A lot is made nowadays about videogames being “cinematic”. Sweeping scenery, engrossing plotlines, and an interesting protagonist now stand where generic, repeating backgrounds and paper thin, one dimensional character’s used to dominate. In few games is this more evident than Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. The sarcastic, gruff, everyman that Naughty Dog has created with Nathan Drake isn’t just a character in this game-he is the game. He is the primary focus; he is the driver of the story. More importantly, after about 15 minutes, the player’s connection to Drake and his surrounding cast is what compels you to keep coming back. You want to see what happens next, and you want to follow their exploits, and by the end, you will wish for more. With U:DF, Naughty Dog has crafted the ultimate in cinematic gaming experiences, and while it may not be perfect, you will most certainly enjoy this wild ride.
Uncharted puts you in the shoes of Nathan Drake, a treasure hunter and descendent of Sir Francis Drake, as he goes on a search for the missing treasure of his ancestor. He’s not alone for the ride though, he’s joined by cigar chomping pal Sully, and a beautiful documentary filmmaker named Elena. Naughty Dog has done an exceptional job of fleshing out these characters with their own personalities and character traits, especially Drake. The story as well is very captivating as it winds through island jungles and elsewhere. You’ll find few games this year with such a fun cast of characters and such a well crafted story for them to reside in.
One of the biggest ways that Uncharted draws you close to the story and characters is with its incredible graphics. No doubt about it, U:DF is near the top of the graphical heap so far this gen. The environments are incredibly detailed and realistic. There is one moment near the beginning of the game where Drake looks out from behind a waterfall overlooking the jungle as the sun sets on the horizon. You may find yourself, like I did, staring at that sunset for quite some time, taking in every ounce of the breathtaking scenery. The characters in U:DF are also second to none in terms of design and realism. The character models are spot on, and the facial animations are some of the best that I’ve seen. Textures are varied and realistic looking and the water is toe to toe with 2K Boston’s masterpiece Bioshock for realism. Not only that, but when Nathan jumps into it-his clothes get wet. They say the devil is in the details, and Uncharted has proved that’s true.
The thing that really sets Uncharted apart from the pack though aren’t the huge things that beat you over the head, but these small details that are too often forgotten about. Animation often goes overlooked for big graphical power, but the subtlety of the animation in Drake’s lends an incredible amount to both the cinematic nature and Nathan’s everyman quality. He stumbles over rocks and terrain; he desperately hangs on when jumping from ledge to ledge. He winces when bullets get to close and when he slams into a wall for cover. These details add so much to the gameplay experience, and really do more than anything to draw you in to the world that Naughty Dog has created. Uncharted definitely sets the bar for character animation in the action/adventure genre. There are some minor issues with screen tearing and texture pop-in, but they aren’t serious enough to detract from the overall experience.
Of course, graphics and characters mean nothing without gameplay, and I’m happy to report that Uncharted has some of the most silky smooth control and harrowing gameplay the genre has to offer. For the most part, the gameplay in Uncharted consists of some simple, yet exciting platforming action and harrowing gunfights. The gunplay is based on a system of hiding behind cover while pirates and mercenaries do their best to put a couple extra holes in Drake’s body, then popping out occasionally to get your licks in. You will usually be deluged by wave after wave of enemies, and your survival is based on your ability to gather ammo between waves and move cover to cover. While the endless waves of enemies can get tiring, this style of gunplay adds not only to the exciting pace and sense of danger…but also feels right at home for Drake’s character. He’s not Rambo, he’s decidedly ordinary, so it only makes sense for both Drake and the player to feel overwhelmed and outgunned most of the time.
In a game with this feel and pace, the platforming needs to strike a delicate balance. Too easy and there’s no sense of danger, too hard and it slows the pace and frustrates the gamer. Naughty Dog has solved this balance for the most part by using Drake’s animations and camera angles to make the mostly easy platforming sections feel like risky propositions. You will very rarely miss a jump in Uncharted, but when the camera pans down to a vertigo inducing view of the rocks below that waterfall your traversing, you’ll feel like it’s a possibility.
This artificial difficulty works well in continuing the pace of the game, especially early on; however I would like to see a slight bump in the difficulty of these sections in future iterations of the series. As it stands, the platforming sections tend to be where you can catch a well needed breather between the intense firefights. On the audio side, Uncharted delivers with great ambient effects and fantastic voice acting. The music is also very well done, and fits in with the spirit of the game.
There is about 8-10 hours worth of gameplay on your first play through this wild adventure, and Naughty Dog has tried to cram it full of replay value. You earn points by accomplishing goals (similar to the 360’s achievement system) such as 100 headshots, those points can then be spent on a wealth of unlockable content such as filters, new character skins, and more. There are also treasures to find scattered throughout the world, and finding them all should prove a pretty worthy challenge for would be treasure hunters. The intense gunfights would seem to lend themselves to a solid basis for online multiplayer, but its omission doesn’t hurt the experience as a whole. All in all, the strongest pull to replay Drake’s Fortune won’t come from modes and features, but from the incredible settings and cast of characters that you’ll come into contact with.
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is hands down the best game in the PS3 library, and one of the best action adventure titles to come down the pike this generation. If you own a PS3, you owe it to yourself to play this game. With its intense, harrowing gameplay, breathtaking scenery, and an incredible story it’s easily one of the most fun experiences I’ve had with a controller in my hand this year.