It's been a rough year for PlayStation 3 owners. Exclusives have been lost, a handful of titles have been bumped from the bottom line-bolstering holiday season, and Lair was Lair. With each disappointment, more and more fans have looked to Uncharted: Drake's Fortune -- a title whose screenshots have been lauded for months -- to be the saving grace of Sony's 2007.
But pinning so much on one title pretty much guarantees a letdown, doesn't it? Can Naughty Dog live up to more than a year of mouthwatering coverage and placate fans who forked over $600 to see stellar title after stellar title come out on non-PS3 platforms?
Yes. Yes, it can. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is the most fun I've had in a videogame this year.
Putting you in the shoes of Nathan Drake -- a worldly treasure hunter on the trail of something big -- Uncharted tosses players into a third-person action/adventure/platforming/shooting homage to the pulp-action movies of yesteryear. Nate takes on pirates, scales ancient walls, swings from jungle vines and solves puzzles using the most basic of clues on his path to unearthing the secrets of his ancestor Sir Francis Drake alongside his cigar-chomping buddy Sullie and newswoman Elena.
Uncharted does what few titles manage -- it completely immerses you in its experience. From the moment the game begins with a sweeping camera move through the waters off Panama, a rich score and the words of Sir Francis Drake etched on screen, Uncharted will have you hooked. It'll maintain that hold with its story, style and gameplay.
If the broad strokes of Drake's treasure hunting story sound hackneyed -- a tough female reporter who hates the hero at first slowly starts to dig him, the older partner's past catches up with him on the hunt of the century, etc. -- rest assured that the possible setback is blown out of the water by the superb dialogue and motion capture from the cast.
A lot of times we as an industry like to wax on and on about how videogames rival movies, but rarely do we have an example as well done as Uncharted. Nate is funny as he laments over yet another wall he needs to scale, Sullie is loveable as he tells the same traveler's tales over and over, and Elena's fire for her story and give-and-take with Nate is endearing. When these characters interact and you watch their relationships grow, you feel like you're part of their circle. You feel like they're your friends.
Hell, Naughty Dog even went the extra step and made Elena and Sullie non-playable characters that actually help you out.
From the first time Elena and I got into it with a set of pirates, she was alongside our hero shooting the bad guys. Mind you, she wasn't softening them up for Drake and she wasn't hiding, she was shooting to death the guys I missed. When Sullie and I were investigating ancient ruins in the heart of the jungle, my former mentor was quick to pull chain levers to open doors for me as well as provide his lighter to enact certain puzzle pieces on our journey.
Non-playable characters with spot-on AI is something we don't see enough of in games.
Of course, you're not just sitting around watching Drake, Sullie and Elena's story unfold before you; you are playing it, and thankfully the mechanics here work just as well as the characterization. As you trudge deeper and deeper into the mythos of Sir Francis's series of clues, you're going to bring down more and more heat from pirates and sniper-rifle packing fools hired by Sullie's debtors. When you battle these foes, you'll need to make use of the cover provided by ceremonial pillars, crates and any other jungle spot you can slam your back against and pop out to shoot from.
The general format for a battle starts with Drake huddled in one spot while the enemies attack -- he'll cringe and duck as the bullets rain down on his position -- and when the bad guys reload, Drake pops out to put a few pistol or shotgun rounds in them. The process repeats until the foes are dead.
It might sound tedious, but Uncharted tries to shake it up by having enemies come at you from different levels and use different tactics. Some will hurl grenades to try and flush you out, others will flank you, and the big shirtless dudes don't mind running straight at you with their shotguns drawn. The constant variety keeps with the game's fast-paced style even when you're pinned down, and keeping that style consistent is one of the crowning achievements in Uncharted. Whereas lots of games try to have an exciting storyline and then get bogged down with making you nail the mundane, Uncharted gives you a breakneck story and doesn't ask you to sweat the small stuff.
Look at Tomb Raider. If Lara taught us anything, it's that when exploring temples and other ancient hideaways there are going to be a ton of places you need to leap to, hang from and jump on. When taking Miss Croft through her missions, you have to maneuver her into the perfect position, leap at the perfect time and pray that everything goes right. If it doesn't, she'll fall to her death, you'll curse the heavens and the whole experience will repeat itself until you pass the part.
That doesn't happen in Uncharted.
Sure, there's a ton of ledge shimmying and leaping for Nathan, but our hero is a man who has one hell of a vertical. Although you'll be climbing all over this game, it's rare for you to die while making a move. Uncharted has this action-movie feel to it that could easily be derailed by having you get stuck trying to cross a gap for 10 minutes. The same can be said for the puzzle elements that are often times explained by a quick glance at Sir Francis's diary. Uncharted wants to be a fun, fast adventure. It doesn't want to become a chore.
However, that run-and-gun focus might leave a few puzzle fanatics unsatisfied. My first trip through Nate's story took me a little more than eight hours to complete, and I was never stuck at any portion of the title. I mean, I died in a few firefights, but I never had that stalled moment of controller-flinging rage -- and that's a good thing in my opinion. Would I have liked the puzzles to be a bit harder and the game a bit longer? Of course, but the current length works because Uncharted is an adventure that's meant to be played more than once. There are four difficulties to master, 60 hidden treasures to find and 47 medals to unlock for things such as headshots, treasures found and more. These medals yield points, which can be used to unlock additional costumes, unlimited ammo and more in-game goodies.
Some people are going to get tired of the constant stream of rebellious pirates because I know I found myself rolling my eyes when the umpteenth group attacked me. When you've dipped into the black-and-white screen of near death a few times and are running low on shotgun ammo, it's hard to keep your spirits up when the fourth wave of bad guys flood into an area.
However, Naughty Dog should be applauded for their decision to stick with the bad guys because Uncharted does a 180 in the final chapters on everything you've known, and it's amazing. Without spoiling anything, the game teaches you to fight and investigate in a very specific manner with its early level hooligans and cover system. Toward the end -- once you've gotten supremely comfortable with the combat -- Naughty Dog flips the system and you've got to improvise.
Still -- as awesome as the flip was -- I could've done with less pirates or a cornucopia of pirates. The point would've been the same, and one of the only dark spots on the game would be removed.
Graphically, Uncharted's beautiful as you tear down trees with turrets, watch Nate's clothes saturate with lagoon water and the sun filter through the leaves, but there is a lot of texture pop-in on the jungle floor and treasures while aliasing on the walls and screen tearing are par for the course. It shouldn't take you out of the experience, but it is noticeable.
Here's the thing about Uncharted, the final sum is far greater than the individual parts. Maybe you don't dig the combat or maybe the pop-in gets you down, but the overall package of an endearing story, outstanding score, great performances and fun gameplay should put this title on the top of your holiday wishlist. Say what you will about the PS3, but Uncharted isn't just a standout for Sony -- it's a standout for gaming as a whole.