Saturday, October 29, 2011

Review: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developer: Naughty Dog
Release Date: 16 November 2007

Tomb raiding is something gamers have enjoyed since Lara Croft introduced the concept to us back in 1996. The old adventuring through forgotten tombs and ancient catacombs has gotten stale, though. Lara had become less appealing and her games have fallen from grace. The genre needed a fresh hero and a game worthy to succeed Tomb Raider. Someone dashing, heroic, suave but also easy to relate to. That someone was Nathan Drake and that game was Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.

Drake and Elena

Our modern day tale of adventure begins with a coffin. Nathan Drake and his partner Victor “Sully” Sullivan are searching for the next “big” score to pay off various debts. Along for the ride is Elena Fisher, a reporter who is more than capable of taking care of herself. Nate has found the coffin of his purported ancestor Sir Francis Drake and the mystery that comes with it. When the coffin yields not a body but Sir Drake's diary, the adventurers set off to search for El Dorado and unravel the clues left in the diary. The story twists, turns, doubles back and offers thrills throughout, just like a pulp adventure should. The race to find El Dorado is against a devilishly evil Brit, Gabriel Roman, and his mercenary gang led by the sadistic Atoq Navarro. The villains are helped by Philippino pirate (and comic relief) Eddy Raja, who wants to settle a score with Nate. Nate and Eddy have an interesting history that's only hinted at in the game, but fleshed out a bit in the motion comic, "Uncharted:Eye of Indra."  By the end of the 10 to 12 hour adventure, Nate and company will have scampered over countless walls, fought off innumerable pirates, mercenaries, and other nasty beasties, the player will have laughed and enjoyed a renaissance for the adventure genre.

The game itself is a Third Person action game with a cover mechanic. It's rightly called “Dude Raider” with cover. The game does a lot right with the gun-play. Guns seem to have heft and pop; the ammo is plentiful while still requiring careful management during the many “arena” fire-fights. The variety of guns mean that players have to decide what pistol and what secondary weapon they bring to fights (AK-47 VS Moss 12 shotgun VS Grenade launcher). The game does an admirable job of offering choices and making sure that fights are balanced. The battles can also devolve into fisticuffs, and Nate is no slouch in a brawl. The system isn't built like a fighting game, but combinations and stealth kills are possible. With solid cover-based gun fights, brawls and choice, what could be wrong? Well, not much, honestly. But, what is wrong makes the game frustrating. There is just something “off” about where the reticule appears when you are in cover, and it doesn't really improve with time. Trying to set up shots on enemies in cover while getting shot at from multiple angles, as grenades are flying inbound, can get very annoying. This isn't helped by how slowly the targeting moves while aiming. Sitting in cover, popping out to shoot someone, and having to adjust the aim is a sure-fire way to take a few unnecessary rounds. Since Nate has regenerating health that's not terrible, but he isn't a Space Marine bullet sponge. A few rounds (especially on Hard or Crushing) mean restarting at the last check-point and it's a real shame that the molasses-in-winter reticule speed means that you die more often than necessary. The combat is capable and fun, but nothing we haven't seen countless times.

Bye-bye, Merc!

Platforming has the lion's share of gameplay. This is good because it's very well done. Nate vaults over obstacles, hangs from ledges, and generally clambers about like a monkey. The paths through levels are not clearly marked, so it does feel a bit more natural. Nate may find areas with convenient clefts to clamber up, but they feel organic instead of “gamey.” Nothing in the platforming seems out of place; everything you do feels like a natural extension of the universe. While platforming, Uncharted shows off one of it's greatest strengths: the animations. Many games have motion-captured action and canned animations for various situations. Uncharted does too, but you'd never guess it. Everything seems so natural: the way Nate frantically reaches for a ledge that's farther than anticipated; the way he reacts differently to every shot fired at him (from flinches to futile ducks to leaning away). Even while running, the characters look natural and react to stimuli just as a real person would. This goes a long way to selling the world of Uncharted and makes the series one of the tops in its genre.

You can't have a game like this and not talk about puzzles. Where Tomb Raider devolved into “find the switch, pull the switch, exit the room” monotony, Uncharted goes in another direction. Most of the puzzles in the game are based around platforming, with a few switches to pull or statues to rotate. There are also entire levels that serve as gigantic puzzles to break up the gun fights. While this is better than Tomb Raider, it also falls flat thanks to Drake's diary. All the puzzles are solved within the diary, so it's never a question of “what” but “how.” And the game tries to be helpful by offering hints (either dialog or a camera shift), but the game doesn't let you think. The hint icon comes up mere moments after you pause to think. It's almost as if the game wants you to keep moving instead of sizing up a puzzle. Overall, the puzzles are much better and more intricate than Tomb Raider's, but they never really become brain-benders.

