When it comes to gaming, I’m usually behind the times a bit (as you may have already noticed). My backlog is just quite massive and there are few contemporary games that interest me as much as older gems I haven’t played yet. Nevertheless, I recently decided to finally play through Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series – the biggest franchise born on my favourite current-generation console, the PlayStation 3. I went in expecting a fun adventure game with a simple, movie-like story and entertaining gameplay. Something like Tomb Raider (a franchise where I’m actually yet to beat a single game, but that’s another story). The first game largely met my expectations.
Game: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
Developer: Naughty Dog
Platform: PlayStation 3
Original release: 2007
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was one of the early PS3 games, and a huge reason to get one already back then, at the startling launch or near-launch price. I can see why it made the purchase worth it for many people. The game is very cinematic and the graphics are really beautiful, which is particularly impressive, considering it came out so early in the console’s life cycle. Even though they are obviously surpassed by the latter two entries in the franchise, I am sure many people were captivated by them in 2007. Add to that the nice beginning, showing the protagonist Nathan Drake on a boat with the pretty Elena, and the action starting immediately, in the middle of a short conversation between them, and you’ll be able to see why Uncharted was a huge system seller.
The game’s premise is intriguing enough – you are (or at least claim to be) a descendant of Sir Francis Drake, and, after finding an important clue left by your ancestor himself, you set off in search for El Dorado, the legendary City of Gold. It’s really a lot like an adventure movie – those influences are easy to see and are spoken of by the developers themselves in the “Behind the Scenes” videos included on the disc (Tomb Raider is never mentioned, of course :)). The story never pretends to offer any more or less than uncovering the mystery of El Dorado. The gameplay follows suit – it doesn’t try anything complex (mostly 3D platforming and third-person shooting), but does quite well at what it strives to do. An interesting thing to note is that there are no boss fights. Overall, the game is entertaining, it’s standard length for the genre (12-15 hours), and it offers nice challenge without ever becoming too frustrating.
FIND EL DORADO
Many of you like Indiana Jones, I’m sure (or at least the first three :)). The general idea in Uncharted is not much different, although Drake isn’t an archaeologist or a someone who was assigned with the mission by his government – he is just in it for the thrill of adventure and, of course, the money. After retrieving Sir Francis Drake’s coffin from the bottom of the sea, Nate finds a major clue to El Dorado. With him on the boat is the journalist Elena Fisher, filming her next story, planned to be about the young adventurer and his discoveries. They are soon attacked by pirates and the game starts… Not long after, Nate heads for the island Sir Francis Drake’s hint points to, only to find out that not just his ancestor, but also the Spanish of the same era and Germans around World War 2 have already been there in search for The City of Gold…
Uncharted does not offer too much in terms of story, but you aren’t really expecting much from the genre, anyway. For what it is, and the relatively small goals it has and scale it operates in, the story is good. Like a good adventure movie, it grips you from the very beginning, has nice pacing, some minor, but fascinating twists, and, thanks also to the well-chosen length, it doesn’t really lose its grip until you have beaten the game. There are also some mystical elements that I wasn’t really a fan of because I was liking how true to the “real world” the game was being. But they are nothing that bad, nothing that detaches Uncharted too much from reality.
Naturally, you aren’t alone in trying to get your hands on such massive treasure, there are rival factions also after it, and they do not have any scruples, either. They also have much more resources, being able to send mercenaries after you, so you must fight and overcome countless challenges on your way to the ultimate goal. Many times, you will be faced with nearly impossible odds, but some creativity and a cool head during those shoot-outs will always tip the scales in your favour just enough so you can get out alive.
A SMALL, DEVELOPED CAST BEATS A LARGE ONE
Uncharted follows the mould of what makes a good movie in terms of cast, too. There are only a few relevant characters, but some nice effort is put into their development. This goes especially for the three protagonists – Nathan, Elena and Sully. While they embody some clichés (after all, what isn’t cliché nowadays?), the main three are quite pleasant and the player can’t help sympathising with them. The villains are rather typical and not as interesting, but they still play their roles in the story nicely enough.
