Games and movies are often unfairly compared. There are many similarities between the two, to be sure, but the ultimate upshot of a film versus that of a game (ie through the emotional and physical investment of each) is usually worlds apart; one is passive, the other interactive. However, on the odd occasion one of the two mediums pays homage to the other where the passive and interactive forms of enjoyment and participation coalesce to create a symbiotic product, something where one could not exist without the other. And while these products are usually few and far between, Sony and NaughtyDog (Jak and Daxter) have come up trumps with an obvious action movie gaming reverence in the form of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, a title that does just the above with no qualms about maintaining the more than obvious narrative, direction and foundational inspirations of its formation.
With this in mind – and it being plainly obvious from the game’s opening sequence – it was my goal to finish
the game before even attempting to write this review. You don’t go to the cinema, watch half a movie, and emerge the authority on its full-length. So I treated Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune just the way NaughtyDog wanted me to: As an interactive cinematic experience. It’s not
a movie, that much is sure, but so many of its gameplay queues have been derived from the passive screening experience, it’s as close as anyone has come yet.
Being that the game has a cinematic tone, the story is obviously the stand-out feature and while it’s most certainly riddled with Hollywood summer blockbuster clichés, it doesn’t stop it from being an immensely enjoyable romp. Comparisons from the film side of things sees Uncharted going up against the likes of Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider, while the gaming side sees much in comparison to the latter, but also Prince of Persia and Gears of War. There’s nothing overly original about Uncharted; borrowed gameplay and equally borrowed story elements lend themselves to more than enough familiarity, however, it’s all done so seamlessly and presented with such polish it’s easy to overlook the game’s inspirational roots, and besides imitation is the highest form of flattery, or so they say.
From the outset we’re introduced to the game’s incredibly crisp visuals (which truly do stand out), its engaging story and very likeable characters. Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher are aboard a treasure-hunting boat out at sea. Elena is involved with a Discovery Chennel-like, err… channel, and is funding modern-day treasure hunter, Nate Drake, on an expedition to find the coffin of the long-lost Sir Francis Drake. Obviously we’re to assume the two have a historic family connection and when Nathan’s information on the whereabouts of the coffin comes good, it’s difficult not to want follow him wherever his wits and knowledge may take us.
As every good treasure-hunting adventure should begin, we’re immediately thrown a bone when Nathan and Elena discover Drake’s coffin is empty barring a small lock-box containing his journal. But, just as things look like they’re about to get interesting, the two are interrupted by encroaching pirates and its time for a little gameplay to kick in.
As Uncharted uses the same engine for both cut-scenes and gameplay, you’ll probably stand still for a solid few seconds before you realise you’re in control. It really is that
impressive. Gameplay is made up largely of fire-fights featuring very Gears of War-like cover and fire mechanics. Duck behind crates and walls, blind-fire or L1 aim and R1 shoot for accurate targeting. This is all you really need to deal with in the early part of the game, and you’ll also be introduced to the consistent shift between cut-scene and gameplay action you’re about to experience throughout (though it’s never intrusive and is, in fact, something you’ll begin to look forward to). Fighting off the pirates is easy enough, though the damage caused sees Elena’s funded ship heading for its own maritime grave, but thanks to Nathan’s mate Sully, you’re both rescued and flown out of harms way to mark your next move on the path of Sir Francis Drake, thanks to finding his adventuring journal.
What we learn next through an equally great cut-scene is Sully and Drake are fortune hunters, Drake for the glory and heritage and Sully for the money to cover his life of regret. Elena is out of ear-reach explaining to her producers about the lost ship while Nate and Sully reveal the game’s true course – the search for the lost city of gold, El Dorado
. It turns out the journal has all the information on El Dorado the two need and without giving anything else away, head off on a course for adventure and exploration, only leaving poor Elena behind at the bequest of the not-so-trusting Sully, but business is business, right.
