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Uncharted 3: Drowning in hype?

How it plans to take your breath away without choking on expectation...

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Eventually, we reach a dead end - the cargo hold. Like the ballroom, it's a vast, complex space. Cars and crates line up in rows, while columns reach from floor to ceiling, calling out for traversal.

The music swells ominously as Drake clambers down into the darkness to find...an ambush. But it's hard to get the drop on a guy like Drake. All he needs is a grenade for an explosive distraction, then he's off into cover.

Here's where we think the kind of tweaking you expect from a sequel is really apparent. Aiming's smoother, cover's quicker to negotiate, and - better yet - Uncharted's tentative fistfights have swollen into full-on brawls. Drake's finally able to square off against several enemies at once, using a range of headbutts and kicks, and he can use contextual moves too - grabbing a nearby bottle to club an enemy, for example. Ouch.

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You can't chuck grenades on a boat without expecting trouble, however, and Naughty Dog is master of the cinematic pay-off. Right on cue, the sea erupts from the far side of the hold and the liner, weighed down as the ocean pours in, begins to capsize. Cars slide around, bouncing off walls and exploding, and by the time Drake's finished off a few stragglers - showcasing another new melee move that allows him to stun an enemy, rip a grenade pin off them and then push them away - the water's everywhere, thick and foaming. Which is where we came in.

MYSTERIOUS WAYS
The ocean liner has left us with plenty of tantalising questions - why is this huge ship deserted? What's Drake doing aboard? Who are the armed men guarding it? - but it also hints at a new emphasis on stealth: a mood shift based on new contextual grabs and takedowns.

The focus on sneaking is present in our much shorter behind closeddoors demo, too, in which we see Drake and Elena (sporting an engagement ring?) infiltrating an airstrip to board a cargo plane.

But while there's a bit of room for Drake to sneak around on rooftops, finishing off enemies quietly, things don't take half as long to start getting noisy this time.

Pretty soon, our massive shootout's giving way to a jeep chase as the plane taxis down the runway, and we're into one final fight with Drake up against a mountain of a man as the aircraft takes to the skies. It's another brutal glimpse of that melee system and it ends, in classic pulp style, with our hero hanging from the back of the plane as most of its cargo is ejected over the desert.

Both demos suggest Naughty Dog is drastically evolving the series' cinematic pacing and sense of scale, but what's even more astonishing is the degree of detailing the team's willing to invest in its numerous setpieces. When the lamps on the ocean liner are sent swaying, tiny shivers of dust spill from the ceiling, while a guard, patrolling far below, idly toes a stray cardboard box out of the way as he passes; when Drake makes that Commando-style leap onto the plane's landing gear, Elena's coaxing him on, fretting behind the wheel of her jeep.

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These touches may not add much to the level design, but they work wonders when it comes to your sense of immersion - something that normally comes with only the best action films. We think they're just as important as the improved climbing, which now allows Drake to interact with physics objects: scampering up the plane's swaying cargo net, or scrabbling across flaming beams just before they collapse.

Drake's not just the nimblest of adventurers - he's also the most human. You see it as he steadies himself before a jump, you hear it as he panics when a grenade lands nearby, and you feel it as he interacts with Uncharted's cast. And while it's nice to have Chloe and Elena confirmed for Drake's Deception, the focus apparently lies elsewhere for this outing.

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE
"We're constantly trying to draw different aspects of Nate's personality out by the characters we surround him with," says Wells. "This time around, the emphasis is on Sully. Their relationship is the mentor and protégé. You'll get to find out how long they've been together, how they met, what makes them tick... as you progress, we'll really test the boundaries of how strong that relationship is."
Sully's double-crossed Drake before - kind of, anyway, in the first Uncharted. Maybe he's still not to be trusted.

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