Speaking of Indiana Jones, one cannot help noticing the resemblance between Nate and Indy (the biggest difference being that the game hero does not wear a fedora – it would just have been too much). Drake sticks true to the movie likeness in terms of personality, too. He is brave, quite charming, and still very human in the dangerous situations he finds himself in. Yet, he does not ever lose his wit or sense of humour. Drake is certainly one of the best characters introduced in the current generation, and it is a bit of a shame that the genre he appears in is such a limited one.
Elena and Sully, Nate’s supporting cast, are also quite entertaining. Elena is a young reporter thrilled with the chance to make her “big scoop” and certain that Nathan is the man to lead her to it. She is beautiful, enthusiastic and, despite her nice feminine features (nothing exaggerated like Lara Croft), she can hold her own in the wild, and with a gun in hands. Sully is an older gentleman, adventurer much like Drake, and his good friend and, to some extent, mentor. He is the joker of the bunch, complete with many human imperfections, like a weakness for gambling and women.
As for the villains, there’s really not much to be said – they want the treasure, they’ll stop at nothing to get it, and their aim is simply to eliminate Drake and his friends so that nothing stands in their way. They’re in it for the money – nothing more, nothing less. Still, it must be said that one of the main villain’s subordinates – Eddy, has a somewhat interesting relationship with Drake.
DYNAMIC GAMEPLAY, TRUE TO THE GENRE
As mentioned above, most of the gameplay in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune consists of exploration, platforming and gunfights. Naturally, as an adventure game taking place on an unknown island, exploration and finding your way through the forest or dark catacombs is a key element. It’s never hard to find the right way, though – the game suffers from the linearity syndrome that has hit pretty much everything with a big budget this generation – from Call of Duty to Final Fantasy.
Due to the nature of the camera, which is normally freely rotated, but fixed in key moments, platforming is rather limited. As you jump from ledge to ledge trying to climb a tall building, you will notice that there is not that much freedom in the direction you can jump in, and that it’s easier to reach your goal than to fall and die. Still, there are also several parts where platforming is not restricted by the camera and thus more enjoyable. Despite the camera problems, however, everything just feels very epic. Not quite like climbing a colossus in Shadow of the Colossus (I like to reference that game, don’t I? I think I should finally review it), but finally reaching the top of that hill after barely hanging onto the ledges as you jump from one to another sure feels relieving and a glorious achievement.
The meat of the gameplay are the gunfights. They are intense, and are where the true difficulty lies. Uncharted uses a nicely implemented cover system which current-generation gamers are all too familiar with – eat some bullets, hide behind a wall if the situation gets dangerous for your life, wait a few seconds, and then show up, ready to eat another as many bullets until you need to hide again. Unless you are good enough to eliminate your enemies before eating too many bullets to begin with, of course. 🙂 And trust me, Drake will have a lot of blood on his hands once he is done with this adventure.
At any time, Nate will have up to three weapons at his disposal – a small gun, a large gun, and grenades. The small gun can be from a normal pistol to a deadly magnum, the large one can be a semi-automatic, a shotgun, a grenade launcher, or a sniper rifle. The interesting thing about grenades is that throwing them necessitates use of the Sixaxis for aiming (as an early PS3 game, Uncharted HAD to have something to showcase the motion-sensing technology of the PS3 controller). The arsenal is more than adequate, with killed enemies always kind enough to drop ammo, and only in a handful of occasions may you run out of bullets at all. Even then, you have Nate’s trusty fists (a “quick” and “brutal” combo being at your disposal), though you need to first get close to your enemies to use them, of course.
Shootings are usually challenging, but never too difficult. The game sends impressive numbers of enemies your way at times, but never an overwhelming amount. Sometimes, when you take out some, others come to take their place, but battles are always kept winnable. End-game sequence aside, I’d say the difficulty peaks mid-game, when enemy numbers at the same time increase to their maximum, and you still haven’t figured out how you can eliminate them most efficiently. The game has no real boss fights whatsoever. It is kind of weird, bosses are a traditional mechanic not only in the genre, but in games altogether. But it does not really serve as a detriment, as there is enough challenge to be found in the shootings, and certain sequences replace the “end this chapter” feel normally reserved for bosses nicely enough.
