Review by BloodGod65

"The Evolution of Action-Adventure"

What is next-gen? After the newest generation of consoles was announced, and as the old consoles were fading away, the phrase "next-gen" became a buzzword throughout the industry. But what is it? The phrase is often used to denote more than just a new console; it seems to be some glorious yet ineffable… thing. In this reviewer's humble opinion "next-gen" is a promise of possibility. Just as the advent of disc-based games heralded the arrival of games that were bigger, more detailed, and more ambitious than their cartridge based forebears, so too does this latest round of hardware give developers new opportunities. But chances are that you haven't really noticed.

That's because, by and large, developers have failed to utilize the opportunities the increased power of consoles has afforded them. True, there are games like the critically acclaimed Gears of war, which give us amazing experiences but really only come down to prettier graphics and polished gameplay. For the most part, that's all the newest generation of consoles has brought gamers; prettier graphics. The games that truly capitalize on a console's potential are few and far between – Oblivion and Bioshock being the most renowned. Given those high-profile examples and taking into account a handful of others, it seems clear that this latest generation will be the one to transform games into gripping cinematic experiences.

Naughty Dog's – the studio responsible for the Jak and Crash Bandicoot franchises – newest property joins that exclusive club of the truly next-gen games and totally rewrites how the term will be applied in the future. Combining tried and true gameplay mechanics with a stellar demonstration of the PS3's graphical prowess and topping it all with a story, cinematography, and acting that are all on par with one of Hollywood's hundred-million dollar epics, Uncharted will make you see games in a whole new light.

Uncharted places players in the shoes of Nathan Drake, avid treasure hunter and descendent of famed explorer Sir Francis Drake. When Nathan discovers a diary in the supposed tomb of Francis, he learns that it may carry the secret location of the fabled golden city of El Dorado. He sets out to find it, with documentary film-maker Elena Fisher in tow, and soon stumbles upon a web of intrigue that goes back hundreds of years and carries the truth of El Dorado at its center.

While the detailed story is unusual enough in the modern action game, the other elements are downright unheard of. The action is punctuated with many cinematics that keep the story moving along at an even pace, and these are all produced with the same flair and technical know-how you would find in a good summer blockbuster. The way the viewpoint is positioned and the way the action is framed are always tailored to the scene, maximizing its effectiveness. Clever camera work also extends to the game itself, with the viewpoint often being situated in such a way that the danger of a certain area or an expansive vista in the background is highlighted.

Of course, the writing has much to do with how well everything clicks. Drake is cock-sure, gung-ho, and immensely likeable, while Elena is initially less enthusiastic about his treasure-hunting antics even though she tends to go along for the sake of her documentary. I won't be ruining anything to say that this companionship transforms into puppy love over the course of the game, but the way it happens makes it seem more realistic than the typical action movie. The banter between the two, and the way they come to each other's aid, makes their growing relationship seem more genuine. But the writing works on all levels, not just for Drake and Elena. From Drake's sometimes strained relationship with his friend Sully to a villain who keeps from falling into the typical nefarious villain monologue, the characters are well-written and seem like real people.

Naturally, the voice actors also help out. Uncharted uses some of the best actors I have heard in a game, and they all work perfectly with the characters they are voicing. Unlike the random hacks many studios seem to pull in from the streets, these people actually have that elusive trait known as talent. And since I'm on the topic of audio, I might as well point out the stellar music, which like everything else in the game, sounds like it was designed for a Hollywood movie. The epic arrangements vary from the tense to the subdued, and everything in between, but they always complement the events at hand perfectly.

While all of this probably could have been pulled off without excellent graphics, I doubt it would have had as much effect. Thankfully, Uncharted puts the power of the PS3 to good use. It is, without a doubt, the best looking game I have yet to play on the console (though I acknowledge my experience is limited at present). The character models are excellent in every way; from the detail in their clothing to faces and animations. Drake moves convincingly, and his animations change appropriately between when he is running, and moving down the stairs. You'll also notice that his clothes actually get wet when he comes out of the water. The environments are also excellent, even if the game mostly takes place in jungles and ruins. Even so, it's hard to complain when the jungles are so lush and detailed as this. It's hard not to keep coming back to the amount of detail Naughty Dog lavished on the game; you'll always been noticing some small touch that brings everything to life, whether it's the vines that creep over ruins or the way moss and grass hangs off the edge of a pillar. The lighting engine sets the whole thing off. The way sunlight filters down through the jungle canopy and dapples the ground is just stunning.

So where does that leave the actual gameplay? I won't lie; Uncharted is really nothing more than a mash-up of Tomb Raider and Gears of War. The analogy has been used in every review written about this game, but it's as apt a description as anyone is likely to find. The combination of platforming through old ruins, and the third person cover based shooting that makes up the greater majority of the game are taken directly from two of gaming's most recognizable franchises and few alterations have been made.

Even so, the two elements are combined perfectly. Drake will spend a lot of time jumping around the jungle and its ruins for various reasons, and it's a surprisingly intuitive system. For the most part, you just point Nathan in the direction you want him to go and he'll oblige. Occasionally you may have to press a button to save him from a near fall. While the general platforming is interesting, there are a few standout sections. One, in which Nathan has to run across a series of falling ledges, feels like an homage to old Crash Bandicoot levels, as the camera switches to face Nathan and the peril behind him.

However, most of your time in Uncharted will be spent warding off an army of hired goons. Just as in Gears of War, Nathan has to take cover behind objects and peek out to fire. And as in Gears of War, there are blind-fire options, and various ways to get into and out of cover. Nathan can vault, or dash between cover points. The game even used the arc based grenade throwing mechanic that draws a line in the air to where the grenade will land (which makes using them just as irritating as it was in Epic's shooter). The enemies Nathan faces are typically very smart. They flank like professional soldiers and are great at laying down suppressing fire. Towards the end of the game, the firefights get to be somewhat frustrating as Nathan is pitted against large groups of well armed enemies with plenty of reinforcements. The odds get to be stacked unrealistically high, and most players will start to see frequent game over screens at this point. However, once the game reaches this point the conclusion is just around the corner, so a little perseverance ultimately pays off.

The game shakes things up every now and then with one-off scenarios. One has you manning a mounted machine gun atop a jeep while Elena drives like a mad-woman through the jungle. An extended section turns the game on its head by introducing some survival horror elements – as well as some unwanted motion-controls that feel like they were tacked on just to take advantage of the Sixaxis controller.

Uncharted is something of a revelation. Even though it doesn't rewrite the playbook as far as gameplay is concerned, the masterful storytelling and usage of good cinematography has been almost unseen thus far in the gaming industry. I have a feeling that will change in the wake of Uncharted. If the inevitable sequels are as good as this, Naughty Dog might just give gamers the only reason needed for buying a PS3. But judging this title on its own merits – story, sleek production, and good (if familiar) gameplay elements – Uncharted is the first must play exclusive for the console.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 08/15/11

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

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