Review by MaesterMagus
"An infusion of mediocrity and repetition in a very pretty package"
An infusion of mediocrity and repetition in a very pretty package
Cast your mind back two years: Sony's PS3 was waning; it was expensive and didn't really hold enough exclusive materiel to justify the price tag. It was going to take something special to rekindle any interest in the machine and Solid Snake's eagerly anticipated new offering was still a year away. Naughty Dog (of Crash Bandicoot fame) seemed like fairly unlikely candidates to deliver a game that all-at-once could rekindle interest in Sony's machine, let alone do it with a brand new franchise. Anticipation was high, Sony executives shuffled nervously and the world was given The adventure game the PS3 has been waiting for (OPMUK review). The rest is history.
Now back to 2009 - Uncharted: Drake's Fortune has been out on the PS3 for almost two years and as I type this the first reviews are emerging for its sequel; Amongst Thieves. It is for this reason that I decided give the first instalment another play through - I wanted to prepare myself for the sequel and I wanted to see once and for all whether or not this game is really all it's been made out to be.
When I first purchased this game, I finished it a few times, traded it in for something else and then, upon getting swept away with all the hype for a second time, I purchased it again and finished it a few more times (I hate the feeling that I'm missing out on something special). So, now having just finished it for perhaps the fifth (and definitely final) time, I feel that I'm qualified to give you another opinion on it, for what it's worth. So, here goes
Intrigue and mystery; A plot to keep you guessing at every turn..?
Naughty Dog decided to tread fairly safe ground with Uncharted in terms of narrative. Nathan Drake is a treasure hunter (not entirely unlike the alpha-female of Sony's mascots) and the treasure he sets out to hunt is that of El Dorado. The game opens with Drake and Elena discovering a four-hundred year old clue in the coffin of Sir Francis Drake (Nathan's surname isn't a coincidence). Not long after this they find themselves stranded on a forgotten island in the middle of the Pacific, unravelling the plot at a slow pace and trying to survive wave after wave of mercenaries who want them dead. It's all fairly tepid and generic stuff, but there are a few decent twists and turns along the way that should hold the attention of even the most easily distracted gamers. There is very little back story for any of the three main characters, but this isn't really a bad thing because the plot functions well on the basis of its simplicity. We learn what we need to know about the characters in relation to the plot, and that's it.
The only way that the story impacts negatively on the enjoyment of the game is the fact that it forces 90% of the gameplay to one single island. Between a half hour to an hour of your way through the game, you will be on the island where you will spend the rest of game, and every part of the island looks more or less the same, particularly in the first half of your time there. To make things worse, the game is as linear as they come thanks to the plot being divided into chapters; you cannot free-roam the island or explore any area until the story puts you in that area, which kind of made me feel as though I was being spoon-fed the plot rather than unravelling it myself.
It's fairly normal for an adventure game like this to span numerous locations and have multiple changes of scenery (MGS4), or give you free-reign over an island or designated location (Batman: Arkham Asylum). This isn't anything new; Tomb Raider (which is obviously the main influence of Uncharted) has had Lara globe-trotting for over ten years and in just one of her games you'll visit four or five different continents and each one has a distinctly different feel to the last. So, with that in mind I can't help but be bewildered as to why Naughty Dog decided to confine the vast majority of the story to one single island and then give you no freedom to truly explore it without being hand-led around it at the pace of an arthritic pensioner (due entirely to the gameplay, more on that later).
Luckily, the latter half of the game has a bit more variety in its scenery because there are a few interior locations to be led around and each one is sufficiently different. Likewise, the story starts tying its loose ends together and the pace really picks up around the same time, so I was ultimately glad that I carried on playing to see things speed up a notch. So, while the story is rather slow and makes the former half of the game a bit dull and samey, if you can make it to the halfway mark you will definitely want to see it through to its conclusion, even if you don't remember it the next day.
