Somewhere near the city of Aqaba in the Jordanian desert, UAE resident Nicholas Rego, 28, is on his hands and knees, scrabbling around in a patch of sand as he searches for buried gold coins. A couple of local bedu in traditional dress look on with bemusement as he frantically sifts the hot sand through his fingers, finding little but sun-dried lumps of stale camel dung.
This is merely the first in a series of tasks that Rego has to complete by the end of the day as he battles the representatives of nineteen other countries for the title of Ultimate Uncharted Treasure Hunter. The event, set amongst the spectacular mountains of south-west Jordan, has been organised by Sony PlayStation and is being held to promote the latest instalment of one of its best-loved games, Uncharted: Drake’s Deception.
Since its launch in 2007 the Uncharted franchise has sold a staggering four million copies globally and no doubt gamers everywhere will be salivating over their control pads as they await the return this month of the game’s protagonist Nathan Drake, surely up there with Lara Croft in the pantheon of PlayStation’s greatest characters.
For the uninitiated, Uncharted is an action-adventure series which follows modern-day treasure hunter Drake (think Indiana Jones meets Jason Bourne) as he travels around the world solving various historical mysteries. The first game in the series was set in the Amazon jungle, the second in the Orient. It was only a matter of time, then, before Naughty Dog, the game’s California-based developer, settled on the history-rich Middle East as a location in which to put the doughty Drake through his paces.
What sets Uncharted 3 apart from other games however, especially if you have an interest in the history of the Middle East, is that its plot derives from the archaeological days of the British military officer TE Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia, who famously helped unite the tribes of the Middle East during the Arab Revolt of 1916–18.
Naughty Dog drew heavily on Lawrence’s memoirs, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, to ground the game in fact and distinguish it from your average shoot-’em-up. The rugged desert area sometimes referred to as the Valley of the Moon, where today’s elaborately planned treasure hunt is taking place, provided the inspiration for the game’s visually absorbing backdrop.
Lawrence may have famously got around on camelback, but the participants of today’s treasure hunt have a far cushier ride. Each of the twenty competitors has been assigned a driver and truck (albeit one that looks like it has been driven through a violent meteor storm), as well as their own GPS system. They will also be accompanied by members of the press from their respective countries. The Polish contingent, much to the delight of all the men on the trip, has even brought along a famous (or so we’re told) woman TV presenter who is conspicuously dressed in a flesh-revealing safari suit and oversized shades.
The competitors, most of whom are in their early twenties, are clearly excited to be here, but there is no doubt that each of them has the grand prize (a TAG Heuer watch) firmly in their sights and is eager to do their country proud.
Asked what it means to represent the UAE in the contest, Rego, a gaming journalist who earned his place on the trip after winning the UAE heat, admits that he feels a bit of pressure.
“A lot of people back home wished me luck and said I could be the underdog and bring the gold home, so I hope I don’t disappoint them,” he says. “But it’s an amazing experience in a beautiful country and there’s a lot of excitement in the air – but there’s a lot riding on this and I hope I can pull through.”
He says that when he found out about the treasure hunt he wasn’t confident of doing well.
“I’m the kind of guy who loses his car in the parking lot. It’s a bit overwhelming but exciting at the same time – definitely an adrenaline rush.”
Also on the trip, never far away from the action, is John Sullivan, a survival training consultant and ex-Royal Marine Commando whose expertise was enlisted to bring credibility to the project.
“I came out here in May this year to put together the logistics of the treasure hunt,” says Sullivan, who runs a survival training company in his native UK. “I had no resources no hotel, no transport, no local guide, not even camels. I started from scratch. It’s what I do. I go out and put things together. I had to find an environment that suits the game itself and looks similar. For seven days I went around marking GPS points and working out the timings. A lot of thought and hard work has gone into this one day.”
He isn’t kidding. Throughout the course of the day Rego has shot targets with an air rifle, ridden a particularly volatile camel, climbed up a sand dune the height of small office block and discovered a latent talent for axe-throwing. He’s uncovered myriad paper scrolls hidden under rocks (on which clues were written) and correctly guessed the weight of a bag of sand (“I like baking cakes in my spare time” he explains).
Almost seven hours after embarking on the treasure hunt, we head back to the camp at nearby Bait Ali, sunburned, sweaty and in need of a cool drink. It has been a fun but physically and mentally sapping day treading in the footsteps of the great Lawrence.
Despite surpassing himself with the axe task and completing the treasure hunt within the given time frame, Rego has been outperformed by the Mediterranean tripartite of Portugal, Spain and Italy, who take the top three prizes: the watch, a Garmin GPS system and a rather handsome Belstaff safari jacket inspired, we are told, by one which was worn by TE Lawrence himself.
When the prize-giving ceremony is over and the belly dancer has gyrated her last, we are finally invited to test out the game on the dozen or consoles that have been kindly set up for us. Cue a big stampede of keen gamers, leaving the rest of us waiting several hours for our turn.
So what’s it like? You’ll have to buy it and find out.
Uncharted: Drake’s Deception is released in the UAE this month.
Q&A with Taylor Kurosaki of Naughty Dog
Congratulations on the latest Uncharted game. Is it true that a movie adaptation has been scheduled for release in 2013? Can you tell us anything about it?
I believe a director has been officially attached to the project. His name is Neil Burger and he recently directed Limitless with Bradley Cooper. The producers are Ari and Avi Arad who have worked on some of the best movies based on comic books, including The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man, so it’s in good hands.
Who will play Nathan Drake?
There have been rumours that Bradley Cooper, Hugh Jackman or Donnie Wahlberg will play Nathan Drake, but they’re just rumours at the moment.
How are the graphics of Uncharted 3 superior to the other games?
This is now our third game on the PS3 and the first game was all about learning how to make a game work on this hardware. The PS3 is incredibly advanced architecture and it takes the programmers a long time to figure out how to maximise the potential of the hardware and they get better and better at eking more out of it. On this game I think they’ve outdone themselves again. Our programmers at Naughty Dog are gluttons for punishment. Where anyone else will say it’s impossible to do, they will relish the challenge.
I don’t think we have come up with anything so far that our programmers couldn’t execute.
Why did you choose Jordan as a location?
We don’t go to Jordan specifically in the game. TE Lawrence spent a lot of time here and it’s where he got his nickname Lawrence of Arabia. We referenced Wadi Rum National Park to model a lot of the deserts that Drake encounters in Uncharted 3 but TE Lawrence had been in the Middle East for some time and when he went back home to the UK he used to tell people that if he ever went back to the Middle East he would search for this place he called the “Atlantis of the sand”, which is this lost city Ubar, which did exist. But it’s in the Rub Al Kali desert at the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula.
A few thousand years ago it wasn’t as inhospitable as it is now. It was on a major trade route. Legend has it that it was swallowed up by the desert, struck down by God for being an unholy place. I don’t think anyone has found the remains of it, but Nathan Drake is going to try.
For how long can the Uncharted franchise go on?
Who knows? How many James Bond movies have there been? Twentysomething? There are always new, unexplored places, and the name of the game, after all, is Uncharted. So there’s a limitless number of locations to explore
Have you looked at possible locations for the fourth instalment?
Not formally. We literally stopped working on Uncharted 3 a few days ago so we’ll all just take vacations and get reacquainted with our families at this point! And after a few weeks we’ll reconvene at the offices and we’ll think about what’s next. We have a whole bunch of ideas – things that were left on the cutting room floor when developing the first two games, so let’s see.