Modern Classic: Uncharted – Drakes Fortune

 

Factfile
Developed by: Naughty Dog
Released: 2007
Format played: Playstation 3

 

Ruminations

There are some games that stay with you.

No matter what else you play, whatever new systems come along, you never forget. One of those ‘where were you?’ moments in gaming. For me, that game is Uncharted.

And I remember exactly where I was.

A random couple of days off work brought a delivery from the Postman. I had read about the game in the Official Playstation Magazine which had served to whet my appetite, my regular gaming co-conspirator playing along at virtually the same time as we swapped stories and progress over text. ‘Have you seen this bit yet?’ or ‘wait until you get to this bit.’

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Launched in 2007 from prolific Sony developers Naughty Dog, this was one of the first games to really deliver on the promise of the PS3. The machine had fared badly in comparison to the rival X-Box 360, especially in respect of multi-format titles. But finally here was a game designed from the ground up around the PS3’s architecture from a team familiar with Sony’s hardware. And boy did it show.

Combining the best aspects of Tomb Raider and Gears of War whilst casting a knowing nod and a wink to adventure movies from Romancing the Stone to Raiders of the Lost Ark and everything in between, you take the role of Nathan Drake, distant descendant of the legendary explorer Sir Francis Drake. Starting out on a quest to recover the coffin of his long dead relative, the story soon turns into a quest to find the fabled treasure of El Dorado. Cue action set pieces, shoot outs and lots of other craziness besides as Drake and his cohort of treasure hunters race to uncover the secrets of the lost city of gold.

I played this to completion on release and it is one of a select group of games that I still make a point to periodically revisit, Christmas morning 2008 made all the more memorable with the completion of another run through. This would of course turn out to be the first in a franchise of games featuring our resident scoundrel with two direct sequels appearing on the PS3, two offshoots on the PS Vita plus a re-release of the original trilogy on PS4 ahead of the release of the fourth instalment in 2016.

Second Impressions

Graphical fidelity has continued to evolve since 2007 but this is still a beautiful looking game.

Whilst it shares some themes with Tomb Raider (more on that later), on the whole it employs a different graphical style. There are plenty of grimy, underground sections to explore for sure but the game spends a significant amount of time in lush jungle environments. These bright, colourful backgrounds offer a nice juxtaposition to the weather worn ruins that Drake finds himself exploring and help to create a brilliantly vivid environment that you are quickly lost in. For a game based on adventure and treasure hunting, it’s pleasing to have an environment to explore that is easy on the eye and there is more than one moment when you simply have to stop what you are doing and stare in awe at the technical marvel unfolding before you. Be it a washed up submarine, a sunset vista from the top of a hill, or a cliff side castle that you find yourself clambering up precariously, this is a game that continually challenges what you thought was possible.

There is some lovely technical stuff going on too. Cut scenes drive the story forward, using the in-game engine, integrated seamlessly and never over staying their welcome. Characters throughout are animated superbly. There are no gurning faces or jagged limbs here, characters moving fluidly, speech and action feeling natural. Drake will snap into cover, clamber, roll or swim without breaking sweat whilst guns are stashed across his back when not in use.

If you do take damage, there are none of those jarring, take you out of the moment health packs here. Instead the screen will begin to grey out unless you find cover, the picture coming back into focus as Drake is restored to health. It is entirely unrealistic of course but it works well within the context of the game.

Away from the main action, everything has a visual flourish in keeping with the setting. Artefacts can be hunted down throughout the game whilst Drake can consult his trusty, battered diary for clues and help in solving puzzles.

And a nod to the camera too. The bane of many a third person adventure, here it sweeps around Drake, pulling out at just the right moment to show you the path ahead or the next precarious ledge to grab, rarely leaving you feeling frustrated at not being able to get just the right view.

Sound meanwhile is an absolute treat from start to finish. The main theme sweeps you along with the mood, an original piece but with more than a passing resemblance to some of the grandstanding pieces in Pirates of the Caribbean. In-game music doesn’t disappoint either, cranking up during moments of high tension whilst a desperate, heart rending dirge plays whenever Drake breathes his last.

And to top it all off, the excellent voice cast. Both Sully and Elena are superb, supported by a cohort of villains and grunts. But the star of the show is Drake himself, voiced by the prolific Nolan North. This is a fully formed character, avatar and voice over artist in perfect unison, capturing all the best elements of a rogues gallery of anti-heroes whilst still managing to feel unique.

A beautiful ribbon on top of an already superb package.

Gameplay

Described in some quarters on release as ‘Tomb Raider with guns,’ that serves justice to neither game. In truth this does at times stray into being a mash up of both Tomb Raider and Gears of War but it takes its cues and influences from so many sources that this description paints an inaccurate picture.

With the exception of the occasional turret or scope, action is viewed in the third person. Drake is nimble on foot, responding smoothly to your commands. This isn’t a game that you have to fight with, the controls are intuitive and quickly learned meaning that in the heat of the action, with gun fire rattling off all around, you don’t need to wrestle with the Sixaxis in frustration as your character seemingly ignores you, rather Drake bounds into action, rolls into cover or effortlessly switches weapon at your command. So fluid is the control that it is easy to take for granted and it is only when you step away and play an inferior game that it dawns on you why this game works so well.

By default, Drake will run around the screen, not so fast as too look silly but quickly enough to ensure that you don’t get frustrated negotiating the terrain or going off the beaten track to explore. For those more delicate situations you can reduce him to a walk as well as being able to jump and roll to avoid obstacles, gun fire or leap between ledges.

