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A third serving of Uncharted territory

Nathan Drake and friends are at it once again in the franchise's biggest adventure, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception.

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The Uncharted series, which has quickly become the staple franchise of the PlayStation 3, has won over hard-core and casual gamers alike with its lighthearted action gameplay, witty characters, and amazing sense of adventure.

The third title in the series promises to up the ante even higher, so it's back to the jungle we go with our look at Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception.

Nathan Drake has got to have the best and worst luck in the history of video game characters. But that's why Uncharted games are such a thrill to play. Each sequential title in the franchise puts Drake in a bigger mess than before, tasking players to find new ways to save his life over and over again.

Maybe more so than any other game out there, Uncharted 3 plays much more like a Hollywood blockbuster than it does a conventional video game. It's the first title you'd want to show off to nongamers, with the hope they would then realize all the fun they're missing out on.

Veterans and newcomers to the Uncharted series will get sucked right in, as the early hours of gameplay are much more varied than what's been presented in the past. Naughty Dog has also again raised the bar on dictating compelling narrative, as Uncharted 3 makes the characters even more relatable and likable than ever before. Plus, I'm not sure there's a better musical score in all of games.

Drake has a huge new arsenal of immediately noticeable animations. Some of them tend to trigger inappropriately, but nevertheless, all make for the most human-feeling Nathan Drake ever. Cut scenes flow seamlessly into the action, which at times makes it difficult to discern whether it's time to start playing again--that's how good everything looks.

Naughty Dog

Uncharted 3 has a healthy amount of puzzle-solving this time around, which does a great job of breaking up the action. There was never a point in the campaign where I rolled my eyes and thought "here we go again."

The third game also seems to push melee combat more so than the first two titles, which definitely works, but is still light years behind the excellent system in place in Batman: Arkham City. I found myself attempting melee more often than I probably should have, though there's really nothing better than pulling off a stealth kill while hanging from a ledge and watching your victim fall into the cavernous void below.

The Naughty Dog team made a statement in Uncharted 2 with the introduction of multiplayer modes, and Uncharted 3 carries the torch to a surprising level of depth. The co-op and multiplayer online modes really extend the shelf life of the game, giving the title a much larger overall sense of a complete package. I'd recommend making your way through the campaign first, then diving into online matches.

Naughty Dog

Playing the first two Uncharted titles has trained me to look out for certain shiny ledges and always be aware of my surroundings. But perhaps it's also desensitized me to the point that I already expect to be wowed by striking visual effects, crisp gameplay, and cut scenes and voice acting on the highest level of production values. Of course all this exists in Uncharted 3, but I begin to wonder if the team at Naughty Dog ever struggles with a similar conundrum. It reminds me of my honeymoon in Hawaii. After seeing half a dozen rainbows spawning from the tops of natural waterfalls, what else is there?

Remember the television commercials for Uncharted 2, with faux Sony VP Kevin Butler describing that game as being indistinguishable from a big-budget action movie to casual observers? At the time, I thought the commercials were clever, but a bit of an optimistic portrayal of what was still a very good game. It turns out those commercials were dead on, but just a couple of years early.

It's the new Uncharted 3 that's so filled with heart-pounding stunts and quick-cut shocks that it feels like a video game gene-spliced with equal parts Michael Bay and Stephen Spielberg (take that how you will). In fact, to paraphrase one comment I saw on Facebook from someone else who had played a prerelease copy of the game, someone should have hired the Uncharted team to make, or at least write, the fourth Indiana Jones film.

Naughty Dog

The cinematic qualities extend to the prerendered cut scenes, which are long enough that they could have easily devolved into Metal Gear Solid self-parody territory, but instead, better-than-expected writing and voice acting (and motion capture/animation) make this the kind of franchise that could actually pull off a full-length animated feature, unlike, say, Final Fantasy or Resident Evil, both of which tried that format unsuccessfully.

After thinking that the current generation of living room consoles were well past the point of showing their age, we've seen something of a renaissance recently, with frankly stunning-looking games, including the otherworldly but otherwise-vapid Rage, the gritty realism of Battlefield 3, and now, the sun-drenched postcard locales of Uncharted 3. It's one of those rare games that's fun to even just sit back and watch (again calling back to the Uncharted 2 "Is it a movie?" commercials).

Naughty Dog

Stereoscopic 3D is supported, as it is on most high-profile PlayStation 3 exclusives. The implementation is decent but not perfect. The default view has the adjustable 3D depth slider set to full, I had to dial it back to about halfway to get a comfortable view. The effect of depth perception added to the exploring, climbing, jumping scenes, but the loss of resolution inherent in 3D gaming led to an unfortunate side effect. Those sun-drenched scenes, with lush dynamic lighting that looked so good in 2D, got very jagged and rough-looking in 3D. But overall, the game had much less of what I've called the "dirty fish tank effect" that games such as Killzone 3 or Resistance 3 displayed.

A final note on gameplay. As an observant follower of these games might have already expected, the exploration and puzzle-solving portions are almost perfectly enacted, but the obligatory, and often extended, firefights are less so. Partly, it's because the game's mechanics for it don't feel natural, especially the kind of close-quarters combat that can lurk around any corner, where you may end up flailing away with a gun trying to hit a target right in front of you. We'd rather have more scenes like the dramatic castle escape that comes a few chapters into the game, which provides more thrills in a few minutes than a whole game's worth of gunfights.

Uncharted 3 is out exclusively for the PlayStation 3 on November 1, 2011.