Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
24th Oct 2011 | 16:00
You've seen bits of Uncharted 3. Giant, processor-stretching moments of scale like Drake being tossed about like frying scampi in a capsizing boat, or our hero clinging to an aeroplane's landing gear as it rushes vertiginously from the ground. You might have even thought that: "Wow, that's vertiginous."
But the game doesn't open with spectacle. It starts in the pub; a dusty, pleasingly authentic boozer playing host to Drake and Sully. There's a deal, suspense, London drizzle, East End heavies - but while it's not the eager-to-please attention grabber you might expect from the biggest blockbuster on PS3, it's packed with fine detail, nuanced performances, and a storytelling confidence that's just as gripping as any showy, cards-on-the-table opener you care to mention.
Of course, as you get a little further, those moments of spectacle show up in force, in greater numbers and with greater impact than in previous games. It makes Uncharted 3 a refined juggling act of emotional smarts and technical muscle, the real trick being able to combine the two rather than having them run in parallel.
How is that done? Well, take the pub level. At the same time as drawing an atmospheric night scene and laying the first brick of the game's twisting plot, it also casually introduces a completely overhauled melee combat system. A cash-for-artefact handover having gone fist-shaped, Drake and Sully fight their way out of an upstairs pool room, with basic kicks and punches now joined by Batman-style counter-attacks, crowd-managing shoves and thumping, contextual takedowns which leave the room littered with snapped pool cues and broken glass.
Even before the fighting - and after, in a languidly-paced flashback mission giving us our first glimpse of young Drake - the game's quality bursts through just in the way its characters walk. Drake raises a warding hand as he brushes up against walls and obstacles, twists his hips and double-steps as he changes direction, and sometimes gives a lingering look to some object as he's turning around.
Player-controlled motion will never look entirely realistic - we'd worry for the health of anyone seen shuffling toward a ledge inch-by-inch or jumping repeatedly for non-existent hand-holds - but Uncharted 3 and its much-discussed performance capture do a fine job of making movement more natural without compromising on responsiveness.
But enough of the sexy talk. If bar-brawling and improved walking aren't on your Uncharted 3 wishlist, pretty much everything else in the game probably is. Once the foundation of the story is laid - precisely, engagingly, with barely a fired bullet - the game picks up its stride and shows you what it can do.
Think back to Uncharted 2's highlights - the train level (both in the opening climb and, later, the moving warzone), rifle battles on huge Himalayan bridges, the unexpected calm of a native village - and Uncharted 3 out-does them all, comprehensively. Its visual effects are more arresting, its action more hyperbolic. Dammit, even the peaceful bits are more peaceful.
The spine of the single-player you've seen already, if you've been following the game's breadcrumb build-up. The burning chateaux first, Drake and Sully's first stop for clues leading to the lost city of Iram ('The Atlantis of the sands,' according to Lawrence of Arabia).
What the videos can't show is the quality of the lighting effects as you move Drake through the inferno, the flickering shadows and richness that the flames paint across the screen.
You've probably also seen the capsizing boat, which fills with water as gravity is realigned and Drake topples into the foamy depths. Hands-on, this feels like the train level seriously upgraded - not just running and fighting on a moving vehicle, but falling and climbing through dynamic water simulations as that giant vehicle rolls and rebuilds the environment in real time.
And you might also have seen the airport chase and landing gear getaway, in which Drake hitches a ride on a supply plane as it departs the runway. Play through this section and you'll realise why Naughty Dog were happy to show it early - because what happens immediately after the sneak peek is on another level entirely.
It's an ante-upping moment, among several in the game, that's likely to leave you shaking your head and grinning idiotically and the idea that somebody imagined this, that others designed and built it, that this is happening in a game.
The other reason Naughty Dog was presumably happy to tease these sections of the game is because there are plenty of equally impressive moments under wraps. There's a rooftop and street chase through a bustling middle-eastern city that demonstrates just how robust the game's acrobatics have become, packed with speed and variety, and punctuated by well-judged moments of corner-turning drama.
There's a maze-like semi-aquatic level set before the headline boat toppling, in which the water becomes part of Drake's cover system as he swims and climbs through a sea of floating debris. And there's a beautiful and quiet sequence set in the desert, a ghost of sand sweeping across the smooth dunes as Drake traipses hopelessly in search of a lost friend.
To leave you in no doubt, then, Uncharted 3 does action on a scale PS3 has not seen before. It's also an absolute class leader in story and character. But it's still not perfect - and, actually, errors and misjudgements intrude upon an otherwise faultless experience like a particularly gruesome fly on a gourmet meal.
For instance, occasionally, when being machine-gunned by one enemy and fist-fighting another, you'll really want Circle to mean "roll the heck away and get me in cover" but instead too often it means "grabbing a man by the cuffs and shoving him while being peppered with bullets".
It's unlikely that this niggle would have warranted a mention if it weren't for a more serious related complaint - the difficulty spikes towards the end of the game make a sudden jump from challenging to infuriating, with several moments so hard they can only be beaten through brutal repetition, like demolishing a wall with headbutts alone.
Again, this might not be so big a problem - difficulty should ramp as the game draws to a climax, after all - if it didn't negatively impact the game's otherwise wonderfully judged story. One particularly nasty spike occurs directly after a powerful emotional beat - Drake should be furious, but rather than smash through the surrounding goons in fury, the moment is drowned in too-tough enemies and checkpoint restarts.
None of these complaints are particularly serious, and none of them stop Uncharted 3 from being the must-have game on PS3. Especially when you take into consideration that aside from the excellent single-player campaign there's a tweaked and polished multiplayer mode.
The model for this is very much the same as Uncharted 2 with improvements: a competitive side with deathmatch, objective mode and now also clans, customisation and sparkly set-piece intros; and a co-op side with three-player story missions (five this time, moving from the London Underground to Syria) and an arena mode (which, sadly, no longer does just survival, but mixed objective modes of which survival is one type).
All of which makes this a big step on from Uncharted 2 in terms of visuals, gameplay and performance - but its biggest achievement is that, barring minor lapses, the threads are brought together into a superbly cohesive whole.