If you want proof that Sony is finally gaining traction with the PS3 then look no further than Naughty Dog's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. The game is easily one of the best games available for the PS3 and one of the top ten games out this year. Uncharted was a game that I had high expectations for and the game managed to still surprise me. The superb writing and the amazing graphics left me with a giant smile on my face for large portions of the game. Naughty Dog has delivered one of the best gaming experiences in memory.
You play as Nathan Drake, an "average guy" and long lost ancestor of Sir Frances Drake who has chosen the life of a treasure hunter and fortune seeker. I would point out that average guy is Sony's description of Nathan as I don't know a lot of guys who can hop around ledges, wield a machine gun, or jump large gaps with ease. Not like John. John is average as it gets and I've seen him have problems getting up the stairs at work some days. He's certainly more average than your typical action hero but let's not quibble over marketing slogans.
Joining Nathan in his adventures are his business partner Scully and plucky news reporter Elena. If you think Elena is simply there to be the damsel in distress then you're mistaken. Elena is more Alyx Vance than Princess Peach and while she's in peril a few times she's a worthy companion in a fire fight. Scully is likewise good in a fight. What's great about the game is that both characters are fleshed out and have their own personalities.
The game starts with the unearthing of the tomb of Sir Francis Drake. Instead of finding a moldy body Nathan finds that Sir Francis left behind a diary that lead to the treasure of El Dorado. Before they can enjoy their find, the gang is attacked by pirates and narrowly escapes. From then on the game it's a race against the pirates and a group of mercenaries to see who can claim the treasure first. OK, this isn't the most original script in the book and the game is equal parts Indiana Jones with a little Tomb Raider mixed in. There's also dash of Goonies in parts but the game is so well executed you won't mind that you can see some of the plot twists coming a mile away. That's not to say that there aren't a few surprises here and there but some of the big stuff I saw coming a mile away.
The thing that is really impressive is how lush and vibrant the graphics are. Remember how dead and gray Gears of War seemed? This is the exact opposite as the world is alive and vibrant. I actually took my time during the early parts of the game to stop and enjoy the virtual roses as environments are so breath taking. There's some nice attention to detail as some of the flora and fauna will actually react to Nathan walking past them. Of course there are a few clipping issues but the overall effect is mesmerizing. There are a lot of nice touches in the game as well. If you walk him through water Nathan actually gets wet. I know it's a small detail but it's just another way the game draws you in.
Graphics are nothing without game play and Uncharted doesn't disappoint here either. The game is a mix of environmental puzzles, logic puzzles, and gun play. The gun play is the pop-and cover stuff that was nearly perfected by Gears of War last year. The execution in Uncharted is a bit better than Gears since its easier to get in and out of cover and you can do cool things like hang off a ledge and shoot people above you. There are a few well executed vehicle sections and a few God of War style button pushing mini-games but it all works well together. There are a few sections where you might get a bit sick of the constant gun battles but for the most part the game is well paced and engaging.
With the exception of long falls and a few one hit/one kill weapons Nathan can take a bit of a beating. The game goes with the Call of Duty style health system where you can rest behind cover and heal your wounds. While this isn't overly realistic it does keep the game moving. The puzzles in the game are decent as well. Some of the early ones are easy but there are a few later on in the game that will take some time to think through. Nothing that hard (I got past them) but a nice challenge and a nice respite from constantly gunning down bad guys.
Enemy AI is rock solid as they actually work together to take out Drake and company. There's nothing like being pinned down by a sniper while watching troops with shotguns moving in under their cover. They do the occasional stupid thing like leaving their head exposed but they are real and fairly believable. I'm not going to say they are the best AI out there but it's going to keep you on your toes even on the lower difficultly levels. The only real nitpick I have with the bad guys is that the lost island seems to have a bad guy generator that cranks out bad guys in one of four flavors: the pistol dude, machine gun dude, shotgun guy, and the one dude with the funny hat and explosive shots. As you progress through the game you get different skinned versions of these guys but it's pretty much the same four bad guys over and over again.
