If I were to tell you Naughty Dog has just delivered another superb Uncharted game, would you be the least bit surprised? Actually, the only thing that might surprise you about Uncharted 3's relentless roller coaster ride is that it doesn't advance the standards for video game action like its groundbreaking, mind-blowing, superlative-generating predecessor did. But it certainly does match them. There's a slight sense of "been there, done that" in the way this game hews so closely to Uncharted 2's masterful blend of puzzle-solving, parkour, and dizzying action scenes. I was more than ready to continue being there and doing that the moment the last game ended, so I'm thrilled just to play another sequel that hits all those right notes, even if they're the same notes, with such precision. And you probably will be too.
By now, you should know if you're onboard with Nathan Drake's smirking brand of globe-trotting adventure or not. If you are, you could just stop reading here, because anyone who enjoyed the previous games should play Uncharted 3, full stop. The storytelling is certainly familiar; our hero visits numerous far-flung locales, invokes some ancient explorers, twiddles a few antique cartographer's instruments, and gets shot at with disturbing frequency on his way to rediscovering a long lost land of supernatural significance. At least you're seeing some brand new sights, with memorable levels set in places as wide-ranging as an ancient stronghold underneath London, and a brutal desert that seems to go on forever. In a slight tonal shift, this third game replaces the series' overtly evil mercenaries and warlords with... an old lady. But that old lady has a smoldering inner malevolence of her own, and she's got ties to the pasts of Drake and his cigar-chomping mentor Sully, to boot. One of Uncharted 3's quieter joys is getting to see a glimpse of the history between these two, what drives them to risk life and limb in the pursuit of ancient wealth that always seems just out of reach. This game provides back story and context in a way the previous games didn't.
In a lesser game, there's a good chance you wouldn't even care. It's true that Uncharted presents a by-the-book action-movie milieu populated by characters who fit into tidy genre archetypes, but even in this third game it's still a little startling that they aren't all boringly one-dimensional. The primary credit for that belongs to the dialogue and voice work, which remain as snappy and artful as they've always been. I don't know if it's more remarkable that the game seems to have a pithy remark ready for every conceivable occasion, or that so many of them are actually funny and natural without being cheesy. But there are also a few moments with emotional range, in between all the swashbuckling, where you realize there's a toll taken on Drake and the people close to him in exchange for his driving obsession with the past. This is still an action-movie storyline, but it's a damn good one, with people who feel relatable and real.
The basic act of playing Uncharted--the shooting, the climbing--hasn't changed at all, though a few things feel improved here and there. You'll see some neat touches in the hand-to-hand fighting where Drake will contextually grab nearby objects and incorporate them into the brawl. And I felt like the stealth gameplay, though entirely optional, worked a little more smoothly than in the last game. Enemies still soak up a few too many bullets--you've decided by now how bothersome that is--but for a game that offers so much variety, it's impressive that the combat is as intense and challenging as it sometimes can be, especially on harder difficulties. And like the last game, Uncharted 3 also excels at letting you interact with its lushly detailed environments in unexpected ways. It's still genuinely impressive how an organic-looking scene in a village or old temple or even a capsized cruise liner can break down into a logical series of handholds for you to climb and jump across, nevermind how conveniently placed those handholds are.
The core game is familiar, but Naughty Dog continues to have plenty of fun within those confines, even managing to insert some meta-humor in a couple of places that pokes fun at the very mechanics that drive the game. And though the shooting and the climbing occupy the vast bulk of your time, one of my favorite things about Uncharted is the occasional foray into an ancient temple or crypt. This series is especially good at offering puzzles that blend into the level design, making you reference your in-game notes and really look closely at everything around you to see how it all fits together. Some of my favorite moments in these games are the ones when you slide some clockwork mechanism into place and, stone grinding against ancient stone, the truth is revealed. Those are the instances where you feel like you're actually touching a small part of the long-forgotten, mystical past Drake is so eager to recover, and there are several great moments of that sort in here.
And then there are the set pieces. Man, those set pieces. Think back to Uncharted 2, and the first things you remember are that building collapsing, or the fight on top of the speeding train. Uncharted 3 has its own healthy list of action sequences the likes of which you've never seen in another game... except Uncharted 2. Do you want to dangle a hundred feet above a roaring inferno as an entire castle collapses around you? How about fist-fighting a seven-foot strongman on the lowered ramp of a soaring cargo plane? Maybe shoot an RPG at a speeding convoy from horseback? (Who wouldn't?) The way the game frequently transitions almost seamlessly from gameplay to cinematic cutscene back to gameplay in short bursts is just as exciting as it was when you'd never seen it done before. There's still nothing else quite like it.
There's a danger, though, to meticulously hand-crafting your action sequences the way these games do, with all the fixed camera angles and split-second timings. Some of the game's more tightly scripted action sequences, particularly the ones where you're running somewhere at breakneck speed, can fall apart if you don't do exactly what the designer wanted you to do exactly when they wanted you to do it. When you're running toward the camera from a giant wall of water and can't really see where you're going, one split second's hesitation or missed jump means you're going to repeat everything you just did, which is a detriment to the frenetic way these games move. This isn't at all troublesome from a gameplay standpoint, since the game liberally checkpoints your progress. It's more about maintaining the momentum of these fast-moving segments which depend on the action never stopping. When you miss your cue, it stops, and suddenly the excitement is gone. But the benefits of this kind of design are worth the occasional collapse, and moreover, this style of sequence tends to work more often than not. And when it works, it works.
Actually, the other danger of such a tightly scripted experience is that you only get to play it for the first time once. There might be more and better thrills per minute packed into this game than any competing one, but once you've seen it, you've seen it. So it's a good thing that there's as robust a multiplayer component in Uncharted 3 as you could possibly want, once you've gone through the eight-to-10-hour storyline. Both the cooperative and competitive elements are incrementally improved over the similar modes in the last game, with a rich progression system that ties them together and offers more ways to customize your weapons and appearance than most players will probably ever unlock.
The competitive multiplayer still feels a bit like Gears of War, not just because you snap to cover but also due to the relatively slow movement and aiming speeds. There are plenty of interesting modes here to keep you busy, and some interesting things going on within the matches, such as a random bonus that's sometimes granted to the currently losing team. There's plenty on the cooperative side as well. The standout is a five-chapter adventure mode that has three players fighting through a coherent storyline set in a variety of the story maps, with some light dialogue and cinematics added in for context. There's even an appearance by some old familiar faces in there. Then there's Hunters, which feels like a nod toward Left 4 Dead since it pits two fully equipped player characters against two other, weaker human players who are joined by a bunch of AI guys. And the Horde-like Arena mode has evolved a bit, so you're not just taking on wave after wave of enemies. Now, the rules shift between waves, so in one wave you might only get credit for kills that happen while you're inside a small territory, and in the next you might have to fight your way through the enemies to deliver a treasure to an objective point. You may not much relish the idea of playing deathmatch against people who have way more time to play deathmatch than you, so it's great that there's a good bit of value in the co-op offering as well.
Naughty Dog achieved an incredible feat in Uncharted 2, elevating the basic action video game to such a cinematic height that, as clichéd as it sounds, you could almost believe you were playing an action movie. That game set the bar so perilously high that it's no crime this sequel merely rises to meet it, and not surpass it. Both games are so impressive that it's tempting to wonder whether there's even much more to be done in this style of game on this generation of hardware. That's a question only time will answer, but today, right now, you should spend some time playing Uncharted 3.