I’ve said it before, but I will say it again – the PS3 had a mighty impressive showing at this July’s E3, and it’s great to see yet another title from that show come out to retail. This one is by Naughty Dog, the folks behind the Jak & Daxter games, and even further back, Crash Bandicoot. Their newest release, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, stars Nathan Drake, a young fortune hunter who is seeking the long lost treasure of El Dorado. Unfolding like an Indiana Jones film, Uncharted manages to balance combat with environmental challenges beautiful, all the while maintaining an excellent presentation and story.
A Fortune Hunting We Will Go
Nathan Drake and Sully are two fortune hunters on the trail of the lost treasure of El Dorado. Elana, an adventurous news reporter, joins Nathan on a boat as he hunts for other clues when they are suddenly over ran by pirates. Narrowingly escaping this, the three regroup and, without revealing too much, eventually find themselves separated on an island where the hidden treasure is supposedly to be found. The only problem is they aren’t alone as many fortune seeking pirates and mercenaries are on this island. The idea is to negotiate the environment and battle through dozens of enemies as you try to unravel the mystery of the treasure of El Dorado.
Players take the role of Nathan throughout the game and will often have help from either Elana or Sully in battle and in exploration. Uncharted is really about doing two things: figuring out environmental puzzles or engaging in intense firefights. Along the way, you will want to keep an eye out for glimmering treasure, there are about sixty pieces of treasure to find throughout the game that are not only interesting to find but they also count towards unlocking many different bonuses, more on that later. What Uncharted does, it does extremely well; the balance achieved between exploring and navigating through the jungles and ruins and engaging in combat is really well done. The amount, length, and difficulty of each sequence is just right, making for a tremendously fun and rewarding experience. I’ve heard this game described as Tomb Raider meets Gears of War and I think that’s a fair statement; there is as much great environmental puzzles and hazards as there are firefights which require you to take cover and move from covered position to covered position. On paper, this makes a lot of sense, these are two game ideas that have done very well for themselves, but they’ve never quite been combined as well as they are in Uncharted.
Frankly, there’s an awful lot to like about Uncharted from the get-go. I instantly took to the characters and the story. Nathan Drake reminded me of Harrison Ford more than a few times as either a Han Solo type character or more obviously as an Indiana Jones character. Sully is a gruff, no BS, cigar smoking trusty older gent who is also very likeable but the story does a great job of casting doubt on that from the beginning. Elana is a very likeable heroine, too; she comes across as a realistic female as opposed to most of the females depicted in gaming. Even the bad guys are fairly interesting. Watching the the story unfold through the beautifully rendered cutscenes is a treat, and the story is interesting from start to finish with not a dull moment to speak of.
It’s Easy To Look Good Playing This Game
The controls and mechanics in Uncharted are very well put together. Historically, I struggle with jumping puzzles and platforming, although through the years I’ve certainly gotten better it. In Uncharted, navigating the jumping puzzles is more about figuring out what path to take than making perfect jumps, and I like that very much. Granted, to the best of my knowledge there is normally just one path to take, but it’s not always immediately obvious. Studying the environment is key, and then you go about making the jumps to get Nathan where he’s going. I’ll elaborate more on this later, but some of the visual queues that Uncharted includes are really pretty, and really helpful. For instance, during these jumping puzzles, you can often tell when Nathan is in prime jumping position in that he’ll either turn his head towards the next jump or put his hand out in the right direction. Then all you have to do is make the leap and you can count on Nathan making the grab. It’s not that I’m opposed to tougher jump sequences, but I am opposed to frustrating jumping puzzle design where one mistake leads to either death or having to replay a long sequence over again (one particular part in Genji Days of the Blade comes to mind). Anyway, this type of system is just one of the ideas behind Uncharted that makes it fun, accessible, and nearly completely devoid of any frustration.
Combat in Uncharted is a real treat. Taking cover is done by pressing circle, you aim and shoot with L1 and R1. Reloading and picking up ammo and exchanging weapons and diving and rolling are also other things you can do. Naughty Dog achieved another commendable point of balance with Uncharted in how they handled the combat. Drake can only carry one pistol, one rifle, and four grenades. You also won’t find yourself with a ridiculous amount of ammo, either. This forces you to be wise about your shot selection and it ups the intensity of firefights because you may not always be in a position to where you can run out of cover and grab a fallen enemy’s ammo or swap out for his gun. In fact, most firefights have you diving and dodging through multiple tiers of cover, it’s really quite exciting. Your first point of cover will almost always evaporate by the actions of the enemies, be it their repositioning, them flushing you out with a grenade, or their simply blowing your cover to pieces.
Some of the finer points of combat include blind fire (which isn’t really a good idea given the tight ammo allowances) and gunning while running; this is a simple, but well implemented technique. You simply run in whatever direction, be it at the enemy or away, and press fire and Nathan will take care of the rest. It’s especially useful later in the adventure during some of the tougher combat sequences. You can also fire or drop grenades while hanging on a ledge, but I rarely found this useful, same goes for stealth kills actually, I never got one. And, lest I forget the hand to hand combat fighting; it seems like only the player will start one of these as the enemy is more prone to taking cover than charging straight at you, but these are fun and satisfying nonetheless. There are a few basic combos that allow Nathan to punch or drop kick a foe, but be aware you can still take damage from other mercs and enemies while doing this.
Ultimately, the smooth controls and features of both the platforming/environment navigation and combat areas of this game are nicely polished and very easy to get the hang of. There is sufficient and often times plentiful challenge in both areas, but again, an excellent balance was achieved here that makes these sequences engaging and intense while also not being nearly so hard that you can’t survive the first time through.
