All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E. Lawrence (1922)
Uncharted 3 changes everything. Your perception of Drake; preordained ideas of what a game should do in terms of story telling and – ultimately – it blurs the line between interactive experience and something you’d normally sit through in a cinema. There’s no hyperbole when I say that Naughty Dog’s latest action adventure blows everything else out of the water in terms of exposition, drama and pacing, and that’s not even mentioning the sublime visuals, world class voice acting and expansive multiplayer. If you’re interested in knowing why, stick around – but everyone else can just glance down at the score and pre-order: this is wonderful stuff.
There are no spoilers here, but you’ll need to allow us the grace of mentioning the very first chapter to give this some context. Things kick off with a bang (or two) with Drake and Sully finding themselves in a dingy London bar, complete with some brilliantly hammy East-end types and a back room meeting that goes – surprisingly unpredictably – the wrong way. The game uses this meeting (and the subsequent brawl) to drip feed the controls – at least the movement and melee ones: gunfire comes later – in a slick, progressive manner, and the fisticuffs are as weighty as you’d hope, given the protagonists throwing the punches.
The bar also allows the developers to introduce the game’s central focus, Sir Francis Drake’s ring that acts as a cipher for another object, and several key characters before ending with a shock cliffhanger. The vocal work is outstanding throughout, the controls effortlessly manageable and the visuals, which flick from internal bar scenes to a dark moonlit night, are probably the best we’ve seen on the console. Textures are crisp, the animation (especially of player character Nathan Drake) improved even from Uncharted 2 and the frame rate, camera and physicality of everything is absolutely top notch.[drop2]It is, as you’d expect, a pleasure to play through. Uncharted games always are, of course, but this one seems to have something about it – a spring in its step, a knowing confidence to just push the boundaries a little. The initial intro sequence lasts but five minutes, but it sets up the player perfectly, re-introducing the lead, his ally (in the shape of Sully) and a few others without ever being overwhelming or confusing. Naturally, the game doesn’t eschew its rather linear approach – not yet anyway – so the path is preset and regulated, but thankfully that’s not really an issue; it’s ultimately how Naughty Dog control the speed and direction of the action.
And then what happens next, at the start of Chapter Two, will prompt the single biggest, knowing smile you’ll make this generation.
But that’s for you to discover. Much like the efforts of Drake himself, Uncharted 3 will force to you stop and take stock (and check that – often hysterically funny – notebook) at regular intervals just as much as it will challenge you to climb vertiginous walls or take part in deadly shoot-outs. The balance is better here than it was in the earlier games, the developer less likely to throw endless streams of enemies your way for long periods of time or present massive sections of platforming; instead, there’s a more delicate blend of the puzzle along with the action, and no section (or location) ever feels forced or drawn out. Indeed, some are practically skipped over – more’s the pity – at times the game whisking you off to another country (with a comical swipe of the screen) before you’ve had time to drink in the atmosphere.
Frequently, though, you’re given chance to pause, explore and solve a puzzle, but occasionally you’re locked into an action sequence (such as escaping from besuited guards) that might take a few retries to nail down – it’s an odd distraction from the flow, but for most of the game the structure is such that you’re led headlong from one area to the next with just enough time to take everything in. Some areas feel familiar to Uncharted fans even when they’re unique to the game (if you think you’ve seen everything the Chateau section has to offer you’re mistaken, for example) but the majority is new ground, and there’s not a hint of padding apart from the occasional backtrack.
The campaign, as you’ll know from our earlier previews, quickly draws in T. E. Lawrence, wrapping it around the reliable tale of Francis Drake rather cleverly (and at a fair old speed) before the story really starts to take hold – essentially you find yourself searching out Iram of the Pillars, the ‘Atlantis of the sands’. At the end Nate’s as well travelled as ever, and frequently clocking up air miles in the company of some old (and new) friends. Naughty Dog haven’t cut any corners with the fan service, that’s for sure, and without really spoiling any of the game’s numerous secrets let’s just say that age-old secret societies are involved along with a particularly regal head, there’s some double (double) crossing and – yes – some wickedly quick roof top chases. Oh, and that recurring gag involving pools? It’s here.
There’s some brave design work in action here too – it won’t be a surprise for you to learn that there’s a chunk of the game set in the desert, but the way this is handled (at first, at least) will likely divide gamers into those that think it’s really clever and those that don’t. I’m in the former group, it’s a really smart move, albeit one without the payoff I was expecting. Other sections work flawlessly though – a woozy sequence through crowded streets, a surprisingly tender moment between two desperate people and a massive multi-level set piece that showcases some astonishing water effects.
Oh, and you’d don’t know everything you think you do about Drake. We’ll just leave that one hanging there, but the clue’s in the title…
This is page one of a two-page review. Click here for page two.