"Of course, Uncharted is a game. It's not a perfect one, either. That means that for all of its visual splendor and for every moment you're so immersed that you'd jump out of your skin if the phone rang—and really, that side of things can't possibly be emphasized enough—the title sometimes pulls you out of its version of reality and unceremoniously dumps you in mediocrity's lap."
The history books tell us that Sir Francis Drake was buried at sea. What you didn't know--what no one could have dreamed--is that he wasn't really. That's the premise behind Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, the beginning of what will undoubtedly become a major new franchise for Naughty Dog. It's the developer's first effort to create a masterpiece on the shiny new PlayStation 3 hardware, and for the most part it's a successful one.
Meet Nathan Drake, treasure hunter in jeans and a sweater. Perhaps the only thing special about him is his heritage. He's convinced his ancestral roots go all the way back to Sir Francis Drake himself, a man who supposedly died childless. As the game opens, though, events take place that cast some serious doubt on a lot of things we thought we knew about the famous pirate. First there's the coffin, empty except for a diary. Then there's that little book itself, full of maps and notes that seem to point the way to fabulous treasure. Over the next eight to ten hours, you'll forge an intimate acquaintance with both Nathan and the contents of that notebook.
Like much of what will come, those opening scenes put you right in the thick of things. Nathan has only just barely found the diary when suddenly he's involved in a gunfight with pirates. That hostile exchange of ammunition is a great way to introduce the mechanics that will prove standard for the remainder of the adventure, all without the need for a tedious tutorial mode. As you battle approaching gunmen, you'll become accustomed to a combat system that allows you to duck behind barriers for protection, then peer out to the side and take potshots at your enemies. There's even room for fisticuffs, a fact you'll do well to remember when ammunition is scarce. Nathan isn't Superman, though, so a quick brawl can spell defeat if you're not quick to press the buttons that will dish out a combo. Sticking to your guns has seldom been as sound a strategy as it is here.
Of course, not every moment is spent punching and shooting wicked gunmen. As Nathan explores, he'll swing along vines high atop cliffs that overlook waves crashing against the rocks below. He'll traverse crumbling ruins with rotting wood platforms, wade through dank sewers and leap along moss-covered rocks beneath a roaring waterfall. There's no shortage of vistas and each is rendered with a fine eye for detail. It's completely convincing, whether you're traipsing through tall grass and brushing aside swaying fern fronds or splashing through a shallow pool of water and leaving ripples in your wake. The artists didn't take the usual shortcuts, either. Gone are the days when you'd look over an area you can't explore and see cardboard walls of blurry textures. Now, even those few places that are off-limits have true depth to them, so that you're almost never quite pulled out of the moment and back into the world of video games.
Of course, Uncharted is a game. It's not a perfect one, either. That means that for all of its visual splendor and for every moment you're so immersed that you'd jump out of your skin if the phone rang--and really, that side of things can't possibly be emphasized enough--the title sometimes pulls you out of its version of reality and unceremoniously dumps you in mediocrity's lap.
One problem is the sheer volume of shootouts. It seems like you'll run into gun-toting goons around every bend. Checkpoints are frequent enough that you'll seldom have much trouble progressing, but it does start to get a little tedious when practically every corner means another confrontation. Thankfully, there's only one time in the whole game when you can look forward to an endless stream of adversaries. In every other instance, you're free to wander unmolested once an area is cleared.
Even when you're not dodging bullets, though, exploration can cause headaches. Naughty Dog's artists certainly did a fantastic job crafting a gorgeous world, but sometimes they forgot to make navigation as practical as perhaps they could have. Nathan will find himself hanging from ledges quite regularly, forced to jump to another one, and the path to proceed might not always be clear. You might have to make three or four attempts at a given area before you figure out where you're expected to leap--or whether you're actually supposed to leap at all! These trial-and-error moments aren't frequent enough to ruin the experience, but there are times when they do become annoying.
A more exasperating moment than all of the exploration's quirks combined takes place a little over halfway through the game, though, when Nathan and his traveling companion at the moment must ride up a river on a watercraft. As they head against the current, they have to avoid exploding barrels, along with gunmen that line the banks. That doesn't sound so bad--and in fact, similar experiences work just fine up to that point--but it gets old fast when you have to stop so often to aim at your enemies (an act that then causes you to float back downstream and out of sight of your target). Bullets and barrels both can end your life rather quickly if they connect, and it's much more difficult than it should be to keep the watercraft under control while juggling everything else. The whole ordeal is frustrating enough that you might catch yourself yelling at the screen.
Fortunately, moments like the one with the barrels on the river are few and far between. Not only that, but they're easily outshone by the sheer number of times everything goes smoothly. There really aren't a lot of games like Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. Naughty Dog has accomplished a great many things, but perhaps the greatest success is the way all of the exemplary pieces comes together to form a generally satisfying whole. It's the sort of experience that feels like it was ripped from an Indiana Jones movie. The difference here is that you're not watching everything unfold; you're living it.
Staff review by Jason Venter (November 26, 2007)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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