Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune revitalizes and reinvents Croft’s tomb-raiding territory in amazing PS3 action/adventure
Justifying a pre-price cut PS3 purchase has not been easy. The path has been cluttered with regret (the lame launch line-up), disappointment (supposed – system – seller – turned – SIXAXIS – nightmare, Lair), redemption (the excellent Eye of Judgment and Ratchet and Clank), and finally, after spending a few days in the well-worn trail boots of Nathan Drake, full-on “who’s jealous now, Xbox 360 fanboys?!” justification.
With the release of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Sony, in our book, no longer needs to defend or apologize for their previous PS3 mishaps; all is forgiven, even that lame “we don’t need rumble, never mind, yes we do” debacle. Landing in the cyber spotlight alongside last month’s Ratchet and Clank: Future Tools of Destruction, Uncharted shines brightly as the fledgling console’s second system-selling sensation.
First things first: Uncharted is not Tomb Raider, Indiana Jones, or any of the relic-hunting wannabes that’ve followed in their footsteps; it’s its own blockbusting beast. True, it shares many individual traits–puzzling, platforming, fighting, shooting–with those franchises, but the sum of its spelunking similarities culminate in an experience entirely worthy of its own action figure and, of course, sequel-spawning franchise; hell, a film adaptation wouldn’t even be much of a stretch seeing that the game is practically a playable movie. This isn’t especially surprising considering Uncharted comes from Naughty Dog, developer of the successful PS2 series, Jak and Daxter. But the fact that they avoided the easy and obvious path, not delivering the first PS3 chapter in their well established franchise, is impressive. We’re sure a next-gen Jak is in the PS3 pipeline; and like a hungry Ottsel, we’ll happily lap it up when it arrives. But in the meantime we couldn’t be happier that Naughty Dog took a chance on this new, soon-to-be-classic IP.
The first thing you’ll notice in Uncharted are the gorgeous visuals. Lush jungle landscapes, creepy caves, and stunning set pieces–a German U-Boat teetering atop a waterfall’s edge is a highlight–are all complemented by some of the best shadowing and lighting effects we’ve seen in this gaming generation. Whether you’re exploring a torch-lit cavern or scaling a sun-soaked cliff side, you’ll continually be floored by the realism yielded by these effects. This attention to detail extends to the game’s use of water as well; postcard-perfect waterfalls and ocean backdrops are like nothing you’ve seen in previous games. What the ground-breaking BioShock did for claustrophobic liquidy effects–trickling pipes, leaky windows–Uncharted has done for larger scale water representation in games. If Uncharted doesn’t succeed in making you want to become a real-life treasure hunter, its pop-off-the-screen tropical splendor will at least have you longing for a beach-bathing getaway.
As pretty as the sites are in Uncharted, ogling them too long will likely spell trouble for the game’s protagonist Nathan Drake. Puzzles, pirates, and long death drops riddle the beautiful landscape, so better save the site-seeing for your next vacation. These danger-dealing elements deliver much of Uncharted’s perfectly paced gameplay. The pulp fiction-fueled story–which we won’t spoil for you–has you tracking the lost city of El Dorado, so as you can imagine, it’s no cakewalk; the aforementioned pirates, as well as some other well-armed parties, are also interested in getting their greedy hands on the gold, making your adventure all the more dangerous. Your encounters with these various bands of baddies consist of fast action, bullet-whizzing shootouts, utilizing an intuitive duck-and-cover system. If you’re at all familiar with Gears of War’s stop-and-pop style of play, where you take refuge behind environmental structures, occasionally sticking your head out to get a bead on the bad guys, then you’ll feel right at home in Uncharted’s frantic firefights. The system works great and is further enhanced by nice touches like blind firing and degrading cover. Drake, who can carry two guns–a smaller weapon such as a pistol or Uzi, and a stocked weapon like a shotgun or AK-47–and grenades, is always outnumbered, intensifying the already palpable against-the-odds immersion. But his quick wits and quicker fists–Uncharted also incorporates simple, but satisfying brawling–will see him through most bullet barrages. A typical scenario might play out with you diving from cover point to cover point as truly intelligent A.I. chuck grenades, flank your position, and chip away at the boxes, rocks, and trees you’re hiding behind. As you pepper bullets at the bad guys–who can absorb several hits before going down, unless you land a head shot–you’ll grab ammo from fallen foes and maybe even get close enough to a distracted enemy to take him out with an upper-cut or from-behind neck snap. Stringing together the various animations–shooting, ducking, fighting, rolling–makes for some fast-paced fun. And while the screen will occasionally go white, signaling Drake’s death, you’ll never be more than a nearby checkpoint away from getting another go at it.