The main thrust of the game is a combination of exploring and shooting. The game world is fairly expansive but it prevents you wandering off too far with natural blockages or impassable areas whilst still allowing enough scope for hidden items and secrets. In some ways it is limiting and certainly makes the game a far more linear experience. There are no multiple paths to explore, this isn’t an open world adventure for you to go roaming around in. But it rarely feels restrictive, the closed off environment, whilst sacrificing an element of freedom, more than compensated for by creating tighter, more intense firefights. Away from these battles, you are on reasonably safe ground moving around but you still need to tread carefully to avoid falling over a steep ledge or getting washed away in a strong current.

The story is broken down into chapters, topped and tailed with cut scenes or Drake narrating out loud. Checkpoints are fairly generous throughout each chapter, placed at the beginning and end of intense fights, set pieces or tricky navigation sections. There is a nice balance to the gameplay so that a drawn out gun fight is usually followed by some downtime or exploration, allowing the chance to draw breath and focus on the story. Reinforcements will often pile in mid-fight but there are no respawns. Take out the enemy grunts and then be on your way.

Drake has an array of hardware with which to dispatch enemies and with ammo in pretty decent supply, you don’t have to be too conservative with your shots. This isn’t a Resident Evil style survive-a-thon; if someone moves, give them a belly full of lead to digest. You start with a handgun, under powered compared to some of the other options available but the weapon I find myself coming back to repeatedly for its accuracy, speed and clip capacity. But amongst the ruins and fallen bodies you can also help yourself to the usual array of shotguns, machine guns, RPGs and more. Each has its distinct strength and weaknesses and you’ll find yourself switching between them depending on circumstances for best effect. Regardless of which you use, handling is superb, complimented by easy to measure grenade lobs, although I could do without the Sixaxis control being crowbarred in. You are a one man walking arsenal and you damn sure feel like it.

But do not get confused. Whilst gun play is a major component of the game, there is much more to it. The action set pieces are stand outs, including an adrenaline pumping jeep ride and a trip up river in a speedboat. More than once the developers betray their Crash Bandicoot roots as you find yourself in a race-against-the-clock, into the screen sprint to avoid falling masonry or a hail of gunfire. Elsewhere puzzles must be solved to allow progress. Most are fairly simple (and usually signposted within Drake’s trusty journal), we are not in Tomb Raider territory here where each new location acts as a single giant puzzle to be solved. Instead these are very much of the move that or twist this in the right direction flavour that serve as a means of progressing to the next plot or action point.

But these would all be meaningless without a strong story and character set to underpin them and it is here where Uncharted really shines. There is nothing especially unique in the underlying plot. It is a simple story, well told and it helps drive you on to want to know more until it all goes a bit bat-shit crazy at the end. Drake is a superb character, more than ably supported by Victor ‘God Damn’ Sullivan whilst Elena proves herself far more than just a love interest. Coming back to this having finished Uncharted 4 and knowing where the characters end up adds a certain level of charm but even without that, these feel like fully fleshed out characters, the script crackling with witty repartee such that you feel a genuine bond to their fate. And these side characters are not just for show, they muck in to take out the enemy without getting in your way. Indeed if you do shoot them by mistake, they might turn and give you a dose of the verbals but otherwise your progress is unaffected. Villains are somewhat less memorable, the world populated largely by forgettable cannon fodder and cookie cutter antagonists but they are more than serviceable and move the plot along to the next set piece.

Criticisms? You could argue that this is just a glorified cover shooter, dressed up with a cliched b-move plot and fudged narrative direction. One could note that the climbing sections are ludicrously sign posted, the player receiving almost as much hand holding as Drake does convenient hand holds (that worked better in my head). You could complain that when Drake isn’t shooting he is climbing and that there is a reliance on barely interactive cut scenes, requiring no more than a well timed button press in order to proceed. There is some validity to this thinking but only the harshest critic would point to these contrivances as reasons to find fault. Each element slots perfectly into the other, combining into a slick, polished product.

Taking your time and enjoying the story, you’ll make your way through this in about 8-12 hours, which is the perfect length. There is no online multiplayer but there is still plenty here to add extra value. Running through the whole thing again at a higher difficulty is a worthy challenge but more fun is trying to boost your trophy collection, from artefact pick ups to head shots to kill streaks. Ultimately this is a game that wants you to experience it in full. Ramp up the difficulty and things might soon get messy but otherwise this is pitched perfectly for the average gamer, providing a satisfying challenge whilst guiding you along the story.

Uncharted would in many ways be surpassed by it’s sequels. There are familiar themes that run through all the games, the core experience continuing to be based around the concepts of climbing, shooting and exploring which remain largely unchanged across the series, testament to the fine job Naughty Dog did with this first iteration. Both Uncharted 2 and 3 on PS3 offered improved visuals, greater spectacle, bigger set pieces and wider ranging plots whilst Uncharted 4, utilising the extra grunt of the PS4, is a game unmatched in its scope, ambition and magnificence in the modern age and a fitting end to Drake’s journey (not to mention something I’ll need to play through more than once before feeling adequately placed to write a review that does it justice). Drake’s movement here is somewhat more simplistic, his hand-to-hand moveset more limited, stealth kills of the most basic variety. The cinematic feel is present and correct but very much has a cult classic b-movie vibe versus the triple A summer blockbuster the series would become. But there is an inherent charm to the original that the sequels can’t quite recapture, no matter how technically superior they may be. Jumping back into Uncharted is like wearing a pair of comfy old trainers. Sure, there are newer pairs on the rack that look better and do more but there is a warm comfort taken from them that technical advancement cannot override and sometimes you just want to slip back in to them for a walk down memory lane.

Bottom Line

The defining franchise of its generation, Uncharted doesn’t disappoint. Great story, engaging characters, superb action and flawless controls, this is a master class in video game development.

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