While we're on the topic of weapons, there isn't much of an arsenal for Nathan Drake to use. For the most part you'll be using pistols, shotguns, and machine guns to take bad guys out. Along the way you'll stumble across some powerful weapons like the Dragon Sniper rifle but they have limited ammunition and are clearly aimed at helping you to clear one portion of the map. You are limited to carrying grenades, one pistol and one rifle/shotgun at a time so the lack of a big arsenal of weapons wasn't that big of a deal for me.
Of course you can use your fists if you want a more hands on experience. The melee combat in the game isn't going to win any awards but it's a nice alternative if you want to play the game with a stealth twist. It's not mandatory and it's something that I didn't really use. Instead I used the pistol because it has a decent rate of fire and fairly good accuracy which is critical for getting head shots. Why are head shots important? Well because the folks at Naughty Dog are a little stingy with the ammo in certain areas of the game and head shots are a nice one shot, one kill way to save on ammo. It is a bit annoying to have to spend a few minutes after each gun battle gathering up ammo from dead foes but it's a minor complaint as most games force you to do this in one way or another. Plus head shots give you the best one liners and if you score enough of them you can earn awards.
That's right, Uncharted:Drake's Fortune has "awards" that you get for performing certain actions in the game. The awards grant you medal points which you can use to unlock cheats and bonus features in the game. Xbox 360 fans (I'm looking at you Dan) are rolling their eyes at this right now because the system is borrowing heavily from Microsoft's Achievement system. I don't know if these awards will jack into Home when it's released in the future but they are a nice thing to try for in the game and kind of fun to earn.
The controls in Drake are near perfect and about what you'd expect for a third person shooter. Everything is where you would expect it to be and the controls are nice and tight. They even included a "Click here because we want to show you something" button that should be familiar to Gears of Wars fans. The only thing that doesn't feel right is that you have to use the tilt feature of the SIXAXIS controller to change the arc when throwing grenades. Of course you still use the right thumbstick to pan left and right which makes throwing grenades with any accuracy a bit of a crap shoot. I got used to it later on in the game but it would have been nice to have the option to disable that "feature".
The audio in the game is outstanding as well. All the guns and explosions are excellent and Naughty Dog did a great job with the ambient noises of the jungle. The voice acting is also very well done and the voices behind Nathan, Elena, and Scully do a phenomenal job with the lines they are given. The score? The score is one of the best of the year and the main theme for the game is amazing and could become iconic if Naughty Dog can turn this into a franchise (it would be a shame not to at this point).
It's really hard to find a lot of problems with the game. You have the usual camera issues that plague third person shooters as well as a few areas where it's not immediately clear where you have to go but the game is just well put together and well paced. The game is a little on the short side as it took about eight hours to complete on the normal difficulty level but that doesn't feel like that strong of an argument. There are a few questions left unanswered at the end of the game but nothing major as the game does have a fairly decent (but not spectacular ending). I do wonder why Nathan can carry only three weapons yet can carry the sixty trinkets scattered around the game.
One thing the game is missing is any kind of multiplayer mode which seems odd as the action portion of the game could make for a decent multiplayer experience. It would be cool to be able to fight it out against other human opponents in some of the bigger set piece battles and there are certainly opportunities for some standard multiplayer modes like capture the flag or deathmatch. There are portions of the game where Drake goes solo so a co-op mode wouldn't really work but hopefully these are things that could be worked into a future edition of the game.
Uncharted is a tremendously fun game and one of the best gaming experiences of the year. While it borrows heavily from other games in the market it's such a nice and diverse game that it's hard to find much fault with. There aren't any real boss or mini-boss fights and I could have used a little more depth to some of the bad guys since they leaned towards generic. Its a shame that Sony hasn't sold a lot of hardware yet because Uncharted:Drake's Fortune is just a ton of fun to play and I don't think it's getting nearly the attention it deserves.
A solid fun, romp of a game. Nearly flawless execution, excellent writing, and amazing graphics make this the one game that every PS3 owner should have in their collection