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.