Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is an incredible cinematic experience in gaming that uses nearly perfect pacing and a superbly fun combat system to offer maximum thrills, memorability, and replay value. It also marks my own return to gaming by being the first game that I’ve ever beaten to 100% completion. The word of the day here is ‘fun’ and Uncharted is ready to show you how it can be had in a great variety of ways.
Uncharted is the story of Nathan Drake, a treasure hunter believing himself to be the descendant of Sir Francis Drake and following in his ancestor’s footsteps. The story begins when he is going to open Drake’s tomb that he fished out of the sea thanks to the help of sponsoring from a TV station, whose correspondent, Elena Fisher, is there to film the event. As it turns out, Nate knows the coffin is empty and only contains Drake’s notebook and treasure map, and he was just using the TV guys to get his hands on it. What begins is a race to a treasure – Nate and his partner-in-crime, the old badass ladies man Victor Sullivan, are using Drake’s map to hunt for the treasure of El Dorado, but a British loan shark and his squad have found out about it too and are intent to beat Nate to it.
The plot is bound to draw immediate comparisons to an Indiana Jones film, though producers Naughty Dog say in their special features that they watched a lot of the pulp movies from the 1930s for ideas – in both cases, the influence is obvious. Nate and Sully are a couple of sly bastards who may be a little less crazy than the bad guys, but definitely are no angels as they murder and plunder their way along. The necessities are all there for a pulp story – memorable villains, plot twists and strange happenings, a backstory involving both Spanish explorers and post-WW2 German military, chase scenes, a somewhat kickass love interest, and, of course, some zombies.
What makes the story in Uncharted so fun is the cinematic portrayal of it all (which I will also get into when I talk about the graphics.) The cut-scenes are superbly directed and the action moves along at a very quick pace. Most of the characters already know/of each-other from past encounters, which helps push the dialog along quicker still. While there are a lot of factors at play in the story alongside the plot twists, it never feels like you’re dwelling too much on the story, and the pre-rendered as well as in-game cut-scenes are timed and spaced out perfectly with the action so as to never feel cumbersome or break the flow.
The characters in Uncharted are almost all memorable, which has a lot to do with things I’ll be talking about extensively in the graphics and sound departments. Nate is a wise-cracking but humanized Han Solo type who can hold his own and think on his feet, but is still scared as hell a lot of the time and really sells the idea that he’s in a life-or-death situation. Naughty Dog says in their special features how much care they took to make Drake humanized but still fun and cool, and I think they succeeded.
Sully is a real old-school badass who smokes a cigar and is always telling his old hilarious sex stories. One can’t help but love his crude dialog (“this is like trying to find a bride in a brothel!”). Elena Fisher is a little frightening – at first, you think she’s just an over-zealous reporter, but when she’s still trying to get a scoop after the situation is taking a dive and Nate wants to get the hell out of there, you know she’s nuts. However, she’s got her cute side, too, and she is, of course, pretty hot.
The main villains, Gabriel Roman and his partner Atoq Navarro, both have their memorable characteristics (especially Navarro in that he looks EXACTLY like Dave Navarro). However, my favorite by far was the head of the Roman’s hired mercenary band, the angry little Indonesian guy, Eddie Raja. Eddie has a voice that sounds almost like Kim Jong Il in Team America, and he wields a golden Desert Eagle. He gets the best line in the game, too (“That’s right you ugly kunjok! DON’T MESS WITH EDDIE RAJA!!!”)
Uncharted has the utmost top-notch graphics available. I’m not an expert in technical phrases, though I picked up in general from watching the bonus content where the staff talked about the graphics that this was an incredibly ambitious and over-the-top creation like no other in terms of graphics. The technicalities reached in shading, physics, and animation are all quite astounding even to a layman like myself.
Firstly, the landscapes are all lush and gorgeous. There are a lot of jungles, ruins, catacombs, and temples in the game, and all of them are teeming with detail and style. The world is very alive and realistic, with only the all-too-convenient paths of platformers to remind you that it’s just a game. A lot of care was put not just into detail, but into crating a memorable landscape full of areas that will stay in the player’s mind – my personal favorite being the church, where one of the best platforming segments as well as the hardest battle take place, which looks amazing.
Much more than the landscapes, though, the character animations are truly amazing. Naughty Dog did absolutely everything in their power to make the characters as lifelike as possible. They get down to the point that when, say, Nate is climbing a ledge, his muscles contract and expand the way that a human’s would while doing that (a liveliness that I think most producers avoid dealing with by giving their characters super-suits and such.) When Nate jumps a long distance, he stumbles a little or takes a second to wince in pain, but all without breaking the flow of play. When he gets into a firefight, you see the worry in his face, and he actually winces when bullets fly near him. You can see him breathing more or less heavily in different situations as well, and other such human actions that truly show you how far technology has come.
