Developer: Naughty Dog
The sun beats down. You’re wandering, lost in desert. No water. No landmarks to aim for. Just endless sand dunes flowing ever further into the distance. The AK47 weighs heavy on your shoulders, mouth so dry you could light a match on your tongue and, to top it off, as you sink to your knees in abject despair, you’ve just rediscovered the long-emptied sinkhole which you passed hours earlier – you’ve been walking in circles this whole time.
Most of us might be tempted to curl up and die, not so Nathan Drake, long-standing hero of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series and expert of saving himself at the last. In fact the above scene is easily one of the game’s most poignant, the usually confident and fearless Drake reduced to a vulnerable, lonesome figure, just as afraid of death as any one else would be. It’s perhaps this kind of slowed down storytelling that distinguishes Uncharted from so many pretenders to its throne, Naughty Dog not afraid to make the player wait for that fix of unrelenting action and so making such escapades all the more thrilling when they do arrive.
For those not familiar with Uncharted and Nathan Drake (that’s right, all three of you), the franchise represents Sony’s marquee franchise; an action-adventure tour de force drawing inspiration from Indiana Jones, James Bond and the like. Drake just so happens to be the long lost descendent of Sir Francis Drake and its through living up to his name that the modern day Drake decided to become a treasure hunter in the first place. A nice, if unlikely, occupation.
Scene suitably set then, expect references to a who’s who of the more mysterious personalities throughout the centuries, from occultist John Dee, to Lawrence of Arabia and even Francis Drake himself. With such a rich tapestry to pick from its small wonder that Uncharted 3′s central quest intrigues; what might not be so obvious from face value is how well developed its characters are, how well versed its dialogue and perfectly delivered its lines. Surely a huge nod of approval has to go to Naughty Dog’s script team, and cast, for delivering not only a memorable adventure, but also one which grabs and retains a natural, conversational flow.
Uncharted’s patented formula of puzzle-solving mixed in with daredevil platforming and sections of third-person shooting (with a helping of close-quarters fighting) all return, but its the settings you perform these actions in that keeps the experience fresh. Take an intense fire-fight onboard an airborne jet for example, where the dangerous cocktail of stray bullets and pressure differential cause the whole plane to begin to disintegrate around you – nothing short of staggering.
That’s not to say that there aren’t short comings here and there; indeed the combat sections, despite providing entertainment of the highest order, could do with a refresh the next time a Nathan Drake adventure rolls around. The fisticuffs feel particularly artificial as visual cues (i.e. “press triangle”) ruin our integration into the moment somewhat. There’s also the strange knowledge that you, as Drake, have killed some 500 or so hapless souls by the game’s end; surely a few too many for him to qualify as a guilty-conscience free action hero. In fact, I’d like to see an Uncharted game with less frequent shoot-outs if ever they want to place even more emphasis on pure exploration.
Puzzles are of the standard formula for the series, usually involving the application of a little brain (and much brawn on Drake’s behalf as he climbs monkey-like to that next switch), though it has to be said that they rarely challenge the grey matter like say a Silent Hill 2 or Portal 2 might. They are at least delivered with gravitas and in quite spectacular locations that only really exist in the best adventures.
Uncharted 3′s most praiseworthy work is done, undoubtedly, in its chase scenes, where peril meets a precarious escape route which must be dealt with at breakneck pace. Whether escaping hired goons or some more primal element– fire, water, land or Drake’s own personal nightmare – these scenes provide thrilling entertainment. Triggered in ever more staggering (and usually collapsing) locations, such scenes are meticulously crafted, created so that you always know where to go – its just getting there in time that’s the problem. Fear not however, put a step wrong (and this counts for combat sections too) and you’re returned to the fray so rapidly that any frustration barely registers – huge applause to Naughty Dog for those reload times.
We’ll return to the multiplayer side of things once the servers are up and running because what we’ve seen so far has been limited to say the least. There are two modes to experience online, the first featuring three-player cooperative play through one-off stages, the second going the more traditional deathmatch route. Maps here tend toward the frantic too – for example, one of the only arenas we’ve as yet experienced involving leaping between speeding trains on the London Underground – but we’ll save further judgement until the game is in the hands of he general populous. Online or no, the single player is worth the investment alone hence our comfort in reviewing at this stage.
Uncharted 3 places a marker so high, and so bright, that it’s hard to see passed Naughty Dog for where its usurper might come from. Batman: Arkham City comes close but lacks Uncharted 3′s eye for the dramatic; Portal 2 is a more erudite experience, but without Uncharted 3′s scope and variation; while the likes of Gears 3, MW3, and BF3 have (perhaps) the more robust multiplayer, but are left for dust in the single player stakes. What we have here is a developer at the top of its game – what Naughty Dog might come up with when Nathan Drake meets PS4 is truly mind boggling.