Video game review

UNCHARTED 3: DRAKE'S DECEPTION

To say that “Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception” has a lot to live up to would be an understatement. The game is the sequel to “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves,” which took home almost every 2009 game of the year award from here to Shangri-La.

Developer Naughty Dog succeeded at creating a truly “interactive cinematic experience," a game that’s as fun to watch as it is to play.

“Uncharted 3” is a blast to play and is one of the most-fun games to come out this year. But some frustrations with the gameplay and pacing problems keep it from totally escaping the shadow cast by “Uncharted 2.”

“Uncharted 3” picks up the adventures of fortune-hunter Nathan Drake — who claims be a descendent of famous explorer Sir Francis Drake — two years after the end of the last game. Nate and his grizzled partner/father figure Victor “Sully” Sullivan are searching for the Atlantis of the Sands, a lavish and supposedly cursed city lost in the middle of the sprawling Rub’ al Khali desert in the Arabian Peninsula. They’re trying to piece together the clues left behind Francis Drake and T.E. Lawrence (known as Lawrence of Arabia to his friends) and get to the city before a clandestine order of British agents, whose goal is more nefarious than finding lost treasure. The story, rooted in history before going off on its own tangent, is interesting and pulls you in from the start, despite a few hanging plot threads.

The driving force behind the narrative is the relationship between Nate and Sully, with the other protagonists taking a back seat. There is an opportunity here to learn more about Nate’s backstory, but while we get to experience one of his earliest adventures and how he came to meet Sully, a lot of it is unfortunately only hinted at. Nate jet-sets here more than in previous games, taking him to the London underground, a decaying chateau in France, tombs in Syria and a ship graveyard in Yemen, before ending up in the amazingly realized desert. Each location is distinct and beautiful, and it’s clear Naughty Dog spent a lot of time researching, trying to make each setting as authentic and fully-realized as possible.

One of the things that separates the Uncharted series from other games is how it makes its characters feel like real people, not just action-hero cliches. Nate comes from the Indiana Jones/Han Solo hero mold, with a bit of Malcolm Reynolds thrown in. Credit goes to the actors as much as the script for making the characters more than one-liner-spouting stereotypes. Because the principal actors have been working together for three games now, there’s a chemistry among them that shows up in little touches and scripted and improvised asides that are hilarious and make these characters feel like real people you enjoy spending time with.

Gameplay is split up into a several pieces — platforming, combat and puzzle-solving, along with the OMG moments — and the game tries to make sure you’re not doing any one thing for too long. Dying a lot? Don’t worry, there are frequent checkpoints. Don’t know where to go next or can’t solve that puzzle? No sweat, the hint system will kick in and tell you what to do.

New to the party are a deeper melee combat mechanic and chase sequences, and for the most part the new additions work well. While the melee system doesn’t match the depth of a game like “Batman: Arkham City” it is still satisfying to use. Nate will throw enemies against walls to pummel them and grab nearby bottles and wrenches to smash against their faces. Landing an uppercut to a thug’s jaw and taking his weapon is seriously satisfying. As for the other new addition, at certain points in the game Nate will be chasing or be chased. The sequences are exciting and fun, but can sometimes be unclear on where to go, resulting in deaths that disrupt the fast-paced nature of them.

If there’s a weak link in the gameplay, it’s the shooting. Throughout the game, Nate will have to shoot his way through an area of enemies to reach his goal. The player is given the option of using stealth to do this, which is nearly impossible, and when Drake’s spotted, the enemy count triples and the big guys with shotguns are called in. The enemy AI is tough, and can be unfair at times. Enemies never seem to miss, forcing Nate to hide behind cover at all times, but enemies will flank him from multiple sides in a hurry and flush him out of cover with grenades. You will die. A lot. An aim-assist option, similar to what’s in some first-person shooters, would have gone a long way to easing the frustration without making things too easy. While it doesn’t come close to ruining the game, it’s easy to become impatient and frustrated having to spend 20-30 minutes trying to clear an area of enemies knowing there’s another slam-bang set piece around the corner.

Speaking of which, nobody does jump-out-of-your-chair, OMG-did-that-just-happen moments like Uncharted. There are several scattered throughout the course of Nate’s journey, and a single one of them would be a highlight of almost any other game. The only negative is that some of them don’t fit in with the overall narrative, and in one case it’s not clear how Nate’s ended up there or why all of a sudden he’s chasing after someone. It’s surprising considering how seamlessly these events were woven into “Uncharted 2.” Developers at Naughty Dog have said that they come up with these amazing moments before knowing how they’re going to fit in the story, and it seems like they couldn’t always figure out how to do it in “Uncharted 3.”

Production values don’t get better than this. Saying a video game has great camera work sounds silly, but it’s true here. One sequence shows Nate trying to traverse a massive dessert on foot, looking like a speck against the towering sand dunes that stretch off to infinity in every direction. The score is excellent, adding excitement to the action sequences, accenting the quieter, emotional moments between the characters and evoking the sweeping “Lawrence of Arabia” soundtrack.

On top of everything else, the game looks fantastic. Characters’ facial animations show real emotion. Nate walks, climbs, fights and runs smoothly and realistically, staggering when he’s tired and pushing off walls as he dashes down narrow city streets, and sand will stick in his hair and clothes. There is some occasional clipping, and nonplayable character models are often repeated, which can pull the player out of the experience.

