Review of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

I recently finished Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune for the Sony Playstation 3, and even though the game has been out for over six months, I felt the need to review it just because I enjoyed it so much.

First let’s establish who I am, in gaming terms. I’m not an ultra-competitive, hardcore gamer. I’d call myself more experiential or narrative-driven. Or more simply, I play games primarily for the story or the exploration of a new world. Challenge doesn’t become important to me until it hits an extreme, either low or high.

I mention this because Drake’s Fortune isn’t a very difficult game (at least on the Normal setting) and it doesn’t have any multiplayer. It’s a linear romp from start to finish. My final save clocked in at ten hours and change, so its relatively short. There are hidden items to find and faux-Achievements embedded in the game, both of which might be enough to get you to play through the game a second time, but the narrative is what really drives this game.

You play modern-day treasure hunter Drake, who is convinced he is a descendant of Sir Francis Drake, even though there are no records of Drake Sr. ever having fathered a child. Drake Jr and his partner, Victor “Sully” Sullivan, are hunting for the lost city of El Dorado (and all its hidden wealth). Chronicling their journey is videographer and reporter Elena Fisher. During their adventures they’ll encounter ancient ruins, Nazi relics, and modern day pirates. While the storyline isn’t high-art, it’d make a wonderful Saturday afternoon adventure matinee, which in fact was what it was modeled on.

Gameplay is a good mix of third person shooter and Tomb Raider/Prince of Persia style platforming and puzzle solving. Drake will scale walls, swing from vines and leap chasms ‘a plenty in his quest to open locked doors in order to let his sidekicks advance along with him. Controls are good (but not great) and pretty much idiot proof. If you accidentally walk off a ledge, Drake will grab hold of the edge, rather than falling to his doom. The HUD is minimal, showing how much ammo you have and not much more. Rather than a ‘health bar’, the world fades to gray as you take damage. Finding a safe place to rest for a few moments brings you back up to full health, a la Halo or Resistance: Fall of Man.

Shooting features a very nice cover system which makes it easy to dive from one bit of cover to the next. Drake can ‘shoot from the hip’ or aim carefully by holding a shoulder button. I suggest the latter, as head shots help an awful lot. Evil pirates can take half a dozen rounds to the body from an M-4, but a single pistol shot to the head will drop ’em in their tracks. Drake can carry a pistol and a rifle, and there are several varieties of each. Deciding between a room clearing combat shotgun, a sniper rifle, or a more general purpose AK-47 is part of the fun, although at times one has to learn the hard way (i.e. die and reload) in order to make the right choice.

In addition to guns, Drake can pick up grenades or even resort to fisticuffs. Ammo mostly comes from fallen enemies, of which there are plenty. Beating down a bad guy with bare fists causes him to drop extra ammo. There are also a few vehicle sections to mix up the action, including a jet ski run up a raging river that was really something special to experience.

For a combat heavy game, the gore factor is quite low, although the rag-doll physics can leave enemy bodies draped over railings or slowly rolling down staircases. Still the game is definitely early-teen friendly, with no blood and certainly no body-chunks flying around.

But if Drake’s Fortune was just about the gameplay, it’d just be a good game. What makes this experience so special is the high production values. Rather than capture voice actors and attach their dialog to avatars, Naughty Dog put the actors into motion capture suits and had them act out their scenes. Because of this, characters interact very naturally in the game, because they were in fact acting together when doing their lines. Elena, played by Emily Rose (Jericho, Brothers & Sisters, John From Cincinnati) is particularly well done. Ms. Rose’s fine acting and the talents of the 3D artists and animators combine to create a very strong character. Elena isn’t your typical balloon-boobed videogame Barbie. Nor is she some kind of super-hero. Instead she comes across as exactly what she’s supposed to be: a smart, savvy reporter who has been in tough places before and has a few tricks up her sleeve. She’s the perfect foil to Drake, who is a bit of a know-it-all and who needs deflating every so often.

As for Drake, he moves very naturally, which honestly is part of why the controls are only “good.” He doesn’t stop on a dime any more than you or I could. Nothing he does feels impossible for a human in very good shape to pull off. Little touches really bring him to life. He’ll often mutter to himself about his predicament in a way that feels perfect. After diving into cover amidst a hail of bullets, he’ll sigh and murmur “OKaayyy…” as he (and you) try to determine how to get out of there alive. This is hard to convey in text, but it feels right and helps to breath life into the character in-game.

A decade or so ago, “interactive movies” became something of a buzzword. Hollywood types and game creating types got together and spawned horrible products like the infamous Night Trap. Bolting video footage to a gaming engine just didn’t work.

But with Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Naughty Dog has finally figured out how to make a true interactive movie. This is one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had…ever. It’s a good solid game that takes you through an upbeat, fun adventure movie, and one you can enjoy with pretty much anyone due to lack of gore and anti-social behavior. I bonded with the characters and would like nothing more than to see all three of them (played by the same actors) back again for a Drake’s Fortune II. Hardcore gamers might be disappointed, but for the rest of you, well, grab a bowl of popcorn and get ready to “play” an absolutely delightful movie. Highly recommended.