Let it be publicly known that Nathan Drake is a card-carrying member of the rather exclusive club of video game characters I have a whopping big man crush for. Is it the dashing good looks, those irresistible rapscallion ways, or that seemingly inexhaustible string of pithy comments? I can't tell. Either way, or perhaps because of my worrying infatuation, Drake has become one of modern gaming's bona fide stars.
Uncharted 3 knows this (well, maybe not the specifics of my feelings) and it's decided to weave a more personal tale for our half-tucked friend. Now we're gently airing the lovable rogue's dirty laundry, matching the game's industry-leading animations and script delivery with a plot that looks to Drake's recent past alongside its usual forte of ancient history.
But the real star, perhaps, is the stylised world that effortlessly cracks, crumbles, and explodes underneath Drake's feet, and it's here Naughty Dog has created a string of larger-than-life environments that are works of art married with extraordinary technical proficiency.
Take a moment about two thirds of the way through the game, as Drake bounds through a canyon underneath the glare of a piercing sun, spinning truck wheels kicking up sandy plumes as they grind through previously undisturbed terrain, the scene framed with a glorious panorama of jagged cliffs and the soft sheets of shadow hanging over. The aesthetic variety is also staggering: 90 minutes earlier, Drake is pushing his way through a rusty ship graveyard, rocking slowly from side to side in the middle of an emerald ocean, as foaming jets of water penetrate open cracks and shear open the hulls of abandoned metal.
Naughty Dog also deserves credit by aiming for a different vibe than that of the simply phenomenal Uncharted 2. The last adventure opened with Drake regaining consciousness in a train carriage dangling precariously over a cliff; Uncharted 3 starts with him going to an English pub. The resulting punch-up finds our hero comfortably nestled within the series' signature mix of scripted sequences, gorgeous cinematography and pithy one-liners, but the overall tone is less bombastic and more muted than the second game.
Even when Drake is having his head cracked into a grimy toilet seat in a British boozer, it's rare to see a game that offers such a glorious escape from the dreary confines of humdrum reality, where players are thrust into a gorgeous, free-flowing world of rugged adventure and sparkling vivacity. The basic approach to Uncharted 3's design has been to cajole players through its rolling landscapes and ornate sunken tombs with an ever greater aplomb than before, shunting Drake from area to area with an insistence that not even a single footstep is spent lingering.
The overall simplicity to the plot is part of its well-deserved charm, once again taking Drake on a lengthy journey from one part of the world to another and filling it with a non-stop string of confrontations on the way. The fabled destination this time around is Ubar, a mythical city of riches lost somewhere in the 250,000 barren square miles that make up the Rub' al Khali desert. Also chasing the same promise of unimaginable wealth is the coolly calculating Katherine Marlowe, head of a 400-year-old secret society.
Lacking the physical menace of Lazarevic, Marlowe assaults with mind games and twenty years worth of unpleasant history. Her path criss-crosses with Drake and the cigar-chomping Victor Sullivan, now taking a more active role in the adventure, and before long the duo find themselves broken, bruised and burnt, chased throughout most of Europe and reunited with both Chloe and Elena.
For the player, this feels like a reunion with old friends. But where Uncharted 2 flexed its ensemble cast, the third trims it back: appearances from Chloe and Elena now feel like passive cameos, the characters denied the driving roles they had in the last game, and Sully is rarely allowed to cast off his role as the wise-cracking sidekick. This is very much Drake's story, and for better or worse our hero is solo as he takes his moment in the sun.
Naughty Dog has already realised, with extraordinary competence, its vision to bring the adventure serials of the 1930's to life in blockbuster video game form, blending together both high and low tempo sequences and complementing this with a blend of its shooting, platforming, and gentle environment puzzles. No other game can even compare when it comes to Uncharted's natural ability to pepper traversal and combat with engaging dialogue and naturalistic animations, turning even the most routine ledge shimmy into a dramatic act.
As the plot develops over the course of 22 chapters, the players finds themselves in familiar territory; this is unmistakably a rollicking adventure of epic proportions. Players are funnelled forwards with unobtrusive tricks of the camera, a simple outstretched arm, or the occasional clue from Drake's journal, and the subtle marriage of puzzles, combat, and narrative only serves to enhance the tangible sense of adventure.
It's a slim experience. Taking its now-established cues, as ever, from an increasingly directed mix of Tomb Raider's environments and the cover-based mechanics of Gears of War, players are prodded down narrow corridors disguised as wide-open environments. It's testament to Naughty Dog's craft that the player is so enveloped in the journey that the wool is successfully, and willingly, pulled over their eyes; its rollercoaster ride is too rousing to evoke anything other than complete submission. But much like the last title, Uncharted 3 becomes more reliant on its punning script and thrilling direction as it inches closer to Ubar, and the act of shooting over 700 enemies starts to take its toll.
Accompanying the loose cover system and copious amounts of gunplay is a more refined melee brawler, mixing on-screen prompts with strikes, counters and grapples. Combat in Uncharted 3 is sufficient but unremarkable, though admittedly improved over its predecessor with more robust enemy AI, but the rhythm of shooting and ducking lacks the overall engagement of its contemporaries.
But Uncharted 3 is more than its combat, and even the simple act of firing an assault rifle is enlivened when it's so competently meshed with the game's character and environments. Much of this can be attributed to its star, Nolan North, whose delicate and flowing vocal delivery has made him a staple of the medium; in Uncharted 3 the veteran voice actor finds himself comfortably in his element. North is also complemented by the returning triumvirate of Richard McGonagle, Claudia Black and Emily Rose. Then there's Rosalind Ayres' well-delivered work as Marlowe who, sadly, doesn't get her chance to shine in the script.
Despite considerable effort, and noticeable improvements, multiplayer still feels like a footnote to the overall experience. Borrowing heavily from Modern Warfare's industry standard, Naughty Dog has fashioned a series of knockabout environments and entertaining design flourishes, such as blazing the emblem of the winning player across map architecture, to show the studio is competent enough to carve out its own identity among the most homogeneous of genres.
Even with weapon-unlocking treasures to collect, gambling challenges riskier than anything seen in Call of Duty: Black Ops, and a Power Play mechanic that gives the losing team an advantage in combat, Naughty Dog simply can't hide the fact that Uncharted 3's core shooting is bettered elsewhere. While the studio claims the multiplayer will ensure the game has over 1000 hours of content, its awkward placement between two rivals infinitely more equipped for the situation make it hard to imagine the most besotted Nathan Drake fan sticking with the competitive multiplayer for even a tenth of that.
The game also contains a co-operative mode separate from the campaign, which Sony did not make available for review. Whether the returning mix of co-operative and competitive multiplayer can keep the game from padding out retail's pre-owned shelves - as I'm sure is its intention in our value-driven culture - will be a question that can only be decided by consumers.
Uncharted 3 is at its best when being guided by Naughty Dog's meticulous hand. It's a genuine adventure; strap yourself into the single-player campaign and it's a white-knuckle ride with some of gaming's most engaging characters. Uncharted 3's trivial flaws are buried beneath a tidal wave of big-budget spectacle, and a genuine narrative warmth far beyond most blockbuster titles.