Yippe-ki-ay/I'll be back/That's gonna hurt in the morning/etc/etc/etc
I think a large amount of whether or not you'll get on with this game depends entirely on your perception of the protagonist, Nathan Drake. He's a very in-your-face character, so it's difficult to stay neutral about him. All the way through the game he cracks one-liners, makes trivial of serious matters as though he's popping valium and comes across as a hybrid of every single wise-cracking adventure hero that ever lit up the silver screen during the 80s and beyond (and not in a Duke Nukem parody way). If this was such a film, it would probably have been directed by Michael Bay or Paul Verhoeven.
Through Drake, the game insists on trying to be humorous to very near detrimental effect; it seems it just can't help itself. What's wrong a bit of humour, you say? Well, to be blunt - the game is just not funny; it's bloody irritating. More importantly, I couldn't sympathise, believe in, or even like the character. Allow me to explain by taking a look at two more protagonists of recent times: First we have Solid Snake; a veteran soldier who kills because he is required to. He feels guilt, remorse and seems genuinely pained by some of the things he's had to do in the name of war. Secondly, let's look at Niko Bellic of GTA notoriety: He is a dirty dealing immigrant fresh in liberty city with ice for blood and a price for everything; he is also a veteran and a deeply troubled individual. Both characters are from popular games in which violence is mandatory to progress further, just like Uncharted. However, for these two characters, killing is a part of their job as a soldier and a criminal, respectively. It's plausible if not just outright believable for these characters to do what they do.
And then we have Drake. By the end of Uncharted, he will have killed legions of men, armies of men, populations of small countries of men, and it's all in the name of treasure hunting. The flaw here is that they've tried so hard to make Drake likeable and comical that it just isn't even momentarily convincing that he would kill all these people, let alone have the skills to be able to. That's gonna hurt in the morning says Drake after shooting somebody in the face (yes, he actually says that.) It would seem that the developers were trying to make Drake appear high as a kite on anti-depressants and amphetamine throughout the game, and as such I found him completely detestable in every respect. It could be that Naughty Dog were simply striking for too broad an audience, because by all other accounts, from gameplay to script, this is an adult game. Perhaps they wanted to balance this out and give it a more kiddie appeal for their Crash Bandicoot fans by making the main character a cartoon. He is very much like the prince from Ubisoft's latest Prince of Persia outing (even voiced by the same guy I believe) and I found that this style of character was irritating in the context of a kid's game, so you can imagine how out of place and ridiculous he feels in what could have been a serious adult game. In any case, for some reason Drake is now something of a mascot for the PS3, its defining hero if you will, and all he needed to do it was a gun and a childish sense of humour. Did I mention that he's a complete cretin?
Sufficed to say, I didn't like Nathan Drake, but the game was salvaged on the character-front by the supporting cast. Elena Fisher is a reporter, seemingly willing to do what it takes to get the story. She comes off as a self-promoting user at first, but as the game progressed I began to like her character a lot (and she's pretty hot, of course). Victor Sullivan is Drake's partner in crime. He's broke, in debt to the wrong kind of people and genuinely needs the treasure if he wishes to continue living. These are two characters I can believe in: A young over-ambitious reporter who gets in a little too deep and an old cigar-smoking man well past his prime, in trouble with some shady people. Both were likeable, had their motivation for being a part of the plot and by the end of the game I cared a great deal more for them than I ever did for the star of the show.
The villains of the game served the purpose well but were ultimately forgettable; they seemed only to be in the game because an adventure game needs villains (not a complaint, merely an observation.) During the cut-scenes they were a part of they seemed intriguing enough, but when you've played the game for hours without sight or sound of them, it's very easy to forget where all the hordes of men you're shooting are coming from. Only when I saw them again in another cut-scene somewhere down the line would I scratch my head and say Oh yes, I remember him. So that's what he's doing. They play their part; they function well within the plot, but don't expect to remember anything about them after you beat the game. Oh and one of them (appropriately named Navarro) looks just like Dave Navarro.
A world alive; lose yourself in a stunning and exotic location..?
Characters and story aside, what makes Uncharted the hit that it's become? Undoubtedly a large part of this can be put down to its presentation. Make no mistake; Uncharted looks fantastic for the most part. The character models are terrific, the set pieces are spectacular and some of the views you'll encounter are jaw-dropping. The graphics are definitely the best thing the game has going for it, and this becomes obvious during the first half hour of play, the highlight of which is the view out to the jungle from the top of a rusty U-Boat imbedded in a stunning waterfall.
