Friday, March 8, 2013

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune (Naughty Dog/Sony, 2007)

When I was only four I went to see a movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark. At that young age I wasn't familiar with the classic adventure serials that inspired it, so that film and it's lead character Indiana Jones represented to me a new type of adventure that captured my imagination.

Not long after graduating high school I played a game called Tomb Raider. At the time it was a rarity to find a 3rd person 3D platformer, and I was amazed to find that same swashbuckling adventure style presented in an interactive format. Lara Croft was fairly easy on the eyes too, even in those highly pixelated low poly count days.

Over a decade later Sony released the Playstation 3, and I started seeing ads for games in the Uncharted series. I immediately recognized once again that adventurous style, but I didn't have a PS3 until recently, so it has been waiting for years on my list of games to play someday. After finishing Brütal Legend "someday" finally arrived.

Nathan Drake picks up the torch long carried by Indy and Lara, and manages to make it his own. I had reservations going in that this might feel like a generic Tomb Raider clone, but while Uncharted borrows many of the elements that made that series great, it manages to add enough original flavoring to make it feel more like its own game, and not like just another copy cat.

One of the first things that grabbed me about this game was the quality of the cutscenes. I know that it's usually a bad sign when the cutscenes are the first thing highlighted, but in this case it's not due to lack of quality in gameplay, but in the incredible amount of quality that went into each cutscene. If these were strung together into a feature length film and released at theaters, it would easily stand up against the best of the genre, both animated and live action. Everything about these scenes it's done well. The acting (both the voice acting and the motion capture), the camera angles, the lighting, the music, it's all just dripping with Hollywood polish.

Cutscenes alone don't make a game, as many great storied lousy games have proven, but luckily Uncharted packs some great gameplay too. The first thing to know about it is that it's a shooting game. Sure, Tomb Raider games always have a lot of shooting in them, but Uncharted gives it a lot more focus, and makes it feel a lot better too. You'll spend a lot of time hiding behind corners and popping out from various hiding spots to try to take out bad guys, plus some good ole' run n' gun sections where you just get to let loose on a room full of enemies. You get hand guns, machine guns, sniper rifles, grenade launchers. Long story short, there is a lot of shooting in this game. This is great news for shooter fans, but some longtime fans of the genre may be turned off by this, especially if you're not expecting it. At first I was just trying to get through these sections to get on with the adventure, but after a while I started to realize what a big part of the game these sections were, and started approaching it like I would a Halo of Borderlands game. Once I started treating the shooting as the game, and not a distraction from it, I started to enjoy it a lot.

Platforming also plays a part in the game, but at nowhere near the level of a Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia, or Assassin's Creed game. While you will find yourself climbing up walls, leaping between ladders, and throwing yourself from one crumbling platform to the next, it's all done in a much more realistic manner. I'll admit that I'm probably not in shape enough to pull off this kind of stuff in real life, but I'd like to think that I could if I worked towards it, while I could never pull off the superhuman moves seen in other similar platformers. I was torn on how I felt about that. On the plus side, it makes Drake seem more human and easier to relate to, and also makes the environments more realistic. On the negative side, you won't be soaring through the air like a trapeze artist quite as much as you might be expecting. Deciding how much realism to put into gameplay mechanics is always a big consideration in game design, but given the added focus on shooting and the lessened focus on platforming compared to similar games, the balance works out and the mechanics in place suit the game well.

The controls felt well thought out, and more creative than I was expecting. Being so used to the XBox 360 controller, I was surprised that it used the R1 and L1 triggers for shooting instead of the R2 and L2 triggers. But it was easy to get used to, and considering the springiness of the analog R2 and L2 triggers on the Six-Axis gamepad, it was probably the better choice. What completely took me by surprise was the motion control. Many people don't remember, but the Sony Playstation 3 and the Nintendo Wii were both released the same weekend. Since Nintendo was making such a big deal about its revolutionary (or gimmicky, depending on who you ask) new controller, Sony decided to slip a little motion control into their gamepad as well. The problem was, hardly anybody actually used it, and most PS3 players don't even know that it's there. The makers of Uncharted certainly knew that it was there, and being a PS3 exclusive, they were able to squeeze in quite a few motion control tricks that enhance the gameplay, and make certain actions such as balancing on a log or shaking off some of the more grabby enemies feel much more intuitive than they would have using just the analog sticks.

The music is a top notch Hollywood style orchestral score. As with Brütal Legend, it was recorded at Skywalker Sound, which fittingly is where the scores for the Indiana Jones movies are recorded. It follows the mood of the action well, and always sets the appropriate tone as you move between the games many environments.

Speaking of environments, this game has a nice variety of them. Unlike the globetrotting adventures of some games of the genre, Uncharted takes place almost entirely on a single small island, but even in that it manages to throw a lot at you. There are jungles to slash through, ruins to explore, mansions to sneak around in, abandoned research facilities with secrets waiting to be unearthed, and my favorite, the jetski sequences! Usually the vehicle sequences in these games are weak points only thrown in to add a little variety and prevent the gameplay from becoming too monotonous, but these jetski sections where a blast to play. The physics felt fun, if slightly more forgiving than realistic, as you splashed around battling the current while avoiding obstacles and battling your foes. It also helps that in a game of constantly watching your ammo count, you get a rocket launcher with infinite ammo as you zip through rivers and lakes taking out the bad guys, sending them flying through the air with each blast.

These blasts pack more of a punch than I was expecting too. As I mentioned in my Brütal Legend review, I'm a metal fan. And, as a metal fan, I've been to my share of loud concerts in my time. Even though as a musician myself I am always concerned with protecting my hearing, I'm all too familiar with the ringing in my ears after a loud night. I don't know if this is the first game to do this (I would imagine that some of the more realistic FPS war games might as well), but it was the first game I ever played that made you go temporarily deaf after a nearby loud blast, with the muffled sound and unmistakable ring masking the world around you. Some people don't believe that the sound makes a big impact on gameplay, but when you stop hearing the world around you for a bit during a serious battle, you really do feel like you're missing something, and keeping up with half a dozen guys with guns shooting at you from behind cover is a lot more challenging when you can't hear them.

The plot of the story should get some mention too, as the game is very much story driven. I'm always hesitant to discuss the content of story in these reviews because I try hard to avoid spoilers. Some reviews will spend half the time just telling you what happens in the game, and I always try to skip past those parts while reading them because I'd rather learn this stuff when the designers intend for me to learn it. Anyway, as would be expected, the plot follows a formula well known to swashbuckling adventure movie fans. As you quest for an ancient legendary treasure, sometimes people betray each other, sometimes you have to ally yourself with your enemies, and everybody seems to have an ulterior motive. It's a game where you really do want to know what happens next, and this curiosity will motivate you through a few pretty challenging sections of the game. There was one spot in particular where I must have died a dozen times within a few seconds of restarting the section, but because of the plot significance of the action, it wasn't nearly frustrating as it could have been in any other game. Yes, there are some tough sections in this game, and you'll probably die a lot, but it never stops being fun, and that's what matters in a game.

So, if you're looking for a treasure hunting action adventure game that leans more towards shooting and less towards jumping than the genre standard, you can do much worse than Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.

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