The year was 2007. Highly regarded as one of the best years for contemporary gaming, it should come as no surprise then that the Uncharted series made its debut that fall alongside other incredibly successful releases such as the highly anticipated Halo 3 and the new IPs Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed, and Bioshock. Coming up against some strong competition, Drake’s Fortune was flying low on most peoples’ radars as it was an exclusive title for Sony’s Playstation 3 which only launched a year prior and had yet to sport the strong library it has today. Fortunately Uncharted proved to be quite the hit with gamers and critics alike. What had once been jokingly referred to as “Dude Raider” busted out onto the gaming scene with production values, scenery, a narrative, and an extremely vivid cast of characters that rivaled most Hollywood blockbusters. Not long after the game’s release developer Naughty Dog (Crash Bandicoot, Jak and Daxter) knew they had created yet another gaming icon – Nathan Drake.
Uncharted follows the amateur archeologist/treasure hunter Nathan “Nate” Drake (Nolan North) as he tries to uncover the location and secrets behind El Dorado – the fabled city of gold. The game opens off the Panamanian coast as Nate and an up-and-coming journalist named Elena Fisher (Emily Rose) discover the coffin of Sir Francis Drake: a famous explorer from the 16th century who circumnavigated the globe. Hoping to find clues as to the location of the many treasures the famous explorer had accumulated, Drake raises Sir Francis’ tomb from the bottom of the sea to find the coffin void of a body but containing a journal. From that point forward Drake and Elena set out with Drake’s brazen cigar smoking partner-in-crime Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Richard McGonagle) to find El Dorado – an adventure that has them travel from South America to the Pacific Islands and square off with two rivals who are hell-bent on finding the city of gold first and are willing to kill to do so.
The story is a mixing of historical fact and fiction and bends reality a tad – “stylized realism” as it’s been called – never straying too far into fantasy but maintaining a level of mystery and excitement outside the limits of the real world. In this sense, Drake’s Fortune truly earns its comparison to such iconic and beloved adventure tales like the Indiana Jones series which, not counting Crystal Skull, were flawless in using this same mixture. Just like Indy, Nathan Drake and his adventures truly feel like they could’ve happened if only on the fringes of our own reality.
One of the most important aspects of the game’s story that continued throughout the whole trilogy of Uncharted games is that the experience is very much a character driven narrative more than a treasure hunter tale that takes liberties with historical fact. The characters both support the narrative, giving the events depth and emotion, but also are constantly moving it forward at an enthralling pace and building upon it. The voice work of North, Rose, McGonagle, and the actors who portray the antagonists and ancillary characters is easily one of the best efforts I’ve ever seen in a game. A strong script and natural dialogue additionally brings the characters to life in such a way that they’ll stick with you for some time afterwards.
However, if there’s one blemish on this otherwise pristine example of how to make a story-centric action-adventure title it’s the loss of pacing in what I would consider the third act. A majority of the game’s progress comes naturally and ideally – offering an enjoyable mix of action sequences, puzzle solving, exploration, and character/plot development. Yet as the player gets closer and closer to the end of the game it all breaks down into one gunfight after the other until you finally reach the boss, have a gun fight with him too, and then watch the closing cutscene and credits. While I certainly understand the concept of a climax and the rush of excitement that Naughty Dog is going for I just don’t think it really meshes too well with the other 75% of the game – leaving the player to almost feel like the developers intentionally wanted to wrap things up as fast as they could. The most unfortunate thing though is that this is a mistake that Naughty Dog has continued to make in both Among Thieves and Drake’s Deception.
Additionally, another negative about the game would be concerning the length of the story. From start to finish Drake’s Fortune comes in at about seven or eight hours – less if you blow through it, more if you challenge yourself with a higher difficulty or explore a bit. While eight hours was certainly the standard for a linear, story-driven game back in the early and mid 2000s game length compared to retail price has been an ever growing concern for today’s gamer. Honestly though, depending on how you take to the game and what it has to offer you may find yourself more than satisfied regardless. In truth, eight or so hours is probably the most ideal time for this game as any shorter would make it feel rushed and any longer would completely off-set the predominantly ideal pace.
As previously mentioned Drake’s Fortune takes you from South America to the Pacific Islands and has Drake explore lush jungles, decrepit ruins of a civilization now gone, eerie catacombs and tombs, and even an abandoned German submarine base from the 1940s. Outdoor environments are absolutely stunning in their vibrant colors and true-life feel while tombs and ancient tunnels are claustrophobic, dim, and truly inspire a feeling of anxiety as you wonder what might await you around the next corner. The amount of detail that has been put into these locations was not only incredibly impressive when the game released but is still noteworthy and beautiful over four years later. The characters themselves are equally well-crafted and, dare I say, the most life-like I have yet to see in a game (aside from maybe L.A. Noire’s facial animations). Their body language, physique, and style in general feel one-hundred percent natural and combined with the expert voice-work creates a group of sincere individuals.
The only downside to the game’s visual design is something that has of late emerged in many other titles both past and present – texture pop. While I experienced it very few times during my play-through it can’t be ignored (though it can be forgiven). Another potential issue is the occasional poorly designed environmental pieces. The player may spot an area that they would think traverse-able but come to find out quite the contrary. This is most annoying when the result is Drake falling to his death. Suffice it to say, the game could’ve done a better job at effectively discerning what parts of the environment could be interacted with and what was just eye candy.
