With Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction kept largely under wraps at Sony's Gamers Day event, Naughty Dog's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune handily replaced it as the must-play marquee title of the show. Shown previously as an untitled project at last year's E3 expo, Uncharted took Gamers Day by storm with a polished, playable build that exhibited many of the qualities the revered developer is known for, while simultaneously looking like nothing it had ever done before.
Naughty Dog initially came to prominence with the creation and expansion of the Crash Bandicoot franchise on the PSone, crafting three platformers and a kart-racing offshoot for the wily mascot. The developer took a surprisingly similar route on the PlayStation 2, releasing three entries in the popular Jak and Daxter series before following it up with another racing spin-off. But with the power of the PlayStation 3 at its disposal, Naughty Dog grasped the opportunity to do something atypical, swapping the cute characters and fantasy environments of its past for a gritty action-adventure tale inspired by the pulp publications of the early 1900s.
Sixteenth-century privateer and explorer Sir Francis Drake provides Uncharted with its subtitle, as well as a historical basis from which to craft its modern-day narrative. Main character Nathan Drake believes himself to be an illegitimate descendent of the explorer, whose grave site supposedly holds a map to the fabled lost city of El Dorado. Along with Elena Fisher, a documentary filmmaker for a cable-access show, Drake sets out initially to Panama to uncover the coffin of his supposed ancestor, but the journey will ultimately take the pair around the world in the hopes of uncovering treasure and establishing a link between the Drake explorers.
Uncharted is bound to draw comparisons to Tomb Raider, which seems unavoidable considering the shared elements: brashly confident characters, gunplay, and modern-day settings in which ancient or largely unpopulated environments must be nimbly explored. But unlike the uneven adventures of Lara Croft, Uncharted looks to downplay the puzzle-solving elements, increase the role (and playability) of the combat experience, and tie everything together in an incredibly fluid manner.
"We knew that we had to include intense and wild gunplay, over-the-top brawling and hand-to-hand combat, and incredible stunts as the player moved and traversed through unbelievable environments," said Evan Wells, president of Naughty Dog, during his Gamers Day presentation. "These three items became our pillars of gameplay: gunplay, brawling, and traversal."
Gunplay has often felt like a tacked-on or haphazard element in the genre, and even last year's otherwise excellent Tomb Raider: Legend suffered mightily in this regard. Uncharted does not undervalue the use of firepower to take down its many tank-topped henchmen, and the game has been designed to allow for many different styles of play. A comprehensive cover system allows players to manually lean up against nearly any structure and pop out to fire at enemies, either with aimed shots or with blind fire. In an effort to increase the realism of such a frantic action, Drake will never pop back to the same exact spot, even if the difference is only a matter of virtual inches.
Precise aiming doesn't require the use of cover, though, as players can press L1 to enter an over-the-shoulder perspective at any time. If slowing down in the heat of battle may lead to your demise, feel free to just run-and-gun it to get through a tight spot. Pistols, shotguns, and machine guns were either available in the demo or shown in the video trailer, though it seems entirely possible that additional firearms will be added to the final release. Drake also has grenades at his disposal in Uncharted, and the arc of his toss is controlled via the SixAxis' motion controls. The d-pad controls all of the shifting between weapons, with Drake able to swap between two firearms and his grenades with ease.
While the weapon-play seems to ultimately dominate the offensive portions of the game, Drake is equipped with a series of melee attacks, should he find himself without ammo or in close proximity to an enemy. When Drake approaches an enemy to initiate a brawl, the action seems to slow down a bit to aid the player and add a bit of cinematic flair to the moment. The Square and Triangle buttons control the punches and kicks, and based on the video footage, Drake can down most basic enemies with a few well-placed punches or a wild dropkick. It was tough to get a good feel for the melee aspects of the game in a demo packed with gun-toting goons, but limited ammo supplies are likely to make it a core element of the gameplay experience.
The jungle setting on display at Gamers Day was vibrant and varied in size and scale around each turn, with fantastic foliage sprouting from every direction. Though the remnants of structures show up in the form of decrepit walls (some conveniently placed), the majority of the environments looked very natural. When climbing up a handful of large rocks, you don't think, "Oh, this is where they added the platforms." Everything flows together to create a believable world for Drake to explore.
Traversing the jungle environment requires quite a few distinct actions, including climbing platforms, crawling up vines, balancing on logs, and clearing mighty gaps with death-defying leaps. Such massive vaults are surprisingly frightening at first, as the gap looks far too wide to cross in a single bound. Both leaps in the demo panned out with positive results, but I fear what will happen when such a risk doesn't pay off! Balancing on logs cleverly brings the motion controls of the SixAxis back into the fold, as players will have to maintain composure to make it to the other side. The SixAxis will also be used to control vehicles, such as in the confirmed jet-ski sequence(s).
While Uncharted is much more than a pretty face on the PlayStation 3, there's no denying its immense beauty. Every aspect of the jungle environment looked to be crafted with the utmost care, from the stunningly animated rivers to the tiniest leaf. It's the little details that really stand out; when Drake kicks down a pair of metal gates, each half flips back, hits the wall on each side of the doorway, disconnects, and crashes to the ground in a suitable fashion. Pay close attention to the miniature clouds that form where the horizontal bars of each gate stood, not to mention the bigger clouds that emerge when each half hits the grass. Putting that much effort into such a small aspect of the game is either lunacy or a true step toward an immersive, next-generation experience.
Uncharted has been developed with a proprietary engine optimized for the PlayStation 3, and the constant interaction between the Blu-ray disc and the internal hard drive results in absolutely zero load times once the player takes control of Drake. Wells revealed during his presentation that the Gamers Day demo alone was too large to fit on a DVD, thus making it a project only possible on the PlayStation 3. Due to the large amount of space, Uncharted makes use of a layered animation system that can display dozens of simultaneous animations, as well as track thousands of joints on-screen at any time to display lifelike character movements. It doesn't quite enter the Uncanny Valley, but the facial animations are second to none in the world of gaming, and the fluid movements of both Drake and his adversaries often caught me by surprise.
With guaranteed hits like Final Fantasy XIII and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots likely slipping into next year (if not additional consoles), Uncharted: Drake's Fortune becomes more important by the day for Sony and the PlayStation 3. Sony may be sorely lacking an answer to Halo 3 this holiday season, but if the Gamers Day demo is any indication, Uncharted should go a long way toward repaying gamers who plunked down megabucks on the latest PlayStation iteration.
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