Review by Senor_T_Dub

Reviewed: 07/06/09

As An Aggregate Of Its Many Parts, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune Provides A Shoot In The Arm For The PS3

In these days of astronomical game development costs, studios are focusing on crafting games to immerse the player in the video game equivalent of a summer blockbuster. One look at the best received games of this generation can confirm the importance of well designed set pieces, cinematic sequences, and coherent stories weaved together with excellent gameplay. Games like Gears of War, Mass Effect, and CoD4: Modern Warfare, are perfect examples of the types of games capable utilizing current technology. Perhaps no game encompasses the spirit of Hollywood’s finest better than the inaugural game in Naughty Dog’s original Playstation 3 series. Simply put, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is an engrossing, powerful game, one that shines bright among the PS3’s finest, despite some considerable flaws.

Much like their decision to abandon Crash Bandicoot in favor of a new IP for the Playstation 2, Naughty Dog ditches the safe route of pumping out an infinite series of Jak & Daxter sequels to bring players the most rewarding treasure hunt since Henry Jones Jr. drank from the Cup of Christ. Make no mistake though, Nathan Drake is no Indiana Jones; he isn’t witty, clever, or particularly endearing (nor does he rock the fedora), but his story is one that grabs players interest and holds it hostage. The reason for this is the care that Naughty Dog put into crafting his adventure, perfectly balancing tense firefights with edge-of-your-seat platforming sections. These two-facets of Uncharted’s gameplay are weaved together so perfectly one may be forgiven for thinking someone at Naughty Dog did their PhD thesis on the attention spans of the average gamer. In addition to swapping the gamer between being an archaeologist and a marksman, the development team incorporated a number of fantastic set pieces (think the video game equivalent of the classic Boulder sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark). These sequences are generally very short (involving just a button press or two) but serve to keep gamers on their toes.

Lead character Nathan Drake believes himself to be a direct descendant of famous English explorer Sir Francis Drake, further more he doesn’t buy the accepted history of his ancestor’s demise and unceremonious burial at sea. Drake’s suspicions of his ancestor are immediately confirmed as the player finds Sir Francis’ coffin empty (at least it lacks a corpse) within five minutes of booting the game. This sets into motion a story involving both Drakes, Nathan’s buddy Sully, a young reporter named Elena, and a quest to find the lost city of “El Dorado,” yes the famed city of gold. The story, though totally unbelievable is quite good, and nearly paced perfectly, though a few of the latter chapters may feel a bit contrived to jaded gamers. Unfortunately despite the solid story and wonderful supporting cast (particularly the excellent Sully), much of Uncharted is forgettable because Nathan Drake is just not an enjoyable main character. He lacks the charm that an adventurer as lucky as Nate (seriously he is shot at thousands of times) should have and feels about as mechanical in his role as say Master Chief is in the Halo series.

As mentioned above, the gameplay is multi-faceted, but mostly consists of gunplay involving a simplistic cover system or platforming that involves a lot of precarious footholds above precipitous falls. Drake’s arsenal seems fairly robust at first, but most gamers will find that only the Assault Rifle provides any real punch. At any given moment, Drake can only handle a pistol and one larger gun (i.e. the shotgun, assault rifle, grenade launcher, etc.), in addition to a handful of grenades. Much like Gears of War, guns are scavenged from deceased enemies and players are then forced to make decisions on which weapons provide the best chance of survival. When engaged in gunplay, Uncharted features a simple cover system, essentially pressing the O button near an object that can provide cover will force Drake to hide behind it. From there Drake can fire blindly or “pop out” of cover and aim utilizing the L1 button. Learning to consistently land headshots out of cover is a necessary skill, particularly on the harder difficulty settings, because ammo supplies tend to be minimal.

