Uncharted: Drake's Fortune Review

Like Naughty Dog's previous work in the Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter franchises, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, a PlayStation 3 exclusive, is a mixture of different gameplay styles and genres. At points, you will be exploring dark, ancient crypts, much like Tomb Raider. At other times, you'll be scaling walls and hopping from handhold to handhold, a la Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. And when the going gets tough, you'll be taking cover behind conveniently placed barriers and peeking out to squeeze off a few shots as in Gears of War.

To its credit, Naughty Dog has wrapped all of these elements together in a fairly cohesive whole. Unlike Jak 3, this doesn't feel like three or four different games shoehorned into one package; Uncharted flows very naturally from one segment to the next. Even when the game has you piloting a jet ski through a flooding city or running towards the camera to escape collapsing ruins, it doesn't feel out of place or random, just an organic extension of the situation.

Part of this is due to the developer's strong emphasis on presentation and story. A heavy reliance on cinematics and voice acting keeps players from questioning what you're doing at any given moment. While the story itself is by no means groundbreaking or revolutionary, the characters and their motivations are well fleshed out enough.

The whole affair plays out like an old pulp adventure, one of Naughty Dog's main goals for the game. An unlikely hero stumbles across the supposed location of a fabled treasure, and as events unfold, he and his friends become embroiled in something much more than a regular old treasure hunt (hey, it's a video game). At times, the exposition is light-hearted and entertaining. "This is like trying to find a bride in a brothel," one character remarks near the game's beginning.

There are plenty of twists throughout the adventure's plot. Though some of these are foreshadowed, there are also those that come completely out of nowhere. By the game's surprisingly tidy conclusion, everything is explained and justified to some degree. There's wiggle room for a sequel--Naughty Dog and Sony are billing this as the beginning of a franchise, but it doesn't end on a frustratingly abrupt cliff-hanger.

It may sound like Uncharted is less of a game and more of a movie, and to a degree, that's true. The way the game is set up and paced is reminiscent of a big-budget Hollywood production, and after the game is complete you can skip from chapter to chapter like on a DVD. Frequent and intelligently-placed checkpoints minimize the progress lost when Drake takes one too many bullets or falls to his doom. During my eight hours of play, never once did I have to manually save on my own. After every major shootout or platforming segment, I'd go to save, only to find an auto-save already in place.

That's not to say there aren't some frustrating sections that require constant retries. There are certain fights that demand countless attempts, as the massacre of all the enemies in an area triggers another wave or two. There is very little satisfaction in carefully picking off ten heavily-armed pirates only to fall victim to the grenade-launching bastard that rushes in, and my curse-laden exclamations and the frustration I felt at such points were identical to those I experienced during Gears of War.

Comparisons between the cover systems of Gears of War and Uncharted are inevitable, and I found myself wishing that Uncharted would have adapted a few more of Gears' mechanics. Yes, at the tap of a button, Nathan ducks behind walls and boxes--some of which can be destroyed by enemy fire--and sure, he can pop out from the behind them to squeeze off a few rounds. He can even blind fire. But he can't move from cover in the same fluid way that you could in Gears, unless that piece of cover is directly to his right or left and within rolling distance. You can't duck down and run forward to another piece of cover, you have to get up, book your ass over there, and risk getting shot to pieces.

When leaning against a corner, there's no easy way to slip around it and adhere to its other side. While both Gears and Uncharted suffer from this problem, it's much more pronounced in Uncharted due to its level design and the constantly changing safe zone as enemies move about.

On the flip side, Uncharted tries to be much more open-ended with its combat than Gears of War. Along with whatever two weapons players have liberated from their dead foes, hand-to-hand combat is an option as well, and performing a certain combo rewards players with more ammunition than they would have received otherwise. Nathan can also shoot his gun while running; auto-targeting balances out the inability to aim while doing so.

Perhaps Uncharted's biggest problem is its tendency to throw the same enemies at you time and time again. There's little variation upon the enemies you encounter, and just when you think you're done, another wave of same-looking foes show up. I can count the number of new enemies you run into on one hand. Because of this, the game's many encounters tend to play out the same way, and, despite the ever-changing locales, it's easy to get tired of killing identical pirates over and over.

Particularly frustrating is the game's final encounter, as it demands a very, very specific course of action. Though quite brief, it can be one of the game's most infuriating segments if you don't happen to know exactly what you're supposed to at just the right moment. One wrong step, one wrong move, and you're dead, forced to repeat the process over and over again until you discover the proper approach through trial and error. In hindsight, the solution is somewhat obvious, but it's not nearly as forgiving as the rest of the game.

On the other side of the coin, the game's platforming sections are overly easy. As long as you're on the right path, it's practically impossible to screw up a jump. Truth be told, there's almost no skill involved in these parts, but that's okay. The real problem is when the game thinks you want to climb a vine when you're actually trying to run away from enemies, leaving you as a slow-moving target dangling in the air. Or when the game's cover systems completely ignores the crate to your right and slaps you against a wall that puts you in harm's way. Fortunately, neither happens too frequently.

If there's one area where Uncharted truly excels, it's presentation. Few games can match the sense of awe that Uncharted imparts when you're standing on the edge of a waterfall, looking out over a lush detailed jungle as the orange sun hides just below the tree line. Its lighting is exceptionally well done, from the various shadows of the jungle's foliage moving across Nathan's body to the atmospheric darkness of an ancient tomb. When characters go near water, their clothes get visibly damp and then dry out over time. Impressive facial animation expresses a wide range of emotion, complete with moving eyebrows and wrinkling foreheads.

Naughty Dog should also be praised for allowing players to both pause and skip the various in-game cutscenes at any time. Another nice touch is that subtitles can be toggled during the cinematics by pressing the square button.

It's very obvious that Naughty Dog is pushing the PlayStation 3 as hard as it could with Uncharted, to the point where the game encounters some performance issues. Some slight screen tearing occurs from time to time, and the frame rate occasionally slows. Thankfully, such cases are rare, and never affect gameplay.

Uncharted is packed with unlockables, offering up a thousand-point medal system eerily similar to the Xbox 360's achievements, sans the online showboating aspect. Points are doled out for a number of objectives--finishing the game, killing a set number of enemies, headshots, finding hidden treasures--and unlock rewards such as making-of featurettes, concept art, character skins, and cheats.

Especially noteworthy are the render filters, which change the game's appearance, as well as the mirror world option. Combine those with the multiple difficulty settings, one of which is unlockable, and there is certainly a wealth of material here for repeat players.

Suffice to say, Uncharted is a very polished title with a clear emphasis on presentation and story, and the gameplay isn't half-bad either. That's not to say the gameplay isn't fun or enjoyable--I was kept entertained during my eight-hour run--but there are undeniable similarities to several other popular games in the market as well as a tendency towards repetition that lessen its impact. Still, with its top-notch production values, there's no game out there quite like Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, and if you're in the mood for some treasure hunting on the PlayStation 3, I can think of no better alternative.