This Is the Way To Go
Then again, there are many times when you will die either by trying a jump that just isn’t there, so to speak, or by getting shot up by the enemy. Regardless, Uncharted did a textbook job of handling those inevitably outcomes; I seriously wish more games would implement something like this: to put it bluntly, there is an exceedingly low amount of replaying things over again, and there are no load times. Folklore would have been a great deal more enjoyable, especially down the stretch, had it a system something like this. In Uncharted, when you die, there is a three second or so death animation, the screen goes black for a second, and bam, you’re back, just that fast. And you will often be right about where you died, either at the start of a firefight or at the start of a jumping puzzle—not some number of minutes further back. It’s awesome.
Some would argue that a forgiving save/checkpoint system like this is a bad idea, making the game too easy or too short. I would strongly argue in the opposite direction, and will do so if you allow me a moment here. My ultimate point is this: being forced to replay parts of a game over and over again is frustrating. I’d rather have a game that is eight to hours in length and fun than one that is thirteen or fourteen hours, only because of an asinine save or checkpoint system. Who has time to or the interest to sit through the same things over and over? Furthermore, what if for whatever reason you had to quit the game or power off your system? An unforgiving save/checkpoint system requires you to play on until the next available spot, but a well implemented system allows you to halt at almost a moment’s notice. Lastly, the save/checkpoint system in Uncharted encourages experimentation and fun. It’s something that quick saving and quick loading PC games have always had. Being able to try something fun; different; crazy; or just plain stupid to see if it works and knowing you won’t get stuck having to replay a bunch of stuff all over again is incredibly liberating. Heck, I spent ten, fifteen, sometimes twenty minutes in parts of Uncharted just trying different things out in a firefight or in exploring, looking for those sneaky treasures. Extending a game in that sense is infinitely more valuable than forcing a player to replay something over and over again ad naseum.
Anyway – that went on a little longer than expected. Suffice it to say I am a fan of how Naughty Dog handled things in Uncharted in nearly every way, including their save/checkpoint system. Earlier I mentioned how you can’t tell when you’ve reached a checkpoint, but you actually can. While there is no on screen indication or sound, you can visit the Pause Menu and hover over “Save Game” for a second; doing so will pop up a box saying something like “last save game less than one minute ago.” It’s all part of Naughty Dog’s bright idea of not disturbing the beautiful visuals of the game unless necessary; that is to say, there is no HUD nor is there anymore on screen text and visual queues than there needs to be. I wish Condemned had implemented a HUD like this, it would have been that much more of an immersive game.
Soaking It In
As you have probably figured out by now or heard about, Uncharted is very possibly the best looking game on the PS3 right now. It doesn’t try to out do Folklore for the most colorful and pretty fantasy environments, nor Ratchet And Clank for the best computer animated cartoon look. Its closest comparison would be Heavenly Sword I suppose, and while both are beautiful games, I would probably have to give Uncharted a slight preference in terms of how well the graphics play into the immersion. There are dozens of moments in Uncharted where you will simply want to pause and enjoy the scenery. The realistic and tropical environments the story is built around encourage lavish visuals and that’s exactly what you will see. Some moments have Drake high up on a mountain side ruins, and you will get the opportunity to peer out over the side of the mountain, you can see the shoreline and the sun as it begins to set during the later part of the game and it’s really quite breathtaking. Your normal visuals are just great, too. The detailed textures of the crumbling ruins, the vegetation, the character animations, both body and facial expressions—frankly, it’s a very pretty game from top to bottom. I also like that most of the game takes place in big, bright open spaces, not dark hallways and corridors.
Just as smell and taste go together, so does audio with video; one without the other makes the experience feel empty. Voiceovers were enthusiastic and plentiful, and perhaps not surprisingly in a quality title like this, synced perfectly with the cutscenes. The soundtrack is made up of tribal, central and southern American sounding instruments, and it’ll queue in at such random times that it’s always fresh and never overbearing to what’s going on in the game itself. Effects could have maybe used a little more punch in the gunfire department, but overall the effects were certainly satisfying.
Uncharted has a great reward system built in that you can start to enjoy from the very beginning of the game. From the Pause Menu, you can view all of the available rewards and various achievements you must reach to unlock points towards the rewards. The rewards are a great balance between your typical behind the scenes or making of stuff, like concept art, making of films, and so forth, and very useful and fun in game bonuses that can be turned off and on in from the Menu quickly and easily. One such unlockable that you will get quickly is the ability to run quicker. This is a nice touch and it makes Nathan just run a bit faster, but not stupidly fast. Later on you can unlock Flip Mode, which flips the game world over the horizontal access, slow motion, which slows everything down, rendering options to make the game appear black and white, and so forth. One really nice one for playing through a second time is the ability to spawn in weapons, which has obvious advantages. The achievements include finding x number of treasures (I ultimately finished my first time through with 51, pretty happy about that), killing x number of enemies with each weapon, and so forth.
Honestly, I enjoyed Uncharted so much there isn’t a whole heck of a lot bad I can say about it. If I wanted to nit pick to the point of almost being an ass, I would say things like ‘well, it’d be nice if Nathan would automatically pick up ammo for weapons I’m already carrying rather than me having to press Triangle.’ I could also add that the adventure goes by maybe a pinch too quickly, but I would really only be saying that because it was so much fun I hate to see it end; in reality the game ends and the story comes to a climatic and fun ending on queue, like a good movie.