Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

Post-Launch Review
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
Developer: Naughty Dog
Released: November 2007
Played: story complete in 7:45

Sorry for the lack of screenshots. It'll be nice to eventually have a PS4 so I can include screenshots in those reviews.


Treasure hunter Nathan Drake, his friend and mentor Victor Sullivan, and documentary journalist Elena Fisher are on the trail of Sir Francis Drake, an explorer who supposedly found El Dorado four hundred years ago. The search for the treasure is a race against time as other, more violently competitive fortune hunters join the chase.

At Launch

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was very well received, earning average review scores of 89%. Reviewers unanimously praised the game's production value and summer blockbuster movie style, likening it to Indiana Jones. The characters, their animations, and the voice acting were highly praised, and the visuals and environments were also very well received. There were some technical complaints regarding texture pop-in and screen tearing. Many reviewers called the vehicle segments ordinary and unmemorable, and late-game combat was called repetitive and annoying.

Post Launch

A single patch was issued to add trophy support to the game (PSN achievements), corresponding with the in-game medals.

Uncharted is a series I've been looking forward to, given how it's become one of the PlayStation's most well-known franchises. I love the Indiana Jones movies, and Uncharted sounded a lot like those: a gruff but lovable action hero getting by on one part in-depth knowledge and one part luck.

Uncharted is actually a lot more like Indiana Jones than I expected - specifically, the Last Crusade, which strikes a great balance between action, humour, and big stakes. Drake is a lot of fun, constantly joking in a way that feels genuine and entertaining. It helps a lot that he shows a wide range of emotion - including fear, shock, and shame - rather than being just a quip machine. Elena is very strong too; despite being the only woman in the game she doesn't come across as the token female (except when certain characters refer to her as "the girl", because there's only one), and she has some great moments where she encourages Drake to keep going after he's given up, and when she has to make a sacrifice but doesn't dwell or mope about it. And the excellent character animation helps emphasize each personality and emotion. I even noticed motion wrinkles in Drake's shirt.

The story is strong, even if it feels very similar to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - even down to the ending (though I won't be specific because spoilers). On the surface it's very different - for example, Last Crusade doesn't take place in the South American jungle - but the tone and a lot of the themes are very similar. Even the Nazis make an appearance. But I don't want to sound like I'm complaining here. This is all good: despite the notable similarity, Uncharted is far from a copy and is unique enough in its own right to stand alone.

The one flaw with the game's story is the weird dissonance between cutscene and gameplay. I might never have noticed except for one line in the opening: when Nate and Elena are attacked by pirates, Nate hands Elena a gun and asks if she's ever used one before. Her reply is "point and shoot, right?" which says no, she hasn't used a gun before, and she seems pretty nervous about being in a shootout. After that opening sequence, though, neither Drake nor Elena ever says a word about the fact that they're killing hundreds of guys. I don't know about Drake, but Elena was nervous about shooting in self-defense, and now she's mowing down hundreds of guys without a thought and joking around between battles? That seems kind of weird.

I was a little worried about the shooty bits because I don't like controllers for shooting (I prefer mouse+keyboard). I didn't have too much trouble - guess I'm slowly getting used to controllers - but I did find  the shooting controls a little awkward. The crosshair only appears when manually aiming with the L1 button, which is good for exploring without UI in the way, but it also means that if you want any degree of accuracy you have to slow to a crawl. And oddly, the button you use to fire is R1 - the bumper, not the trigger. The few console shooters I have played all use the trigger, because guns have a trigger and that just makes sense. On the other hand the bumper is where I naturally rest my finger on the PS3 controller, so that aspect is helpful. Anyway, it's a little awkward to have to aim every time you want to shoot someone, and if you're used to firing with the trigger it might take some getting used to.

I was also a little annoyed at how much shooting there was. Most fights involve several waves of enemies attacking from several directions. The game seems to want you to move around the environment and attack from many angles, but it's so easy to die (especially later in the game when you're facing grenade launchers and snipers) that it's much more effective to pick a spot and stay there. But if you do, enemies will try to flank you and put you in a position where you can't get out of the line of fire, and you'll sometimes have a new set of guys spawn behind you and kill you before you can move to new cover. So I get killed for moving between cover, and I get killed for staying in the same spot. Which is it, game?! Pick one. And there are a couple of annoying difficulty spikes with particular fights that don't give you enough (or any) cover. Several times I found myself thinking "wow, this fight would be easy on PC".

Actually, while I'm on the topic of too many fights... how did they have time to get hundreds of bad guys and all that equipment onto the island? Drake doesn't even have to do any detective work to find the island - the cutscenes make it look like after he and Elena escape the jungle, they fly straight to the island where the rest of the game takes place. But the bad guys learned the location at the same time as Drake. So if Drake and Elena grabbed a plane and went straight there - which seems like it would require very little time - how did the bad guys have time to send a ship full of gear and hundreds of guys and fully explore the island and set up lamps and generators and crates and explosives?

Anyway, if I thought there was too much combat, a lot of that has to do with how good the non-combat segments are. The environments are well laid out, with a mix of dense vegetation and terrain that never had me questioning why I could only go in one direction (except once, in the vault, which looks like a maze but doesn't allow you to get lost). The visuals are great with a lot of detail and texture (still looking good for a 2007 game), and the contrast between the different areas - South American jungle and ruins, 16th century Spanish colony, World War II tech - does an excellent job of conveying how much history is attached to El Dorado as you travel through the ruins of many eras, all connected to the search for the treasure. And the small hidden treasure collectibles scattered around the maps got me to slow down and look closely at every area, which helped me spot some little details and accents I would have missed otherwise.

Uncharted is at its best when Nate is exploring with a companion - Sullivan or Elena. I love exploring in games, and in these segments I get to do that with all the fun dialogue. Hearing the characters get excited about a discovery and its history gives it more impact than the silence of most games. The sense of discovery is dampened a little bit by puzzles that essentially solve themselves - the solution is always spelled out clearly in Drake's diary - but on the other hand that keeps the game moving so you don't get stuck on a puzzle for half an hour. This is an action game, not a puzzle game!

I did notice a few minor technical issues - the texture pop-in that some critics complained about is still present, but rare and not usually very noticeable. And it was also weird that I couldn't move the jet ski and attack at the same time; you have to stop moving to aim and fire. Can't even fire from the hip like when you're on foot.

Recommendation: play it.

Uncharted does a great job with its action movie style, striking a good balance between humour, exploration, and action, with a strong plot and fun characters. The puzzles are a little weak, and combat could be clunky and annoying, but usually not overwhelmingly so. The opening quickly and effectively sets the stage, and the rest of the game carries it through - even with a sudden tone shift partway through, which was awesome but I won't spoil. I look forward to playing the sequels!

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