Review by DDJ
"Finally, a spiritual successor to... Shadow of the Colossus?"
Review in Brief
Game: A third-person cover-based shooter following the journeys of Nathan Drake to find treasure in a lost colony.
Good: Artistically minimalistic in its presentation; brilliantly simple in its gameplay; incredibly cinematic.
Bad: Overly prototypical; oftentimes repetitive; sometimes difficult to control.
Verdict: A worthy spiritual successor to past minimalistic, cinematic games like Shadow of the Colossus.
Recommendation: Not quite a must-play, but definitely worth playing nonetheless.
"Finally, a spiritual successor to... Shadow of the Colossus?"
The idea of a spiritual successor is a game, movie, story, or anything else that significantly echoes the style, themes, or presentation of another previous piece of work. They're closer than just being in the same genre, but not close enough to be sequels. The successor is a piece that leverages the same kind of appeal and experience as its spiritual forerunner. Spiritual successors are common in gaming: Shadow of the Colossus is considered the spiritual successor to Ico, Bayonetta the spiritual successor of Devil May Cry, and Paper Mario the spiritual successor of Super Mario RPG.
Usually spiritual successors in this way involve some direct relationship among the development staff, but in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, I see a spiritual successor that transcends simply sharing a development team. In Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, I see a game that has leveraged the cinematic qualities of one of gaming's all-time best: Shadow of the Colossus.
That might sound strange to you. After all, the Shadow of the Colossus I played didn't have any guns, hardly had any spoken dialogue, took place in a fantasy environment, and any number of other differences. But the succession isn't in the content, it's in the presentation. Minimalism and cinema are the operative words that come into play with both Shadow of the Colossus and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. Both create similar experiences through embracing minimalistic presentation and gameplay and through a heavy focus on the games' cinematic nature (which itself is served by the minimalistic presentation).
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune follows the adventures of Nathan Drake as he attempts to find the treasure that his long-departed ancestor, Sir Francis Drake, was pursuing when he died. The trip takes him through an Indiana Jones-like journey among ancient ruins on island near Central America, attempting to unravel the mysteries of the colony that once surrounded the gold and the treasure that's hidden there. Standing in his way are another group of treasure hunters of the more violent variety, aiming to kill him at every step of the way. He's accompanied by a reporter named Elena and an old friend named Sully in attempting to unravel the mystery and find the treasure.
Gameplay-wise, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is a third-person cover-based shooter. Don't let Gears of War enter your head too quickly, though, as the style of the cover-based combat is wildly different than the game credited with popularizing the genre. Combat takes place with a simple selection of guns in a variety of open environments. Aside from the combat, there are also relatively simple platformer sections and puzzle sections to solve.
As stated above, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune manages to deliver what I would describe as a very similar experience to Shadow of the Colossus, in a very good way. But how is that possible, given the profound differences in genre, theme, setting, and plot?
Artfully Minimalistic Presentation
Now chances are, when you read that I'm describing Uncharted: Drake's Fortune as minimalistic, you wonder if I'm right in the head. The game has huge environments, incredibly attention to detail, and several locales -- how can it be minimalistic?
Minimalism, as I'm using it here, doesn't mean that the game's actual content is minimalistic, but rather the presentation of that content is minimalistic. In a third-person cover-based shooter, you could have a lot of things. You could have a mini-map showing enemy and ally locations. You could have a persistently-visible gun and ammo display. You could have markers above enemy heads. You could have a complex menu detailing all the guns you have, the ammo for each, and the strengths and weaknesses of each. You could have dozens of character with biographies in the menus.
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune avoids all of this. When was the last time you played a game that, for the majority of the play time, had no sort of heads-up display? No mini-map, no weapon information, no markers on the map, nothing. For me, the only other games I've played like that are Shadow of the Colossus and Ico, and that's what I mean when I talk about minimalistic presentation. The game makes every conscious and active effort to get out of the way of itself and present a simple, beautiful game world.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying heads-up displays and other things are inherently bad. However, in creating the kind of experience that Uncharted: Drake's Fortune creates, extra details like that would get in the way. They'd distract from the underlying quality and beauty of the game world. The experience is less game and more movie largely because everything else gets out of the way... but I'll talk about that more in a bit.