The last bit of gameplay is the vehicle sections. These are awful; hands down the worst part. A brief, passable, on-rails segment gives you the first taste of vehicle combat. If staying on rails were the case, it would be a mostly forgettable break in the platforming acting. Instead, later sections have you control both motion and shooting while riding a jet-ski. Sounds fun, right? Well, not exactly. The slow aiming again rears it's head and makes it difficult to shoot the explosive barrels and trigger-happy mercenaries with any sort urgency. It really reaches the realm of “mine cart level” hatred when you realise that you cannot drive and shoot at the same time. So, zip along, stop, aim, take damage, shoot, re-aim, die. It's a pattern that repeats throughout the two (thankfully) vehicle levels.

I've been avoiding this comparison, but it has to be made when talking about the game. Amy Hennig wanted to create a pulp adventure along the lines of Indiana Jones, and she succeeded with flying colours! Her writing and characterizations make the world come alive. No amount of gorgeous scenery and clever platforming will save a game from lifeless characters, but Uncharted stars one of the best protagonists in recent memory. Nolan North brings Nate to life like few others. North provided both the voice and the mo-cap for Nate, so the character is an embodiment of the actor. And going with the animations mentioned above, North makes Nate more Indiana Jones than a Van Damme action hero. From the uncertain “Here we go” as Nate sets off into a Spanish castle's grounds to the genuinely fearful “Crapcrapcrap!” as a grenade lands too close, as well as the various reactions to new waves of enemies or the collapsing platform he's on, North brings Nate to life better than almost any character in recent memory. Many games strive to have a likeable and loveable protagonist, and Uncharted nails it. Nate may be Indiana Jones, but he needs his Marion Ravenwood to banter with and play off of. Emily Rose does the strong female lead with style and grace as Elena Fisher. She is a woman who can hold her own, and doesn't need rescuing. However, she also avoids falling into the “tough chick,” “I am womyn and I don't need men,” stereotype. Elena is feminist while avoiding being a parody. Her easy banter with Nate, and the fact that she matches him intellectually and sardonically, makes for great back-and-forth conversations. She is probably one of the most enjoyable and believable characters in the game and they are worthy successors to Indy and Marion. They play off each other and match wits and quips in snappy dialog. Sully plays a small role, but it's his relationship with Nate that makes it all work. The cigar-chomping, womanizing, hard-lucked mentor to Nate is played by Richard McGonagle. He keeps Nate going and offers his own brand of humour through the adventure, much like John-Rhys Davies' Sallah from Indiana Jones (See why I waited to do this? It's just too addicting!). The two adventurers have an easy relationship and they offer glimpses (but nothing concrete) into a shared past of adventure, women and treasure.

Nate and Elena: The New Indy and Marion

The game's music is appropriate but largely forgettable. There is a great mix of aboriginal drums and didgeridoos that fit the island setting very well. The music swells when combat starts and drops down to almost silent while exploring. The combat sounds are well done, with bullets zipping by and the washed out of sounds when a grenade goes off too close. Honestly, the sound design is good, but really not anything to write home about.

Underground tombs are fun, but castles are better

I know this review sounds glowing, and the game is a definite “must” for fans of the adventure genre, but, honestly, the first game in the series is the weakest. This is the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom of the series. It's good fun, well done and honestly worth playing, but the faults make it hard to score higher. Frustrating arena fights that end with swearing far too often, a shooting mechanic that seems “off” even after hours of play, vehicle sections that should never have been, and a now dated look (though it had quite the “WOW!” factor when it released) simply weigh the game down. While I enjoyed Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, it's not one that I could say that everyone should play! Fans of Tomb Raider (the good old ones, not the PS2 atrocity) and adventure fans in need of a playable Indiana Jones adventure (See?) should check this out. This game has all the elements of a 10, but the pieces don't all click together. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is good, just not a Game of Year contender like it's sequel.

Score: 7 out of 10
Bottom Line: A grand adventure that needs a few tweaks to reach Classic status
Check it out if you like: Adventure, platforming, solid characters, Tomb Raider, Indiana Jones

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