Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is, by many accounts, one of the greatest games ever made. Compared to the original, Drake’s Fortune, fortune hunter Nate Drake’s second outing in 2009 wore its bigger ambitions on its sleeve, whisking players from one globetrotting location to the next. The set pieces were more brazen (and undoubtedly far more expensive to craft): players had Drake evading an apache-type helicopter in a ruined Nepalese city and fighting his way up a train which moved from the jungle into the Himalayan mountains in real time, to use two famous examples. After the accolades poured in, where could a sequel possibly go?

The answer from Naughty Dog was to try to tell a story with more deeper and more personal stakes for Drake — it would be the end of a trilogy, so the thinking there made sense — dealing both with his relationship with Sully, gruff Drakes father figure, as well as a villain from his own checkered past. Drake’s Deception garnered its a fair share of great reviews when it was released in 2011, but generally it’s remembered as being more forgettable than its predecessors.

Uncharted 2

In retrospect, it’s not a stretch to think that Uncharted 3 became a victim of its own hype. The game’s marketing push was huge, including, treasure hunting campaigns from Sony, a commercial during the 2011 NFL season kickoff game, one ridiculous promotional campaign with Subway and a delightful one featuring Harrison Ford.

More important, Uncharted 2 was proof that Naughty Dog had gone from making what was a pretty solid first effort with Drake’s Fortune to crafting a character-driven adventure game on par with the biggest games in the business, in a genre that virtually no one else in the industry would touch. In effect, any expectations for a sequel would’ve been near-impossible to fulfill.

A few years removed, Uncharted 3 carries none of that baggage and is much better for it. From a technical standpoint, the art and visuals are stunning. At the time, the developers once again upped what was possible on the PS3 hardware (Drake’s Deception took up nearly a whole 50 gb blu-ray compared to its predecessor’s 25 gb size) and its PS4 remaster looks even sharper, with improvements to lighting and textures that make it look practically current-gen. Other technical improvements help as well, with less finicky controls, smoother animation and much improved bareknuckle brawling.

Of course this is all just icing on the cake. The real allure of any pulp adventure is its characters and set pieces. Uncharted 3 often feels like the series’ own Last Crusade, and not just because it’s the final serial of the trilogy. The action sequences tower above the first two entries due to the apparently exponential improvements Naughty Dog made to its engine.

If you played the game in 2011, escaping a burning French chateau as it transformed into an inferno all around you was a jaw-dropping experience, to say nothing of the shipyard, cruise ship, cargo plane and canyon chase moments. Each explosive segment was brought to vivid, playable life through the game’s overtly cinematic direction and some incredibly realistic physics. (And if you happen to appreciate the game’s homages to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Last Crusade, Lawrence of Arabia and The Poseidon Adventure, among others, so much the better.)

Where Uncharted 3 does stumble a little bit is with its script, but not as much in its characters. When the plot is focused on Drake, Sully and Elena, it has some of the best-developed moments of the trilogy. As pulp fiction, Uncharted’s villains have always as cartoonish as the genre demands, and Uncharted 3’s supernaturally-tinged Talbot and Marlowe, a thinly-veiled Helen Mirren-alike, certainly fit the profile; they’re weaker than the heroes, perhaps by necessity, given the game’s narrative scope.

Marlowe was arguably billed pre-release as a more important figure with a more substantive connection to Drake’s past in the game’s somewhat misleading trailers. Probably the best way to appreciate Uncharted 3 is to squarely compartmentalize all of Drake’s adversaries as lurking pulp tropes, hunting for MacGuffin after MacGuffin, even when their actions don’t necessarily make sense (which does happen).

Still, the rest of the character-driven conflict is strong enough that they’re easy enough to take with grain of salt, essentially as Uncharted 3’s scattershot. Foibles aside, the game is great enough in its own right it can’t help but mesmerize. With Uncharted 4 out now, it’s worth the time to see just how the original trilogy climaxed first.

Photos via SCEA