Uncharted nicely breaks up the barely-catch-your-breath gunplay with puzzling and platforming. The former is fun, but not especially taxing on the brain as Nathan has access to Sir Francis Drake’s hint-heavy diary (puzzle purists might find some fault here), but the latter is a Prince of Persia-meets–Lara Croft blast.
Scaling cliffs, climbing ancient structures, leaping from one brittle hand-hold to the next all make for fantastic platforming that’s intuitive and never frustrating; unlike many finicky-controlling platformers, if your lifeless body ends up at the bottom of a chasm, it’ll be your fault, not the game’s mechanics. The action is further varied by some fantastic shoot-and-drive vehicle sequences; one sees Drake manning a Jeep’s gun turret while sidekick Elena drives through an edge-of-your-seat sequence, and another has you zipping about on a jet ski, occasionally stopping to take out henchmen with Elena’s grenade launcher.
All the death-defying fun in Uncharted is punctuated by Drake’s so-real-its-scary animations; whether he’s teetering along cliff sides, swinging from vines or dangling from ledges, he looks great. In fact, Naughty Dog took such great pains in delivering Drake’s realistic animations that even when he’s doing something as simple as ducking behind cover or running up stairs, the subtle shifts in his weight and body language make him look as real as any actor on the silver screen. Seemingly small touches, like Drake’s natural motion, serve to make Uncharted a bar-raising effort. Detailed facial animations bring the cut-scenes to life, characters actually appear drenched upon emerging from water, and ambient sounds complement the film-quality orchestral score; whipping winds, chirping tropical wildlife, and waterfalls that, from a distance, bellow a low roar, but upon closer approach emit ear-cracking crashes, all add to the experience. Even the story, often an afterthought in games, is a twist-filled ride that could give Indiana Jones’ next big screen outing a ride for its fortune and glory. Of course, a story is nothing without good actors to deliver it, and Uncharted succeeds here as well. Many games, even the good ones, star cookie-cutter protagonists, but Drake feels real; you’ll watch him and follow his story as you would a television or movie character. He’s likeable, fallible, and exudes an every-man appeal that’s so refreshing in an industry continually pumping out space marine clones. The supporting cast is equally believable and engaging. Drake’s female sidekick, Elena, deserves her own spinoff game; she’s cute and plucky, and unlike many of her peers, doesn’t exploit the boob-and-bimbo dynamic.
If we had to change anything about Uncharted, we’d ask for another thrill ride in that Jeep–who says on-rails gaming isn’t fun? We also might tweak the SIXAXIS implementation a bit. We loved adjusting our grenade trajectory, but the log balancing left a bit to be desired; a tiny gripe in an otherwise exceptional game. From the adventure-filled gameplay to the pristine presentation, each of Uncharted’s twenty chapters are polished to perfection and will leave you counting the days to the inevitable sequel. Despite packing a lengthy campaign, you’ll hate to see it come to an end. Thankfully, collecting Xbox 360-like “Achievements” to unlock goodies–including Elena as a playable character–make a second play-through a no-brainer. Like a lost city of gold, Uncharted is well worth seeking out.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 5.0 Graphics
Wow–like playing a movie! 4.8 Control
From platforming to puzzling, shooting to fighting control is intuitive and seamless. Could have done without the SIXAXIS log balancing. 5.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Movie-caliber orchestral score and VO, and amazing ambient effects. 4.8 Play Value
Next-gen action/adventure gaming has arrived! Lengthy cinematic campaign. Croft faithfuls might crave more puzzles. 4.8 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.