Make no mistake, the rules of the trilogy apply wholly to Naughty Dog’s pitch-perfect pastiche of Saturday matinee and pulp fiction. The first introduced the quick-witted characters, set the tone, and affirmed the pending potential; the sequel expanded, evolved and didn’t so much up the ante as it did propel it several thousand feet above sea level and leave it dangling off a cliff; and then there’s the third, fraught with sentiment, revelling in the characters’ history and, almost inevitably, tinged with slight disappointment.
With that in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Uncharted 3’s opening is a more understated affair. The stunning opening of the first sequel tickled at intrigue, firmly established its staggering scale and quickly declared the canyon-sized leap in quality between it and its predecessor. Nathan Drake’s latest begins with a drunken bar ruckus, driven to introduce newfangled features rather than producing a punchy visual or a breathtaking spectacle. That’s not to say that the opening is any less thrilling. A frenzied introduction in a London pub showcases Drake’s continued penchant for pugilism, in which several iterative improvements come to the foreground. Slick combos, intuitive counter-attacks and brutal QTEs are welcome, if (all-too-slight) tweaks to the combat introduced among the deft balance of gameplay and narrative.
Naughty Dog’s continued expertise in storytelling remains unparalleled, majestically twisting a wholly derivative conceit into an engrossing and compelling franchise. The excavation of 16th century history and T.E. Lawrence is the starting point though, while the admirable touchstones to historical events transcend the game’s confines, the development of the core characters remains its true success.
Nathan Drake, Victor Sullivan and Elena Fisher are the beating pulse beneath the intricate gloss. Uncharted 3 explores the depths of their individual relationships, a complex and subtle exploration of three games worth of character establishment, escalating to an emotionally taut climax that is certain to satisfy, even if it is a somewhat safe conclusion. Nolan North has rapidly become the yapping mouthpiece and chiselled mug behind the brand, but there’s rarely been a more convincing acting ensemble in gaming, bristling with dynamic chemistry.
Much like the characters, the environments continue to evolve, maintaining a huge sense of wonderment and encompassing several arresting vistas from across the world. Blighty residents may raise an eyebrow at the fact that London snatches such significant screen time, with clandestine catacombs beneath the London Underground a prominent story device that somehow feels less convincing than prior events (yes, even the Yetis). Nevertheless, the lengthened continent hopping has awarded Naughty Dog a fertile playground in which to wrap set-pieces, puzzles and action, featuring some of the most astonishing cinematic sequences ever committed to disc. Each location has its own unique tone through which the set-pieces take place. From a hot pursuit through a French chateau to a gripping scuffle hanging out the back of an aeroplane, Uncharted 3 continually constructs sequences of breathless magnitude, not so much blurring the line between cut-scene and gameplay as eviscerating it. Perhaps more astonishingly, however, is that the quieter moments in Drake’s Deception resonate the most.
Across the Rub’ al Khali, Drake finds himself isolated, stranded within the sparse landscape, the endless desert a suffocating, sombre note in the brash campaign, the sand whipping across Drake’s face, the dunes crumbling under his feet. Desperation permeates the chapter, the direction masterful as the camera manipulates emotion, pulling back to reveal the true hopelessness of our hero’s plight. It’s a brave, haunting moment, and one that affirms Uncharted’s astonishing attention to detail.
The bigger set-pieces are no less confident. Tumbling cruise liners, collapsing mansions and horseback chases across the desert assure the pacing never slips, yet you’ll find yourself spending more time behind cover than in previous instalments. Gunplay has remained relatively unaffected, quickly becoming heavily relied upon and a misguided focal point. It’s not helped by the formulaic approach to missions – find location, solve puzzle, and enter gunfight – which rarely breaks tradition to introduce new ideas. Equally the melee combat, so effectively introduced within the opening minutes, peels away to unveil one of the few quibbles. While engaging enemies with a greater range of animations and counter-attacks, combos and environmentally contextual manoeuvres (slapping enemies with a fish – always a winner), it’s not quite cohesive. Any time you engage a cockney rival, the fear of being flanked by the dynamic, unpredictable AI and receiving a brusque life-ending shotgun shell to the back is constant. The unfeasible juggling of opponents generates frustrating close-combat encounters, ultimately falling just short of Arkham Asylum’s incredible free-flowing system.
Multiplayer doesn’t face the same hardships, mostly exorcising the need for melee to focus on tight, intense avenues of competitive shooting. Loadouts and customisation make for a simple UI, however; the rich progression and the delicate mix of perks and modes makes it more than just a supplementary pleasure stapled onto the main campaign. Engrossing and rewarding in equal measure, it sidesteps the often-cheap learning curve in deathmatch-based online dalliances. Utilising the single-player as an extensive crash-course, the heady tournament of Drake-on-Drake is lusciously accessible, and an easy diversion that facilitates any FPS grunts seeking a new kick.
It’s a comprehensive and extensively polished offering – one that feels intrinsically part of the Uncharted DNA. Small quibbles about combat aside, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception stands at the top of its genre. The puzzles are refreshingly taut, the design and scope bewildering and its conclusion a triumphant crescendo of storytelling. It’s completely iterative, derivative and formulaic, holding few surprises during its eight-hour campaign, yet Naughty Dog twists these familiar tropes into an invigorating rush of agile gameplay and seamless cinematic spectacle, proving once again that Nathan Drake is without equal.