Having a minimalistic presentation is a great way to create this kind of experience, but it also risks a significant and frustrating mismatch if the game doesn't also have...
Beautifully Minimalistic Gameplay
What made Shadow of the Colossus so good, though, wasn't just the minimalistic presentation; it was also the minimalistic gameplay. One without the other would just feel very strange, and Shadow of the Colossus pulled off the symbiosis brilliantly. So does Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.
What's the gameplay in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune? Normally, you can run, jump, and climb along ledges. In combat, you can fire your weapon, aim and fire, hide, come out of cover and shoot, or jump from hiding place to hiding place. You can also throw grenades, or use a simple melee system by pressing one or two buttons to punch. That's... basically all there is. The gameplay is very simple to pick up, and within the first ten minutes, you've already used basically every gameplay feature you'll use for the entire game. There are context-sensitive commands that come up every once in a while as well as some god-forsaken quick-time events, but those equate to pressing the button shown on the screen: no learning curve there.
It's not just about the simplicity of the actions you can take, either. There's a deeper simplicity at play. In an era where games like Borderlands pride themselves on having thousands of weapons, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune gives around a dozen. There's a three or four different types of pistols, three or four different types of machine guns, a couple shotguns, a sniper, a grenade launcher, and grenades. With every weapon, the first time you use it, you're immediately aware of its benefit compared to other weapons. Pistols are more accurate, machine guns fire faster, shotguns do more damage, snipers have range, grenades explode. It's not like Halo or other games where it's hard to tell how guns compare to each other and remembering all the guns in the game takes basically a reference manual.
That simplicity of weapons selection is reflected in the enemies. Some games nowadays opt for dozens of kinds of enemies to the point where with each fight, you're basically learning all over again what their strengths and weaknesses are. Not so here. There's only around a dozen enemy types, and the only variation is in the weapons they use and whether they wear armor. As soon as they fire at you, you know exactly what you're up against and how to react. They have obvious strengths and weaknesses just as your weapons have obvious strengths and weaknesses, and there's almost no learning curve in figuring out what they are.
Beyond just the minimal gameplay content, though, the game also supplies some excellent minimalistic touches that complete the game's overall look and feel. Some of these borrow, again, from Shadow of the Colossus, like subtle shifts in the camera angle to direct the player where to go. This takes the place of more complex solutions like waypoints, markers for jump points, highlighted ledges, etc. -- there's nothing visible in the game world, but a subtle twist in the camera can direct the player where to go. There's something similar in battle. It's not automatically clear when a battle is over; the game supplies some clues, like strategically placing voice clips after an enemy falls to emphasize there are still more, but it's not as clear as it would be otherwise. You're forced to actually use some keen instincts to tell if you're done with a battle or not, which in the end reflects a much more realistic approach.
What's the overall benefit to these things? Gameplay in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune just feels natural. It's simple enough to pick up and play immediately, but the battles supply a depth of complexity that makes the game tougher as time goes on without just making enemies take more damage. It doesn't feel like your character is getting super-powerful as the game goes on, but rather that you're just tackling tougher challenges with the same relatively limited set of skills. It increases the accessibility, reflects better game design, and... well, it's just all around excellent.
In talking about the cinematic nature of the game, why not start again with the minimalism? One major reason the minimalism is so powerful is that it helps the cinematic nature of the game come out. When you watch a movie, you don't keep track of multiple types of guns or pay attention to enemy locations on a minimap, so if the goal of the game is to be highly cinematic, it's important to present the same kind of experience. The minimalistic nature helps the game-y elements get out of the way of the broader game experience.