It was quite a smart move on Naughty Dog's part to literally fill the game with water; there are rivers, streams, little pools and puddles and it all adds to the ambience of the game and looks terrific. The sea is almost constantly in view when you're traversing the exterior of the island and the coastlines and views are perfect. The only downside is that you can't venture into the impressive views as you're looking at them; they're only eye candy. As an added bonus to the amount of water in the game, when Drake gets wet, he looks wet. His clothes turn a shade of moist grey and the water on him reflects the light in a really cool way. It gives the game an earthy, natural and ambient vibe, at least visually, to the point where you can imagine the smells of the jungle around him.
The cut-scenes are very well motion captured; the movements are realistic and the expressions are genuinely believable. Everything is tweaked and presented with a level of cinematography that rivals most action films; with all of the grace and attention to detail that one would expect from a next generation console, and more besides. There is action, there are explosions, there are plants and ancient ruins, and then there are buildings and trees. It all looks great.
Now, as good as the game looks, it does suffer in a few areas. Naughty Dog deliberately went against the grain of other next-gen games and opted to drown Uncharted with colour, as opposed to making the environments gritty and realistic with greys and low contrasts that are popular amongst other next-gen games. This is all fine and it does look good, but I can't help but feel there is a slight over-abundance of colour. It has the same kind of dazzling brightness that you would expect to find in Ratchet and Clank, only in a game such as this where it has the potential to be realistic it seems a little out of place. It's especially noticeable when taking fire from an enemy; the colour drains from the screen while you take damage and then slowly re-saturates as you recover. About halfway between complete black and white and full colour the game looks it's most realistic. But then more and more colour and brightness gets added as you regain more life, and you realize that it's just too much. It's like continuing to eat the sweetest of confectionaries when you know you're full and just want a plain glass of water.
On top of this, due to the aforementioned fact that you're stuck on an island, almost all of the exteriors look the same. If I could describe the visuals to anybody in one word, it would be green. There is green everywhere - leaves, moss, grass, plants; the game is overflowing with green. As mentioned earlier, this changes somewhat later in the game when the action switches to some interior locations, but until then, when you close your eyes you will see green. It's like playing one single jungle level from Tomb Raider for five or six hours, only brighter and well, greener. Don't get me wrong, as I said the exteriors look great, but give me five or six hours of any scenery that never changes and I will get sick of looking at it, as was the case here.
One last complaint with the graphics also stems from the lack of realism; it's the blatant attempt to appeal to kids. It's as if the game just can't decide what it wants to be; is it an action adventurer for adults or is it the next Jak and Daxter? As I stated previously, this is an adult game in terms of script and gameplay, but the main character and graphics seem to suggest otherwise. I can get past the overwhelmingly bright, platform-like appearance of the game, but when you shoot someone in the head and there's no blood, something is just not right. I'm not blood-thirsty or anything, I can happily play through a Ratchet and Clank or Spyro game without feeling the need to see blood squirting from a main artery, but therein lies the problem; they are platform games made to appeal to all ages and this is (according to most factors) intended to have a mature audience. It strikes me as utterly contradictory that you get PSN trophies for racking up scores of headshots, and more trophies for killing a certain number of people with a certain kind of weapon, but it is somehow inappropriate to see blood. It completely shatters any and all realism within the game when you throw a grenade and nothing happens beyond enemies falling to the ground like they've stumbled over a rock.
It was at this point I realized that Drake is in fact platforming in the same realm as Crash Bandicoot; full of colour and humour with absolutely no realism or consequence. The game rewards you for killing hundreds of mercenaries, in fact you cannot progress further without killing hundreds of mercenaries (you can even creep up behind them and snap their necks), but in the midst of all this slaughter it was deemed unnecessary to see any kind of physical consequence for your bullets hitting someone's face.
Last on the technical front, we have the sound. I'll keep this short and simple, because it is (for lack of a better word) perfect. Not a problem to be found. I may not like the personality of Drake, but the voice acting is impeccable, likewise with every other character. Explosions and gun shots all sound like they should, the Jet Ski sounds like a Jet Ski and the ambience of the jungle is truly absorbing.