There are also a jeep and a couple of jet ski sequences in the game, the last of which is probably the most frustrating part of the game. You have to go upstream a river, with many obstacles coming your way and enemies waiting in ambush. I probably died as many times there as in the whole rest of the game combined. While it seems a cool concept at first, I feel they just overdid it a little. Going upstream just makes your jet ski very difficult to control, so you are forced to focus on it too much, taking your attention off the rest of the problems around you.
The game is in fact divided into chapters, about 20 in total. I have nothing but praise for this division – they are adequate, as something important has happened as the next chapter starts, and they give you a nice sense and indication of your progress to the game. On the save file information, you can also see how far you are in the game, as a percentage. Early PS3 adopters didn’t get the chance to experience the joy of trophies in Uncharted, but Naughty Dog had built-in a system very similar to Xbox Live’s achievements, each granting certain points to the player. Trophies were added with a later patch, converting the initial system to trophies in a 1:1 manner, with the initial system also remaining in place. One of the fun aspects to Uncharted is collecting all the treasures scattered throughout the game world – certainly a draw for completionists, and still a nice addition for those like me who will never go out of their way to try and collect them all, but still enjoy getting some trophies for the ones we come across.
BEAUTIFUL CHARACTERS AND SCENERY
The complex, nicely detailed character models are certainly a huge draw in Uncharted. They are very impressive, considering it is such an early PS3 title. Of course, the level of detail in the latter two PS3 titles in the franchise dwarfs what is seen here, but that does not erase the fact that Uncharted is one of the best looking PS3 titles even today, 5 years after it was released. Facial features are done nicely, lip syncing is great, there is just very little one could complain about. The “Behind the Scenes” videos reveal the motion capture process and the fact that the voice actors actually had to do all those stunts (dumbed-down, of course) themselves, while delivering the dialogue. That certainly makes everything feel more real than having the motion capture and voice acting independent from each other.
As the game takes place on a lush island, the jungle scenery is another very impressive aspect of the graphics. It’s not an easy task to portray a jungle in a game, not even with today’s technology. But Naughty Dog have done a good job with it in Uncharted, even before their later titles would highlight them as the undisputed company that would be able to squeeze the most out of the current-generation hardware. Aside from the jungle, there are many other environments – dark catacombs, high towers, libraries, small ports… My favourite is the German U-boat – I bet someone just thought that up randomly, the conversation was probably like:
“You know, this game is epic, but it needs just an extra something to become TRULY epic. Any ideas?”
“Hmm… How about a German U-boat?”
“In the middle of the jungle river?”
“Sure, why not?”
“Genius! Let’s do it!”
The soundtrack, composed by Greg Edmonson, is not a particularly strong point in Uncharted, I have to be honest and say that I do not recall a single theme as I’m writing this. Like in Journey, it’s mostly an atmospheric score, adding to the situation currently taking place, but never really making you stop the action for a minute to listen. Nevertheless, as usual, I’ve chosen a cool song to add to the review – it’s called “Trapped”.
STRONG START TO THE SERIES
Overall, Uncharted is a game worth playing. The length is just right for the genre – it’s not too much of a time investment, the challenge is good, and the sense of accomplishment at the end is worth it. The staples of the action-adventure genre are there, and done very well. There’s a lot of attention to detail. The graphics are really impressive and just a joy to look at. Shootings are intense, the AI is good, but not so much as to make them impossible. There are no boss battles, but that is not a big problem considering the flow and setting of the game. There are also some not-so-pleasant segments, like the upstream jet ski one, but they are not enough to ruin the impression.
Drake’s Fortune is a strong start to the series. As long as you go in with the right mindset, not expecting too much from what is merely an adventure game with obvious movie and Tomb Raider influences, you will enjoy it. And I hear the second and third game are even more of a joy to play (I’ve already started the second one, in fact), so why not start with something very good and move on to even greater stuff. The adventurer’s spirit is very much alive within us, even in today’s technological world! Unleash it by putting yourself in Drake’s shoes for a while.
FINAL SCORE: 7.5/10