Uncharted: Drake's Fortune Preview

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Much fuss has been made over developer Naughty Dog's premiere PlayStation 3 effort. Only recently given the proper title Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, the game itself first debuted in video form during Sony's pre-E3 2006 press conference. Displaying an impressive level of detail and natural animation, including a number of ever-changing facial expressions relaying a character's emotional state, the realistic look of the game surprised many, especially given Naughty Dog's pedigree with the light-hearted cartoony appearance of its Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter creations. In fact, the initial video was so impressive that it sparked countless message board debates as to whether or not such feats could actually be accomplished in real-time. Now, just over a year later, the unveiling of the first playable demo at Sony's Gamers Day 2007 event in San Diego has proven the video was no lie.

Mixing exploration with a variety of both hand-to-hand and gun-based combat, Uncharted has all the making of a classic pulp adventure tale. Pursuing the lost treasure of El Dorado, main character Nathan soon stumbles across the lost ruins of an old Spanish outpost, one that just so happens to be crawling with real life pirates. Now drawn into something far more complex than a typical treasure hunt, and with his own life and that of his female companion in constant danger, Nathan must save the girl, emerge victorious over the murderous pirates, and walk away with the fabled treasure.

Backing Uncharted's real world aesthetic are a number of very realistic and very detailed jungle environments. A moss-covered rock glistens due to the settling mist of a nearby waterfall. Numerous types of flora occupy the area, showcasing several different shades of green, multiple types and shapes of leaves, as well as occasional bouts of colorful plants, such small patches of purple flowers.

The game incorporates a number of smaller but effective details as well. The straps of Nathan's holster jostle to and fro, revealing the dirt, grime and sweat accumulated underneath on his t-shirt. Naughty Dog embroidery appears on a parachute strap, and an Ottsel-brand swim suit represents a reference to the Jak & Daxter games' diminutive sidekick character.

Most telling among Uncharted's ridiculous attention to detail is the facial animation system, which adds a whole new level of expression to the characters. The appearance of wrinkles in foreheads and at the corners of mouths helps to create the illusion of actual skin movement. At one point in gameplay, Nathan clearly clenches his jaw and furrows his eyebrows before popping out from cover and squeezing off a few rounds at the opposing pirates. As in real life, that jaw clenching doesn't occur every time Nathan is in such a scenario, but only from time to time. Thanks to a large number of potential animations and variations for any situation, the movements of both a character's face and body maintain that organic, flowing feel, instead of cycling through the same pre-canned animation over and over again.

Speaking of the cover system, Uncharted's works quite similarly to the one used in Epic Games' Xbox 360 shooter Gears of War. A context-sensitive button presses Nathan against any nearby object such as a low wall, and by holding down a shoulder button for precise aiming while near the wall's edge, Nathan will lean out and allow players to target the surrounding area. Once that aiming button is released, Nathan once again takes refuge behind the object. Gears of War veterans will also find themselves familiar with the weapon selection system; Nathan is able to equip two guns, mapped to left and right on the d-pad, along with a grenade chosen by hitting down.

Grenades highlight one of Uncharted's subtle uses of the PlayStation 3 controller's motion-sensing functionality. Upon holding down the fire button, an arc appears, and by angling the controlling up or down, players can quickly and easily modify how high or low they want to toss the grenade. Another use of the tilt functionality has players using the controller to balance Nathan while he navigates across a small surface, such as a narrow, slippery log.

In addition to the combat, exploration and platforming also play a key role in Uncharted. Much like in Prince of Persia or Tomb Raider, players will find themselves poking around an area, searching out ledges, handholds and other climbable objects as they attempt to determine the progression of the path. One scenario required players to note a series of shallow ledges on a crumbled wall that, once scaled, seemed to lead nowhere. However, swinging the camera around revealed that the tops of the various walls formed a pathway to the next area.

While no doubt impressive, the current version of Uncharted lacks much of the polish and finishing touches one expects from a typical Naughty Dog production. Control over Nathan's movements felt far too sensitive, and his animations didn't always match up with the environment, especially when navigating curved or angled surfaces. The quick and sweeping movements of the camera moved too fast, resulting in disorientation. Thus far, all the enemies seem to consist of the same basic model, the only difference being in the color of their t-shirts and bandannas, and the optional presence of an eye patch. Collision detection problems sometimes left Nathan clipping through objects, or even falling through the level itself.

Another issue involves the guns and ammunition enemies drop following their demise; a white triangle appears above an object to display its location. Given the rich density of Uncharted's environments, this pop-up is a necessity as the objects would otherwise be rather difficult to find. On the same note though, the bright white triangles are rather distracting, especially relative to the highly realistic appearance of the environments. A more translucent icon or perhaps a user-customizable setting for their appearance and brightness could resolve the problem, though the likelihood of such a solution is unknown. However, given Uncharted's work-in-progress status and Naughty Dog's impressive track record, the above problems should be smoothed out before the game's release.

Beyond a few problems typical of a game that is still in development, Uncharted aims to impress. Both the animation and the visuals are among the best on the system, whereas the mix of combat and exploration works well for a varied gameplay experience. That combined with the lineage of developer Naughty Dog suggest that Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is one to keep an eye on as its release approaches.

Sony Computer Entertainment America plans to ship Naughty Dog's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune for PlayStation 3 this fall.

From The Chatty

  • reply
    May 18, 2007 3:33 AM

    i've noticed on recent previews that there is usually specific criticism for some technical glitches or performance issues. while maybe worth giving a passing reference to these things, it seems a bit harsh to focus on them when these are such early builds. its rare when a game is optimized and cleaned up 6 months before shipping.

    • reply
      May 18, 2007 3:41 AM

      Then, of course, if the game ships and has such problems, the gaming press is accused of being too forgiving in previews (and, let me be clear, that's usually a justifiable accusation). I think as long as a preview isn't unduly harsh because of expected developmental issues, readers should be able to walk away with a reasonable impression of the game. Chris was clearly very positive on the game on the whole, he just wanted to make it clear that he was playing an early build.