Version tested: PlayStation 3
Having released four Jak games in as many years (and four Crash Bandicoot games before that), it's hardly a great shock that Naughty Dog wanted to do something completely different on PS3. But the surprise is just how different Uncharted is compared to anything it has done before.
Gone is the Day-Glo cartoon cuteness and coin-collecting kleptomania of old, and in comes an action-adventure which sits somewhere between the architectural beauty of Ico and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, and the combat intensity of Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War. Far from being just another Tomb Raider, Uncharted, at times, feel like a wish-list of all the best bits of your favourite action games of the past five years.
Of course, Naughty Dog's Evan Wells and his friends probably wouldn't admit that, preferring as they do to talk of Uncharted as more of a homage to classic action hero romps, but whatever the 'tributes' this fine game possesses, it all adds up to arguably the finest PlayStation 3 exclusive yet.
Draking it in
Starring the improbably athletic treasure hunter Nathan Drake, the game picks up the thread with our chiselled no-nonsense hero on the trail of Sir Francis Drake, the famed 16th Century explorer that he believes is one of his distant ancestors. Sailing just off the Panamanian coast, he manages to locate what he believes to be the coffin of the Elizabethan mariner. The body's missing, but inside is a diary that's believed to hold the secret to an unimaginable treasure - and right on cue, a bunch of gun-toting pirates appear, open fire and eventually sink the dive boat. But fellow treasure hunter Victor Sullivan arrives to whisk both Nathan Drake and cable TV documentary camerawoman/host Elena Fisher to safety.
And so your adventuring truly begins. After a bit of greedy skulduggery, Nathan and Victor spirit off to the dense Amazonian jungle, leaving a disgruntled Ms Fisher behind - but not for long. After an initial struggle to adapt to the rather loose feeling controls and wobbly aiming mechanics (no tutorial, see), the game soon starts to come into its own with a satisfying mix of palm-sweating acrobatics and exciting duck n' cover combat that proves to be instantly and enduringly engaging.
The first thing that Naughty Dog absolutely nails is the way Drake moves. Thanks to some revelatory motion capture techniques, every physical interaction with the world feels fluid, satisfying and as natural as anything I've played. This assured sense of physical presence breeds confidence in your ability to pull off quite complex and daring manoeuvres - whether the gameplay is focused on combat situations or pure adventuring aspects. That ability to leap around from behind a pillar and roll between cover points is handled brilliantly, with all of the flexibility of something like Gears of War, but a far far greater degree of intuitiveness.
Jigsaw falling into place
In a game where the split between combat and platforming is about 50-50, you don't want one aspect of the game to be any less fun than the other. Such imbalances nearly always cause you to resent the disparity, and it's evidently something that Naughty Dog has worked extremely hard to avoid. Rather than the game's ongoing narrative and action feeling like a sequence of vaguely connected set-pieces, most of the chapters in the game flow expertly into one another. At times, this carefully 'directed', orchestrated approach lets the action and adventure ebb and flow in pace, drama and atmosphere. It feels like a journey, albeit a particularly fraught and dangerous one where imminent death lurks around every crumbling corner.
When Nathan slips into Tomb Raider mode, the game almost delights in making your palms sweat, never missing a trick to give you a hairy series of leaps and climbs to pull off - usually with a hefty dose of vertigo and crumbling scenery awaiting should you falter for a moment. But unlike the unforgiving games of old, it's not a game that relies on pixel-perfect stupidity to make the leaps of faith required to continue. If you're teetering on the edge, the game will give you time to react, and, likewise, the autograb feature means that when you make any kind of jump, there's an automatic assumption that you'll want to grab on the nearest or most likely item of scenery.
It probably sounds a bit dumbed down, but it just makes the whole thing so much more playable and far less of a frustrating ol' heap of trial and error. Another nice touch during your leaping and climbing is the way the camera often tilts towards an appropriate angle on your behalf to help steer you in the right direction. So many games in the past would frustrate the hell out of you by giving no clear clue on where you were supposed to be heading, whereas Uncharted seems to actively want to keep you immersed and entertained instead of wandering around cluelessly clicking or jumping on everything in the vain hope of it being the right path.
