Good old fashioned adventure.
Sometimes the best way forward is to go backward. This is terrible advice in a race, and it’s even worse wisdom when you’re eating dinner. Naughty Dog, though, has successfully gone back to the basics of solid gameplay in order to create a truly exceptional title.
[image1]Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is classic gaming at its best. While you won’t find anything ground-breaking in the game, it has more polish than a shoe-shine boy and more heart than a box of Valentine’s Day candy. In an industry driven by the desire to create new genres and new gameplay gimmicks, sometimes the most revolutionary thing you can do is to create a totally conventional game. It aims to perfect classic ideas, and it succeeds brilliantly.
Uncharted also looks backward to the weekly adventure film serials of the 1930s and ‘40s—the same material that inspired George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg in their famous films of the 1970s and ‘80s. Following in the vein of those classic serials, Uncharted sends us to the heart of a Central American jungle in search of long-lost treasure. Along the way, there’s romance, mystery, betrayal, and lots and lots of action. It’s incredibly formulaic, but that’s precisely what makes it so classic.
You can’t help but get swept up in the story. It must be hard-wired into our blood to respond to a well-staged car chase or gunfight. The pacing of the game keeps your heart racing, but it also provides enough well-timed breaks in the action to let you catch your breath. The game strikes the ideal balance between fast-paced shooting sequences, steadily paced platforming sequences, and blood pressure reducing cut-scenes. The integration of these different tempos keeps the overall momentum going at a brisk pace, and for the 10-12 hours that the adventure lasts, you will be completely riveted from beginning to end.
Uncharted shifts seamlessly between three different types of action gameplay: third-person shooting, platforming, and hand-to-hand fighting. These activities blend so flawlessly together that you likely won’t even notice the transition. One type of action flows naturally into the others, so there’s never a point at which you feel the game telling you, “You’ve finished this gunfight. Now you must jump across a bunch of chasms.” Naughty Dog has tied the package together so tightly that you will hardly realize you’ve gone back and forth between these activities dozens of times.
[image2]The gunplay uses a robust and intuitive cover system. If you’ve played Gears of War, the cover-system will feel very familiar. And if you haven’t, you’ll quickly get the hang of it. The system is versatile and allows you to transition from cover object to cover object easily. You can step around an object to fire, or you can blind fire without leaving the safety of cover. You’re also able to dive roll between cover objects as well as climb over them. Walls are “sticky” when you want them to be, and not sticky when you don’t want them to be.
Your enemies’ IQs are far above the video game average. They’re not geniuses of combat strategy by any means, but they’re also not utterly mindless target dummies. Rarely will an enemy perform the exact same movement twice, so they can be fairly unpredictable. They will try to flank you, and they will also charge you when they see a good opportunity. I’ve even found a few enemies who were camping in a corner waiting for me to pass (cheaters!). It’s also refreshing to note that your ally A.I. is surprisingly competent, so you won’t get frustrated by allies with chronically bad aim or who keep getting in your way.
Between gun fights, you’ll be doing a healthy amount of climbing. Almost all of the platforming sections are clearly laid out, so you always know where to go and how to get there. And though that makes these sections rather easy, the dramatic environments of these sections keep the tension high. You’ll leap across enormous waterfalls, run along cliff-sides, scale building facades, and so on. You’ll never find yourself stuck trying to figure out where to go, but you’ll be having loads of fun regardless.
[image3]Melee combat is defined by its variety. It’s wholly context sensitive, so depending on your approach, you’ll attack enemies in different ways. Sometimes you’ll break their neck from behind. Other times you’ll slam them against a wall. Still other times you’ll run and kick them wrestler-style. You can also execute a “brutal combo” by timing a button combination. There are so many different fight animations that I was still seeing new animations by the end of the game.
Rather than wait for Sony to get their online community up and running, Naughty Dog has implemented their own achievement system in the game. There’s a very long list of gameplay achievements which will give you points that grant you access to more content. The sheer number and variety of possible achievements and subsequent rewards will keep you busy with this title for quite some time. Though many of the rewards are simple cosmetic changes and concept art, there are also many that provide you with alternate modes of play. For example, one of the unlockables, “flip world,” presents you with a mirror image of the game after each time you die. Additions like this will have you imagining and re-imagining ways to replay the game over and over.
Despite what I said about this game stepping backward, the graphics technology leaps far forward, ahead of what most others are currently able to do. The texture work in this game is especially phenomenal. Everything in the game world has its own visible history of wear and tear. Walls, stones, trees, doors, bricks all have an individual presence in the game that’s made clear by each one’s unique texture details.
The score and ambient sound effects fill out the visually lush environments. Enemies and allies all have their own lines of dialogue to toss back and forth in the midst of intense gun battles. Birds chirp, water trickles, bullets ricochet, grenades explode, enemies swear, and feet patter. If you pay close enough attention, you can hear all of these things at once.
[image4]Character and facial animations look completely convincing and lend humanity to friend and foe alike. Shadows from leaves overhead dapple you and the environment, and interiors are full of moody lighting. Just when you think you’ve seen the best the game has to offer, something more elaborate, detailed, and beautiful pops up around the corner. This game is as much an adventure for your eyes as it is for your reflexes.
Perfection isn’t without its price, though. The game does have a few minor issues. Tilt-control functionality seems like an afterthought, pistols are overpowered, and melee attacks are incredibly dangerous with very little payoff. These are small gripes, to be sure, but worth noting.
If you’re a PS3 owner, you’ve probably had to defend your console purchase quite a bit over the past year. You’ve stifled sobs while your friends all shared their Bioshock experiences with you. You were stuck looking for new, more creative ways of playing through Resistance while everyone else you knew was taking on the Flood. The seemingly endless supply of lackluster ports for the PS3 made you feel like the youngest child in a family of ten who was supposed to be grateful for the oldest child’s hand-me-downs. Wipe those tears, folks, because those days are over.