Kicking ass and Draking names.
When you’re a game developer, getting “typed” for your content is a little like getting a song stuck in your head: You either need to do something about it… or hope that it’s at least a good song (just imagine what might otherwise get stuck in your head). Naughty Dog develops exclusively for Sony, and they’ve thus far managed to be known for several of the good songs in the the way of the Jak and Daxter games (and for eeking every last nano-oomph of performance out of the Sony consoles, let’s not forget). But they’ve also become marginally "typed" for content that’s a little, well, cartoonish. The rather more realistically-rendered, pulpy look and combat-heavy action of the forthcoming PS3 title Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is almost certainly going to knock a few teeth out of that jaw.
[image1]We’re talking a beautiful new approach, a new level of detail, and indeed a new graphics engine—it all translates to admirably realistic-looking levels and characters, sprawling organic environments, and a handful of recognizable gameplay dynamics partly borrowed from, or improved upon assorted other games. And while the new title is definitely a ‘next-gen’ product, it has some admirable old-school inspirations.
Sweaty, two-fisted present-day explorer/adventurer Nathan Drake has gotten it into his head that he’s a direct (if unrecognized) descendent of that other explorer named Drake; Nathan believes that following in his predecessor’s footsteps will ultimately lead him to the lost city of El Dorado—and untold riches. Initially set upon locating his namesake ancestor’s Panama coffin (and the crucial map to fame and fortune to be found therein), Drake hits his first big snag when his prop-plane develops mechanical trouble as he’s being filmed, at the controls, by a female videographer.
After both of them bail out over some godforsaken South American jungle, the real gameplay—succinctly described by Naughty Dog president Evan Wells as “gunplay, brawling and traversal”—kicks in, over a series of exotic international locales. What we’ve seen thus far looks like an ambitious, promising fondue of game-design influences from a little bit of everywhere and everywhen: A dramatic setup reminiscent of Runaway: Dream of the Turtle, a lush jungle palette that harkens as far back as Flashback (anybody feeling even remotely old, at this point? Remember 2-D games?); some dramatic melee spray-and-pray elements redolent of the Matrix and kill.switch titles; and—obviously—a lot of thematic and mechanical elements that draw from the Tomb Raider games (and, to a lesser extent, even the Prince of Persia games). And believe it or not, those Naughty Dogs have seemingly managed to basically improve on all of them at once.
Once on the ground—initially armed only with a pistol, some cool moves and your own hand-eye coordination—Drake takes on mercenaries, thugs and the physical surroundings themselves. Environmental, puzzle-solving elements do exist, but they seem to have taken a back seat to straight-up action and combat—at least in the build we got our paws on at Sony’s recent event—and this is a good thing. To get a basic feel of what’s in store, have a look at this.
[image2]It may have a pulpy take on globe-trotting action a la the Tomb Raider series, but the combat is leaps and bounds ahead: Drake can carry big weapons and a single sidearm (only one of each at any given time) When you’re running around, you can crank off snapshots at your foes, sacrificing accuracy (no crosshairs) for sheer frantic, rounds-per-second panic-fire…but if you really want accuracy, you can switch to an over-shoulder view for those critical headshots and other debilitating location-based hits (some of the assorted goon-and-henchman types we shot up during the demo seemed to have their Groins of Kevlar cheats going, but were otherwise nicely vulnerable in all the right ways).
Utilizing cover is a large part of the combat experience, and a single button command lets Drake press up against walls, columns or other obstructions. When the suppression-fire hits a lull, Drake can lean out from behind the cover, crank off a few aimed rounds, and pop back behind said obstruction, repeating as necessary. To keep the tension high, Drake’s aim will drift a little from his previous aim-point—just enough to keep the process from getting ridiculously, repetitively accurate. If that’s still not enough, you can always huck a few grenades instead of wasting bullets.
Should you run completely out of explosives, AK or pistol rounds or what have you, there’s always the last-ditch option of running up on your foes and making with the melee combat: Uncharted slows the action down and zooms in when you close to fisticuffs range, and context-sensitive button presses at just the right moment can yield a crippling one-punch takedown (or a pretty spectacular flying kick worthy of a young James Tiberius Kirk). Needlessly, wonderfully gratuitous context-sensitive attacks can also crop up in specific physical situations—so a well-timed button press might find Drake breaking his neck or simply slamming his foe’s head into a nearby column. Mistime such a critical, contextual melee attack and you could find yourself in a spirited but ineffectual tussle, from which your enemies can recover and bloody your nose in return.
We also ran into environment-traversal situations that also temporarily hijacked the camera for dramatic effect—Drake taking a running leap over certain chasms, for example, or jumping from outcropping to outcropping atop perilous cliffs; it’s not clear to what extent such dramatic one-shot moments will be channeled or scripted throughout the game, but it certainly adds to the overall dramatic flair, and isn’t obnoxious or intrusive enough to blow the player’s rhythm.
[image3]Meanwhile, Drake himself isn’t completely mute—in addition to some purposeful grunts of exertion, he could occasionally be heard rasping a desperate “son of a bitch!” when some incoming gunfire got too close or hairy for comfort. At some points in the convincingly-natural outdoor environs, Drake would even have to totter his way across narrow fallen trees or planks—requiring players to balance-beam his progress with the SixAxis controller’s motion-sensitive function.
The rest of what we could see during our hands-on time was like a refreshing light jungle rain of details, details, details: The bits of ‘fragile’ scenery getting chewed up by gunfire; the movement of grass and other greenery in the virtual breeze and the beautiful water effects; the articulated crash and judder of rusting iron gates, after Drake blasts off their locks and kicks them open; and the expressive faces and smooth bodily animations of the characters—just realistic enough to be convincing, but not enough to be unintentionally-creepy.
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was definitely the darling of Sony’s editors-day ball, and promises a stash of gaming gold—we’ll fill in more blank spaces on the map as soon as we get our grubby, adventure-seeking hands on a more complete build.