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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