Games 11/8/11: Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, The Lord of the Rings: War in the North

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
For: Playstation 3
From: Naughty Dog/Sony
ESRB Rating: Teen (blood, language, violence)
Price: $60

Viewed under a critical microscope, “Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception” is by no means a perfect game.

Viewed on a television and from within the throes of immersion, however, it’s awfully good at feeling like one. And that’s plenty good enough.

You already know this if you played “Uncharted 2,” which took its predecessor’s mix of shooting and large-scale platforming and funneled it into one insane set piece after another.

“Deception” works similarly, and like its predecessors, it isn’t the best in class at any one thing it does. The platforming is exhilarating when set aboard a sinking cruise liner or as part of a rooftop chase through a bustling city, but it lacks the go-anywhere freedom something like “Assassin’s Creed” has in spades. Hand-to-hand combat attempts a system similar to that of recent Batman games, but relies too much on onscreen prompts instead of pure rhythm to match it. The batch of puzzles you must solve along the way are the series’ best, but recent “Tomb Raider” games have better toed the line between challenge, scope and accessibility.

“Deception” shows the most warts as a third-person shooter. Nathan Drake’s aiming acumen remains shaky, enemies still require too many bullets to put down, and certain firefights make it impossible to establish a thoughtful strategy — especially when a fistfight breaks out during a gunfight.

But that’s the beauty of “Deception.” A fistfight can break out amid a gunfight, and it’s often your call to make it so.

Even though “Deception’s” pieces are separately outclassed in other games, no other game does this many things this well and looks this incredible doing them. Shootouts become brawls, which become chases that involve simultaneous shooting and climbing, and the game transitions from element to element with no seams showing. “Deception” is a linear experience that continually pushes you forward, but in blurring the line between gameplay and summer blockbuster cutscene, it never takes control away.

Often — for instance, during a wild horseback chase in the desert — “Deception” lays the tools at your feet and lets you pick. In this scenario, you control your horse, you’re free to leap from the horse onto an enemy’s truck (or vice versa), and you choose how to dispatch your enemies (at range from the horse, up close with your fists, or something in between). Most games would distill your actions down to interactive cutscenes in order to convey the cinematic look “Deception” achieves, but this one lets you play out this and numerous other equally spectacular scenes on your terms.

The absence of seams trickles down to “Deception’s” storyline, which cements Drake as a deeply likable adventurer with a lucky streak that puts Indiana Jones to shame. “Deception’s” story is a treat for those curious about Drake’s lineage and origins, but it’s the little things — throwaway lines, idle ticks, panic at a bad idea backfiring — that underscore just how immaculate the game’s audiovisual presentation is.

“UC2’s” addition of a full-featured multiplayer suite took many by pleasant surprise, and “Deception” (16 players) reemphasizes what made it great. It’s flexible — you can play alone, on two eight-player teams or with a friend on teams of two via local/online co-op — and the extensive experience points system allows for considerable character upgrades and redesigns. A new system of perks and special objectives provides instant rewards and wrinkles that take immediate effect within a match in progress.

But multiplayer’s best facet remains the ability to seamlessly mix all that platforming, shooting and fighting on multiplayer maps that are far more open-ended than “Deception’s” single-player set pieces. Whether you crave theater or freedom, this one has the best of both worlds at the ready.

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The Lord of the Rings: War in the North
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Snowblind Studios/WB Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense violence)
Price: $60

Snowblind Studios gets kudos for telling a new “Lord of the Rings” story — set chronologically parallel to J.R.R. Tolkien’s story and featuring his iconic characters, but starring a new set of characters created expressly for the game — instead of retreating to yet more recreations of the same old battles.

The flip side, of course, is that Tolkien’s most ardent fans will be first in line to pick apart “War in the North’s” fiction. Andriel the Elven Loremaster wields magic that’s pretty out of step with Gandalf’s arsenal. A giant talking eagle, while a very well-developed character who is great fun to summon in battle, will nonetheless remind some of Sean Connery voicing a dragon in “Dragonheart” more than anything from the “LOTR” universe. Finally, while the fellowship occasionally checks in with your party, the result of those check-ins often leaves you feeling like a second-string hero. “North” tells a comprehensive side story with branching quests and numerous mandatory and elective dialogue paths, but it’s one that will strike some as a dungeon crawler with Tolkien trimmings instead of the other way around.

Fortunately, if trimmings are enough and you like dungeon crawlers, the rest of the news is pretty good.

For starters, while “North” prioritizes action over role-playing, it offers a satisfying array of role-playing elements. Each of the three playable characters — Andriel, Eradan the Ranger, Farin the Dwarf — has a separate level cap of 40. The primary attributes stick to the basics, but combine those with the branching trees of acquirable special abilities and there’s a satisfying sense of growth throughout the adventure. (In case you’re curious: Yes, you can switch between characters during a single campaign. And yes, your characters’ stats carry over if you replay the campaign, which returns the favor by offering a harder difficulty setting.)

“North” also dishes out loot, and plenty of it. Every piece of your characters’ clothing is separately interchangeable, and weapons and clothing alike can be modded with stones that grant special offensive or defensive characteristics. Your weapon and clothing choices are visually reflected on your character, and finding a rare sword that looks awesome and flaunts special bonuses is almost as fun as wielding it. “North’s” system of rare loot isn’t as extensive as, say, “Diablo,” but it’s pretty satisfying.

Ultimately and overwhelmingly, though, “North” is about bloody, vicious combat. This is the first “LOTR” to get a Mature ESRB rating, and that rating is earned: You’ll carve through armies of orcs, trolls, skeletons, spiders and more, and the game’s insatiable appetite for combos and critical attacks results in carnage that lives up to Tolkien’s depictions of war.

“North’s” combat does have a variety problem, often pushing out successive waves of the same enemies instead of mixing them up across shorter battles. The satisfying impact of the combat does much to offset the encroaching feeling that killing one troll will probably just result in two more appearing, but it’s impossible to completely ignore. If you play solo, the combat A.I. of your allies also leaves something to be desired, though they’re exceptionally adept at healing you when you’re down.

For the optimum experience, though, co-op (two players splitscreen, three online) is the way to go. Having three competent fighters instead of one is obviously helpful, and the downside — that you’ll have to work together to stay alive instead of count on the A.I. to bail you out — simply makes the combat more exciting. Fortunately, “North” is flexible enough to let you play solo or with different configurations of friends within the same campaign, so you’ll always be able to push forward whether friends are available or not.