The now-venerable Naughty Dog's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is an amalgam of intentionally or coincidentally derivative plot recognizable from films such as "Romancing the Stone," with adventure, combat and puzzle-solving elements much like the Tomb Raider franchise, and, rather uniquely, almost laughably, spared however by its sublime fluidity, a "cover" system entirely reminiscent of Epic's very different hit console title, last year's Gears of War for Xbox 360. Heavily promoted and anticipated Uncharted is a mishmash of film plots, with the gameplay drawn off legendary titles and a piece of a control scheme from a science-fiction shooter title far better known today for its online multiplayer feature than its single-player campaign. The thing is, Uncharted works — very well.
As in most single-player action/adventures, Uncharted's plot is important and integral in grabbing the player's collar. The story is, as usual, related through cut scenes, with some vaguely interactive scripted scenes and a bit of in-game dialogue spoken as you play. The plot is based upon the real Sir Francis Drake and the fictional lost treasure of El Dorado. In his times, Sir Francis was a naval trader, bold and adventuresome — enough so to make him something of an English local hero. Sir Francis' contemporary reputation is that of a swashbuckling pirate, but this is almost pure myth created when, on several occasions, he got crosswise of the Spanish, then enemies of the Crown, leading Spanish authorities to swear out warrants for his arrest and repute him a criminal of the high seas. Of course, Uncharted plays up the mythic pirate angle over the sea-going private merchant aspect.
The game introduces Nate Drake, a descendant of Sir Francis bent on recovering the aforementioned fabled treasure. Perversely, early on the story's writers explain away Nate's belief he is a descendant of Sir Francis, as the man had no children by his wives and is not claimed by historians to have fathered bastards. Perversely, I say, because although the man perhaps had no children, he certainly has descendants. Drake the latter is off and on companioned in his quest by videographer Elena Fisher, a woman filming a television documentary program concerned with the mysteries of Sir Francis and that king's ransom central to the game's plot. The whole story is about that straightforward, with the expected action sequences, flavored with a few twists and surprises. But this is by far enough. The story suffers only in that the voice acting in cut scenes is this side of wooden, attributed more to failure of the animations in compensating for the popular essence of computer graphics sequences than it is the fault of substandard game voice actors.
Uncharted is packaged with the thickest manual I've seen in some time for a video game, although its explanations of controls and other parts of the game are not necessary: The title stands well on its own, the controls are easy to learn from in-game hints and instructions, and the plot and found items rather well explain themselves. The control scheme uses one shoulder button for aiming, the other for shooting, with a click of an analog stick to switch shoulder perspectives, meaning when behind cover, when you still should have a good angle on an enemy, you do. Aiming is ready and accurate; weapons firing is responsive. Enemies, however, depending on with what you shoot them and where you hit them, don't often drop in one shot — or even in a spray of hits from the infamous AK-47 assault rifle, well known for at least knocking a man down. But this is a game, and the resilience of your opponents a fact of its gameplay; you'll get used to it, and then it serves only to heighten the action, not detract from expected realism. When Nate is close to enemies or, for some unusual reason, out of ammunition — there's sometimes spare ammo scattered about, and often enemies courteously drop their weapons and ammo for you when they die — there's a simple hand-to-hand combat system, essentially button-mashing, but resulting in some nice rough-and-tumble fist-fight animations.
The most intriguing control mechanism for a game of this type is the cover system, assigned to a single face button, though you can use another button to vault cover, if you wish. It's standard procedure for Gears of War players to complain about that title's single button cover/action system, but this is due more to Gears placing numerous actions on the cover button, leaving you to do things like stick to walls when you're trying to run like hell away from three converging opponents. Uncharted's single-button cover system doesn't suffer from these issues: It's about the smoothest integration of cover into action/adventure I've played.
The puzzle-esque pathfinding in Uncharted requires a lot of climbing sheer walls, hanging from crumbling ledges, swinging off vines and hurdling crevices; these things demand good self-managing cameras and immediately responsive controls to avoid frustrating the player. The title excels in both areas: I was not once sent plunging to my death by an unregistered button push, and the camera control, automatic and manual, is stellar throughout the game. Playing at a normal difficulty setting yields an experience that at first seems almost too easy, but somewhat more than one-third of the way through, enemies attack not only from the front and above but also charge in numbers from behind. Then it's not so easy.
Uncharted is graphically lush and impressive, although not achieving photorealistic qualities with its cut scenes or in-game graphics. Still, the style of art direction well suits the story. The models and color palette remind one of high-quality comic books or graphic novels; for this type of plot with this sort of gameplay, it's a pitch-perfect visual representation. It's stunning to watch, unless you come to it wanting trouble in determining if it's a live-action movie or a game.
The score is across the board a good composition, and the timing of musical movements, from lingering, enigmatic background strings to fully orchestrated action passages, is properly keyed to what you're doing in the game at any given moment. Without the sit-back-and-just-watch requirement of cut scenes, the voice acting interspersed during gameplay loses its stiff quality. Audio effects — per usual, mostly having to do with weapons, explosives or the effect of those items on other objects — are fitting, avoiding the over-the-top, booming audio conceits frequently used in action games. Shotguns discharging, for example, sound like shotguns discharging, not like a cannonade or artillery array.
It's almost standard copy in games reviews to write, "The puzzles are a mixed bag." In Uncharted, they're not. The puzzles will undoubtedly inspire comparisons to Tomb Raider because they are indeed quite like them, yet in this title they are, welcomely, never as labyrinthine as the impasses often presented in the titles of Uncharted's ancestral heritage. Uncharted is an enjoyable, balanced action/adventure title, not a stumper that will send you racing out under cover of darkness to buy a strategy guide at the all-night mega-mart.
Due to the absent head-scratching complexity and the title's overall design, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is a fairly short game, although certainly long enough by today's standard for single-player campaigns. Still, in games, value seems often associated with hours of gameplay, but few judge the merits of a film by the cost of the ticket compared with the movie's total running time — I will not so indulge here, either. Uncharted is worth its price in a pleasurable, exciting game experience, one that harks back to classics yet does impress with current generation production values. In fact, it's easily one of the best single-player games on PlayStation 3, or any platform, this year, and is therefore highly recommended for anyone who will but momentarily consider playing a game absent of any multiplayer features.
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