Review / Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception’s single player (PS3)

What, no multiplayer? Relax; we’d like to get a bit more time in with Uncharted 3’s online offerings. Until then, enjoy the review of the real feast – the campaign.

The PAK-80 – a prized member of any gamer’s arsenal. This vicious light machine gun’s ability to turn an enemy into Swiss cheese thanks to its devastating power has helped it earn a place in many of today’s modern shooters.

But its large magazine size and canon-like aggression come at a price; reload times. Whispering “comeoncomeoncomeon” under desperate breath is a common occurrence in any Call of Duty as the sluggish animation to re-arm the player unfolds. Indeed, this one set back can cause as much harm to its owner as it does good.

Not so for Nathan Drake. Swiping the PAK from the clutches of a once-deadly foe, the superstar digs in behind yet another crate as more enemies approach. The grit of the teeth comes at the press of the reload button, waiting for the long animation to bring about an untimely demise. Imagine the surprise to see Drake throw away the empty magazine and replace it with a fresh one in seconds flat. The attacking force is dealt with in similar timing.

Such is the tone of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception – a break-neck speed adventure that refuses to sacrifice its pace in the name of realism. In succeeding Uncharted 2, one of this generation’s highest rated titles, Naughty Dog has pulled out all the stops. No gun is too sluggish, no edge is too stable. The blockbuster approach results in one of the finest experiences of the year and the generation.

To call this third outing a third-person shooter would be selling it short. While there are plenty of chances to get cosy with the cover-based action, Uncharted 3’s cinematic set piece moments, scrappy fist fights, deceptively challenging puzzles and risky platforming sections make it a jack of all trades. The balance of these sections this time around feels more spread out.

Story is classic Uncharted, with Drake pursuing one of Sir Francis Drake’s lost exploits. It’s got enough twists and turns to keep players interested but where it really shines is in utilizing the characters we’ve grown to love over series history. The very nature of Nate’s quest is called into question, asking if the ends really justifies the means. The means being a fountain of bullets and enough explosions to put a Michael Bay flick to shame.

The humanity of it all is questionable but from a gameplay perspective it’s certainly worth the price. Naughty Dog has seemingly created its own genre in the ‘cinematic shooter’. Uncharted has transformed from the ‘Gears of War in a jungle’ criticisms of the first game and into an experience that’s truly set apart from its rivals, constantly employing dynamic camera angles, different animations and exiting settings to provide an experience you simply can’t find anywhere else.

Take the game’s first real stunning set piece, which find’s Drake on a sinking tanker. As all hell breaks loose as bullets are swapped with grenades, the water level rises from the far side of the room, reducing the space for gunplay and claiming the various objects in the room for itself. During shootouts likes this, traditional gameplay is given a twist never quite experienced before. It makes Uncharted a must-play for those tired of the standard shooter template, which the game makes its aim to smash time and time again.

Of course, Drake survives this encounter with little more than a couple of scrapes and a few quid in the swear box. An impossible feat for sure, but it’s all part of the cinematic thrill of the game. Following action sequences are in the same tone; with a nail-biting plane sequence coming out as a highlight. These moments are larger in number and in scope than Uncharted 2, often dwarfing that game’s memorable train level. What makes them so exciting is the level of control given during these moments. Rarely does Naughty Dog sacrifice more than five seconds of gameplay to watch Drake being knocked back by an explosion or tumble off of a cliff side. It’s a refined, refreshing approach to the scripted sequences that have arguably worn out their welcome in other titles.

Its inspirations are more transparent than in past titles. A fist fight in a Yemen market is an obvious love letter to Raiders of the Lost Ark’s classic brawl, while a later bout of horse riding evokes he same feeling from The Last Crusade. Throw in London pub punch-ups and gangster-style heists and you have a game that’s really capturing the spirit of cinema and translating it to a controller.

What makes Uncharted great is that spirit, never failing to joke in the face of danger, or missing an opportunity to marvel as its own technical prowess. Its gaming that, if not evoking tension, is at the very least placing a ridiculous grin on your face.

Where the game stumbles is its flow, which is interrupted by surprisingly challenging difficulty spikes. All of the emotions that Naughty Dog has fought so hard to bring out in the player can be lost in the simple act of death, so it’s a tad confusing to see set piece moments with near-automatic platforming saving players from mistimed jumps mixed with gunplay that can border on unfair at times. The end of the game calls the developer’s design techniques into question as its ‘throw everything at you’ approach leads to trial and error gameplay. It’s not the good kind of hard, to put it simply.

Uncharted, much like Nathan Drake’s own quest, is the pursuit of perfection. While it’s hard to find faults in its gameplay, the presentation is virtually seamless. The commitment to set variety brings about a stunning visual treat. Sandy deserts and wonderfully wet docks are two of the highlights, but the game never backs down on the quest for the best graphics on PS3, and no two areas look the same nor worse-off than other locations. Textures are lavishly detailed and character models move with the smoothest of animations. Any nit-picking about certain bits and pieces would be just that – nit-picking. Uncharted 3 sets the bar for visual presentation on consoles.

Plenty of praise for Uncharted 3 lies above this sentence. But you know what? If you stripped it of those devious puzzles and its gripping story and, yes, even the full-blown set piece moments, you’d still find the spirit of the game rooted in its most basic features. That last second roll to cover to dodge a fatal bullet, emptying a magazine on an enemy as you charge towards him and throw a haymaker, landing a perfect headshot with your last bullet, these are the experiences that the game really thrives on, and what makes Drake’s Deception one of the best games on the market.

It’s an expansion of everything that made Among Thieves a true great. How the dogs expand further? Well, that may be Drake’s greatest challenge yet.