Friday, April 18, 2008

Review: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune



Directions for making a hit action-adventure game: take one lovable rogue as the main character, a shady, cigar-chomping second-in-command, and an increasingly useful (and attractive) female lead. Mix in some good AI for your NPC friends, a range of weapons, enemies, a third-act twist to rival any game you’ve ever played, and drop in a legendary golden treasure at the last moment. Remember to preheat the whole lot with platform exclusivity, and you’re golden, so to speak. Not that Uncharted is formulaic, by any means – the game just manages to hit all the bases.

The latest release from successful developer Naughty Dog, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune sees you take the reigns as Nathan Drake, a treasure hunter with a knowing grin, quick wit and permanently half-tucked shirt. A descendent of Sir Francis Drake, Nathan is searching for the legendary treasure of El Dorado, following clues and notes that Sir Francis left behind.

If this all sounds a little grown-up for the developers behind the cartoony Jak and Daxter and Crash Bandicoot series, don’t worry. Uncharted actually plays for laughs at quite a few parts throughout, despite your character being shot at for half of the game. The characters, while relatively lifelike, can manage some pretty hilarious facial expressions, and a fair amount of banter goes on between them. Imagine the Matthew McConaughey-slash-Kate Hudson film Fool’s Gold made into a game, but with more pirates, guns and gold. And then imagine that the plot was actually good, and that you didn’t have to look at either of the two ‘stars’. It’s a simple comparison.

Visually, Uncharted is a huge step up from almost everything else on the PS3 or any system – it plays like a colourful version of Gears of War, set in a more open, realistic environment. Where Gears was monochromatic, heavily stylised and set mainly in corridors and small rooms, Uncharted zooms the camera out, letting you enjoy the colour and freedom of walking through (and fighting in) a lush jungle.

The game’s combat mechanic takes a leaf from Gears, as well as Resident Evil 4 and GRAW, and uses one button (L1) to aim, and R1 to fire. Hitting L1 pulls the action from the standard third-person view to over-the shoulder mode, which gives you a remarkable amount of accuracy, even with the least powerful weapons. You’ll find that you need to use cover when you fight, as any open-air battles against more than two opponents quickly sees the screen fade to gray as you promptly get killed. Using cover could have been a problem, but a quick tap on the circle button lets Nathan get behind any kind of cover, regardless of its height. Using L1 to aim will see Nathan peer out from his cover and draw a bead on the opponent; and best of all, the location of your targeting reticule is saved between peeks, so all you’ll need to do is pop back out once and take care of each enemy.

Enemy AI is very effective, particularly in the early jungle levels – the modern-day pirates will use their own cover, try to flank you, and flush you out of cover with grenades. Later indoor levels see these tactics toned down slightly, as there simply aren’t as many indoor hiding places for them, but there’s a surprising amount of complexity in how the enemies respond to you – you can’t rely on them following the same path to the same place. I kept dying at one place in a level near the end of the game, sure that I had the best approach to kill everyone who was shooting at me, but I hadn’t realised how my early actions had attracted their attention,

resulting in a sudden hail of bullets every time I stuck my head out of cover. The game keeps you moving as well – there’s no hiding behind trees if you’re running low on bullets, as enemies will simply come and find you.

The AI for Sully and Elena, your two non-playable sidekicks, is some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Depending on the type of enemy you’re facing (and there’s quite a range – from pirates with pistols to mercenaries with sniper rifles and grenade launchers), your allies will take cover, soften the bad guys up with a few well-placed shots, and even take a few of them out, if you’re hiding for too long. There’s a definite feeling of co-operation, despite knowing that the other character is an NPC.

Half of the game is fighting, and that’s done very well indeed. The other half, though, is a cinematic 3D platformer where your target is always clear. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I felt that the platforming aspect was a little too easy – bar a few mistimed quicktime events on my part, I flew through these parts of the game, pausing only to admire the view.

Textures pop-in on occasion, and there’s a fair amount of screen tearing if you’re turning the camera quickly, but these problems barely mar the game. There are moments when you’d swear you were making your character run through a real (abandoned) city: some textures have more resolution than you’d expect from digital cameras, and the cinematics merge quickly with the in-game action, letting you get back to business with a minimum of fuss. For a relatively short game (8-10 hours), there are enough shining moments in Uncharted to go back to it long after you’ve completed the storyline, if only to play through your favourite chapter one more time.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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