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Nathan Drake continues on his quest to uncover the skeletons in Sir Francis Drake's cupboard...
Uncharted 3 was always destined to live in the shadow of its illustrious predecessor. Quite simply, there is not another game on this generation of consoles that's come as such a pleasant and unexpected surprise – quite possibly, there is not another game this generation that's pointed so sure-footedly to where video games should be aiming in the next-generation. And all of this from a sequel; a sequel that went far above and beyond the framework nailed down by its predecessor. Much more than mere refinement or iteration, Uncharted 2 nailed the high standards that Naughty Dog seemed to have been aiming for in the original but never quite managed to pull-off due to any number of possible development limitations – Drake's Fortune was Uncharted's mission statement, Among Thieves its magnum opus. This inevitably leaves Drake's Deception in something of a predicament: reliving the glory of Uncharted 2's release would require this latest instalment to raise the game again; to make Uncharted 2 – and everything else for that matter – look almost archaic in comparison.
Uncharted 3 still manages to make most other action-adventure games seem antiquated, but it certainly doesn't manage pull that same trick over its kin. Drake's Deception is much more the conventional sequel by modern video game standards – it offers the same overall gist as the last game only with a new story and ever-so-slightly improved gameplay. Refinement and polish are the key words here because, at times, you could almost use the Uncharted 2 blueprint to trace over what Naughty Dog has served up this time around. So much of that superb camera work, kinetic action, and seamless blending of cut-scene and gameplay that made Uncharted 2 so great has been as good as carbon copied into Drake's Deception. There's the Jason Bourne-style 'hand-held camera' that follows directly in-behind Drake as he jumps off a ledge and through a window pane; the shot that pans vertically as Drake hangs onto a ledge, revealing a vertigo-inducing drop below, and the wide-angle perspective that pans out to depict Drake's relative insignificance amid a vast environment or towering structure. You'll find all of these Hollywood tricks recycled from Drake's last adventure almost to the point of being a touch – dare we say it – repetitive.
If the Uncharted series has taught us one thing above all else though, it's how often us game reviewers have cheapened the word cinematic in our hyperbole for other titles. Perhaps only Cambridge, England's own Ninja Theory studio can hold a torch to the kind of filmic expertise shown in Naughty Dog's work. Enslaved certainly got the core elements right, such as active camera direction and action-infused environmental traversal, but it was just lacking the magic touches to push it over into Uncharted territory. Beyond that, there really is a gaping chasm between what these two developers have achieved and any other action-adventure title on the market. Whether it's breaking the '180 degree rule' or adding needless exposition to a cut-scene, the vast majority of studios either haven't found a solution to these problems from a game design perspective or are merely blissfully unaware of them. Naughty Dog, on the other hand, is clearly steeped in this kind of thinking from the outset – had their key staff not landed in game development jobs, you'd have to think that there'd be work for them in Hollywood if there's any justice in the world.
It really shows how much this kind of expertise can add to a game, whether it's from the perspective of cinematics or story. It shows this because actually, when you break down Uncharted 3 into its constituent parts, they really aren't that impressive in comparison to their competitors. Combat, in particular, has suffered in the series and this trend continues into the third iteration. The AI is fidgety and skittish: bland, whack-a-mole cover shooting is one thing, but if the alternative is neurotic AI then we'd prefer the dull option to be brutally honest. Stealth, which had some truly atrocious moments in Uncharted 2, has at least been improved by a stronger blend with all-out-assault, but the at times temperamental cover system, lack of a crouching option, and fuzzy AI still compromise the improvements that have been made. Gun controls are certainly more solid than most within the genre but still lack the poise and feedback of, say, a Gears of War title. Overall, the combat is certainly good enough to add welcome variation to the full campaign (particularly the well choreographed hand-to-hand fighting) but, were it to be set by itself, we'd be looking at a considerably lower-rated video game here.
Naughty Dog's puzzles also manage to add welcome variation and perhaps our recollection of Uncharted 2 is a little unfair here, but they seem to be that bit more plentiful, challenging, and memorable than previous attempts. Once again however, when set against a masterclass such as the puzzles in God of War, they're quite a way off the mark – very good on occasions, but not great by any means. It really is the superb camera work, relentless action and, indeed, sense of adventure that marks this series out and has led it to such critical acclaim. If anything, it's a shining example of why shooting people in the head is not what truly inspires a gamer. Often the gunplay sticks out like a saw thumb in Uncharted 3 as Nathan Drake justifies bringing a gun to a parkour fight with a 'just in case' rationale (invariable, the case turns out to be precisely that). He's just not the kind of guy that carries around an AK47, and you occasionally get the impression that the script writers are aware of this – Drake is almost apologetic to Elena at one point as he screws a silencer onto his pistol. However, such is the pithy dialogue, plot-line, and characters behind the story that this incongruous blend of gun combat doesn't ruin the main feature – you maintain a strong affinity with the characters and an investment in their relationships throughout the entirety of a well-stocked, nine hours-worth of campaign.
Where the gun combat does come into its own, however, is in the multiplayer. Yes, it's a multiplayer that's been Call of Dutified beyond belief, with 'Boosters' and 'Medal Kickbacks' replacing the likes of perks and killstreaks, but it's a solid third-person shooter experience on the servers and the unlocks do keep you hooked. What's more, Naughty Dog has built maps that lend themselves well to its particular brand of wall climbing and roof jumping – genuinely, this does add a fresh dimension to the multiplayer experience. Other developers may have attempted this kind of thing in the past but few have enjoyed much success, so credit where credit's due in this instance. Returning co-op modes on top of this then ensure that Uncharted 3 is as jam-packed with content as any other blockbuster title on the market today. Be it wave-based modes in the Horde style, or objective-based levels in the Spec Ops style, Uncharted 3 has you covered even to the point that it manages to add a couple of innovative twists to existing ideas while maintaining its own particular shade of presentation at all times. Unlike the powerhouse first-person shooters, it's not a multiplayer component to buy the game for by itself, but it's certainly worthwhile giving it a shot once you're done with the campaign and it might just have you coming back for more in the months to come.