And if, even after all that, you're still a bit stuck, the game's in-built hint system gives you the option of being prodded in a particular direction, or, simply, what to do ("shoot the barrels, moron," it might as well say at one point) by hitting L2 after a few minutes of wandering. Fortunately, such tips aren't always complete give-aways, more in a gentle 'stop faffing around and get your arse over here' kind of way - again, similar to Gears of War with its 'press Y to look at this' approach. Very much a good move, I reckon.
On the whole, although the adventuring elements won't exactly stretch any grizzled hardcore platform puzzling veterans, there's something hugely impressive and graceful about Naughty Dog's approach to this element. Visually spectacular in a way that hints of a deep admiration of the vertiginous architectural splendour of Ico, the comparisons don't end there. It also shares that fluidity of the movement, albeit benefiting from a much more reliable, assured control system and more helpful camera system - such things are deserving of such a remarkable technical achievement. When the team reflects on the making of video that it has some of the most talented people in the business working for them, you'll believe it.
Gears of GRAW
As for the combat, it's similarly up to the same high standards set elsewhere. At first, though, this seems unlikely, with the initial boat raid giving you absolutely no hint as to how much fun the fire-fights will become later on. Within a few quick chapters shooting the array of hapless goons is, without doubt, compulsively entertaining. Borrowing from all the best equivalents of recent years, it plumps for an 'aim and fire' approach which feels somewhere between Resident Evil 4, GRAW and Gears of War, albeit slicker and with a far greater control over your character than all of them. Using L1 to aim and R1 to fire, the viewpoint switches from a basic third-person view to the now-fashionable over-the-shoulder style (albeit more dynamic, depending on where you are) giving you a nice close-up view of Nathan's choppy barnet.
But open-air combat is generally ill-advised, and the first thing you have to learn is that cover is king - and if you're exposed to enemy fire, you won't be able to take more than about half a dozen shots before the screen drains of colour and you're heading back to the most recent checkpoint. But by simply pressing circle next to a cover point - be it a low wall, crate or pillar - Nathan dynamically positions himself accordingly, meaning there's no need to crouch toggle or anything like that. Sidling up to the edge of your cover point, all you have to do is hold down the left trigger to pop out from behind it, and release it to go back into cover, making it a simple equation to safely loose off a few shots in the knowledge that you can nip back into a safe spot instantly.
But that's not to say the game's enemies make it easy for you. One of the most impressive things about the game is the determined AI routines, showing again that Naughty Dog really isn't messing around with this game. Unlike so many tired, generic action games down the years, you get the impression that the enemies in Uncharted have been designed to properly flush you out from cover. They'll continually lob well-placed grenades, try to visibly outflank you, and often work as a team between cover points and try and get in behind you. It's maddening as hell to become the victim of your own stupidity when this happens to you, but you have to admire the mechanics at work that set these dynamic situations up. These guys aren't clueless borg that follow a set path, but visibly respond to the threat in front of them, changing their own tactics in relation to the cover point you decide to take up.
30 seconds of pun
Sure, Uncharted is full of repetitive combat mechanics, but just like Bungie's acclaimed '30 seconds of fun over and over' approach in Halo, Uncharted's combat is so well honed that there's never a point where you're groaning 'not again' just because you're facing the same sort of character models over and over. Being picky, I'd admit that enemy variety isn't the game's strong point, mainly because you're fighting men with pistols, assault rifles, shotguns, grenades, sniper rifles and other conventional firearms. The variety doesn't come so much from them but nor does it need to. The environments, scenarios and situations always seem to provide a fresh challenge, and there's never necessarily one set route to do it, so the combat still feels fresh by the end - mind you, with the game length clocking in at about the seven or eight hour mark, the game doesn't last long enough to ever get boring anyway, but that's another matter.