For the cut-scenes, the team used motion capture in ways it’s never really been done before. They hired stage actors and actually had them act out the scenes fully while recording their own voices as the character voices. As such, all of the movement is extremely lifelike and natural-looking the way a movie would look, rather than a video game cut-scene. Naughty Dog also went to the extremes in facial animation to be sure that the characters had all of the facial capabilities of real people, and could show any range of emotions.
The only weakness shown in the graphical department is a couple moments of texture pop-in, and the occasional glitch that you’ll probably manage to find if you play the game as many times as I did. It’s not nearly enough to detract from the absolute splendor of the game’s graphics, though.
To be honest, I didn’t pay a huge amount of attention to the game’s soundtrack. Not to say that it wasn’t great – the production value was way up there, as the game has tons of sweepingly epic movie-style symphonic songs, but also a lot of more minimalist tracks for the game’s suspenseful moments. Usually, when you hear the music, it’s because a fight scene has started, and it’s timed to climax after the fight ends, and at times there is a dramatically climbing song during intense platforming parts. The style somewhat reminds me of E. S. Posthumus, who I love, but the game’s tracks just weren’t as memorable and exciting. It’s also worth mentioning that the OST was composed by Greg Edmonson, most known for doing the music in the cult favorite TV series Firefly.
The sound effects in the game are very nice, especially coming from the guns. There is a lot of weight to the shots, and they sound exactly like real guns, letting you really feel the kick and power of the bursts. I consider this important, because it’s all the more satisfying to shoot somebody when you hear that crushing sound of the gun discharging, or to hear the massive bellow of a barrel exploding between a group of enemies.
Uncharted’s voice acting is top-notch, owing once more to the very natural sound derived from the unique techniques used to make cut-scenes. The actors note in interviews how they all use their natural voices for the characters (which is immediately obvious upon hearing them) and how they were really able to get into and attached to the characters they played. There was interestingly a lot of improvisational work done by the actors, usually appearing during gameplay (such as Nate reaching a huge wall he has to climb and saying ‘oh, you can’t be serious’ or the like.) These things add to the personalities of the characters and make them that much more memorable.
The regular enemies also have voices, and will always try and taunt or threaten you (‘you’ll wish you were dead, Drake!’) which once again adds to the satisfaction of butting a bullet in their head (especially when they say ‘right between the eyes!’ immediately, I go for a headshot when they do that.) My favorite voices were definitely Sullivan’s perfect old badass voice and Eddy Raja’s hilarious Indonesian-ness.
Uncharted is an action-platformer in what I would call a very literal sense. There is a fully fleshed-out combat system alongside plenty of puzzles and climbing segments that the platforming genre is known for. The game also contains plenty of little button-pressing segments, some quick-time events, and other little interjections. What makes it all work so well is the way that these things are put together, timing each part so that you don’t get sick of climbing or sick of fighting with things being changed up all the time, and the smaller events serving as little spices to heighten the experience and keep you on your toes. However, there are admittedly elements that don’t work, and I’d like to cover every single element of the gameplay here.
For starters, the combat system in superb. It has been called similar to Gears of War, in that there is a fully functional cover system and you can hold at any time one small gun, one large gun, and 4 grenades. However, I find that Uncharted requires even more strategy than the already-strategic Gears of War. In Uncharted, it is really important that you manage your ammo carefully, choose the right weapon for the situation, and act on your feet. Especially on higher difficulties, you may find yourself replaying a part until you know how to defeat it perfectly. This level of challenge and really forcing you to think is pretty rare in modern games I think, and I fully welcome it. Of course, if that’s not your style, you can get through easy mode with pretty much minimal strategy.
The best part about the combat is the battlefields where you will take on the really large amounts of enemies. Often you’ll find yourself in a huge area with lots of walls and debris that you have to use to your advantage and plot out exactly what order to kill the enemies in, where to move, and what to do next. There are any number of environmental advantages and disadvantages at your and the enemy’s disposal. You might find yourself behind a destructible wall trying to heal fast enough before your cover breaks and reload, which can get really pulse-poundingly hectic, or you might see that an enemy is behind a box and if you blow up the box with a grenade, the shrapnel will kill the enemy. This leads to some truly epic and memorable confrontations that really draw you into the battlegrounds.
There are some issues with the combat, though. The hit detection can at times be a big pain in the ass. On lower difficulties, this isn’t really a problem, but on Crushing you really want headshots and it will piss you off to no end to have your reticule right on someone’s head and somehow manage to take 4 shots to take them out. There are also occasional terrain issues where Nate attaches himself to the wrong side of an object, which can mean instant death if there’s, say, a turret or a rocket launcher firing at you.
