It’s certainly strange to come away from one of the PS3’s so-called “must-haves” of its time with a heightened sense of disappointment. During an era of over-blown squabbles over a certain game somehow saving a console—as if the library was completely bankrupt of solid exclusives until that happened, this was the one which seemed to hit the mark when it came to critics. Plus, the popular Naughty Dog team (Jak + Daxter series, Crash games on PS1) was developing it. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (DF) admits new ideas aren’t so much a priority as it is in the proficiency of tying proven game mechanics into a blender with state-of-the-art visuals and a greater focus on cinematic storytelling. The cracks in this foundation don’t necessarily lie in it feeling like a “been there, done that” scenario but rather in how it’s executed, making it more of a motley mixture of gameplay models and an adventure that doesn’t stand up to its aspired Hollywood source material.
Incorporating the quixotic atmosphere of certain 20th century pulp novels and adventure serials, the story opens up with Nathan Drake, the humorous main protagonist with the coolest half tucked-in shirt style in videogames, on the cusp of disinterring the truth found within the long lost coffin of Sir Francis Drake, which Nathan claims is his ancestor. That great adventurer plays prominently into the story because it’s through his catalogued discoveries made in a journal that Drake’s able to use in order to find the fabled treasure of El Dorado. The two supporting cast members are Sully, a cigar-chomping scoundrel who may as well as had “Betrayal or Death?” emblazoned on his shirt the moment he makes his entrance, and Elena Fisher, a TV reporter whose air time splits between being a sidekick and a damsel in distress.
From the cinematic panache to dialogue, it’s obvious just how keen it is on recreating another Indiana Jones counterpart by way of National Treasure…and just about any other adventure series that’s spawned since then. While that sort of pacing is well-harnessed here, the unbridled sense of discovery found in greater works seems to be usurped here by Uncharted’s thrill and focus on head-hunting. For the first four chapters before reaching a certain locale, both the gameplay and storytelling complement the pulp adventure pastiche as you’re always feeling as being on the cusp of a new discovery. After that, it becomes rather redundant how often every single vault, tomb, etc. is littered with thugs beating you at every turn and you're left with picking up the leftover trinkets. Even for secret pathways to ruins that are only ever explained through Sir Francis Drake’s journal and prescribed as “the only way in,” it’s ludicrous to see how often you'll solve a puzzle leading to the next secret area that's already populated with armed pirates.
For all the gusto some may perceive in me pointing out the overdone clichés and other problems present, I must admit that I do at least have some ounces of admiration towards the snappy dialogue and general enthusiasm embodied in this adventure. As brought up by the creative leads behind this within unlocked developer videos, Uncharted does contain that quality of wanting the player to always be charting out on a whiz-bang adventure while hearing a bunch of amusing one-liners along the way; like the interactive visualization of what an older generation would find on the front of every Thrilling Wonder Stories cover or the like.
The problem comes in just how underwhelming all of that potential pans out with the actual narrative. For a game built upon rollicking set-piece moments, I can’t say I ever came away with witnessing anything truly spectacular or never seen before; instead, it just looks prettier. There’s a healthy amount of interesting plot details to take in, ranging from Nazis, the list of main antagonists, the mystery behind El Dorado and a ravaged city, but most of the twists and turns never really pan out to be anything above straight-to-DVD-sequel level of development—save for one great scene with Sully. In fact, a big final twist to the endgame is just one of the most worn-out JRPG clichés and wrings out the game in a half-hearted fashion.
Is this all to say Uncharted’s story is bad? No. The script displays expertise in understanding how to convey ACTUAL human emotions in this sort of extraordinary setting and characterizations ranging from Drake to the goofy Eddy Rajas all at least have room to breathe their own quirks and personalities while moving forward. But it goes to show just how important the plot scenarios happening around the characters also carries a lot of weight in keeping the player excited.
Even if what’s happening during cut scenes may not bear much significance, it always looks great. Considering the time of its release or not, DF’s graphical prowess can still be noted with its meticulously recreated jungle locales. Luxuriant plant life is packed into so many areas and often over-running many of the ancient ruins that can be explored. Plants bend where Drake steps, water has that level of refulgence mimicked in real life, and textures have a great level of detail. Even Drake’s shirt will momentarily look completely wet or partially wet depending on the circumstance.
Drake may be trying to sell that every-man look with his half tucked-in shirt and gap jeans, but it’s the fluid animations that really make this action hero. From the wild flailing while jumping to a scalable objects just within reach to the subtleties like wincing while a fusillade of bullets are whizzing by behind cover, the level of detail can be astounding at times. Even when the acrobatic stunts are pulled off, the quality of the animation sells that sense of imperfection to each move. It’s just as easy to become rapt in attention to those sorts of details during cut scenes as well. Great facial animation and mo-cap work lend themselves to making otherwise predictable scenes a bit more engaging. Despite all the praises given to the small details, not all the technical hiccups have been ironed out. Screen tearing and slow loading textures are bound to happen here and there. And while I do like the varied tropical island settings, the art style for characters in-game has this strange quasi-cartoony look that doesn’t really blend well with the background during combat. These are just minor things that harm an otherwise spectacular looking title that pushed this hardware the hardest back then.
