I finally cracked open the PS3 I got for Black Friday in earnest and had a go at Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. I did this as much to set the stage for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves as to experience the first game; Uncharted is known as a hit, but Uncharted 2 is known as a PS3 all-time classic and I wanted to go in with the first game under my belt so I’d be able to understand what’s so great about it. Having started UC2, I can say this was absolutely the right thing to do, as the opening of the sequel is entertaining without the backstory, but blackly hilarious once you know what Drake has already been through.
But first, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.
Uncharted is a two-fisted treasure-hunting adventure along the venerable lines of The Mummy and Indiana Jones film series. Nathan Drake and his partner Victor Sullivan start the story having just unearthed the empty coffin of Nate’s ancestor, The For Real Francis Drake. Drake, Sully, and spunky documentarian Elena Fisher learn that Drake the Ancienter has left behind clues to the location of El Dorado, and begin to race against pirates and rival treasure hunters to find the hoard of a lifetime.
The story is replete with plane crashes, ridiculous escapes, improbably-located U-boat pens, torchlit crypts, and a generally “more-is-more” attitude to piling on locations and plot points. Complementing the plot’s general lightness on its feet, the dialogue between the main characters and with their antagonists is kept bantery and low on consequence, barring one or two turns into darker territory that don’t last long. The pace of Uncharted stumbles occasionally, but that’s never to do with the writing. Nate Drake is an appealing thief, able to flip from cheerful arrogance to world-weary petulance like an emotional acrobat. Elena matches him beat for beat, just as hungry for treasure and adventure as any man in the story. She’s allowed to accompany Drake and engage in a few shootouts, and does all the shooting when they ride though jungle rivers on a jetski – and is probably smarter than Drake – but tradition demands that she eventually succumb to capture so that Nate can complete his heroic bona fides with a rescue.
Where Uncharted is less reliable is in the levels and activities it drags the player though. A lot of the platforming and light puzzling on offer is great, a smoothly clicking mechanism that invisibly escorts the player though lovely locations and big setpieces while kindly allowing you to feel like a gorge-hurdling daredevil. The cover-hugging shooting sequences are less fun, relying on a “roll away from exploding grenades” command that uses the same button as the “stick to the nearest rock for cover and die if there’s a grenade next to you” command, with predictable controller flinging. At least the game is generously checkpointed and loads quickly. Also, remember that this is from 2007 with all of the excesses that come from a new system eager to show off its features in a first-party title; Uncharted has a fair share of balancing with the Sixaxis, shaking to throw off enemies, Quick-Time events to avoid instant death, whaling on the Triangle button to open doors, and other such outdated indulgences.
Some of the levels are also just no fucking fun, particularly the jetski passages, where Nate has to stop moving in order for Elena to shoot, leaving the both of them sitting ducks for enemy fire in a game whose combat is all based on the kind of cover not generally available in the middle of a lake. The water levels feel as if they’re meant to be franticly-paced, but turn into terrible snail-paced crawls as you scoot forward a few feet and then look around for things to shoot. There’s also a terrible maze level that’s lit only by a flashlight, starting out as a nerve-wracking intake of breath and ending up just an extended stammer.
These few complaints are only made notable due to the general excellence on display though, like a Piaf aria peppered with a mild case of tourette’s. Uncharted keeps a steady pace of engaging activities flowing, with few dull moments or times when it’s not clear what to do next, and only occasionally does it throw down “here’s a room full of bad guys, are they dead, ok the room just filled up with more bad guys” shenanigans that whiff of padding. I’m nobody to whip through a game in record time, but I was done with Uncharted in four or five healthy sit-downs, and it would probably have felt a richer experience if some of the fat in those few hours were trimmed or more substance added.
Uncharted is a good-looking game, but not gorgeous. It’s a visual showcase for the PS3 from five years ago, practically a console generation’s worth of time, and gamers have been blessed with far more detailed environments in games like Assassin’s Creed III and Medal of Honor. The camera, which is usually great about gently aiming Drake towards the next destination, can get stroppy in some of the platforming challenges when control is partly taken away to focus on what the game thinks is important. Still, the cutscene and platforming animations remain gorgeously smooth, and the character’s faces are charmingly expressive, modeled in a sweet spot somewhere between lifelike and a latter-day CG cartoon like Tangled. And while the environments and characters are a just a bit plain at times, they’re always colorful and the game makes a point of changing things up frequently.
The game sounds great as well. Nolan North – just ramping up his stretch of being in every goddamned game made between 2006 and 2011 – makes Drake an engagingly Fillionesque rogue, while Emily Rose’s Elena gives as good as she gets. Their performances, like the character models, are just the cartoony side of realistic, with great expressionism and pacing, but plenty of opportunities for silliness. Drake’s near-constant terrified yelping during gunfights and risky jumps could have easily grown irritating, but it’s a credit to North’s performance that they instead add to the character’s in-over-his-head appeal. The rest of the characters come off a bit more 2-dimensional, and the cannon-fodder pirate mercenary enemies in particular could have used more variety in both their combat dialogue and animations, but I suppose after slogging through hundreds of bad guys over the course of the game a few repeat performances are inevitable.
Oh, before I forget, the music and sound design generally are inobtrusively movie-quality, a virtue that’s easy to overlook until you pause to listen. Drake’s ears ring from nearby explosions, bullets crackle into the cover he ducks behind, weird animals chirrup and coot in the jungle, and the score that fades in during combat never wears out its welcome. The main title theme is particularly catchy in a somber sort of way, and I’ve caught myself humming it more than once.
There’s a lot going right with Uncharted. The missteps – levels that are frustrating to navigate, occasional camera-wrangling – don’t really make it a bad game, just a good game where a few bad ideas slipped in and made it into production. That said, I’m not sure this game is for you, Fyre. Drake doesn’t seem like your gaming type, and there are just enough old-school “try it, die, try again” segments that I think you’d find yourself feeling frustrated. We’ll see if Uncharted 2 manages to keep the good of the first game and smooth the rough edges. I’m around an hour into Among Thieves and the action is certainly bigger, along with more complex characterizations of Drake and a new set of partners, so things are looking good.