while you learn the language of the game and where to go becomes intuitive. I thought this part of the game was relatively well considered and well thought out. This is especially fun during the fabulous set piece on an airplane transport. There's a firefight and the plane starts to fall apart in the air, and Drake is not only fighting to stay alive, but is also constantly jostled about the plane and looking for things to hang on to as the plane loses altitude. The "wow" factor while playing this section is very cool, and by this point you are so well-schooled in the visual language of the game that at every point you know what to do and how to do it makes the game flow satisfying. The same could be set in a classic Lawrence of Arabia style chase through a desert canyon with horses, trucks, and motorcycles all mixed in a big climatic scene.

Not all the set pieces are so overtly flashy, however. Early on in the game there's a classic young urchin fleeing from bad guys sequence that's also lovely to play and watch. My wife and son watched me play parts of this and enjoyed it: it's non-violent, exciting, and a lot of fun.

Comapred to all this, however, the end of the game was anti-climatic. You would expect the final villain boss fight to be epic, but instead you're reduced to following on-screen prompt and button mashing. There are also a couple of places where the platforming goes on for just a bit too long. They're not particularly challenging, but I guess they're just there to make the game last the requisite 8-9 hours that hard core gamers demand.

Coming from Vita's Golden Abyss, however, I have to say that I found the PS3's limited controls made for a less satisfying variety of interaction. The Vita has a motion sensor, two touch pads, and a camera in addition to the joystick/button controls, and the result is that the puzzles and reveals have much more of a wow factor. In particular, Golden Abyss's charcoal rubbing was something my toddler loved doing, and of course that's not possible on the PS3. If I had a choice between getting my next Uncharted fix on the PS4 or the Vita, I would definitely pick the Vita, and not just because the PS4 costs $400.

Nevertheless, I can see why the Uncharted series is such a marquee brand for the Playstation, and I certainly would contemplate buying a PS4 just to play the next release of Uncharted. The combination of excellent direction, decent story, and the fact that nobody's actually making movies like this any more makes this a winner, and deservedly so. Recommended. I'm happy I have 2 more Uncharted games to play through before I run out of content.

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