Review by c_rake

"Superb production-values and excellent writing make Uncharted a thrilling, memorable archeological adventure"

In terms of entertainment factor alone, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune scores big. It delivers thrills aplenty, a captivating story and compelling, believable characters. As developer Naught Dog's inaugural voyage on the PlayStation 3, it's quite immaculate in its success. Low-key gunplay and ultra-forgiving platforming detract from the constant barrage of exhilaration, but Uncharted stays its course, supplying a fun action-filled Summer-blockbuster-esque romp.

Uncharted follows treasure hunter Nathan Drake, a descendant of the famous explorer Sir Francis Drake. The story revolves around the search for El Darado, the fabled city of gold. Nate (who will be henceforth referred to as "Drake") finds himself pursuing it when, after drudging up his great ancestor's coffin from the bottom of the ocean, he finds a notebook containing explicit details that lead to El Darado. Hoping to find out what happened to his ancestor in addition to salvaging priceless treasures, he, his partner Sully, and television reporter Elena Fisher, set off on the trail left to them.

The story is rather standard fare, but the execution is top-notch. Drake and his compatriots are a fun group, they're interactions with each other lighthearted and natural, a result of the splendid performances of the voice actors. Drake comes off as carefree and charismatic, plunging headlong into every instance of danger with bravado, often making humorous remarks about the current situation he's in. For instance: when another group of goons start flanking you after you just took out a smaller group, Drake immediately says something along the lines of "Oh, not again!", echoing the player's dismay. Small touches like that are real highlights.

The villain, a rival treasure hunter, is the only character who lacks the same panache as the rest of the cast on account his lack of development. He appears in only a few scenes, enough to play up his antagonistic nature and history with the main cast before quickly pushing him aside, almost discarding him entirely. He acts merely as imposing figure in the distance, never an actual threat himself. With the rest of the cast being as fleshed as out as they are, that the same amount of care wasn't put into him is disappointing.

Uncharted lasts only 6-8 hours, most of that time being spent engaged in shoot-outs more than anything. Platforming rears its head often, though it's short-lived in practice. There's very little to it. Climbing up and around the ruins that litter Uncharted's lush jungle scenery provides barely any challenge. Drake scrambles up climbable objects with ease, jumping around and between placements effortlessly if just a tad clumsily. Nathan isn't much of an athlete, you see. He can only climb surfaces not much taller than him and jump across small gaps. He feels more like an average guy instead of the usual physically fit, muscle bound videogame protagonist. He's an person with clearly defined limitations, as opposed to some idealized super-human capable of doing everything. The astounding realism here gives traversal a naturalistic feel. The problem with it lies in its forgiving nature.

Death by fall is but a minor inconvenience. You start almost exactly where you left off every time you fail, ready to tackle that last obstacle again. Now, that's not necessarily bad in practice. When you haven't any complex courses to traverse, however, it becomes troublesome. Not a single ounce of challenge can be found. Liberal checkpointing only works when difficulty exists. Without it, the mechanics just feel... weak. Any enthusiasm for traversal dieing off quickly, your desire to move onward only intensifying so that the next scene can be played.

That's not inherently unwelcome in Uncharted's case -- story is its strongest component. Getting to the next scene, unlike most games, is actually something to look forward to than dread. They're just so well written and entertaining. You want to see what happens next. Helps that cutscenes stay brief, too. Some form of higher engagement during traversal would have most definitely been welcome, though. The mechanics work splendidly. Showcasing them through more challenging feats would have fulfilled untapped potential.

Combat is Uncharted's one and only constant source of challenge. Every encounter pits you against numerous foes, all wielding weapons varying in power. An assortment of pistols, automatic rifles, shotguns, and grenade launchers make up the game's arsenal. Weapons act realistically, the spread of assault rifles being terribly inaccurate at great distances, and the recoil noticeable. Although, that doesn't stop the enemy from being crack shots regardless distance.

Not only does combat act as the sole source of challenge, but also frustration. Your always outnumbered, and often out-gunned. The opposition is strong, able to take a good ten or more shots before succumbing to death's grasp. That normally wouldn't be a problem, but because ammo is surprisingly scarce, leaving you defenseless at the most inopportune times with nary a source of replenishment or gun replacement, the bullet-sponge enemies become problematic. Uncharted essentially asks you to be cautious of how much ammo you spend, preferring that you aim with care and precision. The battlefields of Uncharted aren't so open to such tactics, however.

Cover litters the field, giving much needed solace from the intensity of battle if only for a second or two. Firing from behind cover acts as the only feasible strategy. Any other method lacks the accuracy needed to land a hit on the opposition. Jumping from cover piece to cover piece, popping out to fire off a few shots and maybe take down an enemy, repeating until you've cleared the vicinity of enemies -- that's all there is to combat. Simple, but difficult to succeed at. The constant pummel of gunfire is the problem. Every time you peak your head out to aim, someone is always ready to fire, their guns trained on you at all times. In cases where snipers lurk all over, capable of killing you with a single shot, carefully aiming and controlling fire barely registers in your mind. A sense of fear pervades firefights, therefore. The large scale of battle coupled with its intensity delivers strong set-pieces, bombastic drum beats and wailing trumpets instilling a sense of desperation, capturing the ferocity of combat.

Even with such superb sound design, however, the gunplay itself just isn't there. It's weak. Lacks punch. You spend all this time firing weapons, yet none of them feel powerful, each lacking that all-important oomph. Their sounds are weak, roaring with a ferocity only a couple notches above a BB gun. Even explosives burst with muffled impact, lessening the satisfaction of sending foes flying. There simply isn't any fun in using them. Weapons need to feel savage, not like pea shooters, especially in combat-centric games like this.

Melee attacks are available as well, but they lack usefulness. Combos with any real strength behind them (known as "brutal combos") seldom play out, Drake's actions always being interrupted by retaliation from the foe he's brawling with. The standard square button combo doesn't suffer from constant interruption, but it's too slow in taking down foes that it only really becomes a feasible option when dealing with only one enemy. Any attempts made while fending off a group of five or more results in immediate death, guaranteed.

Neither of those are deal-breakers, granted -- mere mechanical annoyances than anything, really. When the rest of the game delivers such pleasure, though, those lacking qualities become that much more apparent. The ride on which Uncharted takes you makes putting up with those imperfections totally worthwhile. Witty characters, strong pacing, and spectacular set-pieces -- as an entertainment piece, its superb. It's as close to a videogame equivalent to Indiana Jones as it gets. As a game, it's simply good.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 08/23/11

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

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