The gameplay of Drake’s Fortune is split up between puzzle solving, free-climbing/platforming, and both melee and firearm combat.
Puzzle solving is unfortunately the most lack-luster of the three components. You would think that a game based around treasure hunting and exploring old forgotten ruins and tombs would make such a thing the most polished and enjoyable feature but this isn’t the case. There might be perhaps a total of five or six different puzzles spread out through the game’s story and a majority of them are incredibly easy as they require about the same interactivity and brain power you would’ve needed in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It doesn’t help either that most of the solutions can be deciphered with a look at drawings and scribbled notes in Drake’s journal. There is however one puzzle later in the game that is one of the most aggravating and confusing experiences I’ve had in a long time. Without giving too much away I’ll just say that trying to solve this puzzle will probably see the player fall to their deaths ten or twenty times before figuring it out and moving on. While the addition of solving riddles and uncovering clues certainly helps the game feel unique it is a feature that could’ve been a lot more fleshed out.
Luckily the platforming element is in good shape. Just like Altair in Assassin’s Creed, Drake will be spending a lot of time running, jumping, and climbing. Unlike our 12th century killer though the player won’t be scaling and moving about the rooftops of cities but rather traversing old, abandoned ruins lost in the jungle and catacombs lined with traps and pitfalls. The mechanics of such gameplay are well tuned and work nearly flawlessly but unlike the aforementioned Ubisoft title most of the platforming sections are not entirely “freeform”. Drake’s Fortune does a sufficient job at giving the player the illusion of being able to climb anything but in reality unless we’re talking about a random part of the environment that is of no consequence most platforming sections are fairly straightforward and, in a manner of speaking, linear.
Finally the combat is typical of the mid-2000s third person shooter flavor. Drake can take cover using most surfaces he can fit behind, there’s blind firing, and to help Drake cut through his enemies there’s quite a sizable collection of different weapon types to use ranging from pistols to assault rifles to grenade launchers. The guns each feel different from one another and have differing degrees of effectiveness. The only issue I took with the shooting mechanics of the game was the terrible idea of where to map the button that changed which shoulder the camera looked over when firing. That action required the player to press down on the right thumbstick – the same thumbstick that controlled aiming – you can see the issue with that in the heat of battle. Weapons and ammo are fairly plentiful as they can be picked up from dead enemies but only two weapons can be carried at the same time – a pistol and any of the other weapons (aside from a second pistol).
The combat AI is nothing too special; enemies will take cover and either fire at you blindly or expose themselves while attacking you. Occasionally enemies will show some form of intelligence as one or two bad guys might find their way around to your flanks but for the most part they stay where they are. Enemies will also throw grenades, use rocket launchers and other area-of-effect weapons, take aim with sniper rifles (one shot and you’re dead), and will use mounted machine guns to try and take you down. Overall the difficulty of these engagements can fluctuate – sometimes you might have to root out four or five of them while in other instances you may face thirty in all as some sections will have numerous waves. There also exists different tiers of enemies ranging from the weak to the strong and you’ll encounter all of them to different degrees throughout the game.
The biggest flaw of the combat is no doubt the unpolished nature of the melee system. Every now and then the player has the option to attempt a low key path through an area swarming with enemies. While it’s certainly not a necessity, the player may wish to take advantage of this and try their hand at playing ninja with Drake. Unfortunately the only thing that helps you do this is that you can sneak up behind a target and kill them quietly with your bare-hands. Sneaking is a challenge in and of itself though as it requires constant attention to enemy movements and guess-work when it comes to their line of sight. There’s no such thing as sticking to the shadows, camouflage, or using silenced weapons to take down enemies from afar here – just the ability of the player to briskly walk up behind an enemy and press the melee button. Trying to use melee combat outside of stealth situations quickly comes off as foolish as enemies will require more than one punch to take down, will usually not fight back with their fists but by spraying bullets in all directions, and as soon as you engage an enemy in melee combat he’ll signal his buddies and they’ll open fire on the two of you or, in some cases, throw a handful of grenades your way.
While a refined melee system may not be entirely needed for a game like this I do think that it’s important and may even be more important than the gunplay in the greater scheme of things. Drake is not some ex-navy seal who’s highly trained in the ways of the pistol, rifle, and RPG – he’s more-or-less an “average joe” who may use those things if he has to but he’s not chasing lost treasures suited up as if going to war. To draw upon Indiana Jones again, we never saw Indy getting into forty-man gun battles numerous times in one movie. He used firearms on occasion but those films were always filled with some nice and thrilling fist fights and all out brawls.
While the action is non-stop and the visuals are beautiful I can honestly say that what I personally loved the most about Drake’s Fortune was its thrilling adventure story and more importantly its characters. Cinematic adventure games that live in the same vein as our childhood hero Indiana Jones don’t really exist these days. In our contemporary world of explosive military shooters and sci-fi apocalyptic scenarios such a game as this is incredibly refreshing and what really gives it life are characters like Drake, Elena, and Sully. Unlike such other modern icons as Marcus Phoenix, Master Chief, and Captain Price the characters that make up Drake’s Fortune are so well crafted and sincere in their emotions that they truly do give off a very life-like feel and really make this game what it is. There’s no doubt in mind my that if Naughty Dog hadn’t put as much time and effort into developing this game as a character narrative Drake’s Fortune would’ve found itself in the bargain bin by January 2008 and we would’ve never gotten the two stellar sequels that were to come in 2009 and 2011.