Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

Here’s a handy question guide for deciding if you might like and/or should play Uncharted. Ask yourself the following: Do I like Tomb Raider / Indiana Jones / National Treasure? If the answer to any and all of those is “yes”, then you’ll probably find something to enjoy in Uncharted, Naughty Dog’s PlayStation-exclusive marquee release. The question for me though is “does it hold up?”

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Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (PS3, PS4 [reviewed])

Released Nov 2007 | Developed: Naughty Dog | Published: Sony

Genre: Action-Adventure, Third-Person Shooter | HLTB: 8 hours

As you might expect for a game like this, our hero is a treasure hunter. Nathan Drake is moulded very much in the vein of Indiana Jones; a wry, resourceful hero with an eye for gold, a love of history and a wisecracking quip always ready on his lips. He’s a bit more of a budget version, mind; more like a kind of Nicolas Cage in National Treasure type of character. He’s far less cool than Indiana Jones; Naughty Dog’s hero is a scruffy, slightly disheveled sort, and Drake is more prone to accidental scrapes and escapes than Spielberg’s daring archaeologist.

Drake is a treasure hunter though, and therefore he needs a treasure to hunt. In Drake’s Fortune, he and his longtime, cynical partner-in-crime Sully pick up the trail of El Dorado. Following the lost journal of Sir Francis Drake, Nate tracks the ancient Golden Man to the jungles of Borneo. Unfortunately for our hapless heroes, they are ambushed by a rival treasure hunter, Gabriel Roman, and his private army; Sully is shot and left for dead and Nate barely escapes with his life. Alongside an intrepid camerawoman, Elena, Nate embarks on a mission to recover El Dorado and snatch it away under Roman’s nose.

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Nate, Sully, and indeed the cast as a whole are ripped straight from the Hollywood comedy-action handbook. If you’re a fan of Joss Whedon or J. J. Abrams’ now ubiquitous brand of sardonic, wise-cracking hero then you’ll probably find the character writing satisfying at least. Everyone has a dry line ready to use regardless of the event; I suspect this was intended to be endearing and funny but if you’re not into that brand of humour unfortunately the writing will quickly wear thin. The plucky documentary-maker Elena, who Nate leaves stranded at the start of the game in a typically callous display, is perhaps the only mildly relatable character, reacting with an appropriate level of terror for at least the first third of the game or so. Even she regrettably slips into the same voice as the rest though.

I say that leaving Elena stranded is a typically callous act from Nate and I mean it. Drake exhibits startling inhumanity in his debut; he’s practically sociopathic. Gunfire is met with indifference and sarcasm; the wave of death he leaves in his wake evinces little remorse or even notice from Nate. That’s not too unusual for action heroes but I do think it’s a missed opportunity for character depth; depth that, in general, is missing from Uncharted. It’s not a game with any pretences of subtlety, underlying meaning, or even depth in gameplay. It’s a surface-level romp and sometimes that’s ok.

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The gameplay is equally shallow. Uncharted runs the gamut of standard action-adventure mechanics; if Nate isn’t poking his head out from behind cover to plink shots at the veritable hordes of enemies that clog his path, he’s jumping from ruined handholds, puzzling over some ancient trap, or driving something in one of the few vehicle sections. Drake sometimes has trouble with snapping to cover in the rush of combat, leaving you out in the open; this is a particular problem because he dies remarkably quickly. I’m a personal lover of Easy and Normal modes since I tend not to play games for the sake of challenge, but I’d especially steer clear of the harder difficulties myself (at least at first) given how often I died on Normal. The guns are all a very standard affair, with nothing standing out as especially interesting; what is more of a shame is that the guns have absolutely no weight at all, and with no punch to your shots, it leaves the gunplay feeling deeply unsatisfying. Nate can also go toe-to-toe with enemies and try and brawl with them; often a dangerous strategy given how fragile he is, but if you can time special combo attacks just right you can earn double ammo drops, a great incentive to get stuck into melee when you have an opportunity. Speaking of opportunities, if you have one for a headshot, you’d better not miss it – I don’t know what kind of rules the Uncharted universe runs on but apparently all mooks are adamantium-boned, bullet-absorbing sponge elementals; somehow even basic enemies can take shot after shot in the gut, and even what seem like certain headshots sometimes don’t result in a kill.

