In the finest traditions of Lara Croft and Indiana Jones, Nathan Drake returns for his third adventure on Sony's entertainment system to deliver even more big-budget, third-person action in Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (Sony Computer Entertainment and Naughty Dog, reviewed for PlayStation 3, rated M for mature, $59.99).
Players looking to take part in what feels like a 12-hour-long movie blockbuster take control of the debonair scoundrel Drake (who is assisted by familiar pals from the series) as he crosses the world to uncover a conspiracy tied to his ancestor Sir Francis Drake, T.E. Lawrence and a mythological city, the Atlantis of the Sands.
A flashback showing Nathan as a child stealing his ancestor's ring (introducing his relationship to mentor Victor Sullivan) helps set the stage for a quest that mixes close-quarters combat, gunfights and environmental puzzles.
This time out, the rugged, wisecracking Nathan can engage multiple enemies at once in bare-knuckle brawls with detail down to head butts and pushing thugs into each other like bowling pins, leading to some impressive melee moments and contextual finishing moves.
His acrobatic maneuvers through chases and escapes remain impressive, but not as breathtaking as the Prince of Persia. However, Drake's evolving performance in precarious situations, based on a player's choices, always conveys a dizzying roller-coaster ride worthy of at least an MTV Movie Award.
Be it trapped in a burning castle, in a firefight against waves of black-suited brutes in an underground train station or bailing out of a cargo plane about to crash, a player's pulse will rise as he pushes Drake through the gamut of moves, including climbing, crawling, jumping, squeezing, hanging, swinging, diving, swimming, pushing and taking cover.
Among the moments that shine, I never got tired of upper-cutting an armed enemy in the mouth, grabbing his gun as it slowly floated out of his hand and immediately using it on nearby bad guys.
Newer gamers will appreciate the manageable difficulty curve, ease of combat and hints to solve puzzles while reveling in the finest traditions of the cliff-hanging serial.
As far as design, smooth animated cut scenes blend with live game play, harnessing the power of motion-capture technology.
Also, locations ooze detail down to shooting stars in the night sky over Syria, while environments such as a sinking cruise ship and sand (that acts as a co-star when Drake finds himself stuck in the Rub' al Khali desert) are simply eye-popping.
Add to the package top-notch voice-over work that does not sound like it was phoned in and a beautifully timed musical score that blends orchestral nuances with Middle Eastern roots and a hint of John Williams' power, and Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception easily rivals some of the best of Hollywood.
Those finished with the solo campaign can move over to a cooperative teamwork-saturated mode (three players online or two via a split screen locally) considered an “alternate timeline” to the main story and starring the use of Drake and his pals, including Victor Sullivan. Do not ignore this mode, it really shines with upgrades, bonuses and character selections.
A deeper, up to 10-player online competitive challenge includes variations on death matches, use of a buddy system (teamwork equals more cash to upgrade) and plenty of treasure hunting along with social-networking options refined to uploading edited video from the matches to Facebook and YouTube accounts.
Now, I'm still voting for Batman: Arkham City as the coolest game of the year, but Naughty Dog never disappoints with this cinematically styled masterpiece embellished with plenty of multiplayer replay value for the Uncharted devotee.
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