Nov 14, 2007
Despite all appearances, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune isn't just Tomb Raider without the breasts. Yes, the combination of jungle settings, treasure-filled ruins and explosive gunplay looks a little too familiar; but after five minutes with Uncharted, you'll know it's something special. Behind the brilliant visuals and seemingly been-there, done-that scenario, this game has a lot of heart.
Borrowing its atmosphere from 1930s pulp novels and adventure serials, Uncharted follows cocky, smirking adventurer Nathan Drake (a descendant of the legendary Sir Francis Drake) as he retraces the steps of his famous ancestor in an attempt to find the mother of all lost treasures. Along for the ride are Drake's business partner Sully, a likable old seaplane pilot, and Elena Fisher, a remarkably tough TV documentarian who tags along to make a show about the whole thing.
Naturally, what starts as a simple treasure hunt rapidly unravels into a twisting adventure yarn involving pirates, mercenaries, dead Nazis, a mysteriously vanished Spanish colony and at least one U-boat suspiciously parked atop an Amazonian waterfall. The writing is snappy, the characters are endearing and the visuals are stunning throughout. If only the actual gameplay was as consistently awesome, it'd have Game of the Year written all over it.
You'll spend the majority of your time in Uncharted doing one of two things: leaping through precarious, improbable, Prince of Persia-style jumping puzzles, or shooting it out with ragtag bands of multicultural, armed-to-the-teeth pirates. The jumping puzzles (and the exploration in general) are a lot of fun, although they're a little too easy; your path is laid out pretty clearly, and the jumps don't require a lot of precision to make successfully; Drake generally knows what he's doing, and he's not going to let you mess it up for him by being slightly off the mark. What's more, on the rare occasions where you're not sure where to go, a leap of faith will often be rewarded with a conveniently placed handhold.
Still, the prettiness and diversity of the areas you'll explore (as well as Drake's comical uncertainty as to how to approach them) make these sequences rewarding, and - once you've played long enough to get the timing down - rapidly monkeying through them is kind of cool.
The combat, meanwhile, borrows heavily from Gears of War, with a strong emphasis on firing from behind cover. Drake's pretty resilient, able to soak up a dozen bullets or so and then rapidly recover from the brink of death, but if you run around in the open, he'll usually die pretty damn fast. He's extremely good at cowering behind pretty much any waist-high barrier, though, and he can blind-fire around corners or easily pop out to take a few aimed shots. He can also easily duck and roll between cover points when things get too hot (again, a la Gears), something you'll find yourself increasingly relying on as the game progresses.
Granted, running around in the open does sometimes have its perks; Drake can quietly take down unsuspecting pirates with a quick sleeper hold or neck-snap if they're looking the other way, and if you prefer the run-right-up-to-them approach, he can unleash lethal, dramatic punch-kick combos that vary widely despite using only two different button combinations. He's also handy with guns, able to carry two at a time (a pistol and a rifle), as well as a handful of grenades, which are thrown using the Sixaxis' tilt controls. (It's awkward at first, but try it a few times and it'll feel surprisingly natural.)
Your enemies, for their part, are whip-smart, whether they're simple, shotgun-toting pirates or armored mercs. They'll keep moving constantly, and they're almost as good at using cover as you are. They'll also duck out of the way when you draw a bead on them and toss grenades to flush you out of hiding, all while trying to flank you if you're behind cover. And their aim - whether it's with guns or grenades - is usually dead-on.
With all these cool ingredients, the gunfights - when they're good - rival the best of what Gears has to offer (only without the chainsaw guns), and they'll leave you feeling like you just survived something really deadly in the coolest manner possible. Sadly, these moments don't come along that often, and most later firefights ditch the style and strategy in favor of just swamping you with wave after wave of hyper-aggressive enemies, which feels like a grind. Not the fun kind of grind, either, but the frustrating kind that you have to relive, over and over, until you can slog through it without dying.
Then there are the parts where you'll need to commandeer a Jet Ski (or maybe it's a Sea-Doo; whatever) and ride through flooded ruins or beautiful rapids while Elena rides shotgun and takes out any hazards or baddies. These should be some of the game's fastest, most liberating sequences, but instead they're its clunkiest moments; your personal watercraft is kind of slow and frustratingly difficult to control (especially on rapids), and if you want Elena to shoot anything - which she'll frequently have to do - you'll have to stop, dead in the water, so that she can stand up, aim carefully and completely destroy any sense of speed or momentum you might have built up. To be honest, the level where you ride on the back of an on-rails jeep and shoot at pursuing vehicles is a lot more fun, not to mention much faster.
Finally, there are the puzzles, which come along rarely and usually have simple solutions, which are all but handed to you on a platter by the hints in Sir Francis Drake's diary, which Nathan Drake carries with him through much of the game. Despite the ease, they're diverse and fun, ranging from figuring out how to burn away a bunch of debris to turning a series of statues in order to open a secret passage - just don't expect much of a challenge from them.
Despite any complaints with the gameplay, Uncharted is extremely good at crafting a fun, immersive atmosphere that's at turns comical and terrifying. A lot of this is down to its characters - Drake in particular is endlessly likable, being one of those heroes who succeeds through sheer grit and dumb luck despite being constantly out of his depth (think Nathan Fillion in Firefly). Drake's sidekicks are similarly endearing, with vividly expressive faces and charmingly devious personalities, and you might even find yourself getting attached to a few of the bad guys in spite of yourself. It doesn't hurt that the game is a technical showcase, either, featuring beautiful environments, amazing water effects and a wide variety of expressive foes that react dynamically to whatever you're doing and who rarely seem to say the same thing twice. (On the other hand, this being a PS3 game, there's some occasional visual tearing, but it's nothing too severe.)
Also of note is Uncharted's "Medals" system, which parallels Xbox Live Achievements in that it awards players points (1,000 in total) for doing cool stuff like killing 50 enemies in a row without dying. The difference is that earning these actually does something within the game, unlocking new cheats and extras as you gain them. And the cheats themselves can actually be pretty entertaining, ranging from alternate costumes for various characters to instantly accessible guns to a "Next Gen" filter, which turns everything brown and slathers lots of inappropriate bloom-lighting effects everywhere. To hell with eventually seeing useless trophies in Home - this is what we'd like to see PS3 games do more of.
In spite of all the work that obviously went into crafting Uncharted, its gameplay comes up a bit short, turning key moments in its 8-to-10-hour run time into frustrating, repetitive slogs. Still, it's a lot of fun overall, and its cool pulp-fiction atmosphere and wildly entertaining story will keep you grinding through even when things get dull. If you're looking for a fun showcase of the PS3's graphical prowess and don't mind a few flaws, then this is what you should be playing right now.