From here on out we’re taken through a range of different approaches to the genre that split the game between Prince of Persia-like scaling exploration, the aforementioned cover and fire action and the pretty and cinematic-as-can-be story sequences. It’s all seamlessly presented though, and after about 90 minutes with the game you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve found the perfect adventure title. The lush visuals invite you into Drake’s world while the cheesy (yet fitting) dialogue keeps you wanting more and more. But it’s not all peachy, and after said 90-odd minutes, Uncharted shows this really is uncharted
territory for Naughty Dog.
Though the styles are all in place, things become incredibly ill-balanced as you progress. The story remains fresh and engaging, but massively long sequences of taking out the same types of enemies over and over again begin to wear thin. Couple this with the game’s relatively easy puzzles and short exploration/scaling moments and Uncharted begins to shift into areas of tedium. It’s not all bad, it just feels cut and pasted, and given the treasure-hunting theme at hand I personally would have preferred much more exploration and puzzle-solving, especially because the first three quarters of the game sees you taking out the same bad-guys in practically the same way, every time.
What is equally bad about this is the lack of dynamic AI and reactionary hit-points. Most times headshots will reward you with an instant kill, but too often did I most certainly make a headshot only to have the foe knocked back a couple of steps before he’s back behind cover and causing me more grief, head wound or not. Like Call of Duty 4 also, enemies won’t react differently when you’re retrying a bottleneck, instead they’ll pop up in the same spot pretty much doing the same thing. Their cover techniques are good, but they all do them exactly the same, which after a while just seems lazy.
That being said, you do get a few different types of weapons to tackle them with, of which the grenade launcher and Magnum both prove to be a lot of fun. Ammo is easy enough to come by though, and as such you never really
feel desperate. Naughty Dog should have taken queues from other action titles like Resident Evil 4 for the constant bombardment of fodder they offer you, that game had you on the edge of your seat for almost its entire duration thanks to a need to ration ammo and think on your toes, but I digress.
Traversing is split up into different types of terrain and different environments. You’ll trounce through the jungle for a lot of the game, but you will also find yourself walking through ruins and even at an abandoned Nazi encampment (of which I’ll say no more for fear of spoilers). But there are also some cool on-rails moments to look forward to. One particular sequence sees you manning a turret on the back of a jeep while Elena drives. It’s unbelievably crisp and a lot of fun in the wake usually spending too much time crouched behind cover. You’ll also ride a jet ski a few times through some stunning ancient architecture and while it’s no WaveRace in terms of responsiveness or physics, it’s still pretty cool.
At the end of the day, however, it’s the game’s story that will keep you coming back for more, and even though it lacks original flair, the characters keep things fresh through their dynamic relationships. There are plenty of moments throughout where you genuinely care for what’s going to happen to your party – a real rarity in action games of this nature and you’ll constantly find yourself wanting for that next all-important cut-scene, if just for more reason to go on fighting the mindless baddies the game continues to throw at you.
The game’s score is wonderfully befitting its cinematic quality, and a round of applause (or at least a “good hustle” pat) should go to Naughty Dog for dishing out what they have here. Beyond the soundtrack even, things in the aural department don’t let up. The voice-acting throughout is great and even though the dialogue is completely clichéd, you won’t help but want to hear everything the main characters have to say. While, finally, the ambient noises of natural waterfalls, foliage, birds and animals, gears and gunfire all add to the epic nature of the experience at-hand. As far as sound goes, there are few games that deliver this level of polish.
Visually there’s nothing better on the PS3, and Uncharted is most certainly a game many
developers should be looking at for ocular inspiration. There’s an almost Pixar-like feel to the look; a deliberate move on Naughty Dog’s part. They have definitely shifted their focus from over-the-top cartoony characters, but they also know how to make sure you remember you’re still playing a videogame. Characters aside though, walking through the unbelievably crafted jungles and ruins is something to be experienced rather than read about and I guarantee there will be countless moments of jaw-dropping awe for anyone who picks this up.
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is the first massive step in the right direction for exclusive content for the PS3. It is both visually and aurally stunning while the story and characters should keep you glued until the very end. It is unfortunately marred by unbalanced gameplay, repetitive and predictable AI and simple puzzles. These gameplay issues aside, it stands as a great leap forward in the marriage between film and games, and will hopefully spark more of the same – with improvements – in the future.