The cinematic nature also comes out in what the game chooses to focus on. Rather than lots of narrow hallways and the other narrow settings shooters often focus on, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune seems to focus first on where it wants to go and second on how to make those areas workable for the game's genre and style. Enormous set pieces and settings dominate the landscape to create a truly interesting experience, and unlike so many games nowadays, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune remembers to switch up the flavor of the setting. Lush jungles, haunted ruins, industrial complexes, various different settings like these make appearances, preventing everything from just running together.
The game doesn't just focus on cinema at the highest level, however; it makes a conscious effort to infuse it into every level of the game's structure. This is evident in the presence of context-sensitive death scenes for various different areas. No matter how or where you die, there's a scene for it, whether it be falling to your knees, falling off a waterfall, or getting run down in a vehicle. That attention to detail helps the game establish an incredibly cohesive experience. Typically, a death is a moment where you break out of the normal gameplay flow because the game has technically ended, but with these scenes, death flows from the regular gameplay. Plus, the game throws you back into the action immediately, which helps preserve the cinematic flow of the game.
When games like Final Fantasy XIII are described as cinematic, often times what is referenced are the full cutscenes that take place between gameplay. But thanks to the above-mentioned features, what makes Uncharted: Drake's Fortune unique is that even the regular gameplay comes across cinematic. The fights, shootouts, and puzzles that you're in full control of still look like they're cutscenes or scripted interactions. That's not just a comment on the graphics; that subsumes the game structure, the camera, the animation, everything. Everything comes together to create a consistently cinematic experience.
All that said, however, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is far from a perfect game. In giving it a 7, I'm definitely going by GameFAQs' definition: "a few problems, but worth the time to play." Uncharted: Drake's Fortune does a great job of creating the same kind of cinematic experience as Shadow of the Colossus, but it also has a tendency to veer into somewhat prototypical, repetitive, or frustrating directions.
One thing that cannot be said about Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is that it does something new. By and large, every single feature in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune has been seen in other games before. That's not inherently a bad thing; not every game has to revolutionize the gaming industry, and there's something to be said for games that can do what other games do and do it better. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune might be considered the culmination of several generations of game development, but it does not introduce anything new in and of itself.
That wouldn't be a bad thing if the game didn't go so far in the prototypical direction. There are a few things that the game does almost because it seems to feel like it has to because it's what every other game does nowadays. Quick time events are one of these: there's only about four in the entire game (if I'm recalling correctly), so what's the point in having them at all? (Not that there's a point in having more, either, but still.) Some of the context-sensitive commands fall into this same trap. There are times when you have to mash a button to open a door or rotate a stick to turn a lever. What's the point of that? It doesn't increase immersion, it's not a challenge, it serves no purpose other than to annoy the player and slow down the game.
But those are the things other games nowadays are doing, and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is a very prototypical video game.
The strength of the combat system, as mentioned above, is that within the first few minutes of the game, you've already used basically every function the game has to offer. From there, the battles get more complex by changing up the enemies, introducing new situations, and other dynamics. It's the proper way to make a game more difficult, in my opinion. It's frustrating when you feel like you're succeeding because your character is getting stronger as opposed to you getting better at the game.
However, the game doesn't go quite far enough in that direction. Before long, the battles start to feel very repetitive, with only very limited variation in them. The challenge doesn't change in a qualitative way, and while I praise the game for not just introducing stronger enemies, it sometimes resorts to just throwing more of them in the arena as a way of increasing the challenge. Later on there are snipers and grenade launchers that add to the challenge, but that's about the only major change.
The battles do remain fun and engaging throughout the game even if they get a bit repetitive. The frustration comes more in that the game seems a little too content to settle for open battles of Nathan vs. a dozen enemies. The game technically has a melee mode and a stealth mode; you can fight hand-to-hand and sneak up behind enemies and stealth kill them. However, nowhere in the game did I come across a sequence that was constructed to make melee actually desirable, and in only one place did the stealth come up. That's not to say I didn't use melee attacks, but only in instances where I had run out of other options. A nice variety would've been some sequences specifically geared toward melee or stealth.
