Review by etai79

Reviewed: 08/21/09

Brilliant Start, but the 7th Generation of Games Claims Another Victim

BACKGROUND - The Emotive Game
Naughty Dog isn't exactly the most experienced game developer out there, but they're definitely one of the most ambitious. Having made their name with the critically acclaimed Crash Bandicoot and Jak series, the team started engineering Uncharted: Drake's Fortune in part because they wanted to portray a sense of "stylized realism." Personally I agree with the philosophy Naughty Dog has taken here, and that's why I find it so attractive to break Uncharted down.

You'll notice my review is structured a bit differently. I typically like to clump graphics, sound, and presentation into a single 'aesthetics' category to give the reader a better idea of what the game will "feel" like, rather than isolate each category and analyze it on its own. I also don't like to "score" categories, and I'm only giving the game an overall score because requires it. By reading this review I hope to give you, the reader, a starting point to generate a critical analysis of the game on your own time instead of just a simple recommendation. So let's get started.

AESTHETICS - Sassy Explorers with 19th Century Spirit
Uncharted is undeniably a very stylish game, and an often well written one at that.. It is neither unbearably "real" (i.e. characters and locales being coated with brown and grey paint) nor is it unbearably cartoony. The characters in Uncharted, Nathan Drake (your protagonist), Elena, and Sully; occupy a marginal space between reality and fantasy which is so inspired that you'll probably never be impressed with another setting like this ever again. I'm happy to report that never in the course of the game did my eyes involuntarily roll up in their sockets with disgust at an amateur attempt at a one-liner (which is saying something, because the game is full of them), nor did I have to groan in pain as I was forced to imagine what idiotic thing was going through the mind of the writer as he put pen to paper (or greasy, overweight finger to sticky keyboard). Uncharted's plot may not be brilliantly original, but the player will soon realize that the spot light here is on the characters and their personalities which come through brilliantly thanks to some dynamite voice work and amazing animation detail.

Now I'm not saying you're going to love the plot in Uncharted regardless of your experiences or cultural disposition, but I am saying that enough love has been put in here that if you have any interest in adventure in exotic locations (or have any kind of love for the original Indiana Jones movies) that you'll find enough plot, character, and personality in this game to hold your attention (my girlfriend actually attempted to keep me from playing it when she wasn't around).

If you have any fun at all with Uncharted, you're going to notice that the aesthetics do a lot of the work. The characters even outstep their usual roles and attempt to enhance the game-play itself - Nathan's extremely emotive animations, under-the-breath swearing, and self-reassurances during shooting and platforming sections have evoked a sense of empathy in me that I haven't felt since Ico. On top of that, you'll find that the video and audio feedback in Uncharted are some of the best to date. Enemies scatter when you throw grenades in their midst, and it's ever-so-satisfying to see that one guy who "just didn't make it" go spiraling through the air from behind his cover in tandem with your explosive payload going off. Yes, the shotguns are loud, the magnums are powerful, the bullets are hard, and the enemies are squishy.

As a final note in this section I am happy to say that Uncharted is very polished. Things just work - and you'll rarely be frustrated with out-of-proportion player expectations, unfairly hidden "ledges" and pathways, or glitchy physics detection. I'm not saying these things are completely nonexistent in the game's world, but I'm sure they won't detract from the overall experience for you.

GAMEPLAY - I Like my Shooter with a Little Platformer
Ah, a second strong aspect for Uncharted. The gameplay works around two ideas: shooting and platforming. There's a bit of overlap between the two different types of gameplay, and you'll even find a few puzzles sprinkled throughout the game to get your mind going a bit, but shooting really does take the front seat as far as the gameplay is concerned, even though platforming occupies 40% of the game's total space.

While the aesthetics of the platforming are very well done, and while Nathan Drake is as monkey-like as the Prince of Persia ever was, the gameplay for platforming is almost non-existent. This is because, like Ico, Nathan Drake handles all of the platforming himself. All you really need to do as the player is point your little PS3 stick in the general direction Nathan needs to go and tap the X-button. There's not even a distinguishment between short taps and long taps - Nathan just jumps, climbs, and swings pretty much by himself. Occasionally you'll need to time the jump (such as when you're swinging from a rope, or a platform you're on is threateningly crumbling away), but for the most part you really just need to observe where Nathan needs to go, point him in that direction, and let him do the rest.

The platforming in Uncharted pales in comparison to the high-technicality of 2008's Mirror's Edge, or the exhilarating "on-edge" skilled platforming of 2009's Bionic Commando, but the advantage that Uncharted has is that the platforming mechanics are very accessible, and perhaps a good introduction to the genre for beginners or gamers who spend too much time in front of shooter, because let me tell you, the combat in Uncharted is more-or-less as good as it gets for the genre.

The shooting, and therefore combat, in Uncharted borrows ideas from Gears of War (the cover system), Resident Evil 4 (the melee attacks), and Half-Life (the weapon selection). You'll spend a lot of time behind cover in this game, popping out to pick off one or two enemies, and then retreating. Enemies are smart enough to advance and corner you, which is when you can take advantage of Nathan's "roll" ability which automatically lets you jump to another piece of cover nearby. You can also thwart the advance of enemies with well-placed grenades, mauling them with your fists when they show up, or simply picking them off before they get the opportunity.

