The current trend in game design is all about player agency, choices with consequence and open-ended gameplay, but Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (PS3) is a reminder that a linear game can still be a great experience when you’re being guided by a master storyteller. From a strict gameplay point of view, Uncharted 3 is pretty straightforward – you have your platforming sections and your combat sections, and sometimes they even intersect – but they’re expertly woven together with the story so that you’ll keep playing because you have to find out what happens next. You might get through Drake’s Deception in just one sitting, because it’s that damn good.

Nate and his friends are globe-hopping once again, this time in search of the Atlantis of the Sands, a city that Sir Francis Drake found for, then hid from, Queen Elizabeth. The city supposedly holds untold treasure, which is why it’s also in the crosshairs of Kate Marlowe, the woman who first crossed paths with Nate and Sully twenty years ago and who’ll stop at nothing to obtain the prize. She’s a marvelous bitch of a villain, a pleasing contrast to the more cartoonish bad guys Nate has faced.

The sharp writing and exceptional voice acting make the cut scenes a pleasure to watch, striking a perfect balance between historical detail and easy-going conversation. The characters of Uncharted 3 have known each other for years, and you feel the effortless intimacy that time together has built come through in every line of dialog. The storytelling has always been a big part of what made the Uncharted series so special, and Drake’s Deception continues that tradition while also adding unexpected depth to the treasure-hunting formula. The game delves into the cost of Nathan’s adventures, asking the difficult question of whether a life of adventuring is really worth it if you just end up alone at the end of the journey. It’s an emotional subplot that could’ve easily turned into maudlin rumination that would’ve been at odds with the series’ tone, but instead is handled in a mature way that not only advances the story, but also makes the conclusion much more satisfying.

The story is so good that it’s almost rude when the actual game part of Drake’s Deception interrupts the cinematics by forcing Nathan to gun down Marlowe’s goons or climb his way up some of the architecture. The waves of disposable soldiers you face look like they all came from the same genetic vat and vary between brain damaged and psychic, but you at least have plenty of fun toys to use against them. You can only carry one pistol and one rifle at a time, but taking out a well-perched foe with the TAU sniper or rocket launcher you found lying around goes a long way towards making up for the moments when you roll instead of taking cover because of the finnicky controls. They’re never so bad as to be game-breaking, but their occasional fussiness stands out in sharp contrast when compared to the elegance of the rest of the game.

Nate can also just plain slug a guy or kick him in the nards, a sound strategy when dealing with the overly-armored enemies who can shrug off entire clips of ammo as though they were so many mosquitos. The hand-to-hand fighting isn’t particularly inspired, and gets downright tedious when you’re forced to go toe to toe with the pugilistic Brutes peppered throughout the game.

If you really enjoy Uncharted 3‘s take on combat, you’ll definitely get a kick out of co-op mode, which blends story elements from the single player campaign with the medals and unlockables from the multiplayer. As Nate and Player 2’s companion of choice, you move from checkpoint to checkpoint, killing everyone in your path and earning rewards for things like kills, headshots, or rescuing your buddy. You can trade in medals for an instant upgrade, like a sniper rifle, and use the cash rewards to unlock new mods and weapons. You’ll visit some of the same areas that you see in the main campaign, brushing up against the storyline with actually following it. You might have to blow through a wall to reach the next checkpoint in co-op, then run through that hole in the wall in the main story. You don’t need one to do the other, but it’s fun to see the overlap. It’s a nice middle ground for people who want to play with a pal, but don’t want to play yet another deathmatch.

Drake’s Deception also compromises when it comes to the platforming, opting to paint certain ledges and handholds yellow rather than making them flash obnoxiously or expecting you to search for them unaided. It’s a subtle nudge in the right direction, enough to keep you moving without slapping an immersion-killing hint in your face. The platforming can be as twitchy as the combat – you’ll occasionally leap to your death because you weren’t in the exact right spot – but it does provide you with an opportunity to appreciate the extraordinary detail of Uncharted 3‘s environments. No game makes such great use of huge spaces and dramatic set pieces better than Uncharted 3, but the small details make the game world feel lived in and real. The character animations are similarly nuanced; Nate will stick his hand out to steady himself as he picks his way through a rocky passage, or wipe his brow after running. You never feel like you’re watching a character navigating a game level, but rather tagging along as your buddy has an adventure. That adventure winds up in some extreme situations, it never feels artificial or arbitrary – one event leads naturally to the next, even more spectacular and dramatic event. By the time Nate is dangling out of the back of a cargo plane, you’d think the drama couldn’t crank any higher, but it does, in wonderful and unexpected ways.

Bottom Line: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is a brilliant romp. The controls can be frustrating at times, but the overall journey is exceptional.

Recommendation: Pick up the first two if you haven’t already, then saddle up and enjoy the ride. Uncharted 3 will make you glad you own a PS3.

[rating=4.5]

What our review scores mean.

Game: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony
Platform(s): PS3
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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