Uncharted is not just about shooting all the pirates who come between Drake and his fortune, in fact, the platforming sections are what set Uncharted apart from many other action/adventure games. A great example of the wonderful nature of the platforming is found early in the game when Drake must scale a cliff to gain access to a tower. Many of the handholds are tough to see, which will lead to a number of deaths, though Naughty Dog has eased this somewhat by including a system where Drake won’t reach out towards an object unless he can jump and grasp it. Another source of fairly cheap deaths are the vines that Drake can use to run on a wall, many times timing the jump from these can prove difficult, leading not to a daring leap of faith, but rather a frustrating fall to Drake’s demise. There are also a number of puzzles to be solved, but this is one area where Uncharted doesn’t shine, mostly because the Journal of Sir Francis can be opened with a touch of a button to provide the puzzle’s answer.

The visual presentation is Uncharted is a mixed bag in the truest sense of the word. Easily the most impressive area of Uncharted’s art style are the beautiful, lush backdrops, which range from dark catacombs to fully realized, vibrant green jungles. What makes the level design greater in Uncharted than in most other games is Naughty Dog’s attention to details, such as realistic movement of plant life and the most impressive water effects ever programmed. In addition, the character models are really well done; life-like, wonderfully animated, with realistic facial animations. It is here though that most gamers will notice one of Uncharted’s great flaws, the characters, for all that was done well, have a very unnatural, almost plastic sheen. Another major problem with Uncharted is the fact that the game only runs in 720p, an inexcusable error given the power of the Playstation 3. Other graphical hiccups also occur, notably some screen tearing, occasional texture “pop-in” and a strange blur when the camera is spun quickly about Drake. These miscues, on an individual basis are not deal-breakers for the game, but are noticeable enough to drag down an otherwise beautiful experience.

Thankfully the audio presentation is much stronger than the visuals and with much fewer rough edges. The voice-over work is top notch, especially the supporting cast of Sully and Elena, and the dialogue is well-written and advances the story apace. Perhaps the shining star of the audio portion of Uncharted is the wonderful score that captures the feel of the story and the South American setting perfectly. Ranging from brooding music during the darker exploration sequences to a more intense score during firefights, nearly every piece is pitch-perfect. Speaking of firefights, the sound effects from the various guns pack a wallop while the explosions and death cries of the pirates/mercenaries are sublimely satisfying.

In 2008, Naughty Dog patched Uncharted to include full Trophy support, though they are simply tied to the in-game Medal system included at launch. Unfortunately for perfectionists, the Trophies are not applied retroactively, and thus anything done in the past much be redone, though the game is so great most won’t complain. The Trophies in the game are easy to get, with the vast majority involving the location and collection of the games 60 treasures or the snuffing of a certain number of enemies with each weapon. All 48 Trophies should be unlocked by competent gamers by the time they finish a run on “Crushing” difficulty. Unlocking the Trophies/Medals doesn’t just provide bragging rights for gamers, but earns them points that can in turn unlock the games many cool rewards. These range from a weapon select system to different costumes to some truly excellent “making of” features.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune manages to do what a lot of games have failed at, namely to capture the magic and joy of the Indiana Jones series. The story feels as though it could have been penned by George Lucas himself and the pacing is no less than perfect. Much like the aforementioned Jones series, the story in Uncharted works, despite being silly, because it is an alternate take on history and the use of Sir Francis Drake is a big plus! It is hard to not recommend Uncharted to each and every PS3 owner, though it short length (an average gamer could finish on “Normal” difficulty in approximately seven hours), lack of multiplayer, and graphical hiccups may cause some to wait for the highly touted sequel. For those who can see beyond the considerable flaws to judge Naughty Dog’s latest as an aggregate of its many parts will find an enjoyable, immersive experience.

Graphics: 8.7 / 10.0
Audio: 9.4 / 10.0
Controls: 9.0 / 10.0
Story: 9.0 / 10.0
Gameplay: 9.1 / 10.0
Originality: 9.2 / 10.0
Overall: 9.0 / 10.0

Final Recommendation: All PS3 owners should do themselves a favor and play Uncharted because it is simply FUN!

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

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

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