Review by bluej33

"Uncharted: Drake's Fortune beats the crap out of games like Tomb Raider, and then takes their wallets and cell phones"

For all the inspired adventuring that movies like Indiana Jones bring us, developers have had a hard time creating a game that captures quite the same feeling. Tomb Raider is the only real candidate, but everybody knows that Tomb Raider sucks. Finally, however, you have the opportunity to play archaeologist/grave robber without a glitchy camera or crappy controls. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, is a lot like Tomb Raider, except it's good. There's a lesson to be learned here: feel free to “derive inspiration” from crappy games, as long as you make your version better.

And that's just what Uncharted does. Tomb Raider games have always had some inexplicable appeal to me, but every time I played one of the games I had to work hard not to put my foot through the TV. Uncharted essentially takes that exciting, adventure atmosphere and weds it with a gameplay mechanic that, while repetitive, is actually a lot of fun.

Uncharted is essentially divided up into two main sections: platforming and combat. The platforming really goes hand-in-hand with all the exploration that you'll be doing throughout the game. The controls are about as simple as possible: press X to jump, and that's it. Running around environments and interacting with the environment proves to be a lot of fun. The platforming, while easy, is a lot of fun.

But what's more important than the jumping and exploring itself is that the platforming segments really give Uncharted a chance to show off it's drop-dead-gorgeous environments. Of course, these are the same environments that you'll be fighting in, but the intense combat never gives you a chance to just stop and view some of the absolutely amazing vistas that make up the world of Uncharted.

It's this graphical achievement, in part, that gives Uncharted it's entirely believable sense of reality. As you wander through jungles, scale cliffs, and explore mysterious caves throughout the island, you can't help but smile as you realize just how life-like the environment is. Uncharted sports graphics that do more than provide a pretty background for your adventuring; they go a long way in making the game genuinely better.

I've always been an advocate of the “gameplay over graphics” school of thought. That said, I'm even more enthusiastic about graphics that enhance gameplay. Recent games have been getting away from that, but not Uncharted. Enjoying Uncharted is a process, and it doesn't all just revolve around the exploration and shoot-outs. Soaking-in and appreciating the atmosphere is also huge, and that wouldn't have been possible without the beautiful, lush visuals.

That's not to say that the exploration is perfect, because while it's a lot of fun there's an annoying inconsistency with what environmental objects you can interact with. Sometimes you can grab onto window ledges; sometimes you can't. I understand that this was necessary in order to make the game as linear as it is (the dev team didn't want you crawling around on buildings just for kicks) but it's an annoying problem nonetheless.

Combat is the other main component of the game, and revolves around a cover system. During the course of Uncharted, you'll kill a LOT of enemies. And these aren't pushover, one-shot-and-they're-dead enemies either – they can sustain about as much damage as you can, so it's important to stay out of harm's way as best you can while you methodically take down the pirates and soldiers that are out for your blood.

But while the platforming is thrilling and intuitive, the gunplay has some definite quirks. Firstly, the cover system isn't always particularly reliable, because Nathan can take cover behind just about anything. Hitting the cover button could result in Nate taking cover behind whatever you wanted him to hide behind, or it could result in him taking cover behind a little stick on the ground, which inevitably ends either in him taking a crapload of damage or dying.

Luckily, though, the checkpoint and autosave systems are well-done so dying is never a big deal. There is definitely a trial-and-error feel to parts of the game, but save times are quick and checkpoints are liberally distributed, so it's never a big deal.

Another thing that really pisses me off about the gunplay is that while there are probably 8 or 10 different weapons scattered throughout the game, in reality you won't be spending much time with anything other than a machine gun and standard pistol. Yes, there is a sniper rifle, a rocket-launcher, and a shotgun. But all of these weapons come with something like 4 or 6 bullets, giving you just enough time to kill a few guys and then throw it away in favor of the machine gun, which holds something like 1,345,379 bullets. Weapon variety in a shooting game is great. But fake weapon variety is not.

There is an upside to this, though. The combat sections are somewhat repetitive, because every once in a while you'll come to a huge open area wit lots of cover and tons of ammo, and you know that you're going to kill a few hundred baddies in the next ten minutes or so. But to relieve this repetition is the fact that in some areas you'll get a new or infrequent weapon. There's only a little ammo, so it's not going to last you long. But the idea is obviously that you use it to take down some bad guys, then throw it away and go with a more lasting gun. It's an interesting, albeit sometimes annoying, way to spice up the combat.

Ultimately, though, my biggest problem isn't with either the combat or the platforming; it's with how the developers choose to combine them. You know how when you combine water and vegetable oil, they form two very distinct layers? That's a really great way to describe Uncharted. Separately, each part of the game is solid, though not without its occasional problems. But together, the game just feels jarring and inorganic.

Uncharted switches from combat to exploration and vice-versa in just seconds, and with little warning. You'll drop of a ledge, and bam: there's a veritable army of pirates waiting for you. There's absolutey no transition, and this gets to be disconcerting after a while. It would have been nice to have some sort of combination of platforming and combat. But aside from a few occasions where there's an enemy or two shooting at you as you traverse the landscape, the two main components of the game are kept very separate.

This disparity between the two mechanics of the game even carries over to level design. The platforming sections of the game are wonderfully built, with defined pathways and really awe-inspiring environments. But the areas for major combat are little more than huge fields with lots of cover. They feel nowhere near as sharp or as intelligent as the explore-able environments.

And then there are the puzzles which, while fun, come at you out of nowhere. Climb a building, kill some guys, open a gate, and...solve a switch puzzle. That's not to say they feel out of place in an adventure game, because they don't. But again, some sort of logical transition or build-up to these puzzles would be great. The puzzles themselves are excellent, though. They're never too difficult, but they're challenging enough to make you feel pretty clever when you complete them.

But for any minor flaws, Uncharted is still a really intelligent, enjoyable action game. There's this wonderful level continuity throughout the game, and different parts of the adventure may take place in the same room. For example, in one part of the game you'll traverse the precarious ceiling of a church. Then, later on, you'll come back for a huge firefight on the ground, taking cover behind the pews and the alter. Situations like this add a real sense of purpose to the game. Then there's also the generally interesting story and excellent voice acting, which serve to further immerse you in Nathan Drake's world.

Uncharted is a pretty short game, but I think that's a good thing. It feels like a movie in many ways, and it knows when enough is enough. Frankly, by the time the credits roll, the player will likely be glad that the adventure is over. Despite any combat variety, it gets to be trying towards the end of the game. Almost in a recognition of its flaws, Uncharted ends just before you could feasibly be getting frustrated with all the fighting you're doing.

But for all its problems, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is a top-notch action game. Aside from some discrepancies between game components and one of the lamest late-game “plot twists” I've ever experienced, Uncharted does things well. It's a sharp, slick, action-adventure game that every PS3 owner needs to play.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 02/09/09

Game Release: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (US, 11/16/07)

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