Friday, September 18, 2009

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune review

Since buying the system a couple of years ago, my PS3 hasn't really been used for playing games much, especially compared to some of my other consoles. It does get turned on quite often to play Blu Rays, but if a game is multi format I usually go with the Xbox 360 version because I have way more people on my friend list and I prefer Achievements to Trophies. When I was about to take a week off from work however I decided I would pick up a few games for Sony's black beast and spend some time with it - namely the new Prince of Persia which I still haven't played very much of, and the subject of this review, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune which I played through to completion by the end of my holiday. The game sees you take control of Nathan Drake, supposedly the long lost relative of explorer and alleged pirate Sir Francis Drake, as he attempts to find the mythical El Dorado. By the time I was done with it I was extremely impressed with the game - read on to find out why.

Format: PS3
Publisher: SCEE
Developer: Naughty Dog
Genre: Action Adventure
Region: PAL
Expect to pay: £8 - £10

Graphics: 9 out of 10
Now you would more or less expect a PS3 game to look great, with HD as standard and all the muscle that the system has, but the graphics of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune are fantastic from a design standpoint as well as a technical one. Through the course of the game you will be taken from dark, atmospheric temples and crypts, to lush green jungles and tropical vistas. The palette is in stark contrast to something like Gears of War with its oppressive tones and fondness of the colour brown - and quite deliberately so as various members of Naughty Dog explain in the bonus documentaries included on the game disc. It's refreshing to play a modern console game that isn't afraid to use vivid colours, although this was also a hallmark of Naughty Dog's previous series Jak and Daxter as well. There are also subtle trails in the level design which manage to subconsciously lead you on the correct path through the level, while at the same time still managing to look natural.

There's no doubt that this game makes good use of the PS3's capabilities, and it still looks great today despite being one of the earliest releases for the console. I should also mention the animation which is both fluid and realistic, giving your the feeling that Nathan Drake has real weight and inertia. As you navigate a tricky series of jumps and climbs, he reaches out towards parts of the environment that can be jumped to, and sometimes manages to save himself from plummeting to his doom by grabbing hold of something with one hand and pulling himself up.

Sound and music: 9 out of 10
Uncharted boasts a musical score composed by Greg Edmonson, who has previously worked on Joss Whedon's tragically short lived Firefly TV series. Fans of the show will definitely find certain instruments and tunes familiar, and his work here definitely helps give the game the gravitas of a big screen blockbuster.

Voice acting is solid as well, comprising of performances by the likes of Nolan North as Drake, Emily Rose as Elena Fisher and Richard McGonagle as Victor Sullivan. I'm not familiar with any of these names, but a quick scan of their CV's shows that Fisher and McGonagle have done a fair amount of TV and voice over work for cartoons, while it appears that the first Uncharted was North's first job. Instead of dubbing over cut scenes that had already been created by animators, the dialogue was recorded at the same time as the action using motion capture suits, which helps keep things feeling natural as the actors were all present at the same time and interacting with each other for real.

The final element of the sound is the effects, and these are very well done too with a variety of different weapons that all sound like they should, supported by a great 5.1 surround sound mix so you can really hear where the bullets are coming from if you have the hardware.

Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher at the start of their epic journey.

Game Mechanics: 9 out of 10
There are several different game play styles that make up the DNA of Uncharted. Let's start with the combat first. It plays very similarly to Gears of War, with an over the shoulder perspective and the stick to cover. Enemies can pour in thick and fast, and it's extremely satisfying to take them down with an expertly placed head shot from your pistol or a well aimed grenade (the Sixaxis controller is also utilised to change the path of your grenade, although personally I would have preferred to use the analogue stick). There are a variety of guns in the game, including various pistols, automatic rifles, machine guns and shotguns. Ammunition levels can pose a problem in protracted gun fights, and you may have to leave the safety of whatever cover you've found in order to retrieve some more ammo clips from the corpses of the slain.

Then you have melee combat, where you can get in close to your enemy and execute a string of buttons presses which if timed correctly can take your opponent down with quiet efficiency. The pirates that you go up against are fairly intelligent - ganging up on you, trying to pin you down and generally trying to outsmart you in every encounter. Thus, you will probably find yourself taking out a few bad guys initially and then have to retreat and heal up before re entering the fray. Healing is much like any other action game of recent times - you just find a quiet spot and rest up for a few seconds and you're magically back to full heath. This makes sense for Halo where the shields of your suit re power after a while, but seems a bit strange when your playing as a regular guy wearing just a T-shirt and trousers.

Aside from fighting, you will spend a considerable amount of your time just navigating the environment - clinging on to crumbling pillars, swinging from vines, shimmying across chasms and the like. This is where Naughty Dog's pedigree as a platform game designer really pays off as the action here is extremely slick and fluid you always feel in control. It's about as far removed as the clunky old Tomb Raider games as possible. Then we have the puzzles, which aren't particularly taxing but are a fun diversion from time to time nevertheless. A little bit of experimentation and studying Francis Drakes journal will usually steer you towards the solution.

There are also a few vehicular sections scattered throughout the game - an on rails section that sees you manning the guns in a jeep, and a couple of jet ski bits through a sunken city and up a river. They don't outstay their welcome and are a fun way to break up the shooting and exploration for a little while.

So then, all of these elements have been done before in other games but seldom have they all been found in one title or executed with such panache. They can also flow from one style of game play directly into the next, so barely seconds after navigating a tricky series of jumps you could be plunged headlong into a lengthy gun battle. Naughty Dog really are in the top league of developers and are a huge asset to Sony, so I hope they manage to keep hold of them for quite some time.

Walking across logs also triggers Sixaxis motion controlled sections.

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out 10
Like I said above, most of the game play elements of Uncharted have been done elsewhere but not at the same time and not with the same level of execution, so the game scores heavily on the Cleverness score. The production values are also incredibly high, with the cinematic score and solid performances. It manages to make the last Indiana Jones film look decidedly pathetic - George Lucas and Steven Spielberg pay attention, this is how you're supposed to make a story of this nature!

Value and Replayability: 7 out of 10
Uncharted is not a particularly long game - it will only take you about 10 hours to complete - but there is a nice array of bonus materials, such as galleries, making of documentaries and other videos to watch. These have to be unlocked by finding hidden treasures throughout the main game (of which there are 50) and also by completing various achievements. Getting a certain amount of head shots, killing three baddies with one grenade, the usual sort of thing. Then there are three difficulty settings if you decide you want to go through the story again (which you probably will, in time). The game can be purchased for £10 or less these days, and it is well worth that price.

Overall: 9 out 10
Uncharted is an excellent demonstration of what the PS3 is capable of in the right hands - it's fun, exciting, easy to learn, but with plenty to keep you coming back. Uncharted 2 is just around the corner and it looks spectacular, but I would still recommend getting the first game if you haven't yet done so.