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Review: Uncharted 3 is one of the best — and most annoying — games of the year

Editor’s note: This review contains some story spoilers.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is one of the best video games of the year. In fact, it is one of the best I’ve ever played. But it will also go down as one of the most annoying.

On the good side, developer Naughty Dog has perfected the art of building a video game experience that mimics the thrills of a blockbuster summer action movie. But that description doesn’t do the game justice, as its story, dialogue, voice-acting, humor and character development are just so much better than anything you’ll ever see in an Indiana Jones movie.

Within Sony’s arsenal of exclusives for its PlayStation 3 business, Uncharted is the crown jewel, the game that could keep Sony fans loyal no matter how many Halo or Mario games come out from the other guys. I just wish that Naughty Dog would polish this jewel a little bit more. The game comes out on Tuesday.

The dreamers of the day

No flaws are evident in the beginning. From a starting quote by T. E. Lawrence (“the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible”), author of Lawrence of Arabia, to the beginning of the real action nearly four chapters later, the introductory sequence is impeccably done. The dramatic pace yields maximum tension and mystery. Humor offsets epic events. You don’t even pick up a gun and start shooting until a long introductory sequence has played out. This beginning, told with skillful flashbacks and flash forwards to the present day, shows that the developers would be in good company among master filmmakers like the Coen brothers.

The subtitle about deception is a theme that is woven into many threads in this story. As the game begins, a cinematic — or a pre-scripted film-like sequence — volleys us into that theme. Drake stages a ruse to figure out who is pursuing his family ring, which belonged to explorer Sir Francis Drake. Nathan thus stumbles upon his old nemesis Katherine Marlowe, and some kind of secret society that has been pursuing Drake’s secrets for 400 years, and we meet a new character, Charlie Cutter (pictured right), a likable con artist and thief with a thick English accent and a proclivity to switch sides. That sets the game in motion.

As the deceptions multiply, you as Drake have to consider whether you can really trust those close to you, and if you can trust your own mind from deceiving you. I also had the added experience of being sick with the flu for most of the time that I played the game, and I had to deal with my mind playing tricks on me. As Drake struggled through his own journey of delirium in the game, so did I, in a heavily medicated state.

I imagined, for instance, that I played the game for more than 20 hours, when it was more like 15. As I played the game over multiple days and nights, images from Uncharted 3 invaded my dreams and nightmares. Like Drake, I couldn’t get those damn spiders out of my head. Still, I didn’t mind that, as I could do worse than to ingrain my brain with imagery from Uncharted 3.

Visual arrest

As with Uncharted 2, the art style is artificially vibrant. All of the images are fairly realistic. But the colors of the environment are sharper and brighter than you would ordinarily see in real life, as if you were looking at life through the lenses of the best nature photographers. This effect is so well done that you’ll spend time just marveling at the detailed objects that are part of every colorful scene. Like when you jump to a wire and a pigeon flutters off of it.

Drake has an uncanny, parkour-like ability to climb walls as if he were a monkey, a skill that we learn in this game goes back to his childhood. The colors, pipes, and bars always give away the parts of the environment that offer a path for Drake to climb his way out of a tough spot. It also allows you to study the environment and pick out clues that stick out like a sore thumb, like yellow bricks or pipes for climbing. In this way, the colors affect the game play.

They can also bring game play to a momentary standstill. When you’re on a city rooftop, you can pause for a moment and see a gorgeous skyline for miles and miles. Uncharted 3 is simply one of the prettiest games you’ll ever see. There are so many beautiful moments in this game, like sand billowing through the desert, light breaking through a green forest in France, gun battles in the middle of a sandstorm, light coming through the stained glass of a French château, and that château going down in flames as Drake and his body Sully try to escape a conflagration. You haven’t seen bright orange until it fills your entire screen as you look down while Drake is dangling by one arm from a staircase, looking down on the maelstrom below.

Some of the most strikingly memorable images are the sparkling eyes of the characters as they stare directly into the camera. That’s where you begin to wonder if these video game characters have their own souls, as they can deliver so much emotion through their eyes. Some of these moments are cinematic, and some occur in live game play. The cool thing is that they blur into one, so you can’t tell if you are playing a game or watching a movie. Naughty Dog creates lots of tiny little animations that lend realism to Drake’s motions, and it usually finds a way to view any scene in the most cinematic way, like when you’re trailing Sully from above and can still see his movements on the street and your own moves on a balcony high above him.

The uncanny graphics were one of the attractions that got my eldest daughter to play the game with me. She would never otherwise play a shooter game, but Uncharted is so much more than that and its many temptations drew her in. Her presence helped me get through it. When I conked out from the flu, she took over. On our first run through, she handled the puzzles that my addled brain couldn’t, while I handled the twitch-based shooting battles that were too much for her. But on the second run, she made me into the passenger.

A sense of humor

Besides the visual senses, the other sense that Uncharted 3 tickles is humor. The game retains that wonderful deadpan sense of humor that Uncharted 2 had. The enemies never joke around. They exist only to be mean and to be shot. But humor is what sets apart our band of thieves, and it distinguishes the game from most other overly serious games in the industry.

Early on, Sully says, “Then we track them back to their hole.” And Drake responds, “You do realize you make everything seem so dirty?” At one point in an abandoned French château, Drake sees an ornate red cabinet and asks, “Is that a popcorn machine?”

The game’s self-referential humor is always there. Drake always has to ask Sully for a light, as they pass through tunnels and caverns. Sully says, “You know, one of these days you’re going to have to start carrying your own matches.”

Drake banters with the other characters like Charlie and Chloe. The previous game dwelled upon some rivalry between Chloe, who looks more like a typical buxom video game heroine from the industry’s traditionally sexist view of women, and Elena (pictured above), who is uniquely normal (non-busty) female character but pretty in a Jennifer Aniston sort of way.

But the banter with Sully (pictured above, left) is always the best. And the story makes it clear early on that Drake’s relationship with Sully is one of the main story paths in the game. The story takes you back in time to a point where they both developed a mutual respect for each other, which continues to be the foundation for their father-son-like relationship. Together, they’re always seeking treasure.

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