Some games catch you completely unawares, and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is one of those games. When I initially heard about it at some games show or another, I was ready to write it off as “some game that looks a bit like Tomb Raider”. Developers Naughty Dog have been limited to Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter games mostly, so a game like this is uncharted territory for them – no pun intended. So it’s quite a pleasant surprise to find out that Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is the best thing on the PlayStation 3 and one of the most impressive games I’ve played in recent years.
Basically Uncharted is like an exceptionally good Indiana Jones game, mixing elements of Tomb Raider and Resident Evil with the ‘duck ‘n cover’ shooting mechanics of Gears of War. If you want to go over the top with the comparisons, it’s also a bit like Half Life 2 and Goldeneye. I forget how exactly it’s like Goldeneye, just that shooting people in the groins has a similar feeling and it’s one of the very few games I’ve compulsively played and replayed since Goldeneye. That’s either a stupendous achievement or just shows how bitter and negative my view of games in general has been in the last ten years.
Uncharted’s Indiana Jones roots aren’t just in the gameplay and nazi gold references, but in the game’s cinematic presentation. Entertaining film quality cutscenes seamlessly blend with gameplay and make the whole thing feel like a playable 1980s treasure hunting movie, complete with over the top character acting and not entirely annoying sidekicks. The brilliant audio – from the voice acting to the orchestral soundtrack – really adds to the atmosphere. This is one of the first times where it feels as if games are really starting to blend with films, admittedly 80s B movies, but better than anything else the games industry has offered so far.
The game’s title pretty much sums up the aim of the story – your character Nathan Drake is a supposed ancestor of Sir Francis Drake, and along with sidekicks Elena and Sully you set out to discover the fortune Sir Francis Drake was hunting for. It’s a search for lost Spanish gold on a South American island essentially. Along the way you encounter a bunch of enemies such as competing treasure hunters, pirates and Nazis. The first half is all pretty straight forward. Later on in the game however, things change. I’ll avoid spoiling the not-entirely-original surprises, but importantly these changes don’t just affect the narrative but completely change the pace and atmosphere of the game in the later levels. The game just flows brilliantly with the narrative, and genuinely, there’s never a dull moment.
This is a game that manages to be simultaneously unique and unoriginal. Its components are fairly standard – the platform jumping and ledge swinging from Tomb Raider, with the shooting and melee combat somewhere between Resident Evil and Gears of War. Whilst there’s nothing particularly original about that, Uncharted manages to combine those components in such a way that it feels like no other game. The climbing and jumping is perfectly done, satisfying but not needlessly hard or hampered by bad camera angles and blind jumps. The duck ‘n cover shooting system even manages to make the Sixaxis pad seem reasonably decent, allowing you to pull off headshots with pleasure or occasionally just jump out from cover and run ‘n gun with a shotgun. It might not sound too charming, but it’s just done so well.
The graphics – because it’s obligatory to mention them in any games review – are stunning. This is probably the best looking game available. Some people might argue some other games (Gears of War for instance) look better, but you really shouldn’t care about that. The point is that Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune looks lovely – from the luscious environments and brilliantly realistic water (your character Nathan Drake gets realistically wet – step in a shallow stream and you’ll have soggy trousers, dive in and you’ll be dripping in watery wetness) – to the unique style created by all of the hand painted textures. Everything looks reasonably realistic but has a nice stylised design full of vivid colours which really enhances the visual quality.
The animation deserves a special mention – Nathan Drake is the best animated game character ever. Why? Partly because of the motion capture, fluidity and perfect responsiveness, partly just because it’s brilliant and lifelike – Nathan doesn’t just “run and jump”, he stumbles, trips, loses his balance and barely makes long jumps, clinging on with his fingers and mumbling expletives. No other game has managed to create a more convincing, well animated and lifelike character. It’s that good.
I’m really stumped to say anything bad about Uncharted. It’s quite a short adventure – taking about eight hours to complete – but every level you play through is entirely enjoyable, so that when it finishes you’re left satisfied but immediately craving more. There’s very little filler content thrown in, which is a blessing really. The game even helps push you on – if you spend too much time trying to progress or solve a puzzle, the game will give you a blatant hint to stop boredom setting in. Thankfully, even when you die, you rarely have to backtrack much, usually restarting within minutes or seconds of the section you died at. Perhaps it’s too forgiving, but it’s also really refreshing – a game that doesn’t treat you like a bastard.
Despite the game’s length, there’s a bit of replay value thrown in. As you collect hidden treasures throughout the game and unlock achievements (along the lines of “100 headshots” or “kill 10 people in a row with a stick whilst hanging from a ledge”), a variety of rewards are unlocked – there’s basic stuff like Making Of documentary videos and alternative costumes, as well as unlockable weapons, infinite ammo, alternative rendering modes and some interesting fast and slow motion modes. The game’s so much damn fun, that when I completed it first time around, I restarted the game playing it in fast mode, watching Nathan jump between ledges like a hyperactive monkey, occasionally switching to slow motion mode for the shoot-outs like the cheating bastard that I am. The last time I even remotely bothered with all that unlockable crap was with Goldeneye on the N64, which possibly shows how satisfying this game is. On the downside, there’s no multiplayer player mode, but then this isn’t a first person shooter and I didn’t hear people making the same complaints about Mario or Tomb Raider. It’s just a really excellent single player game, without all of that silly online fluff.