One of my favorite aspects of combat is the weapons, which all have their own unique uses and purpose. Your pistol will most likely be your most used weapon, seeing as it carries a lot of ammo and has the best precision besides the sniper rifle which you get later in the game (and kills all enemies in one hit regardless of where they’re hit anyway). You will eventually get a less powerful pistol with more ammo, a more powerful one with less ammo, and the almighty Desert Eagle which on lower difficulties will kill enemies in one hit and on higher is just badass.
I played most of the game with my pistol and shotgun (especially when you get the SAS) but there are also the machine guns, rocket launcher, and sniper rifle. Depending on your skills, you will develop your own favorite combinations. One thing I also loved is the accurate blind-firing, because I managed to master blind-firing, which is one of the only ways I was able to clear certain fights on Crushing. There is also the really helpful ability to change what shoulder you are firing over at any time, which is great for enemies behind really annoying cover (I didn’t use this ability that much, but in videos I’ve seen of other players they used it like crazy).
It’s also worth mentioning that hand-to-hand combat plays a role in the game. If you run up to an enemy and mash square, you can flog them to death with your fist, or if you press square-triangle-square with the right timing you pull off the ‘deadly combo’ which causes the weapon the enemy drops to have double the ammo. In addition, if you jump on an enemy from behind, you can snap their neck, which is always fun. These techniques are never really necessary and not useful in a major firefight, but can be fun to challenge yourself, which you’ll have to for certain medals (more on those later.)
The platforming segments are pretty classically designed. There are platforms, ledges, and swinging ropes, and you’ve gotta jump across them – very simple. Sometimes the platforms crumble, sometimes you need to do a little quick-time event to make something happen – nothing you haven’t seen before, I’m sure. The platforming is fun, but it’s at times so easy that it kind of looses purpose. What makes the great platforming segments shine is less the challenge or complexity of what you are doing, and more just the way it is presented, be it the coolness inherent in scaling a fortress wall or finding your way over a cliff side onto a German U-boat in the Amazon, but it’s almost never really challenging.
What little challenge there might be comes from the fact that it can be hard to tell what part of the wall is supposed to be the next ledge. Usually, the camera will turn in the direction of where you are supposed to jump, cluing you in, and even if you don’t get the hint, you can usually just hold to the side and keep pressing X to get through a section, which makes the lack of challenge almost perplexing, but not really a complaint on my part. I’m just glad I didn’t have to get too pissed at a platforming segment, and I still died plenty of times by misjudging jumping distances or pressing the wrong button at the time. (Obviously, this just means I suck.)
There were a small handful on puzzles in the game, but like the platforming segments, they were so easy that it almost lost meaning. It would require you to look at Francis Drake’s notebook for clues on the puzzle, and then apply it to the situation around you, which was usually extremely simplistic. There were only one or two puzzles that required much thought, and only one that a friend of mine said confused him, while I pretty much figured out immediately. Even so, the puzzles were still a fun little distraction, and the aforementioned thought-provoking one I thought was a very nice touch that was a lot of fun to figure out.
Perhaps the most pointless game element, though, was all of the very tiny button-pressing segments, that unlike the other parts didn’t really offer anything to the game and may have detracted from it once or twice. I think that they only served as a way to break up action segments here and there, but I’m not sure how much it worked. There’d be things like pressing a button to turn a wheel that opens a fence, but it’s not like the fence is going to close right afterward if you don’t hurry, it’s just an arbitrary thing to do. These didn’t bother me as much as the quick-time events, though, which would only ever be 1 button press but would come out of absolutely fucking nowhere and almost always kill me the first time.
I did also want to point out very quickly a highly peculiar and hilariously pointless thing that was randomly thrown in there. Exactly three times, near the beginning of the game, there are tree trunk bridges that you have to balance across by utilizing the six-axis controller’s motion sensor ability. The thing is, these three trunks were so short that you could make it only having to tilt the controller once because Nate would arbitrarily start to tilt even if you didn’t move the controller. These segments were so silly and pointless that my friend and I figured they only could have been put in there because it was one of the PS3’s capabilities that hadn’t been incorporated yet, and since it was an early PS3 game, Sony just wanted it thrown in there to show it off.
I still have not covered the absolute worst part of the game, though. There are a few vehicle segments in the game, as always seems to be the case in a Naughty Dog game in spite of the fact that Naughty Dog has always sucked at vehicle segments. The first is actually pretty fun, being just a chase scene where you man the turret in the back of a jeep and take down oncoming enemies – a classic scene for pulp stories and games in general alike, and a showcase of some incredible-looking environments. However, the other 3 vehicle segments all involve a jetski that will make you hate your life.
