Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
6th Dec 2007 | 14:08
Unlike its title, Uncharted is on very familiar territory, mashing up the thrills, spills and old-fashioned derring do of Indiana Jones with a dash of Tomb Raider's acrobatic platforming and puzzles. If it was a movie, the poster quote would lazily describe it as 'a non-stop rollercoaster ride, adrenaline rush of a film', which is actually quite apt for a game that 'grabs you from the beginning and never lets go'. See, we can do crap poster quotes too. Get that on the back of the box please, Sony.
So if it isn't the most original premise, at least it's executed beautifully. At times it's like watching a film, partly due to the brilliant set-pieces and terrific action, but mainly due to the way Drake moves and behaves. When he takes a hit or struggles to keep his grip on ledges, you feel it too (and with rumble already implemented you'll feel it even more when the DualShock 3 is released early next year). Like the best action heroes, he keeps getting hurt and bad things keep happening to him just when he thinks he's safe.
The animation is simply excellent and Drake makes other athletic characters like Lara and the Prince look positively stilted and wooden by comparison. The way he runs, jumps, leaps over objects and lands slightly awkwardly is the way anyone who isn't a trained athlete moves, and the sounds of him exerting himself only add to his believability. There are some really subtle things happening too; for example, when Drake is under fire he'll wince and duck automatically, and his exclamation of 'crap!' whenever he stumbles on a new set of enemies adds to his everyman qualities. He's basically just a guy in a pair of jeans and a dirty sweater who happens to be fairly handy with his fists and a gun, and it's this very ordinariness that's his appeal.
Full credit to Naughty Dog for creating a credible and believable female character too. Elena Fisher gives as good as she gets, and the will-they-won't-they romance is handled with charm and wit. Shady sidekick Victor Sullivan fares less well, and a potential plot twist involving him is disappointingly jettisoned. We'll let you discover what we mean, but the outcome feels too convenient and we didn't really buy it.
Twists and turns
It's the only blip in a story that's completely gripping and exciting throughout. From the moment Drake and Fisher are attacked on their boat by pirates to the climax set on another boat, you'll want to play through the whole thing in one go just to find out what's going to happen next. The dialogue is snappy, the plot is deliberately hokey yet surprisingly moving on occasion, and there are enough captures, escapes and near-misses to fill an entire series of Prison Break.
Without giving too much away again, the only bit that'll divide fans into love-it-or-loathe-it camps is a supernatural twist near the end; if you know your British horror films then you'll immediately recognise what these levels have been heavily influenced by. It certainly makes for a creepy few missions...
The meat of the game is of course divided between blasting mercenaries and platforming along vertigo-inducing ledges. Combat has definitely been tightened up a lot since we previewed the game a few months ago, with the steady target reticule no longer floating around with every movement and enemies no longer doing their best impressions of a Terminator. When you cap one of these guys in the head they stay down, but the rest of their bodies can still withstand a few bullets.
Hide and peek
The cover system also feels really slick. Drake can crouch behind or put his back up against almost any object and lean out to fire before returning to cover in one smooth movement. It's very satisfying to crack off a couple of headshots, reload behind cover then pop out again, and even more surprising is that this never gets boring even though it's pretty much all you'll do combat-wise throughout.
A few more enemy character skins would have helped stave off the feeling of repetition. As you get further into the story, mercs carry more powerful weapons and increase in number and intelligence; it's no use standing behind the same bit of cover during a shootout, since they'll flush you out with grenades, destroy your cover with an RPG or flank you while other enemy solidiers keep you pinned down.
Hand-to-hand fights are just as satisfying, but less frequent since it isn't really a good idea to break free from cover and confront an Uzi-toting merc. In an effort to prevent button-bashing, the more powerful three-hit combos require you to press the r or w buttons after each blow has landed rather than steaming in there mashing away, and your reward is double the amount of ammo left by an enemy.
Jump to it
Although the on-rails shooter section on the back of a jeep is a great diversion (see the 'Wheels of Fortune' on the top left), a couple of jet-ski sequences aren't. Here you steer the vehicle as Drake and also shoot enemies and floating explosive barrels as Fisher, but since you have to stop the jet-ski every time you want to fire, these sections are robbed of the fluidity that the rest of the game boasts in abundance. They suck pretty badly.
Platforming sections are pretty straightforward most of the time, with the next ledge or grip always signposted and Drake's fluid movements making things even easier. The only quibble is that the distance he can jump seems to change from sequence to sequence, which obviously proves very misleading.
For instance, when the camera pans out and you're moving him sideways along a cliff face, he'll always make the next ledge no matter what because that's the only route he can take, but when the camera is in the default view behind him and you jump forward to reach a platform that's roughly the same distance as others you've tried before, he doesn't always reach it. Frequently placed checkpoints stop this becoming annoying, though.
Puzzles are surprisingly thin on the ground, perhaps as a deliberate way of setting Uncharted apart from Tomb Raider. When they do crop up, an icon appears and pressing Select opens an illustrated journal to the exact page related to that puzzle. They're extremely quick and easy to solve (no laborious cog puzzles here!), and the journal leading you by the hand doesn't exactly make them any more difficult. Hopefully a sequel will include a few more truly taxing puzzles.
And the good news is that a sequel, and possibly even a full-on franchise going by recent comments from Naughty Dog, is planned. The game thankfully doesn't leave any loose ends dangling or even hint at a direct sequel that continues this particular treasure hunt, just the feeing we haven't seen the last of Nathan Drake and co. Will you play Uncharted again after the 12 hours or so it takes to complete the story? Well, yes, probably.
Although there are no alternative routes and no multiple endings to discover, there are plenty of hidden treasures to collect and medals to earn for stuff like getting 50 headshots or killing 50 enemies with a certain weapon. We had a good nose around each area and still only managed to uncover 36 of the 60 treasures, so finding them all isn't easy. And once Home is eventually released, these medals and treasures will be converted into trophies which you can proudly display around your virtual pad. If you're the kind of person who likes to do that sort of thing.
If Sony really is pinning its hopes on Uncharted being a PS3 system seller this Christmas, it couldn't have picked a better game. Uncharted looks great, it's exciting, it's very funny at times and it should have huge, mainstream appeal for anyone old enough to have grown up with Indiana Jones or young enough to be growing up with the less-good National Treasure movies. We just hope enough people take a chance on a new, original game that isn't a sequel or a film licence. Try the four-level demo if you're unsure that this is for you and we guarantee when you're done you'll be left wanting more.