One thing that does contribute to the difficulty but in a more constructive way is that the enemy AI isn’t too banal. I’m no connoisseur of shooter enemy AI, but to my untrained eye it felt like my foes were very active and mobile, constantly flanking me and forcing me to stay on the move between cover; I suspect on harder difficulties it could properly ramp up the pressure on players which could be fun for those who want a challenge. I also hate the game’s checkpoints; the feeling of dying and then being shunted back what feels like an age away is demoralising and frankly, fucking annoying. It’s not nearly a good enough game for replaying sections to be a joy.

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When platforming it’s sometimes difficult to see available handholds as they blend into the background, and I really hate the swinging vines, which were easily the cause of the majority of my deaths or frustrations. When you launch off at the end of the swing there’s a good chance the game will not register it properly and Drake will miss his handhold, or just jump into nothing, and even when it does work the animation is horribly jerky. It’s not a game for brilliantly smooth animation in general, to be honest; in that respect Uncharted definitely shows its age. The puzzles are also not particularly challenging; most are pushing boxes or something similar, though I do enjoy how the solutions to the puzzles are worked out by reading Francis Drake’s journal in a clever little example of diegetic design.

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Though the animations might not have aged well, one of the big draws that does still mostly look good is the visuals. Drake’s adventure sees him trek through lush jungles, eerie graveyards, and crumbling ruins, and all are rendered with a stunning level of quality, especially for 2007, but even so it holds up today. Though realistic graphics tend not to age well, the dense and vibrant colours mean that game’s visuals still pop and shine. It’s a shame that some of the later levels take place in dank crypts and slightly bland ruins but that doesn’t diminish the beauty of the earlier game, though it is a touch anticlimactic. Additionally, the remake boasts a generally smooth 60 fps, which certainly helps the experience, and makes it feel like it should. It’s funny but the improved framerate makes the gunplay and visuals feel that much nicer, though it does throw the things that aren’t so nice into sharp relief.

The camera is sometimes a problem. In a typical issue for games that aim for a cinematic feel sometimes the need for a good shot supercedes the needs of the player. In practice what these means is that occasionally the correct path is obstructed, or the camera angle changes as you try and make a jump leading Drake to embark on a deadly freefall. I also find Uncharted a disappointment aurally; the voice acting is fine but other than the enjoyable main theme the music is limited to a limp underscore.

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The little annoyances build up the further in you get. You’re given the option to try and be stealthy at points but it’s never actually a viable option as enemies seem to be able to sense Drake regardless of your movement or their eyesight. This also applies to combat. It’s hugely annoying that regardless of what you do and how you move, enemies always know exactly where you are with unerring accuracy. It says a lot that often the only way to know where enemies are during a firefight is for them to hit you and then track your shots from that; it hardly makes for good design in terms of guiding players to where enemies are.

For a concluding gripe, the less said about the final third the better. While the problem with it is, obviously, a spoiler, suffice it to say that ultimately Uncharted’s plot jumps the shark quite sharply, with no foreshadowing or justification for a dramatic shift in tone and narrative. If you want a fully coherent story that works from start to finish, I regret to inform you that you will find Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune wanting.

What you will get, however, is a fine game. Uncharted isn’t a long game; it’s a fast-paced, cinematic ride, trundling along from set piece to set piece, and sometimes that’s all you want or need. I’ve grumbled, and I think for fair reasons, but it’s not as if Uncharted is awful; like the films it models itself on, it’s at times frustrating and eye-rolling, but it’s also highly produced, action-packed, and an inoffensive, fun time. It might not be exceptional but it fulfills the niche it needs to, and that’s alright by me.

3/7 – MEDIOCRE. A game that makes you go, “Well, it’s alright…” but it’s a kind of drawn-out, unsure, and reluctant decision? These are those games. Might just be worth playing if you can get it on the cheap.

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