As is expected with such a high level of production values for the looks, the same goes for the way Uncharted sounds. Sound effects for the standard arsenal fare are typically well-crafted—some sound rather distinctive while others are adequate. The selected actors fill out their respective roles well; depending on the situation, each one will loquaciously express their tension, joyful uncertainty, anxiety, or normal demeanor. The dynamic score is often big and sweeping and able to segue between different tones adequately whenever a change of atmosphere is occurring. For the most part, a lot of the instruments and notes do veer towards a run-of-the-mill kind of exotic background as something like the Survivor TV series; however, the main theme for Uncharted goes in a completely different direction with a grand orchestral score, making it one of my favorite themes of all the seventh generation titles I’ve played. There are also a number of minute details sprinkled throughout, such as Drake talking to himself in order to keep his cool or the ringing-in-you-ear sensation when explosives go off near Drake’s ear.
For the majority of play, Uncharted could be funneled down into a “Gears of War meets Tomb Raider” kind of game for the sake of an easy description. There’s a collection of other elements here also that inevitably leads to the oft-expected problem with many hybirds: juggling so many different gameplay concepts that sullies the whole package with mixed execution.
There are two fundamental gameplay elements to Uncharted that will take up the majority of playing time, though they don’t often interconnect and share setbacks produced by the game’s visuals. The old Tomb Raider aspirations are clear with the environmental traversal, except here the platforming is much more forgiving in regards to precision. Whether hopping between aged mortar, ledges, or swinging from vines, just read Drake’s body language of him reaching for the next platform and hit the X button. One of the problems with platforming is the difficulty in path-finding due to the rich details of the environment. Failures in making certain jumps or reaching correct ledges is due to there being little to distinguish between what’s meant to be scalable and what’s actually background text. With the overbearing amount of direction given for these areas and how easygoing the game’s system acts for platforming, it’s more of just a fun distraction that other games have executed more elegantly anyways.
Combat on the other hand tips towards the other direction and accounts for most of the frustration. The gunplay replicates the Gears of War cover-based, third-person shooting with a more standard arsenal of pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, and grenade launchers. The general sensation of firing the weapons does provide satisfying sounds but there’s something about the aiming and the control sensation that doesn’t feel quite as kinesthetically pleasing as other shooters. Still a decent job in its own right, though. It’s also tough to do any evade rolling around cover since both options are mapped to the circle button.
One problem I come back to is the enemy design for many of the scenarios. As mentioned for platforming, the visuals popping like they do here make it often tough to spot enemies until they’ve bore down on you and weasel in a few precise shots—which is essentially their standard accuracy—or take cheap shots of you off-camera in some instances. Aside from that, they seem to act like bullet sponges for many of the standard weapons. A bunch of early t-shirt donning enemies could still absorb quite a few bullets even when their extreme overacting after being shot sells them as meeting their doom. Admittedly, they are rather smart when it comes to interacting with cover and attempting to flank you; but with the other design problems considered, it just adds to the annoyance of when the game feels like adding one wave after the other and then you move forward just to be involved in another firefight with the same process in a different location. It becomes such a jarring dissimilarity to the casual platforming aspect.
There was one evanescent instance throughout the whole shooting gallery that would’ve truly elevated this beyond the “nimbler Gears of War” bouts: booby traps. For one short scenario, players not only have to consider the cover shooting against incoming enemies but also keep their wits about them and pay close attention so as to elude ropes tied close to the ground that will spring spike traps (akin to the trap in Rambo: First Blood). While I’m not trying to outright ignore the difference of a more agile Gears gunplay system—that’s nice too, this little detail was a quick glimpse of gunplay that added texture to this deserted tropical location THROUGH its mechanics. To see that so effortlessly tossed away for the rest of the game was rather disappointing.
Even more unfortunate is just what DF devolves into once a short genre-switch occurs towards the end of the game. Like with the route taken for the storytelling towards the end, gameplay veers down a characterless direction. Many late-game scenarios just become a battle of attrition against waves of enemies and the final chapter shows Naughty Dog ran out of ideas.
When growing tired of extirpating non-white races solely with guns, players have a few environmental hazards to exploit to their advantage or chuck grenades. Drake also has a selection of melee attacks to use against his enemies. The variety of animations makes it look much more dynamic than the button-mashing actually is, which is both praise for how sensational it looks when executed and a slight against its simplicity. There are a few moments to use stealth, as well. Drake slinks up to an unsuspecting guard and takes him out with one quick grab. The AI is very rudimentary though and has a large cone of vision that will instantly alert everyone if just a sliver of you can be spotted behind cover. That’s what’s so infuriating about it during one combat scenario towards the end. “…now if I can just get past these guards unnoticed,” says Drake before entering a new area. That insignificant part frustrated me so much because it seems nigh impossible to make any kind of legitimate progress via stealth after taking out the first guard, thus making that supposedly subtle hint in the cut scene worthless.