On top of that, even within the realm of third-person cover-based shooting, there could be more variety than just battles with numerous enemies in open areas with lots of coverings. There could be fights in more narrow areas, with a combination of sneaking around and shooting from behind cover. There could be battles where the enemy isn't totally sure where you are and your goal is to stay hidden while picking them off (whereas it seems like the enemies have a sixth sense about your current location). There was a lot of opportunity for other types of battles, but the biggest variation the game throws is having enemies enter a room behind you after you've defeated the enemies in front of you.
Not only that, but the game seems to go out of its way to force you to treat every battle this way. In many areas, as soon as you walk into a certain spot, enemies pop up and start attacking. So, the logical thing to do would be to try to pick some off from a distance before they notice you, right? Wrong. They don't spawn until you walk into that location. It's an unfortunate break to the realism of the game and jolts the player out of thinking strategically and back into playing by the game's rules. The same applies to the "ammo game": after every battle, you run around and collect ammunition from the enemies. It's just a boring job to do after each battle.
All that said, there are a couple sequence that completely change the battle system from cover-based combat to... I don't even know what to call it. The game pulls off the transition well and it adds some much-needed variety, but it doesn't quite overshadow all the other missed opportunities.
Occasionally Difficult to Control
There's a part of me that's hesitant to hold this last point against the game because to a certain extent, it's a necessary evil that comes with the game's minimalistic nature. The only solutions to this would complicate either the game's controls or the presentation, and both would be undesirable. Still, I think it deserves mention.
Like many games, controlling your character in an intuitive way is one of the most important things, and while Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is intuitive in a lot ways, there are definitely some irritating moments when it falls short. First of all, in the cover-based combat, getting around while under cover can be frustrating. As long as you're behind some cover or diving to another piece, you're alright; but as soon as you want to move around your cover, it gets very finicky. Similarly, getting into cover in the first place is often frustrating as the game picks the wrong piece of cover near you to put you under, often opening you up to fire. There are lots of places in the game that appear like they'd be good for cover, but the game won't let you hide behind them, which is very annoying to realize as someone's actively firing at you.
The same applies to the platforming elements. Because the controls are so simple, it's very easy to mess up and jump a few degrees in the wrong way and end up falling and dying. The problem is that it's hard to tell if that's a problem of planning or execution. Several times in the early part of the game, I went to make jumps and just barely missed, dying. So, once toward the end of the game, when I missed a jump three straight times, I figured I just wasn't executing correctly; but it turned out that wasn't a jump I even could make. But since it's so easy to mess up the execution, it's hard to tell if the error is actually in the planning.
Those issues become especially annoying under pressure. On several occasions, I'd finish a battle only to become aware enemies were coming in behind me and I needed to get back under cover -- but jumping over a piece of cover, then hiding behind it proves to be a difficult exercise. Pressing to cover the moment you hear gun fire might put you in a place still in view of the enemies even though you were aiming elsewhere, and by the time you recover you're dead.
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, in my eyes, is the spiritual successor to games like Shadow of the Colossus and Ico. No, it doesn't take place in anything resembling the same setting. No, it doesn't have the same kind of gameplay. But like those games, it leverages minimalism and a strong focus on cinematography to create a very strong gameplay experience. That's perhaps the word that has to be used to describe Uncharted: Drake's Fortune: experience. The individual little gameplay moments don't add up to the whole experience that Uncharted: Drake's Fortune provides from a combination of its simple gameplay, extraordinary cinematography, and brilliant presentation.
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune doesn't do anything revolutionary, but it didn't need to. It takes formulas that games have used for ages and implemented them just enough better so as to give itself its own identity. It has its problems, sure: there are lots of missed opportunities for more variety and I'm sure it could have contributed a little more in the way of innovation, but it's still a very solid gameplay experience and a worthy flagship for the PlayStation 3.
I wouldn't go so far as to call it a must-play, but it's definitely worth playing. It's not for everyone, but if you're interested enough in video games to have found this review or bought a PlayStation 3, it's probably for you.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 03/19/12, Updated 06/29/12
Game Release: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (US, 11/16/07)
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