First of all, the jetski controls suck ass. If you try to go fast, turning becomes a problem, but really, this would be fine for a jetski if the level design weren’t so terrible. What’s really sad is that the places you use the jetski are flooded city ruins that are drop-dead beautiful, but completely impractical. There are no long stretches for you to power up and go fast – you always have to stop for sharp turns and narrow arches that are a pain in the ass to get through. To make matters worse, the water is littered with explosive barrels that you have to shoot as well as enemies that shoot at you. So to take care of this, Elena has a rocket launcher with infinite ammo to take out the obstacles. However, you can’t fire the damn rocket launcher and drive at the same time!!! Because of this, the first two segments end up being best completed by plodding along at a snail’s pace, stopping to carefully take out the obstacles, dodging corners, and having absolutely no fun whatsoever.
It gets even worse the third time around, though, when Elena has a handgun that at least fires when driving, but is horribly inaccurate, and this time you’re on a river so you have to constantly accelerate to keep from floating downstream. I can safely say that trying to hit barrels, drive the stupid boat, and kill enemies all at once is extremely infuriating. These segments alone were by far the biggest blemish on this otherwise amazing game, though at least by my third play-through I could do all of the segments without dying. I just find it kind of hilarious that the unequivocal awesomeness of riding a jetski with a hot chick next to you holding a rocket launcher with infinite ammo can be made to suck complete ass.
If you can ignore the horrid jetski segments, though, I don’t think there’s really anything to complain about in terms of gameplay here. As simple as the puzzles and platforming parts were, I still had fun doing them the third time around, and the combat is just so fun and exciting that I could never get tired of it. The battle system alone will likely keep me coming back to this game to replay my favorite shootouts (which I did a few times when I had some of the unlock-ables.)
Bonus Content/Play Value
Besides just being a great game, what really makes Uncharted worth playing through multiple times is the amount of bonus content. The game has a medal system, where doing all sorts of special things can earn you a medal that gives you a set amount of ‘medal points’. Medals may be awarded for killing a certain amount of enemies with a certain weapon, killing enemies a certain way, beating the game on the different difficulties, or collecting treasures, which I’ll get to in a moment. The amount of medal points you have automatically unlocks anything that requires that amount of points. Certain unlock-ables can only be had with 100% completion, and there are also a handful that can be unlocked through codes. Also, while a lot of them tell you how to get them, some just have to be accomplished on their own (of course, GameFAQs takes the guess work out.)
One of the biggest ways to get medals is by collecting all of the game’s 60 treasures. The treasures will appear as little glimmers of light on the ground throughout the game, and while some of them can be found by chance on your first play-through, you’ll have to do some serious searching and probably consult a guide if you want to collect them all. Personally, I went for the treasure hunting last, after I’d unlocked as many bonus features as possible, so that I could use the bonus features to make the game go faster.
A lot of the things you unlock effect the gameplay directly, or the way things look. You can unlock stuff like fast and slow motion, infinite ammo, the ability to spawn any of the guns in the game (unlocked individually), the ability to play as any of the characters (I of course spent all of my time in the after-game playing as Eddy Raja with his golden gun, a SAS shotgun, infinite ammo, and fast motion, plus one-hit kills once I unlocked it.) My favorite game-effecting bonuses were the ability to put the game through black-and-white, sepia, or ‘next-gen’ filters (the last of which parodies the style of many modern games to make everything extremely bright, as seen a lot on the Xbox 360). You can also use ‘mirror world’ to flip the entire game, or ‘flip world’ to have it flip back and forth every time you die. (I couldn’t use those, I’d gotten too used to things as they were.)
Aside from game-effecting bonuses, you can unlock a bunch of photo and concept art galleries as well as numerous ‘making of’ videos that show you just how much work went into the game and cut-scenes. There are also a number of hidden bonuses that fall into either category which I won’t spoil.
Replaying just your favorite parts is relatively easy, as beating a chapter unlocks it in the ‘chapter select’ section, and there is a similarly activated cut-scene theater. Beating the game on hard mode is the only way to unlock the final difficulty, crushing, which is absolutely brutal. It will definitely have you screaming curse words at your TV and playing fights for hours, but if you’re like me, you’ll absolutely love it regardless.
Overall – 9.6
Uncharted is one of the most outright fun single-player games I’ve ever had my hands on. It’s a shame there’s no multi-player, though Uncharted 2 is offering both versus and co-op multi-player, which has me quite excited. The challenging and thought-provoking battles, beautiful and memorable locales, fun characters, and tons of replay-ability will surely keep me coming back for years.