Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune Review: Ain’t No Fortunate One

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune strikes me as Naughty Dog’s coming of age project. Though the Santa Monica based studio has been around for over 20 years, most of their games have been cartoony, lighthearted platformers with little in the way of story. So it is sort of weird playing a serious action-adventure game in the vein of Indiana Jones from the same folks who brought us Crash Bandicoot.

That doesn’t mean that Uncharted is completely different from the studio’s earlier efforts; the DNA strands of Naughty Dog’s PS1 and PS2 classics are clearly here. But the game struggles to find a good balance of combat and character throughout. Uncharted ends up as a good launchpad for a series of globe trotting adventures, despite being a mess in terms of gameplay.

We open with treasure hunting protagonist Nathan Drake and broadcast reporter Elena Fisher reeling in a coffin from the Panamanian Coast floor. The box supposedly holds Sir Francis Drake’s remains, and Nate believes himself to be one of the Elizabethan privateer’s descendants. But when Nate and Elena crack open the casket, there is nothing but Sir Francis’s diary. Drake is elated, for this diary records all of Sir Francis’s adventures and treasures; namely, the location of El Dorado. Just like Raiders of the Lost Ark however, there is another faction vying for Drake’s diary. A competing treasure hunter named Gabriel Roman sends a legion of pirates after Nate, Elena, and their money obsessed partner Sully to capture the diary and find El Dorado.

And so opens the 8-10 hour adventure wherein you’ll shoot countless pirates, navigate through swamps, jungles, and ancient ruins, and watch some of the best cutscenes in the business. For a game released in 2007, Uncharted still looks good, with some great facial and motion captured animation. There are tons of little effects on display like Nate’s shirt only getting wet up to the point where water actually touches it instead of a binary wet or not wet state. It’s a testament to Naughty Dog’s visual artists and programmers that this game still holds up in purely graphical terms.

But, as the old nerd’s proverb tells time and time again, graphics do not a good game make. Back when it was originally released, Uncharted dropped right in the middle of the post-Gears of War boom of third-person, cover based shooters that altered the course of the genre. And at least it tries to hit all mechanics that Gears did. Hit a button to stick to cover? Check. Two weapon slots plus a grenade? Yep. Rolling dodge move and ability to vault over cover points to the next cover point? Done and done.

Beyond the initial layer of imitation, Uncharted’s gameplay fails to capitalize on anything further. Enemy encounters are stacked stupidly against the player; dozens of pirates will flood from a single point, and when they are all taken care of, another wave comes out to beleaguer the player to the point of frustration. These enemies start easy enough, perhaps taking more shots than you’d like, but it isn’t too hard to get the upper hand. But somewhere around the second half of the game, enemies become Herculean in their ability to take and deal punishment. Ammo becomes scarce at the same time, making any missed shot a severe blow to your progression.

These factors aren’t insurmountable individually, but the last third of the game starts to join them in a sort of perverse concert. A late game encounter in a cathedral stacks nearly a dozen enemies with one-shot-kill weapons against Nate and Sully. Banish any notion from your head that Sully may support you; like so many other games, his AI doesn’t include being able to do anything other than wisecrack occasionally. It has been a long time since I’ve had to put the game on “Easy” difficulty because I could not progress through some fights. But no matter how conservatively I played, the pirates nearly always had an advantage. I seriously contemplated putting the game down for good at many points.

There is also a startling amount of ludonarrative dissonance in Uncharted. Nate is supposed to be the flawed, but good-hearted protagonist, but he also kills hundreds of people in order to plunder ruins and temples. The mechanical ability that the player has at their fingertips is in stark contrast to Nate’s everyman image that the story conveys. He is always on the cusp of danger, but never incurs any damage or consequences. This wouldn’t be nearly as noticeable if the characters weren’t so well written and acted. As it is though, It felt strange killing every brown person in sight and then segueing into a cutscene where Nate is cracking wise.

Despite this, I found myself compelled to finish Uncharted because of the characters and the popcorn flick, action-adventure vibe; Elena and Sully are great supporting characters, and Nate is as charming a rogue as any. Elena is particularly noteworthy for being a really strong female lead. At no point did she feel like a damsel in distress or a hopeless fawn; she knows how to take care of herself, and tells the player as much. The game’s story did start to lose me in the final chapters due to an ill conceived supernatural twist. The game forces you to fight against mutated Nazi-Gollums for nearly two hours, and it just feels out of place. Not only are those enemies overpowered, but they break down what was up to that point a semi-believable storyline.

Another area of Uncharted that just doesn’t have quite enough polish is the climbing and platforming elements. Sure, I got a little rush of nostalgia when the camera pulled in front of Nate and forced a Crash Bandicoot-esque running sequence. But I also found myself frequently missing jumps even when I was squared exactly in front of a ledge. It is also difficult to differentiate what is a grabbable ledge and what isn’t. It isn’t always an issue, but it happens enough to add just a hint more annoyance on top of the gunplay.

Uncharted is definitely a product of the early years of this console generation, and has not aged well. So many other games have done gunplay and linear platforming better in recent years that it is hard to make it through. Everything but the story and characters could’ve used just a few more months of refinement and attention. To be fair, this game is dirt cheap now, but bad gameplay is bad gameplay regardless of price. I would recommend just watching this edited version of the game’s cutscenes and skip to Uncharted 2. You’ll save yourself about six hours time and lots of frustration if you do.

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