The music is applied only when needed, and in a subtle manner. It picks up with fast, eastern-sounding strings for the action and dissolves into the background to provide atmosphere during the quieter moments. There are numerous instruments, sounds and styles at work throughout the game and I can't think of a single instance where it didn't fit the scene. It's by no means a flashy soundtrack; it's there only to accompany you on your journey and pull you further into the world. It succeeds admirably.
Lose yourself with intense shoot-outs, puzzles and high speed chases..?
Ah yes, the gameplay. I've been saving this until last because there's a lot to be said for it. If Uncharted fails in this area, I can't really say it's for lack of trying. There is variety in there, but it doesn't last long enough. There is ambition in there, but it never reaches the greatness it tries for. It steals shamelessly from other games, but never rivals them in coolness.
I've referenced Tomb Raider a lot while reviewing this game, simply because Uncharted plays almost exactly like one of Crystal Dynamics' Lara Croft outings (Legend onwards). In terms of the platforming elements, it is almost completely identical, the only difference being this: Lara can do more and she can do it faster. Take the most basic elements of platforming from a recent Tomb Raider game; climbing, shimmying, swinging and jumping. That is the extent of what Drake can do. You can't tap square to make him climb/shimmy faster and there is no sprint button. Hell, Drake can't even swim underwater. He has no grapple, no pole swinging or general gymnastic ability and no athletic abilities of any kind, so what you're left with in the platform department is essentially Tomb Raider Legend slowed down to about half the speed with all the fancy stuff that made it cool taken out. Climb to a platform, jump to another one, shimmy along the highlighted bricks sticking out of a wall and reach another platform. This is what you'll be doing for 10% of the game.
There are also a few puzzles in the game (literally, a few). They're all of the kind that require you to push an object here, rotate another one there and pull a lever somewhere else. There are about five so-called puzzles in the game and each one will take no longer than two minutes to figure out and complete. Even if they weren't so insultingly simple, the game offers you hints all the way through anyway, so getting stuck on any part of the platforming or puzzling elements is quite impossible. You will spend perhaps 5% of the game challenging your mind against these bad boys, maybe more if your parents are brother and sister.
With that out of the way, we can get on to what makes the bulk of the game: Combat. A whopping 85% of the game (or near enough) is taken up by combat and this is the one area that it differs greatly from Tomb Raider. If I summarised the combat in this game it would probably go something like this: One square room, one Nathan Drake, twenty mercenaries and loads of crap to take cover behind. It's as simple as it sounds. Aside from the first half hour or so of the game, you will rarely go more than five minutes without being pitted in a room with a bunch of guys trying to shoot you. You then press circle to take cover behind something suitable enough to protect you from gunfire, pop out every now and again to aim at heads with the L1 button, line one up with the right analogue stick and then fire a round into it with R1. Repeat until the waves of men are dispersed, circle the room collecting their ammo and then platform for two minutes until the next set of mercenaries arrive.
I wish I was exaggerating here, but I'm not. This game is a shooter under the facade of an adventure game. One of my friends watched me play it for fifteen minutes once and suggested I buy a light-gun. It's not only repetitive as hell, but I found the whole targeting system flawed too. It stands to reason that Drake cannot aim his gun without exposing himself to gunfire, so, in a room with twenty mercenaries all aiming at you with itchy trigger fingers, if you pop out to aim and manage to kill someone, chances are you got shot a few times, meaning the screen is now black and white and if you take another hit you'll die. If you wish Drake to carry on living, you'll remain in cover for fifteen seconds doing absolutely nothing while the screen re-saturates itself with too much colour. Then you pop out to shoot somebody else and the same thing happens. You can jump from cover to cover to gain better vantage points within the room, but it all boils down to the same thing.
