Before I start this review proper, there’s something you should know about me. I love movies. I love movies. From trips to the cinema with my parents as a kid, to studying film at university, movies are up there with games as a primary passion. Much of what you’re about to read comes from a film lover’s perspective, as much as it comes from someone who adores videogames.
Personal justification for what’s about to come over.
There are games that try and fail to provide a cinematic experience. There are games that just about manage to resemble a cinematic experience. There hasn’t, however, been a game that nails the cinematic experience so brilliantly that you’d seriously contemplate indulging in it rather than watching an actual movie.
Until now. Uncharted 3 is the videogame cinematic experience. Forget Gears 3, forget Call of Duty, even forget Uncharted 2, if you’re looking for something that makes you feel as though you’re playing as the lead character from a summer blockbuster then look no further than Uncharted 3. Like a movie, the core pillars of Nathan ‘Nate’ Drake’s latest adventure are setting, character and plot.
More than the previous two games in the series, this is a story about relationships – Nate and his long-time treasure hunting partner Sully, Nate and love-interest Elena, Nate and his ego, Nate and his famous ancestor, and (obviously) between Nate and historical artefacts.
As you may have guessed, everything revolves around Nate. This helps to define him as one of gaming’s latest (and greatest) videogame heroes and, as we all know, you can’t sell a blockbuster without a strong lead character. He’s strong but gentle, headstrong but intelligent, confident but charming. Women want him, men want to be him. Yep, I’ve got myself a bit of a man-crush.
Other characters are developed enough to make them seem real, but not so much as to allow them to overshadow the series’ star. For example, Uncharted 3’s primary antagonist Katherine Marlowe is something of a bizarre cross between Helen Mirren and Anne Robinson in appearance and a she-bitch from hell in terms of personality. She’s undeniably comic book-like but, and here’s the genius, like Drake she works because she fits the world.
That’s the thing that Naughty Dog’s creative director, Amy Hennig, seems to understand where many of her peers do not – characters feel real when they fit the world they inhabit, they needn’t feel as though they’ve just been plucked from the real world. Uncharted 3’s characters are not the most complex ever created, but they might just be the ones that best fit their respective world.
However (and this is the bit that developers have traditionally struggled with), these filmic elements have been expertly wrapped in a coat of brilliantly engaging gameplay. In Uncharted 3 there is no separation between gameplay and cinematics, both elements are seamlessly blended in a wonderfully realised whole that oozes engagement, excitement and emotion at every turn.
Perhaps the game’s biggest achievement is that it doesn’t rely simply on pumping up the adrenaline to create genuinely engrossing, memorable moments. A desert scene depicts a vulnerable Nate, giving him a sense of humanity so rare in action movies let alone action games. A flashback scene provides a peek at the origins of the Nate-Sully relationship and various well-acted lines uttered by characters mid-gameplay serve to further heighten the drama and sense of scale to the whole affair.
There’s barely a shootout, wall-climb or puzzle that doesn’t come packaged with some form of narrative exposition. Anyone who says games can’t tell stories needs to think again.
However, that’s not to say Uncharted 3 is the narrative equal of Rear Window, Citizen Kane or Sunset Boulevard. Its narrative elements naturally push it towards Indiana Jones, National Treasure, Romancing the Stone and even TinTIn territory. Unlike Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed however, here’s a game that lives up to such adventurous comparisons.
Even if you’re not interested in the narrative components, the gameplay itself is well worth the price of admission. The mix of combat, platforming and puzzles is expertly paced and demonstrates not only skill but the confidence Naughty Dog have in their creative processes. You get the impression that the creators have refused to compromise and adhere to modern game design standards, instead building upon rules and systems they’ve developed themselves since the days of Crash Bandicoot (however, some of these rules have become modern game design standards).
For instance, gunplay is executed in the same way as it always has been in the Uncharted series but the enemy AI is much more sophisticated. Rather than follow the path each time, opponents more readily react to your moves; they’ll split up to avoid grenades, retreat if they’re being overrun, hold position if they’ve got you pinned down and flank where possible. These moments still lack the raw intensity of Gears of War, but they serve the role they’re designed to serve.
Melee combat is also similar, only now it has been taken up a notch thanks to the ability to fight multiple enemies at once and use items to bash them with (pots, pans, bottles, whatever). Movie style cutaways are also commonplace and add a sense of pomp and intensity to what would be throwaway moments in other games. These are usually reserved for moments when you finish someone off using the environment i.e. throwing someone off a ledge or knocking them out using the bar hatch.
It’s the moments when Nate does the monkey thing – jumping, climbing and crawling across the stunning environments – that are most impressively executed though. The way the camera pans, rolls and stutters during set-pieces is brilliant – especially during a sequence set aboard a cruise ship. Combine this with moments of interactive action you’d normally see reserved for a cut-scene and you’ve got some very special moments.
I don’t want to say too much in case I spoil it for you, but the cruise ship moment (along with one of the desert scenes) is possibly the single best gaming moment of the year thus far.
The camera work and variety of the set-pieces is helped no end by the quality of the visuals. Light, fire, water and the effect of the wind are the best examples of such things you can find in a PS3 game; all animated with a level of detail most developers wouldn’t consider attempting, let alone pull off.
Uncharted 3’s multiplayer elements don’t quite represent the same level of masterful execution as the single player, but they’re still more than worthy of sinking many a weekend into. Co-op missions take place on edited arenas taken from the single player, while competitive multiplayer offers all the bells and whistles you’d expect from a modern game. These include deathmatch and objective game modes, character customisation, XP-based levelling up and planned DLC. There’s also a rather neat ‘Uncharted TV’ feature that shows a loop of the best moments from the online community while you wait for the game to start.
All in all Uncharted 3 is a runaway success. The manner in which it combines its various elements into a seamless dramatic whole is marvellous to behold. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is a landmark achievement for this generation and a game that deserves to be experienced by everyone.
Indiana Jones who?