Talking of environments, it's hard to think of a single game that's ever included such lush and staggeringly detailed gaming environment. As much as Gears of War provided a stunning next-generation shooter setting, the moody greys and browns made it a harsh, dark, hostile, and monochromatic place to be. In Uncharted, it's not just superior to Gears in terms of out and out detail, but brings a feel-good factor with the sheer level of environmental variety on offer. Covering the full spectrum from 'destroyed beauty' to lush, tropical jungles (and all points in between), it has the kind of action adventure template that Eidos and Crystal Dynamics must be looking at with a great deal of envy right now. In truth, it may take years before rival brands find themselves with game engines as effortlessly capable as this one. Truly, Uncharted is the first game I've seen to date that makes me wonder if it could be done on the Xbox 360, and as a huge admirer of the software line-up on Microsoft's system, that's saying a lot. [And it's going to get us in trouble again. -Frowny Ed]
And because the game has had such an amazing level of detail lavished on every single scene, when things calm down and you're creeping through the bowels of deserted old monasteries, or flooded, once-proud towns, the sheer atmosphere that the game evokes is immense. Sometimes I like to refer to gaming tourism, where just walking through the game feels like fun unto itself - and this is definitely a game that does that.
In its full 1080p glory, I can safely say most people will be absolutely blown away by the craft that has gone into making the world come alive. The dusty, crumbling ruins, the dense, tropical forests, and even the water effects - they're above and beyond anything committed to a gaming canvas to date. Yes, at the end of the day it's just eye candy, but what eye candy! Isn't this one of the reasons we look forward to new technology? To reiterate, when you factor in immensely fluid animation, superb controls, a flawless, ever-helpful camera system, decent enemy AI and an engaging non-cringeworthy storyline, the fact that there's also a visual feast on show is something to celebrate.
Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Drake
And to top it all, even the audio's worthy of serious acclaim. Scored by non other than Greg Edmondson (of Firefly fame), the orchestral backdrop provides a suitably bombastic yet timeless accompaniment that's dictated by the ebb and flow of the action, never dominating proceedings, and always on hand to provide an appropriate palette that truly adds to an already dramatically involving game. Like a good film, you don't necessarily notice it when you're immersed, but in a sense that's one of the reasons you're drawn into it. It sets the tone for the action and, again, Naughty Dog's game has really benefited from this slavish attention to detail.
Same deal for the voice acting and commitment to making the characters warm humoured and sympathetic, rather than cheesy action caricatures which blight so many big-budget videogames. The decision to go for the classic action hero approach has really paid off, and if Naughty Dog was ever hired to do an Indiana Jones game, you can bet it'd be absolutely spot-on.
Many observers will correctly report that Uncharted hasn't got the longest single-player campaign in history, but part of the reason it took only eight hours for me to finish wasn't just the fact that it wasn't enormously difficulty, but that it's one of the few games I've played in recent times that doesn't choose to pad out the game in stupid and unnecessary ways - and if you're stuck, the game actively tries to help you move on. With such a commitment to keeping the game fun, you'll probably finish it, then go back and try and crack some of the game's many achievements, and seek out those treasures you missed.
Again, like Ico or Gears or War, I'd argue that it's actually the perfect length for a game of this type - just long enough to feel like you've got your money's worth, but short enough to make you want to play it again, maybe on a harder level (for the record, there is an extra unlockable level of difficulty if you fancy a challenge).
The fact that Uncharted: Drake's Fortune has ended up so good has come as a real surprise, given that there was never any real 'buzz' around it leading up to its release. But, thinking about it, when has Naughty Dog ever let us down? Given a fresh platform and a new lease of life with a radically different style of game, it has carefully pieced together the best bits of all your favourite action adventures and come up with a fundamentally focused offering that's easily as good, if not better than any of them.
By focusing on keeping things fun at all times, it might not be considered the most expansive or ambitious game out there. It doesn't have a free-form openworld, but this is proof - if it were needed - that making a linear action game is nothing to be sneered at. By starting with a great control and camera system, building on that with excellent combat and a wonderful spin on Ico's platform adventuring, and then topping it off with a decent storyline, Naughty Dog has cooked up one of the most relentlessly entertaining, fat-free games to emerge in ages. Topped off with the most stunning use of the PS3's underused technical prowess yet, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is, for my money, the first must-have PlayStation 3 title.
9 / 10