This system wouldn't be entirely bad if the game didn't lay it on so thick with the number of enemies. Countless times I cleared a room of mercenaries only to have more show up, then more, until wave after wave of them are lying dead and more are still coming (hence Drake's rather high kill-count at the end of the game). It's not challenging either while you have the patience to stick to the formula, but after so many waves I tended to get really impatient and not take cover when I needed to, instead choosing to take the risk of wiping out as many as possible when I popped out, ultimately leading to my irritating demise in all its black and white glory. Back to wave number one, again. Countless times I became so bored of the same old formula that I remember thinking Just get on with it please! It's because of this aspect of the gameplay that the story seems to take ages to get anywhere; because most of the time you're stuck in a square room taking cover behind a pillar having to pick off twenty guys one at a time.
Another thing that would have made the combat (and the entire game) miles better would have been a bit of variety in enemies. Picture this; you're in a jungle on an uncharted island in the middle of the Pacific and there are no animals to speak of. Not a tiger, not a bat, not a snake. Even a killer fish would have been something different. The closest you get is the occasional bird that does nothing threatening and merely flies off when you shoot it for fun. If the game had four or five instances where it placed you in a room with twenty mercenaries, I could happily live with that. A lot of the combat could then be against different predators and I wouldn't have to spend half of the game ducking from bullets. More time could have been implemented into puzzles that are actually challenging and the platforming segments could be made more than just filler for the time in between gun fights.
There are only a few times when you'll get any form of combat that doesn't involve the whole duck'n'cover formula. One of these is about three quarters of the way through the game, when you meet the only different enemy on offer. I don't want to say too much about them because it would spoil the plot somewhat, but I really wish they'd brought them into the game earlier for a bit more variety. When you fight these you don't have to manually aim or cover because they don't fire projectiles, but you have to keep constantly moving and firing. If they catch you, you're near enough dead. This is what I imagine fighting a few tigers or something would have been like; a stark contrast to ducking in one place all the time and popping out every now and then. It would have been a bit varied, it would have been plausible and it would have been cool. Alas!
Another occasion when you gratefully forsake the duck'n'cover formula is when you're in the midst of a high speed chase. The first of these is a simple on the rails' affair, in which you sit on the back of a jeep picking off your pursuers. It's nothing that hasn't been done before, but it looks cool and makes a nice change. Finally, there are a few parts of the game that require you to ride a jet ski to proceed to the next area. To be honest, this isn't as fun as it sounds. Due to the limited space in the environment you can never get any serious speed and even if you did you wouldn't last long, because people are still shooting at you even while you ride. Then you have to stop, aim with L1 and fire with R1 at your assailant, much the same as if you weren't on it.
And that's the gameplay, quite literally. The rare occasions when you're not hiding behind something getting shot at are fairly mundane and the numerous times that you are hiding behind something getting shot at are frustrating and tedious.
There isn't much reason to play through it again either, unless you're like me and you want to find the great game you were promised, in which case save your time; it's not in there. There are various making of documentaries to unlock and these are very interesting, although it's painful seeing so much work and love going into something that's ultimately a letdown.
The adventure game the PS3 has been waiting for..?
No, not quite. The PS3 needed an exclusive title to validate it, fair enough, but I think people wanted this to be it so much that they made up their minds that it was regardless of what it turned out like. Now that it's regarded as highly as it is, it seems almost blasphemous for me to state that I really couldn't see what all the fuss was about. I tried to, I really did; why else would I finish the game so many times knowing that it annoyed me? It's because I thought there was a great game in there somewhere; I thought everybody else was right and I was wrong, so I went back to it time and again and finished it with the same feeling of mediocrity and dissatisfaction you would expect from hearing a Nickleback album. In that respect I wouldn't say it's an outright bad game, but it only just manages to nudge its way into the lukewarm broth that is average thanks to the presentation, plot and supporting characters.
The bottom line: If you have a PS3 you probably already own this game, if not then you'll probably be getting it at some point. That's fine by me because I think it deserves to be played through at least once, but be aware of hype and the sense of disappointment it creates. You can finish it easily in a few days, so I would recommend renting before buying.
Speaking of hype, Uncharted 2 is looking very tempting
Final Score 5/10
Reviewer's Rating: 2.5 - Playable
Originally Posted: 10/09/09
Game Release: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (EU, 12/07/07)
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