Then, there’s also turret and vehicular segments. In regards to sheer excitement, the time shooting and grenading baddies while on the back of a jeep contains the best set-piece moments. There are also moments where you commandeer a jet ski and ride through flooded ruins or up-current while Elena sits behind and is used to fire at pirates or floating explosive barrels. What had the chance of being a highlight for the gameplay turns to be one of its biggest banes. The watercraft doesn’t really control fluidly—especially against rapids—and any sense of exhilarating speed built up is destroyed by having to constantly switch to Elena and have her shoot grenades or bullets (never needing to reload, mind you) at enemies with amazing precision just waiting around the next corner. Every aspect of those levels feels really lazy; as if someone thought of Coco’s jet ski levels from the Crash Bandicoot days and the team decided to “modernize” it without examining the fundamentals of what made that so fun to play.
Speaking of modernized gameplay aspects, what early PS3 exclusive would be complete without pried-in SixAxis controls? From the secondary option of tilting the controller forward or backward to change the grenade throwing arc to balancing on a couple of logs, the sensation of Sony corporate breathing down the developer’s neck is palpable during these moments. And then there are the quick-time events (QTE’s). As someone who couldn’t get enough of Indigo Prophecy’s QTE core mechanic, I’ve never been one to complain about them in so many games. It’s another tool in the developer toolbox. But it should feel as though it’s serving a purpose, not foisted in there just because. Here, there’s maybe four QTE’s aside from the final boss fight scattered throughout random cut scenes where you’re in the “controller resting state” while watching a scene unfold and then a quick change in the camera angle with a button prompt jumps on the screen only giving you a moment’s notice to react.
With earlier gripes on overly-simplistic mechanics, one could suspect the few straightforward puzzles of having to look through a journal that spells out everything you need to know would be considered another easy target. Sure, there isn't that great sense of reward from figuring something out by your own intuition when the cheat book is often required; but considering the context, I never thought it was a big deal in this case. It seems understandable for an explorer to meticulously jot down specifics on ancient relics and secrets. Since Drake’s just following in the same footsteps of his supposed ancestor, they do fit in naturally and feel like a nice break from the unevenness of the core gameplay. As mentioned before, it’s more frustrating how the outcome in many of these completed puzzles result in dim-witted pirates being behind said locked door like they just so happened to stumble upon a back entrance.
Even after putting DF through this grinding wheel of criticism, a lot of these annoyances will just be pegged as peevish by many. And that’s fair to a degree. With these multifarious problems with auxiliary components not considered, the core gameplay could certainly be considered "serviceable" and well-complimented by the great production values. How could it not be, though? When you have every core concept following in lock-step with other franchises that either created a template and/or refined one in a way to give it a separate identity, how could you really mess up with that? The admittedly-impressive panoply of mechanics here don’t really provide much of their own kind of texture or adventurous quality that distinguishes it from just being a hodgepodge of ideas rather than something that’s actually connected; and when moments of uniqueness do crop up, they don’t stay for long before going back to the slog of pirate slaying.
There’s a lesser sensation of obvious padding—though still somewhat present—than most games in order to harness the pacing of the campaign, but that length can make some weigh in a buy it/rent it comparison. Replay value walks a fine line that’s dependent upon a couple of factors. On top of trophies added in simply depending on the copy you have or having an internet connection to upload a game patch, there’s an in-game reward-based system as well that enables you to unlock making-of videos, different costumes, a “Next Gen” filter poking fun at the majority of other shooters, and the like. In-game rewards are given for completing certain challenges, mostly focused on collecting and accumulated kills/headshots against Drake's darker-colored adversaries. The overall length will probably run the gambit of eight hours, a bit more depending on if looking for all the empty collectibles is your thing, so it could be pegged as being light on raw content by more hardcore consumerists. My problem with value is geared more towards the meat of the game instead of the length, however. There are really just a couple of memorable moments that actually feel worth revisiting altogether.
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune attempts to embody the swashbuckling adventure tradition of many exhilarating films and comics in decades past. It means only to entertain. In some respects, it succeeds. It serves as an outstanding graphical showcase for the early PS3 days with the well-edited cut scenes, being unsatisfied with the trouble of loading screens, and a couple of its set-piece moments. Looking past that, however, is a game with an admirable amount of different mechanics that blunders so often as to feel like an unrefined simulacrum of the various contemporaries it’s mixing together and a story that doesn’t quite live to the creators’ cinematic scope. Like one of the glistening trinkets placed throughout the campaign: the satisfaction upon first glance of this shiny bauble is always there, but it soon feels hollow compared to the real treasure that’s promised to lie at the X on the map.
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