I want to be Nathan Drake's buddy.
Uncharted's treasure-hunting protagonist is the Indiana Jones of the video game world: smart, capable, slightly bumbling, and in possession of a heart of gold. He's the kind of guy who could talk you into coming with him on a perilous, tomb-raiding adventure, and then, ancient dust still clinging to your clothes, get you to chuckle about the experience over beers.
But these are the very qualities that are called into question in his third outing, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. He's still the quick-witted, dashing, and vulnerable adventurer we've come to love, but his obsession with winning, no matter the cost, has some of his closest friends trying to convince him to call off his search for a lost city in the middle of a desert before he – or, more likely, one of his loyal companions – gets hurt.
Drake doesn't listen, of course. He persists in his quest, his need to be the first to claim a treasure once sought by his ancestor Francis Drake fuelled by his competition with Katherine Marlow, a new and seductively callous villain who, in her elegant appearance yet firm demeanour, somehow made me think of Dame Helen Mirren.
It's easy to see movie stars in all the game's personalities. Drake, voiced by affable actor Nolan North, is a dead ringer for Castle's Nathan Fillion. It helps that developer Naughty Dog is a master of crafting lifelike characters who look, act, and talk like actors in a film. They joke around during the action, communicate with each other via sideways glances and questioning squints, and move through the world organically, touching walls at random and occasionally stumbling over cracks.
Of course, the Uncharted series' movie-like presentation has always been its chief draw, and that certainly remains the case here, especially when it comes to action.
Whether we're climbing through an ancient French chateau engulfed in the most realistic video game inferno this reviewer has ever seen, engaged in frenetic firefights on a listing, quickly sinking cruiser off the coast of Yemen, or gazing into a nearly photorealistic, star-spangled Syrian sky to deduce one of the game's many clever puzzles, there is a constant, unshakable sense that a director is expertly managing every moment of the game.
The experience is inarguably linear, a word some gamers view as profane. But linearity doesn't equate to predictability. A constant stream of unique events – caving floors, breaking ladders, unanticipated explosions – lead us places we'd never have imagined mere seconds earlier.
As charming as it is, there's little denying it treads ground familiar to the franchise. It isn't until the third act – which begins with a mind-blowing sequence aboard a cargo plane mid-flight followed by an exhausting and dispiriting trek through endless dunes – that Uncharted 3 comes into its own, melding its movie-like spectacle with its investigation into Drake's character to produce an engrossing climax few gamers will soon forget.
That's when it transcends the sum of its impressive parts to become something else, something as rare and as beautiful as the treasures Drake seeks: A game with a soul.
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
Platform: PlayStation 3
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America