Kicking off a week of reviews for games you might be considering for Christmas, I’m going to start on a platform-exclusive title, with the PS3’s flagship 3rd-person actioner series, Uncharted, and their latest instalment, Uncharted 3.

Starting in the most cliché London pub possible, featuring a variety of accents that have never existed outside of an American’s imagination, Uncharted 3 makes only the most perfunctory effort to establish its paper-thin plot (something something FRANCIS DRAKE something something fuck it let’s just go to a bunch of locations and climb about until the baddies arrive then shoot them), falling back several times on the hack story mainstay of all archaeological adventure films, the old ‘hidden location how did they get here oh no they must have followed us and now they’re taking the treasure off us at gunpoint damn and we were so close too’. Don’t worry about it too much though, they decided about halfway through to pretty much scrap all that and go in a new (or rather, old) direction, ditching the new(er) characters, some of whom are never heard from again, and returning largely to bit-part Deus Ex Machina stereotypes and series mainstays who, if you haven’t played the prior games (or, if you’re me, even if you have) you will neither know nor care about in the slightest, mostly because they have zero impact on the game.

As the game goes on, you start to think that they may choose to take the plot in a number of different bold directions, at least concerning the characters. At times the game even hints at making some moves that will have an impact on the game world outside of this instalment (including one of the biggest bait-and-switches in recent memory), but ultimately they chicken out from every one, coming so close at times that you can almost hear the meeting in which a senior executive with dollar signs in his eyes said ‘great idea, but what if, instead, we don’t do that! Just do all the build up as if it’s going to happen, then when we completely back away from it, we get all the dramatic payoff with none of the cost!’. The problem, of course, is that there is a cost, and that cost is I don’t give a shit any more. Fool me once, shame on you. Try it again, and you’ll find that any pathos you were trying to build up has been roundly destroyed.

The badge on the front of the box promises a ‘uniquely cinematic online experience’, and though I am sure this is accurate, the fact that they think a game’s highest aim should be to become a movie is rather worrying. The Uncharted series has always been pretty heavily cinema-inspired, but this third effort is where it finally tips over into becoming more film than game. This is no longer a third person action adventure game, but instead an action movie where you play hero Nathan Drake’s stunt double, responsible for wading through the hordes of henchmen and getting to the next custscene location, at which point the game switches you out for the handsome pre-rendered leading man to say his lines and grab all the cinematic facetime. It’s no coincidence that almost all of the ads for this game show cinematic set pieces rather than the actual gameplay.

But enough about the plot, or lack thereof, how does it play? Well, though you might be the stuntman, you’re certainly no marksman, as Nathan Drake apparently can’t move his aim quicker than the enemies can walk, making the main combat at times quite frustrating, but apart from this gripe it’s well executed. As for the levels, it’s the usual and largely enjoyable mix of climbing and shooting people, though it seems every time Nathan Drake goes to grab something, it falls off/breaks unexpectedly, which is a nice touch the first 500 times it happens, but eventually gets a bit irritating, as the ensuing cutscene once again grabs control away from you again.

The levels themselves, though they might just be completely unrelated settings strung one after another, are stunning to look at: very little is repeated or ‘farmed’, and they really showcase what is possible if you throw a hell of a lot of money at a game to make it look pretty. Unfortunately, this seems to mean they didn’t have enough left for any innovative gameplay, so they had to buy the brawling system from Arkham Asylum second hand (slightly worn) and shoehorn it in, which is mostly inoffensive but always unsatisfying.

As for longevity, gone are the multiple character models for repeat playthroughs, extra weapons etc. Instead we have multiplayer online mode (didn’t play, don’t care) and split screen co-op, which is commendable, and probably worth a go on Christmas Day afternoon. All told the one player clocks in at around 9 hours, which I’m sad to say is a decent amount of time for a game these days, especially one as pretty and, let’s be nice and say ‘well-planned’, as this one.

If Uncharted 2 was an uncut diamond: sharp, occasionally uneven but an intriguing and mysterious gem, that showed something unique and unexpected from every angle, then Uncharted 3is a highly-polished, symmetrical and traditionally-cut jewel, unquestionably beautiful, undeniably excellent, but in some vital way less exciting, with only its size and the quality of its polishing making it stand out from its peers in the shop window.

So should you buy this game for someone for Christmas? No, of course not: you should buy them Skyrim. But if they’re out of copies of that, and they already have Uncharted 2, then you could do worse.

Alex

I completed the game in 8 hours and 40 minutes, of which apparently 1 hour was spent in cover, and I’d wager at least another hour spent watching cutscenes.