It was somewhere around the sixth rooftop that I leapt from during a rollicking foot chase above the streets of Yemen that I realized "Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception" (Sony, $59.99 for PlayStation 3) is one of the best games I've played this year — and maybe ever.
It's not because the gameplay is notably innovative or the story is particularly compelling. They're not. "Uncharted 3" is just unapologetically fun. The developers at Naughty Dog have stuck closely to the formula that garnered them awards, critical praise and game sales for "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves" by creating another interactive action experience that rivals anything Hollywood has churned out in the past four years.
"Uncharted 3" finds treasure hunter Nathan Drake, who claims to be a descendent of Sir Francis Drake, on a quest to uncover a mythical city known as the "Atlantis of the Sands" that's apparently buried somewhere in the Middle East. His journey is more personal this time, providing some much needed character development for Drake and his cohorts.
Nolan North again gives a pitch-perfect performance as Drake, and so do sidekicks Richard McGonagle as con man Victor "Sully" Sullivan, Emily Rose as journalist Elena Fisher, Claudia Black as grifter Chloe Frazer and Graham McTavish as henchman Charlie Cutter. Rosalind Ayres does a noble Helen Mirren impersonation as villainess Katherine Marlowe.
The game's exotic environments serve as the other, more gorgeous, stars of "Uncharted 3." A burning chateau in France, a pirated cruise ship in the Arabian Sea and the bustling streets in Yemen are a few of the exhilarating playgrounds where Drake can seamlessly switch among climbing, shooting, brawling and puzzle solving during his whirlwind adventure.
Yes, the plot is too similar to the previous "Uncharted" titles — how many secret cities can one man uncover? But the pace is so rapid, and the action is peppered with so much humor and heart, that it hardly matters, especially in the game's more exciting later stages, some of which are surprisingly mind-bending and gut-wrenching for such a mainstream game.
"Uncharted 3" doesn't offer players any more freedom than its predecessor did two years ago, which is just fine by me because that's what the developers intended. I found the strict linear nature of "Uncharted 3" comforting after toying with such seemingly open-ended new releases as "Rage," "Dark Souls" and "Batman: Arkham City."
The only major gripe that I have with "Uncharted 3" is that it's no longer in uncharted territory. The differences from the second to the third installment are merely tweaks. The hand-to-hand combat system is sharper, and the multiplayer and cooperative modes are fuller, but they still lack the addictiveness of games like "Call of Duty" or "World of Warcraft."
The bar was set so high that "Uncharted 3" isn't quite able to surpass "Uncharted 2," despite a masterful blend of thrilling gameplay, cinematic storytelling and luscious graphics. I wonder if it's possible for Naughty Dog to ever top "Uncharted 2." I'm not sure. I just know I cannot wait to play "Uncharted 4" to find out. Four out of four stars.