The multiplayer component has the standard death matches, along with a capture the flag variant called Plunder that has teams trying to secure a treasure and bring it back to their base. Overall, it’s a fun distraction. Naughty Dog even incorporates some of the cinematic moments from the single-player game that give the maps a unique and exciting feel.

But the heart and soul of “Uncharted 3” lie within the main campaign. It’s a must-play not just fans of action games, but fans of action movies. The bar Naughty Dog set to achieve a cinematic experience has been cleared with a few feet to spare. The quality of the storytelling, its lovable characters, rip-roaring set pieces and top-tier production values make this an experience you can’t find anywhere else in video games. You’ll be smiling the whole way through.

Score: 9/10

- Note: This review has been edited from the original version published on  Lawrence.com

Food reporting

TACO ZONE OPENS STOREFRONT LOCATION DOWNTOWN

Just in time to appease the Taco Tuesday masses, Taco Zone has opened its new restaurant space at 13 E. Eighth St. in downtown Lawrence.

Taco Zone got its start by serving Southern California-style tacos on the patio of the Replay Lounge during warm-weather months for the last couple of years. It quickly became popular, so much so that owners decided to expand its reach into its own restaurant space earlier this year.

A bigger space also means a bigger menu for the taqueria. On top of the three-taco option that was available at Replay, the new location serves tortas, burritos and quesadillas ($7 each) with a choice of fillings ranging from chicken, steak, pork and shrimp to vegetarian options such as black beans and mushrooms. There's also a drink menu featuring a Cadillac margarita and various flavors of aguas frescas, as well as chips with pico de gallo or guacamole.

Taco Zone co-owner Brad Shanks says the torta — refried black beans, Oaxaca cheese, pico de gallo, avocado and a filling on a telera roll — was the most popular order on a busy first day.

Shanks says the restaurant plans to rotate fillings on a regular basis, but will always include the basic proteins in some form. He also said that dessert options — such as a Mexican ice cream cookie sandwich — are in the pipe for when summer heats up.

Those who still like live music with their tacos shouldn't worry, as the Taco Zone stand at the Replay Lounge patio will still be in operation on the weekends, Shanks says.

Taco Zone is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. during the week and until 2 a.m. on weekends to accommodate the late-night crowd, which should be sizable with Henry's, Sandbar and the Eighth Street Taproom nearby.

— Note: Original story published on Lawrence.com.

 

Food reporting

CELEBRATE NATIONAL HOT DOG DAY WITH SOME FANCY FRANKS

Today is National Hot Dog Day, and lovers of encased meats are rejoicing across the country. Here are four places in Lawrence with special kinds of frankfurters on their menus to help you celebrate this special day. 

Burger Stand

At a restaurant best known for its gourmet burgers and fries, it's easy to overlook the hot dog portion of the menu at Burger Stand at the Casbah, 803 Massachusetts St., or as they call them: "Hawt Doggz." A classic and Chicago dog are always on the menu that also features a new hot dog special each month. This month's is the New York Minute, with caramelized onions, homemade sauerkraut and mustard. For those of you who prefer your encased meat on a stick, Burger Stand also serves a (pretty sizable) corn dog.

BurgerFi

For folks who like their hot dogs grass-fed, BurgerFi, 918 Massachusetts St., is another place with "burger" in the name that also sneaks hot dogs onto their menu. The eco-minded chain serves three kinds of dogs — kobe beef, chicken apple, and Vienna beef — that can be ordered in three different styles: New York (basic), Texas (chili) and Chicago (pretty much everything but ketchup).


Leeway Franks

New to the hot dog party in Lawrence is Leeway Franks, which opened last week at 935 Iowa St. #7. The restaurant styles itself as a butcher-shop-meets-concession-stand and specializes in gourmet franks and sausages, with takes on a classic coney, chili dog and bratwurst on this week's menu. But we'd go with the Polish sausage ($7) that features smoked pork sausage, sauteed onions, barbecue sauce and pickles on a hoagie bun, paired with tater tots.

Fat Freddy's

Fat Freddy's, 1445 W. 23rd St., is not a restaurant known for its subtlety, with pretty much every item on the menu being over the top in some way or another. No exception is Freddy's Crazy Cat Dog ($5.99), which the menu describes as a "Quarter Pound Deep Fried Hot Dog, Fried Egg, American Bacon, Spicy Jalapenos and Cream Cheese. That's one crazy cat...dog." Hey, the place isn't called "Thin Freddy's."

— Note: This post originally appeared on Lawrence.com.

 

LA GUERRE WILL WRITE YOU A VALENTINE'S DAY LOVE SONG

Having trouble coming up with the words to tell a special someone how much you love them this Valentine's Day? Don't worry: La Guerre is here to play Cupid.

For $20, the Lawrence musician (real name Katlyn Conroy) will write a love song for your Valentine, whether you want to propose, tell a friend or special someone how much they mean to you, or try to woo the one who got away. Send an email to katlynconroymusic@gmail.com with your name and your story (the more details the better) by Feb. 7 and La Guerre will do the rest. She'll even do cover songs and in a particular style of your choosing (though no word on if she'll write a romantic gangster rap for your sweetie).

For an additional $10, La Guerre will send you a copy of the band's latest album "Sapphires" and a hand-drawn picture of you and your Valentine.

The songs will be delivered by Feb. 11. 

— Note: This story was originally published on Lawrence.com

 

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