But on top of all the big and impressive stuff the engine is doing, the game is packed with examples of the sort of great game design that separates a top tier studio from the guys lower down the prestige pile. Take the minimal interface, with no health-bars and only the most basic ammo gauge. The game uses a steady screen-bleaching effect to show how badly you’re hurt or wounded, and your status slowly recharges, Call of Duty-style, when you’re in cover. You also have to look at the way the game uses subtle cues in the art and lighting to point your way forward, and understated hints at a press of the L2 button when you might be really stuck. The game is fairly linear, but you never spend more than a few minutes searching for the next place to go or the next thing to leap onto. It’s a generous game, but not a patronising one.
Importantly, it’s a deeply cinematic one. By this I don’t just mean that it’s full of epic camera movements and showy camera angles – though it is – nor that it’s narrative driven (ditto). What I mean is that it’s constructed like a really big adventure film, with proper set-pieces, proper character development, a nice range of twists and turns and a real sense of when to build pace and when to give you some breathing room. There’s some really enjoyable dialogue, particularly between Drake and his female lead, and the game even manages to pack in three major villains, each with their own distinctive style and their own big moments (and one is a ringer for Hollywood’s current favourite Brit-baddie, Jason Isaacs).
The close-up work isn’t as impressive as Heavenly Sword’s, but there’s still something very natural and likeable about the motion-captured performances. About a third of the way through the game something unusual happened – I got caught up in the storyline, and I actually started caring about the characters. It’s a confident step above the usual clichéd sci-fi and fantasy tripe we usually accept in video games, partly because it stays close to basic Hollywood rules of plot structure and motivation, and partly because it’s clever enough – like Raiders of the Lost Ark – to hold back on fantasy elements until the final section of the game. What’s more the music is excellent, and I love the elegant way the score cues you in to nearby dangers or hints that the coast might be clear.
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