Lawrence of Arabia eat your heart out, good old Nathan is back and his latest adventure once again has him teaming up with a few familiar faces to uncover the fabled Atlantis of the Sands, or Ubar as it's alternatively known. 'Supposedly [Ubar] was lost to the desert, but it held immeasurable wealth, the rumours being that the city was destroyed by God because of its arrogance,' explains Uncharted 3's game director Justin Richmond, talking about the story behind Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. 'So Drake is very interested, obviously, by the immeasurable wealth and the archeological mystery of this place T.E. Lawrence always said that if he ever went back to the Middle East, he'd go looking for this lost city.'
Naughty Dog have made the familial connection with Drake's famous ancestor too, though, imagining the reasons behind Sir Francis' delay in returning from the Americas, with the story suggesting that he took so long to get home because he was searching for Ubar. 'It took Sir Francis Drake six months to cross the Indian Ocean and, for a sailor of his stature, it should have taken more like thirty days,' says Richmond. 'So we said what if he actually went to the Arabian Peninsular and went looking for this place.'
Of course, that's not the only thing that the developers have been focusing on with this one, with community strategist Arne Meyer pointing out that this third tale also focuses more heavily on the relation, or 'bromance', between Drake and Sully, his grizzled mentor. 'Sully's been a big fan favourite, so we knew we wanted to focus more on his relationship with Drake for this game,' says Meyer. 'Sully's been Drake's father figure, mentor and partner for a long time, and we took a lot of inspiration from buddy-movies for this one, to try and get the relationship or "bromance" right. Victor Sullivan's kind of been both saviour and corrupter to Drake, with the two of them operating on the fringes of legality, and in many ways he represents what Drake could become if he makes the same choices.'
A fresh focus on physical properties as well as character has led the development team to overhaul the way water is represented in the game, with a new dynamic system reacting to events as and when they happen. This also proves new for the desert sand - a challenge that Naughty Dog set for themselves with this third instalment.We saw partially destructible environments and brushable ferns in the past, but the new tweaks to the physics engine provide set pieces that might seem scripted, but play out slightly differently each time.
'We actually sent a bunch of the guys from the studio down to the Imperial Dunes in southern California and had them take tons of reference pictures movies and videos,' continues Richmond. 'Actually this one [points to an image of one of the dev team falling down a dune] is in the game. It was really important to nail the sand, the way it moves, shifts and blows about, getting Drake all dusty.'
We got a chance to play through the Chateau and Cargo Plane levels that have been flown about across oceans to be delivered in flurries of far-reaching developer demos this year and cropped up in the recent beta, and it's business as usual for Drake and co. As you'd expect, the presentation is never less than impressive; the improvements in motion-capture and animation really selling the settings, characters and action that builds upon the successes of the previous games.
This was most evident in the Chateau level - a madcap race, dodging falling beams and flying bullets, to the top of the building to escape before the whole thing collapses in a bunch of burning timbers - but what was clear from Drake and Sully's scramble for their lives is that Naughty Dog have learned a whole lot about making cinematic games since Uncharted first burst onto the scene. The swathes of embers, heat blur abundant throughout proceedings, with each and every step taken with care because you're never quite sure when the ground might give way. The tension is added to by the occasional packs of mercenaries, fleeing from the flames themselves and spitting metal death in your general direction, topped off by the realistic way that Drake and the ageing Sully lurch from one calamity to the next.
I was never a huge fan of the relentless combat in the original game, but the the second game balanced proceedings far better and there's none of the killing fatigue here either, the pace of the action spurred onwards by the destruction around you and smoothly streamlined navigation. There was the occasional glitch to break the spell, usually as a result of Sully becoming stuck behind a bit of debris, but otherwise it was a frenetic introduction to the singleplayer gameplay.
The Chateau did show off one of the series' biggest strengths: that it can make a continuous stream of pitfalls seem engrossing, tense and often endearing rather than annoying. A classic case of 'I've got a bad feeling about this' unfolds inside the flaming house: An explosion rocks the building and sends rubble crashing down to block an escape route, so another must be found. But then Drake's foot slips as they flee from the burning wreckage, hitting a bad board on the staircase and falling through. But there are mercs everywhere so Drake has to fend them off so Sully can pull him out. But then the entire staircase comes away, and they're falling...they're falling!...but suddenly there's a handhold. More mercs. More explosions. Drake's fallen through the floor!....No!....Wait....Sully has him! Everything's going to be ok. Argh! Grenade!
You get the idea.
It's not really until the Cargo Plane that we see some of the new physics come into play. A lovely little exchange with Elena - Naughty Dog might not have created the most original characters ever, but they are endearing, funny and well-constructed; you root for these characters, you're invested in them, the presentation and performance better than ever - and Drake's off, chasing a plane down a runway before leaping onboard at the last second via the landing gear.
Once onboard, and having been smacked around a bit by an obese henchman, Drake untethers the cargo and uses it to smack said henchman into the big blue yonder. Only problem is that now, there are loads of boxes and heavy crates shifting from side to side as more foes pour into the hold to take you out. This is where the fun with physics comes in, using the dynamic movements of the crates as they shift and slide according to the plane's motions and the firefight going on, to manipulate the objects around you to literally crush your enemies. I may have cackled a bit...until the side of the plane blew right open and Drake himself was flung into the sky, with absolutely no parachute to speak of.
Everything seems very familiar, but also heightened to a certain extent. By this I mean that the game feels a lot more solid than its predecessors, particularly when it comes to combat. The aiming is far less floaty, the recoil more finely weighted. But by far the greatest improvements have been made to the melee system. It seems a bit of inspiration has been taken from Batman: Arkham Asylum, with rhythmic execution now allowing Drake to fend off more than one enemy at a time, and incorporate his environment more successfully (and brutally) into attacks. Everything just seems to be a touch more satisfying.
The jury is still out for me on the multiplayer elements, even though they've seen a large overhaul since Among Thieves, but you can read Brendan's multiplayer impressions here. I'm here for the story, for the action and the adventure, the characters, the new intelligent, manipulative villains, the drama and the experience. And on this short evidence, it would seem that once again Naughty Dog have nailed it, but we'll have to wait until the code arrives early next week to give you a definitive appraisal. I'll be camped out next to the mailbox, Scott Pilgrim-style, until that happens.