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• Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

developed by Naughty Dog, published by SONY
1 player / SONY PlayStation 3 / 2007.11.16

With the introduction of the PS3, Naughty Dog once again threw its old franchises to the wind with the new console generation. Now it would try its hand at something less cartoony and more Hollywood. The result was Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, heavily inspired by the likes of Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, and run and gun shooters, and it instantly became one of the console’s flagship series.

Story

Our hero, Nathan Drake, is a roguish treasure hunter on a mission to find the lost treasure of El Dorado. He is accompanied by Elena, a documentary filmmaker chronicling his quest, and Sully, his mentor and partner in crime. When word gets out that Drake has found clues to the treasure’s whereabouts, our heroes are ambushed by a group of murderous pirates and thieves. The heroes totally outshine the villains, which aren’t very well developed or memorable, but if you want a playable action movie, look no further than the Uncharted games.

The banter between characters is a bit on the cheesy Hollywood action movie side of things, but that’s the point. It’s entertaining enough and meshes well with the game’s tone. Characters chat with one another as the player explores and fights, which allows their personalities to shine even outside of the uninteractive cinematic sequences. One thing that doesn’t sit well with me is how the plot throws suspension of disbelief out the window. It’s a matter of taste, but it seems contradictory and goofy to veer off in the way that it does.

Game Play

Uncharted is a cover-based third-person shooter, not an adventure game with much Tomb Raider-esque exploration or puzzles. Environments are pretty but they tend to be small, and connected by linear paths. Shootouts invariably occur in settings packed to the gills with cover (which soon betrays the game’s attempt to ambush you). Still, your foes can get a leg up on you, and you’ll be forced into hand to hand combat where careful timing is required to deliver knockout blows via QTEs.

Drake doesn’t have a life meter or health packs or stuff like that. Instead the screen loses color the more injuries he sustains, and to regain health you must simply stay out of harm’s way for a few seconds (which is easier said than done in the heat of battle). Likewise enemies are bullet sponges that can take several shots to the face before going down, so there’s nothing quite as satisfying as the exploding headshots in Resident Evil 4, for example.

Drake can hold only two guns at once: one small pistol and a larger rifle, so you’ll constantly be swapping them out for others dropped by defeated enemies. More powerful weapons like shotguns and grenade launchers have extremely limited ammo, and are comparatively rare compared to AK47s and the like that can hold more than a hundred rounds. Thankfully ammo is in plentiful supply, though you’ll sometimes need to scavenge more during lengthy battles.

Monkeying Around

It’s not all gunfighting though, as Drake must regularly climb walls, hang from ledges, and swing from ropes to progress. It looks cinematic, but there’s really not much to it as there is rarely more than one path to choose from. For better or worse handholds are conspicuously marked, like breadcrumbs, so your path is always clear. A little extra exploration off the beaten path leads to dead ends but can be rewarding if you’re obsessed with collecting achievements.

Finally there are some puzzles to solve along the way, but they’re few and far between. The player is encouraged to page through Drake’s personal notebook, which is filled with elaborate sketches and notes about ancient symbols and such, which coincidentally hold helpful clues. It’s a fun and thematically consistent way to guide the player, but unfortunately this mechanic doesn’t see much use beyond that. You don’t need to take a polaroid or write down anything along the way as it’s always already there in the notebook beforehand.

Presentation

Despite being an early title for the PlayStation 3, Uncharted was a very pretty game and it still holds up well several years later other than some unsightly screen-tearing. The game’s “stylized realism” feels fresh and alive compared to its contemporaries, with an impressive amount of detail and variety in the environmental props and textures. The story sequences feel straight out of a tv show or movie, with top shelf voice acting, staging, and animation, and the settings are detailed enough to distract you from their limited size and linearity.

The game also frequently changes locations from jungles to ruins to World War 2 era bases, so your eyes will never get bored. Picturesque sunset ocean views are worth stopping to enjoy. Details that are often overlooked in other games, like how Nate’s clothing becomes visibly wet up to the point he was submerged, are present and accounted for. And the action set-pieces, from riding a seadoo up rapids to shooting at pursuing motorcycles and trucks from the back of a jeep, are great fun. The high production values are rounded out by a symphonic score by Greg Edmonson (Firefly) that does a fine job of setting the adventurous mood and tone.

Conclusion

Uncharted’s focus on gunplay over adventure grows tiresome over long play sessions where you’re funneled down a linear path towards shootout after shootout. If you’re new to shooters like me, you’ll probably die many times, which adds to the frustration and turns what should be exciting into a chore. It was never enough to deter me from playing, but if you’ve had your fill of cover-based shooters you may get bored after the handful of fun set-pieces.

If anything, it was a promising first stab at something new for Naughty Dog, just as the cover-based shooter was becoming popular. Despite its shortcomings, I would still recommend you start with this one to get to know the characters if you’re interested in playing the later games which are well worth playing. It has its issues, but clocking in at around 10 hours it probably won’t overstay its welcome. I played the PS3 original, but the series is also available as an HD remaster pack on the PS4.

PROs:
+ Engaging story with charming cast of heroes
+ Some nice set-pieces
+ High production values (animation, art, voice-acting)

CONs:
– Too much cover-based shooting, not enough adventure and puzzles
– Goofy supernatural / sci-fi stuff ruins suspension of disbelief
– Game-breaking glitches in one or two areas
– Relatively short, not much replay value

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