Failure in combat results from letting your enemies flush you into a corner or simply poking your head out for longer than it is intelligent to do so. Success comes from intelligent positioning, accurate aiming, knowing when to poke your head out, effectively knowing how to blow enemies away as they advance (by holding your gun around the corner and firing without aiming of course!), conserving ammo effectively, and having the balls and reflexes to whip out a melee attack when an enemy ambushes you; executed with a series of button presses or identifying certain contexts such as attacking behind or moving at top speed. One of the game's more satisfying moves involves charging an opponent, firing wildly to soften him up, and then smashing his skull against the cover he's hiding behind with a single press of the Square button.

The shooting and combat in Uncharted is complex enough so that it should challenge anyone, but I recommend setting the game to hard if you've been in this genre before. Anyone should be able to beat this game on normal with enough determination, but introductory gamers should probably set the game to its easiest difficulty setting to make it more accessible. Once the game has been cleared you can also set the game to "Crushing" difficulty which will demand a very high level of intelligence, accuracy, and reflexes in the combat situations. Platforming, of course, is unaffected by the difficulty level.

DESIGN - Arcade-Structured Linearity Needs a Bit More Pizzaz
The first thing I'm going to mention is that the gameplay is static, which means you'll have access to all of Nathan Drake's abilities from the get go, and by mid-game you'll notice that the novelty has worn off considerably. While sometimes a blessing (Mario Galaxy), the static gameplay in Uncharted detracts somewhat from the experience, not because it in itself is a bad thing, but because the variety in Uncharted is severely limited. You spend most of the game fighting the same type of enemy, and while the enemy does wield different weapons as you progress throughout the game, you're going to notice you're shooting the same guy with the same ugly hat over and over again by employing the same strategy many, many times. You pick up different weapons throughout the course of the game, but there are only five basic types and the differences between weapons in the same category only marginally affects the way you approach enemies. Between fights with enemies you'll progress linearly through the levels by employing Nathan's platforming abilities and perhaps interacting with carefully chosen objects in the environment by pressing the Triangle button. There is usually only one way to go, and extra treasures and ammo are typically hidden in the corners of areas you're already in. All of the above reinforce Uncharted's "Arcade" design, and while this is never necessarily a bad thing, it doesn't flatter the gameplay in this instance.

Another problem with the game is that there are virtually no "boss" fights, which means you'll never face an enemy more threatening than yourself. While this does do something to characterize Nathan Drake's reluctant sense of dominance and overpowering but disguised masculinity, it creates fearlessness in the player that removes a lot of tension from the game. This is only reinforced by a very forgiving checkpoint system, and unless you're playing on Crushing difficulty you may rarely play the same section more than a few times. Some players may be happy with this, but Uncharted does seem to be a bit relaxed in comparison to other entries in the genre.

It seems somewhat harsh to criticize a game such as this for lacking in variety, after all, it is painfully obvious that this game suffers from 7th generation syndrome - too much of the budget has been spent trying to live up to the technical expectations of the public and not enough on extensively developing ideas to help the gameplay evolve over the course of the game. It's easy to imagine that by the time the graphics engine, gameplay engine, music, set design, AI design, and voice work was completed the studio had very little money left to shape truly engaging scenarios for the gameplay to work around. Players can, however, take solace in the fact that this is the first entry in the Uncharted universe and that the second is shaping up to have much better environment design and variety (seeing as how the foundations the first game created probably only needed to be marginally improved).

Now I can't say that Uncharted is just the scenario over and over again from start to finish without a bit of fabrication. The player will, in fact, encounter different scenarios as he progresses through the game, and find that he'll need to approach certain areas differently than others. There are also several "vehicle" sections that break up the action a bit and do, fortunately, build off the core gameplay mechanics. Unfortunately, however, they do pale in comparison to the on-foot sections and seem to exist only to magnify the sense of adventure that Uncharted brings to the table but not truly enhancing the experience as a whole.

Uncharted's design truly excels in the extras department, however, as the player can earn medals by performing certain actions in the game during the combat sections and earn rewards such as slow/fast motion modes, extra costumes, unlimited ammo, one-shot kills, and free weapon-select. Trophies are also unlocked along with the in-game medals, and most of them can be quite satisfying to get, but an over-reliance on the PS3's built in trophy-system doesn't say much about the way the game was designed. Still, the unlockable extras may add a bit of play-time to the game for the newly enamored Nathan Drake enthusiast.

I'm also happy to report that game is clocked perfectly and will probably take about 8-15 hours to complete; which means the game is not overly long but not disappointingly short. A distinct shifting in the scenario will kick in at about 75% of the way through to magnify the player's interest in the gameplay; which means that despite being a somewhat repetitive game, Uncharted never overstays its welcome.

SUMMARY - Brilliant Start, but the 7th Generation of Games Claims Another Victim
Uncharted is a game with a lot of personality and engaging gameplay, but lacking in substance. I can't be too harsh on the studio however, as the love for design exists here. The culprit and limiting factor in this case seems to be a lack of development time or resources. We've all seen Naughty Dog put out quality scenario and level design with their Jak series, so I'm interested in seeing how Uncharted 2 will turn out.

In the meantime, I encourage anyone who reads this to try out Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. Chances are if you've purchased a PS3 you've already looked into this game, but I believe the title will soon be released as an entry into Sony's "Greatest Hits" series, so you should be able to find it for under $30 if you're interested in cataloguing this title. Otherwise a weekend rental should give you enough time to finish this exotic romp.

In the spirit of meaningless review scores, I feel that Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is a damn fine game and "deserves" a 7 out of 10.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

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

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