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Uncharted

Game: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony
Year: 2007
Reviewed: 2013
Platform: PS3
Genre: Third person shooter / platform
Reviewer: ValkyrDeath

Archaeology is a dangerous business. To see just how perilous it is you only have to look at the people involved in it: Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, Tony Robinson, the list goes on. Following in their footsteps comes Nathan Drake, supposedly a descendent of Sir Francis Drake. Uncharted follows Drake as he hunts for El Dorado using his ancestor’s diary. Joining him on his journey is Elena Fisher, a journalist initially following Drake for purposes of filming a documentary. This being a very cinematic game, the female is inevitably a love interest and the villain, of course, turns out to be English.

Uncharted Camera
Watch where you're pointing that camera!

More than anything, Uncharted resembles a big budget Hollywood blockbuster with the positives and negatives that brings with it. On the plus side, the production values are first rate. Graphically, it looks great and it’s surprisingly bright and colourful considering the time it was released. The game is completely linear, but the jungle environment looks expansive and the areas are large enough to give the feel of exploration, never descending into being a corridor shooter.

In terms of storyline, the game is also much like a good adventure film. This means the plot is decent but don’t go in expecting anything deep or clever. That’s not a negative, it’s simply a case of knowing what to expect. Uncharted aims to entertain and that’s exactly what it does.

When it comes to gameplay, it initially looks like it’s going to be a Tomb Raider style action platformer, and while those elements are certainly there, the bulk of the game is actually a cover-based third person shooter. And it’s a surprisingly good one at that. Following the usual format for these, Nathan can take cover behind basically anything in the environment, though here the existence of low walls to crouch behind actually makes sense given the ruins you’re exploring. The system works very well and it’s easy to use the cover button both to attach and detach from the environment without the awkwardness that sometimes plagues cover shooters. As you’d expect from the real(ish) world setting, the guns are the usual assortment of pistols, shotguns and machine guns. They feel satisfying to use, though the enemies sometimes take a ridiculously large amount of damage unless you get a headshot. Fortunately, aiming from cover feels very precise and accurate using the analogue sticks. The game also doesn’t feel as static as some cover shooters, which can often feel like glorified fairground shooting galleries. To keep from being an easy target and getting flanked or blown up by grenades, you’ll find yourself constantly moving from one piece of cover to another, and the controls make this simple to do. There’s even a button to switch which shoulder the camera is aiming over, to allow more scope to shoot at enemies that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to aim at because of the camera angle. In fact, the camera in general manages to be both cinematic and playable at the same time, avoiding the trade-off which often seems to happen with cinematic cameras.

Uncharted Bridge
James Brown told me to bring it here, but I'm not sure why.

Hand to hand combat is less successful, not because it doesn’t work but because there’s no real use for it in the game. It involves hitting the buttons in the right order at the right time to create a combo, as without these, the attacks are virtually useless on their own. Even then though, it’s usually quicker and safer to just use the guns. The enemies are almost always armed and if you are close enough to engage one in hand to hand combat you’ll probably be under fire from many others. On the rare occasions that it is slightly useful, it’s awkward since you haven’t used it enough to get a feel for it, so it just doesn’t feel natural like most of the rest of the controls do. It’s not really a negative thing, just a feature that is underutilised.

Something that is negative however is the grenade throwing, one of the only genuinely awful design decisions in the game. Rather than just use the analogue stick to control the trajectory of the grenade as you would to aim any other weapon, you’re forced to tilt the pad backwards and forwards to set the distance. It’s clumsy and awkward to do while still having to set the direction with the stick and it just feels like someone thought it necessary to use every feature of the console whether it was needed or not. The time it takes to sort it out usually leave you open to attack for too long.

Other than this though, the game is highly polished and professional. This is apparent in the occasions when it does try its hand at climbing and jumping sections. The controls work very well, providing a good balance between requiring accuracy without being fussy to the point of frustration. You have to line up your jumps or press in the right direction when leaping from ledge to ledge, but you won’t find Drake constantly overshooting his target and plummeting to his death as long as you’re not too reckless. This makes these parts flow really well as you swing and climb your way around ledges and up walls.

In fact, flowing well is the key to the game’s success and one of the reasons it feels so cinematic. Cutscenes flow directly into the gameplay and vice versa, with no breaks in continuity. There are no load points either with everything forming one continuous environment. There’s also very little to clutter up the screen. Other than an ammo counter at the bottom, the game view takes up the full space, making everything more immersive. Injury is indicated by the colour gradually draining from the picture and hiding away from gunfire regenerates your health in the manner of most modern shooters.

Uncharted Heights
Mind the step.

There’s the occasional attempt to vary the gameplay a bit, with a jeep turret section and a couple of areas where you get to control a boat. The turret section is the exact thing that’s featured in many games in the past: it’s on rails with you just controlling the gun, shooting at other cars and bikes that are following you. It’s quite well done and enjoyable enough but about as original as a sewer level. The boat sections are flawed, in that Nathan steers while Elena shoots, yet for some reason you can’t shoot while you’re moving. This means you have to stop in order to take aim at the enemies that are firing at you, making yourself a sitting target. It’s even more annoying in the last section of this type, where the waters are fast moving and you’re working your way upstream, so every time you stop your boat starts floating backwards again as you shoot. It doesn’t make much sense and it slightly spoils some potentially entertaining moments.

The flaws I’ve mentioned stop the game being as good as it could be but they’re not especially significant overall considering the high quality of everything else. The one thing that is a major problem is the occasional difficulty spike that comes out of nowhere. For the most part the game is well balanced and entertaining to play, but all of a sudden you’ll run across an area that’s an absolute nightmare to get through. Coupled with a save system that’s generally good but seems to pick these hardest moments to start spacing the checkpoints out too widely, there were three or four points in the game where I got bogged down repeating the same five minutes of game over and over again. These mostly happen during the last third of the game, meaning it becomes harder and harder to get back into the game after stopping playing, though thankfully it eases off again for the last couple of chapters, which are much fairer.

The difficulty spikes are the only serious issue, and while they don’t completely spoil the game, they do drag down an otherwise brilliant game. As do the quick time events that turn up occasionally. These aren’t difficult as such, and they don’t turn up very often, which is part of the problem. I’d go a couple of hours without any quick time events and then suddenly there’d be one in the middle of the cutscene I was watching, and in the scrabble for the gamepad again I’d inevitably died already, making them a case of repetition more than anything. If you really have to have QTEs, use them as a major element of the game or give some warning when they’re going to happen. Don’t spring them on me randomly and expect me to be able to react in a fraction of a second.

All in all, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is a highly polished, extremely well made game, but with some frustrating elements that keep it from reaching its true potential. It’s not an especially long game, but it is action packed with no filler material. The game is still worth playing, and for the majority of the eight hours it lasted it’s thoroughly enjoyable, but the moments when it isn’t do spoil the later part of the game. Good, even very good at times, but just short of greatness. Hopefully these few flaws are fixed in the sequels.

Save System Review: Automatic checkpoints as you go along that are generally very regular, but seem to become annoyingly sparse at the hardest moments of the game.
Graphics: Very good graphics for the time it was made, and a very cinematic style.
Sound: Good voice acting, sound effects all fit well and the soundtrack is appropriate.
Bugs: None that I encountered.
Gameplay: Excellent shooting and platforming, but with the occasional difficulty spike and awkward inclusion of motion control for grenade throwing.
Storyline: Solid adventure storyline, nothing surprising but well enough written to keep you involved in the game.

Arbitrary Final Score: 3 stars

If you like this, you might also like: Other Uncharted games, Tomb Raider, Indiana Jones, Gears of War

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