Uncharted serves up one Tomb Raider, a la Indy, hold the cheesecake

, | Game reviews

There’s no reason to expect much from Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. The developer, Naughty Dog, is commercially successful but creatively middling (their Jak titles have ranged from pretty decent to pretty bad). The game seems to be an unabashed rip-off of Tomb Raider, with the difference being that the main character is a dude, which out-Tomb-Raiders Tomb Raider for unabashedly ripping off Raiders of the Lost Ark. The prospects are not good.

After the jump, then you actually play Uncharted

But then you actually play Uncharted and discover that Lara Croft has nothing on Nathan Drake. This is a spirited, muscular, and charming adventure with excellent pacing, tons of character, and plenty off ooh- and ahh-worthy next-gen tech. Lara Croft was largely an appeal to testosterone, but this is a game that understands what was good about Raiders of the Lost Ark: a charismatic lead, with a little romantic comedy to lighten the adventure, and enough guts and grit to keep it from being entirely kiddie. Throw in some solid combat and just the right number of scripted set pieces, and Uncharted ends up being an outstanding six to eight hours of entertainment.

Nathan Drake is a great lead character. He’s more Indiana Jones or John McClane than the Arnold Schwarzenegger or Chuck Norris characters who serve as leads for most computer games. He’s more everyman than superhero, which is an important step videogames rarely understand. Consider that Gordon Freeman is no longer the everyman who was late for work in Half-Life 1. Now he’s a taciturn superman, inspiring the resistance fighters with his superhuman exploits and called to some strange destiny by the otherworldly G-Man. But Uncharted understands that the most relatable heroes get beat-up and weary. They’re scared of being shot and more than happy to cower while the bullets fly. Drake gives a panicked yelp when grenades land near him and he seems uncertain about whether or not he’s going to make that jump. He’s not just the avatar that you play and reload when he dies. He’s a stand-in for the audience, playing for us the sense of peril.

The gunfights are a real treat, combining adroit running-and-gunning with meticulous ducking-and-covering. The levels are laid out with plenty of cover, veritable playgrounds for shootouts. The AI does a good job of moving around and trying to flank you, taking advantage of the levels. Unfortunately, grenades are clumsy for being tied into a clunky Sixaxis motion tilting gimmick. Also, post-battle ammo hunts could have been simplified. But unlike the Tomb Raider games, Uncharted doesn’t seem like its shooting bits were folded into the adventure as filler.

The only sequences that feel out of place are a couple of jet ski levels. These look good enough, but they get frustrating for requiring some marksmanship. What should have been wet-and-wild waterslide thrill rides are instead save-and-reload crawls where you have to remember to shoot a floating barrel or some distant guy with an insta-kill rocket launcher. The sensation after most of Uncharted’s set pieces is ‘That was a blast!’ After the jet ski rides, it’s ‘I hope I never have to do that again!’

The puzzles are basically formalities. There’s nothing particularly challenging about them, and if you think about them too much, they break the game’s internal fiction. Uncharted regularly has you solving some centuries-old puzzle that unlocks an impenetrable door into some inner sanctum — only to discover a dozen generic bad guys managed to get there ahead of you. These sorts of contrivances might be understandable in a lazy Tomb Raider game, but they mess up the otherwise smooth flow of this adventure yarn. Still, you can’t very well plunder ancient ruins without pushing a stone block or two.

The environments get a bit tedious, peaking early with a really cool set piece involving a German U-boat teetering on the edge of a jungle waterfall. There’s something you don’t see every day! It’s a tough act to follow, and Uncharted doesn’t even try, plunging instead into the usual dungeons and ruins, all in one area, without even a hint of globetrotting. But part of what this accomplishes is a focus on the characters instead of the places they go.

Nate, his sidekick/mentor Sully, and Elena are full of personality. Inasmuch as it’s possible for animated characters to have chemistry, these guys do. The graphics are a big help, with just enough cartooniness to keep everyone from tumbling into the uncanny valley. Like Heavenly Sword, there’s superlative state-of-the-art animation here, with expressive faces and lively eyes. But unlike Heavenly Sword, it’s not a lot of over-the-top scenery-chewing villains (in fact, Uncharted’s villains are under-developed, which is particularly disappointing considering one of them is voiced by the inimitable Simon Templeman, known for the Legacy of Kain series).

Instead, Uncharted is anchored by two charming actors and an obviously talented director. A lot of the game’s personality stems from the great work done by actors Nolan North and Emily Rose. Take, for example, a moment in which Elena comments on the ring Nate wears around his neck. It has all the hallmarks of a classic romantic interlude: the coy looks, the intonation, the pauses, and two people close enough that if a kiss were going to happen, this would be the time. Naughty Dog manages to get from their animation and voice actors what Hollywood does with its star power.

For the most part, Uncharted is a wonderfully restrained game. It knows when to tip its hand and when to play it close to the vest. It’s carefully calculated to dole out the gunfights, puzzles, vehicle sequences, and cutscenes for maximum effect. And it does a great job of keeping you guessing. What kind of game will this be? What kind of story is it going to tell? Uncharted understands the power of delayed gratification. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, it gets a lot of mileage by staying so consistently perched on the verge of the real. Like Moonlighting, it knows that romantic leads denying their attraction is a great hook. Will Nate and Elena admit they like each other? Will they kiss? What exactly is the deal with that statue anyway? Will there be Nazi zombies at the end? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode/level of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune!

This momentum and expectation is the very stuff of pulp fiction and it’s refreshing to see a game that gets it so thoroughly. The developers at Naughty Dog have come a long way, but with Uncharted, it feels like they’ve finally hit their stride with the almost perfect combination of storytelling, characters, and gameplay. If there was ever a game to make you glad you’ve got a Playstation 3, this is the one.

(This review is reprinted from a website that has been closed for a long time and that never paid me what I was owed, so I’m posting it here because why not?)

  • Uncharted: Drake's Fortune

  • Rating:

  • Playstation 3
  • This is where it all began and this is where you can clearly see why the series gets four sequels.