By Adam B. Vary
November 01, 2011 at 12:00 PM EDT

At this point, saying an Uncharted game is akin to playing a top-tier Hollywood blockbuster — albeit a blockbuster that would have cost upwards of $500 million had it been made into an actual, live-action feature film — is almost something of a cliché. I’m on record for thinking that videogames have of late been beating big time movie studios at their own game, and 2007’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and especially 2009’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves have been at the tip of that particular spear.

And yet I was still unprepared for just how gobsmackingly great Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception would be. (Be warned: MILD SPOILERS follow for this Playstation 3 title, but I promise an emphasis on “mild.”) I expected the massive action set pieces to get even more sweeping and outrageous, and hoo boy, are they ever. But I can scarcely think of another game — other than last year’s masterpiece Red Dead Redemption, perhaps — that has spent so much time dissecting its hero’s inner life, building its story from who the character is and has been, and still feel so light and fun and, yes, even human-scaled amid all the epic derring-do.

This isn’t to say Uncharted 3 has, ahem, charted brand new territory in action-adventure storytelling. It liberally references Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Lawrence of Arabia, The Bourne Ultimatum, The Poseidon Adventure, even The Mummy (and not in the way you’re likely thinking, promise). It just does so with a healthy dose of reverence and a plucky drive to mix those familiar elements together into a wildly imaginative, finger-twitching cocktail.

Nathan Drake’s quest this time out is to find Ubar, a.k.a. Iram of the Pillars, a lost city in the Arabian peninsula that his namesake Sir Francis Drake was tasked by Queen Elizabeth I with locating. That family connection isn’t perfunctory, either. After an opening brawl in a London pub, the game flashes back to Nathan Drake as a roughly 14-year-old street urchin, casing a Columbian museum for artifacts the 16th century Drake left behind that point to Ubar’s location. That also happens to be when Nathan first met Sully, his mentor and father figure, as well as Uncharted 3’s main villain, an iron-fisted British woman named Marlowe, who’s like Helen Mirren gone deliciously evil.

NEXT PAGE: Nathan fixes up his facility at fisticuffs

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The flashback sequence is tremendous fun — as I eluded sharp-suited goons while scampering through apartments and over sun-dappled rooftops, it dawned on me, when was the last time a major game franchise put you in the shoes of a young kid like this? More importantly, it ends up driving the rest of the game forward from an unusually character-based place, especially concerning Drake’s relationship with Sully. If it seems like I’m spending more time talking about the plot than the gameplay, that’s only because Uncharted 3, more than its predecessors and certainly more than most videogames, is trying to tell us a bone fide story about its hero, rather than just toss him into a larger-than-life adventure. What’s more, it tells that story with remarkable, engrossing poise and panache.

None of that storytelling skill would work, however, if the game wasn’t a rip-roaring good time to play. There is a far larger emphasis on hand-to-hand combat in this iteration, and it’s so varied and flat out cool — knock a thug out in the right way, and his weapon will fly out of his hands, in slo-mo, and into yours — that I often opted to bum rush my enemies and take them out with my fists rather than park behind a conveniently placed stone block and shoot it out. The overall blueprint for the levels hasn’t really changed from previous Uncharteds; you’re still placed at the start of huge landscape, like a crumbling French chateau, and tasked with climbing, jumping, puzzling, and fighting your way through it en route to some distant goal. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, but I did appreciate that a few of the puzzles sprinkled throughout Uncharted 3 approach a satisfying Myst-like complexity for the first time in the franchise.

There is one section of the game, set in a medieval castle, that suffers a bit from too many characters, too much convoluted exposition, and too little invention in the level design (I’ve explored castles like that in more games than I can count, really, including the first Uncharted). But in the totality of the game, it’s more of a beauty mark than a blemish. There are many, many more moments where my mouth hung agape in an awe-struck grin, but rather than spoil them for you here, please do join me later this week as I start a little PopWatch experiment and recap Uncharted 3‘s single-player campaign from start to finish. I haven’t even mentioned how strong the acting is in the game, or noted little details like the small camera judder as you lift Drake onto a ledge. Suffice it to say, Uncharted 3 is a bigger, richer, and more exhilarating piece of entertainment than almost anything else I’ve experienced this year. I cannot wait to play it again, and to play it along with you.

Grade: A

Adam on Twitter @adambvary

Read more:

Ten videogames for fall 2011 we can’t wait to play

Videogames vs. Movies: Have games replaced films as the modern popular narrative medium?

Harrison Ford plays ‘Uncharted 3’: ‘It’s like being in the movie, except in the movie, I always win!’

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