Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
In many ways, the Uncharted series emulates the work of Dan Brown (not to mention much of Spielberg): ripping yarns that push and propel you from action sequence to puzzling conundrums, with broadly drawn characters that we can recognise and invest in, fundamentally concerned with plot and narrative, and leaving others in their respective mediums to challenge their respective audiences. I don't mean that in a bad sense, after all there's nothing wrong in any way shape of form with having a linear and scripted experience, it all depends on how strong the script is.
Thankfully, in Amy Hennig, Naughty Dog have something of a narrative goldmine. Not only did we find ourselves interested in the mythology, the intrigue and the enjoyment of trying to work out who was betraying whom at any one point in Among Thieves, but through a glorious synthesis of well written characters, astutely observed dialogue and some of the best voice acting to be found in the industry, the adventures Drake, Sully, Elena and Chloe became stories we wanted to continue. We wanted to hear more, to spend time with personalities who, as with any successful character-driven tales, have become more like friends.
I got to the end of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and found myself craving more. Nothing hugely different, just more. I'm pretty certain that I wasn't alone, either; and if that's the case, and you're looking for an Uncharted sequel that takes those characters of whom you're so fond, tosses them into a narrative crucible filled with the highest production values (Greg Edmonson's score is, once again, outstanding!) and delivers a cinematic tribute above and beyond what has previously been on offer, you're in luck.
Drake's adventuring this time around sees him, and Sully of course, hunting for he fabled Atlantis of the Sands, or Ubar, or Iram of the Pillars...take your pick. This once-wealthy trading city of gold was supposedly swallowed up by the desert as God's punishment for its citizens' avarice and greed. Not that finding it in amongst several thousand square miles of sand in the Arabian Peninsular will be an easy task, and the Drake and co. get bounced around from the backstreets of London to France and Syria, following in the footsteps of T.E. Lawrence and finding out just what took Drake's Elizabethan forefather - Sir Francis - so long in getting back from India.
More so than before, this game provides a chance for Naughty Dog to take stock of their characters, exploring the various relationships between Drake and those around him. Sully, in particular, is scrutinised in great detail in this third title, with the 'bromance' - that complicated relationship with Drake that sees Victor fulfilling the roles of mentor, friend, corruptor and saviour all rolled into one - providing one angle and the excellent Katherine Marlowe, hands-down the series' best villain to date, providing another. This isn't just a story about gun runners and avaricious warlords. Marlowe is a far more understated nemesis, her place in Drake and Sully's past providing an antagonist whose influence is psychological and personal.
I find myself wanting to use literary comparisons more than cinematic ones because although the aesthetics and the framing, the acting and the direction all point towards the silver screen, Uncharted 3 proves that video games can go far beyond the capacity of film for delivering a story. Like any good book, Uncharted 3 takes a little time to get through and, like any good book, you'll probably do it in a weekend, forced to indulge and engage with the same eager voracity that fuels the fingers in a thrilling pageturner. But it's never less than immersive, the tangible nature of guiding Drake through this adventure yourself, taking his life into your hands to get him out of the usual scrapes and scraps, proving to be utterly crucial. At the end, you'll probably let out a massive exhalation of breath.
That said, although there have been a few tweaks to the formula, the core gameplay returns relatively unchanged. Melee combat has received the most improvement with punches now feeling satisfyingly weighty rather than as limp as an Austin Powers judo chop, and you can now interact with the beautiful environment around you in increasingly brutal ways, which is nice. There are more animations and outcomes too, with a particular new favourite seeing Drake kick a rifle out an assailant's hands before using the butt-end to send him to sleep. Fights are longer and just more enjoyable, with several nods to the Bourne films and Casino Royale thrown in there. Drake's not quite Batman, but he's better than Ezio with his bare fists.
The shooting, as in the previous games, is competent but it would have been nice to have that same weightiness transferred to the feedback from your firearms. A continuing problem with the Uncharted series has been the slightly floaty shooting mechanics and that we're three games in and this hasn't been addressed (although it is a tiny bit better than Drake's Fortune) is a source of frustration. The AI, however, is still pretty impressive, with enemies often swarming your position, ducking for cover, attempting to flank you and so on and so forth. The arenas are a little more freeform this time, giving you an initial drop on your enemies before challenging you to take out the remainder in whatever way you see fit. On the higher difficulty settings, firefights are genuinely skin-of-your-teeth moments that offer such fast and frenetic action that you have no real time to complain that the mechanics feel a little outdated because you're just trying to get Drake out alive.
Once you've busted through the main story, and then done it again on 'Crushing' (hardcore fans will be pleased), you begin to realise that Naughty Dog has gone all out to try and deliver the full package. You can check off the co-op box, it's here in both splitscreen and online options, allowing you and a chum to bust through a handful of chapters with light narrative, mowing down goons and having a jolly good time of it. There are five levels to the Adventure mode, incorporating a few maps from the main story and a few cinematics thrown in for good measure. There's also a Horde-type arena mode that presents waves of enemies intermingled with a few basic objectives at times, like taking an item of treasure from point A to point B.
Leap into the competitive modes and the Gears of War comparisons continue. Good TPS multiplayer titles are in short supply and Naughty Dog have none everything to try and build upon the promising multiplayer seen in Uncharted 2. There's more weapons, more locations and more perks and features this time around. You won't find the vast array of modes that you might in, say, a Halo title, but what is here is diverse and well-built enough to entertain for a while. Team Deathmatches are the central staple, but Plunder makes a joyous return as Uncharted's capture-the-flag mode, there's a free-for-all mode thrown in there and the introduction of a Team Objective mode, in which the game cycles through various modes and tasks like Marked Man and King of the Hill to keep things fresh.
Naughty Dog have pretty much thrown everything but the kitchen sink at this. There's now a Buddy system that sees you paired up with another guy on your team to spawn on and watch out for, with special perks available for Buddy useage and special awards to be gained from helping one another out. Boosters, returning from Among Thieves, now have a second tier with weapon abilities available across the board to suit your play style. Kickbacks have been introduced to level the playing field and make sure that games are as tight as can be, although the losing teams still have to make use of their temporary bonuses. Customisation is rife and you can create and adapt your player character, not to mention make a little online decal tag. There's also a whole host of new ways to mock someone else's early demise.
What this all adds up to is a truly comprehensive package. Naughty Dog have delivered the best Uncharted game to date. The high production values more than match anything Hollywood has to offer, the story and the characters once again full of witty dialogue, mystical hokum and some fantastic human touches that elevate this third game above the previous too. Drake is more human than ever, successfully treading that fine line between believable hero and identifiable everyman than ever before. Yes, there are still areas for improvement; yes, it is a very linear and scripted experience. But when the script is this good, you just won't care. Pure blockbuster entertainment at its finest.
- Cracking yarn
- Cracking villains
- Cracking multiplayer
- Shooting could use an update
- Newcomers should really start from the top
- Where do we go from here?
The Short Version: One of the finest game available on the PS3, Uncharted 3 is the best in the series to date, refining and perfecting the narrative-driven action-adventure template upon which Naughty Dog have been working for years. An exhilarating romp from start to finish, with buckets of extra content thrown in, Drake Deception delivers the goods that fans have been eagerly awaiting. Only question is, where do the developers go from here?