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Hands-on preview: Uncharted 3 delivers blockbuster fun

Editor’s note: This story contains some spoilers.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception will be one of the best video games of the year, no question. The burning secret is really just how good this game will be. Based on my hands-on preview at Sony’s Silicon Valley game headquarters yesterday, I think it’s going to be an outstanding game.

Playing through two levels and watching a third has convinced me that this game is going to be another blockbuster, similar to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which I thought was the best video game of 2009 and one of the best video games ever made.

The new game will have stereoscopic 3D viewing, a new story and a new enemy in the evil Katherine Marlowe. But it will feature some of the same characters that were so memorable in Uncharted 2.

The Uncharted game series debuted in 2006 with the launch of the PlayStation 3. With each installment, Uncharted has been getting better. The visuals are so well done that you can’t tell the difference between cinematics, which are pre-scripted movies that advance the story, and actual game play. The action seamlessly moves back and forth between cinematics and game play, resulting in a feeling of total immersion in a blockbuster movie.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was the first title in the series developed by Sony-owned game studio Naughty Dog. The second game was far more advanced, striking the right balance of great movie-like cinematics that advanced the story, harrowing combat scenes where you took on helicopters, and outstanding graphics and physics, such as a firefight that took place aboard a physically accurate moving train.

No one had made such a true next-generation game before by innovating on so many fronts. I can still remember trying to take out that damned attack helicopter that kept coming back, the swaying train where you had to deal with the movement of the train even as you fired shots, and the breathtaking graphics that allowed you to see for miles across a Himalayan city. And it was all tied together with a story that was emotionally moving and had great humor — like when one heroine says to Drake’s new girl, “I’m last year’s model.”

Drake is a lot like Indiana Jones, but he is an ordinary person thrown into impossible situations. He always struggles with his profession as an archaeological thief, raising the question of whether he is a common thief or a decent human being. The voice acting and animations portray Drake as fallible, wobbly and self-deprecating. The only unbelievable aspect of the game is that, statistically speaking, there is no way that an ordinary person like Drake would survive half of the tight spots he is thrown into, like when he takes out a whole bunch of enemies when he is both wounded and tired.

Uncharted 2 was 26 chapters long and had a great deal of variety. The new game is going to have dozens of levels as well, and it looks like sand is going to be one of the ever-present environmental effects in the game. The game play is both familiar and novel.

I started by playing a level called the French Chateau, which is an old multi-story building that is being consumed by flames in a most spectacular way. In this level, Drake and his old friend Sully have to escape a burning building even as they deal with large numbers of thugs shooting at them. Drake has to climb walls, scoot along ledges, and tiptoe across balance beams to get to safety.

With Uncharted’s combat, you have to duck behind cover and shoot when you have a chance to surprise your enemy. You can use a variety of weapons, but you can’t carry the whole kitchen sink with you. Enemies can cause you trouble, particularly when they shoot at you while you’re in a precarious position on a ledge.

The fire animations in the game look outstanding. They give off a roar when you open the doors and a gust of wind blows flames right into your face. The colors of the environment are still sharper and more vibrant than you would ordinarily see in real life. You have to jump from one platform or pipe to another as they collapse into the burning flames.

The second level I played was the “Cargo Plane,” which Sony revealed at E3 in June. On this level, the scene starts with a long cinematic that reveals more of the relationship between Drake and Elena, the heroine from the love triangle of Uncharted 2. You feel a tug of emotion as Drake moves on to certain doom and forces himself to separate from Elena.

Drake shoots his way to the giant cargo plane, which begins taking off. Elena returns in a jeep and enables Drake to jump onto the landing gear of the plane and board it just as it’s taking off. That’s a true Hollywood action scene. From there, Drake is in for a wild ride. He gets into a nasty fight with a big enemy and the hatch ramp of the cargo plane opens. Everything starts sliding down the ramp and flying out the door. Meanwhile, a bunch of bad guys arrive and start shooting machine guns.

Just as with the French Chateau, Drake has a few ways to die and is caught between the enemies and the danger of falling off the moving plane. The physics of the gun battle are a lot like the one on the train. Drake has to dodge big crates that are sliding off the plane even as he tries to shoot at the enemies. The scene is a tour de force in graphics and physics.

Sony also shared a brand new level with me. In this “Settlement” level, Drake has been searching for the fabled “Atlantis of the Sands,” a lost city of the Arabian Peninsula. He has been wandering through the Rub’ al Khali desert for several days. He’s hallucinating, needs water, and finds a deserted town. He starts making his way through the town, searching for water and talking to himself.

Then he runs into a whole gaggle of bad guys working for Katherine Marlowe, the new villain. They attack with machine guns. Drake disarms one of them and it becomes a fair fight. In this level, Naughty Dog showed off a few new innovations in the game play. Drake can now pick up a hand grenade that has been thrown at him and toss it back.

He can shoot at pillars and cause them to collapse, causing a whole building or roof to cave in. And he can tactically disarm a rival with his bare hands. Some of the enemies are hard to kill, since they’re wearing armor and helmets. He can pull a pin out of a grenade on a rival’s belt and then kick him away so that the enemy blows up.

As the screen fades to black, you can see a spinning silver ring which belonged to explorer Sir Francis Drake. That ring plays a significant role in the story. But we’ll have to wait until Nov. 1 to find out what it means. That’s the day Sony will release the game on the PS 3. Clearly, this game is going to be a contender for game of the year.


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