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» Uncharted (PS3)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Archeology, hardly an adrenaline packed occupation, wouldn't you agree? If you answered yes, you clearly don't watch TV very often or are too young to have seen one of the Indiana Jones movies as they came out. Yes, thanks to the rugged archeologist even a slow, boring and pretty much thrill-less job was suddenly on every guy’s mind. And while I highly doubt Tomb Raider had a similar effect on the female public, Lara Croft just reconfirmed that archeology can be more than just digging up fossils and dusting of urns. Now, can the newest gun wielding archeologist, Nathan Drake do the same, or is it time action hungry gamers got over archeologists.

The gold of El Dorado

Well, I haven’t been entirely honest in the introduction… Nathan Drake isn’t an archeologist per se. He is more of a tomb raider/treasure hunter kind of troublemaker. Think Lara Croft without the breasts or Indiana Jones without the professor persona. What does that leave us with? Well, contrary to my expectations a witty, charming young man, who is smart enough to know when to quit but rarely gets the opportunity to do so in time. I highly doubt Nathan will become as popular as Lara or Indy are, but I grew surprisingly fond of the guy by the end of the game, something that can’t be said for most of the new franchise characters (if Naughty Dog are smart we should expect a sequel sooner or later).

But, as charming as Nathan might be, any lead character needs a good supporting cast to truly stand out. Just think how much better the last Indiana Jones was thanks to Sean Connery’s appearance as Indy’s father. Uncharted doesn’t really throw that bit of the Drake family tree at you (it does point out that Nathan is supposedly related to the English pirate Sir Francis Drake), but you will get acquainted with Victor, Nathan’s mentor and long term “business” associate. With only this bit of information at our disposal (either via game manual or by trusting your instinct when Victor first appears), the game does a surprisingly good job at making both Nathan and Victor believable as close friends. As good a relationship they might have however, the game cuts it off early on (whoops, did I just spoil the “surprise”?) when Victor’s debts finally catch on.

This leaves Nathan running for his life when he bumps into a female journalist he in Victor just dumped a few docks back. Not too happy with that, she first thanks Nate for his kind gesture and then proceeds to run for her life with him. With a map snatched from right under the noses of Victor’s enemies, Nate and Elena fly to an uncharted island in the Pacific ocean (or is it Atlantic, they are all the same tropical mumbo jumbo in games anyway), him hoping to find the lost gold of El Dorado and her happily shooting footage for her rather unpopular TV show.

Rounding up the cast are some generic scoundrels, namely the evil, Hispanic version of Nathan, a cocky old man going after the money that El Dorado would bring and of course their countless hordes of mercenaries and soldiers. Yup, the story of Uncharted is as generic and predictable as they come. But oddly enough, due to the very well thought out character interactions (both during cinematics as well as one-liners sprinkled around the levels), the whole thing ends up being refreshingly fun and interesting to watch. I’m not lying when I say that there were parts of the game that I played through just so I could see the next part of the story (and the accompanying cutscene of course).

Gears of Persia

If you read any number of previews of Uncharted, you probably noticed a certain pattern in them. Save for perhaps one or two, they all kept comparing the game with both Prince of Persia (the new trilogy) and Gears of War. Now, forgive me for being skeptic, but picturing a mix of the two was like picturing a crossbreed between giraffe and a hippopotamus (in other words: probably doable, but highly unlikely to result in something decent). And as I started playing the game I still had my doubts. But before I either confirm or deny if my doubts were well founded, let’s take a look at both gameplay aspects to see if either works on their own.

Since the game starts with this huge marine battle I thought I’d touch on the strategy aspect first. Nah, just kidding. The game’s opening scene is actually Nate trying to fend of hordes of approaching enemies as he and Elena try to keep their boat afloat. At first the game looks like a straight up shooter, but it doesn’t take more than a couple of bullets (and I mean that quite literally) to realize Nate isn’t nearly as rugged as he looks. So, either by following your gut instinct or reading one of the tutorial messages that pop on the screen constantly (even in the second half of the game!), you’ll quickly start hiding behind cover. Door frames, boxes, crumbling walls, almost any object you see can be used as cover. I wouldn’t recommend crouching behind barrels (which are all filled with flammable materials according to this game) as they tend to blow the hell up of everything in a 10 foot radius, but as for the rest of the objects, all is fair game.

Once your behind is safely hidden behind something solid, it is time to pull out one of your two weapons. Yes, you can only carry two weapons with you at any given type. As usual this means one concealable weapons (you know, pistols, UZIs, the like) and one rather hard to hide away weapon like a shotgun or an AK47. So let’s say you are under fire by a large group of enemies (believe me, a very common situation in Uncharted), but they are all still considerably far away. Using an automatic weapon would hardly be effective in a situation like this, so the pistol will probably get some usage. Popping the left shoulder button you rise from cover and aim down the sights of your sidearm. If you, at this exact moment, put some heavy armor on Nathan, replaced the incoming mercenaries with Locust aliens and exchanged the green jungle surroundings with an post-apocalyptic city, you’d be playing Gears of War. That is, with two noticeable differences. One is the ability to switch shoulders, or in other words to tilt the reticule to the other side of the player’s character, letting you perhaps get a shot at somebody hiding behind a pillar. The other difference, and this is the real kicker, is that Nate rarely has much ammo at his disposal. If he’s lucky he’ll have 20 or so pistol bullets and perhaps 30 machine gun rounds on him.

That wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the mercenaries he had to put down weren’t such hulks. It often takes 4-5 bullets to take down a single enemy, and unless your aim is perfect (and sometimes not even then) and you manage to send a bullet straight into the head of the villains, you’ll often run out of bullets long before all of the enemies have been dealt with. So where does that leave you? Usually running out of your cover, dodging bullet fire on the way and trying to get to the nearest body to pick up a magazine or two worth of ammo. Should you stumble directly into the face of one of your adversaries and the situation is quiet enough (meaning there are only one or two shooters still working at getting you killed) you can try taking him down with your fists.

I’ve played many a game, but never before were the fights in them so real. The way Nathan fights is as close games have ever come to imitating the way movie action heroes fight. If he’s coming at an enemy from behind he’ll just jump on him (looks hilarious if you aren’t expecting it) and try to strangle him. Coming from up front is even better. If no object is behind him,  the thing will usually be just a straight up brawl (especially if you try to perform combos which are almost impossible to time right and leave you vulnerable for counterattacks), with low punches being traded like there is no tomorrow. Put a box or wall behind the guy however, and Nate will dynamically push him against it and use it as leverage in the fight. I know this doesn’t sound like much, and you’ll perhaps fight a maximum of 10 or 20 enemies like this, but the attention to detail is just amazing.

Before I finally touch on the Prince of Persia dynamic of gameplay, I’ll quickly go into some of the other minor action sequences the game will throw at you. In a true Indy fashion you’ll find yourself behind the trigger of a huge jeep mounted machine gun. I don’t have to explain how a wild chase through the jungle with Elena behind the wheel and dozens of jeeps, trucks and bikes loaded with mercenaries at their tails pans out, do I? You also get to drive a vehicle yourself, with Elena closely latched on at your back. Before you get any ideas, I’m talking about riding a jet ski through a flooded city ruin and later on upstream. The second part had me scratching my head especially, since apparently half of the world oil production gets used to fill barrels which then float down the river itself. Hardly realistic and at times frustrating I know, but this is just one of the examples where gameplay is put before realism.

So, with that out of the way, let’s discuss jumping and handing from high places. It’s true, Uncharted has quite a lot of both, but neither is as fleshed out as we were led to believe. In fact, in comparison to all the shooting action, the game is quite starved when it comes to platforming. But, what there is of it, it is all pretty good. Following the standards set by Tomb Raider Legend and the Prince of Persia series, grabbing onto ledges isn’t that hard, so most of the time all you have to do is figure out where to move next and not actually worry about falling to your death trying to get there. And unlike in PoP where you never were sure if you were taking the right route, or if perhaps that switch on the other side of the room should be pressed first, you’ll always know where to go in Uncharted, due to the fact that there is only one route to take at any given time. Is there a huge vine in front of you? You can be sure you’re supposed to climb it. Is it blocked by debris? Well, you probably need to burn the debris down and then climb it. Bottom line is, you’ll never ever have several directions you can go in. At most you’ll come upon dead ends that were set there to give the illusion of nonlinearity.

Ok, so we now know the action parts as well as the exploration/suicidal hanging over bottomless pits parts work fairly well. But how do they combine? Pretty good I have to say. But (you knew it was coming, didn’t you?), that’s not saying much considering the roughly 80/20 distribution of both. If both were more equally represented I fear the game would have grown repetitive pretty quickly, since we all know how much fun hanging from high places can be if there isn’t much challenge in it. So, those 80% of shooting save the game? Well, in a way they do. I’ve yet to be bored in a good shooting game, and placing the whole GoW fighting mechanic into ruins and jungles made Uncharted amazingly original and fun. So yes, the game is more shooter than it is an adventure action game, but that just saves it from becoming repetitive and tedious.

A game with style

I know I tend to say this a lot lately, but Uncharted has some pretty amazing animations. They are, for the most part, comparable to the animations found in Assassin’s Creed. I’ve already mentioned the very cool looking fights, but the rest of them look equally impressive. When hiding behind a box, getting shot at Nate does these little things like covering his head when a bullet chips away a part of his cover (yes, some of the walls can fall apart, spectacularly if a grenade explodes nearby I might add) or breathing really deeply when he returns to cover after firing a few shots. Perhaps the worst part of the animation is how real his running up and down stairs is. Yes, running carefully downstairs (tilting his body slightly sideways) or making these huge duck-like steps when running up certainly is in line with how most of us would run on mossy, probably slippery stairs. I don’t know, perhaps this was intentional to make Nate look more human (and it certainly helps make him more likable), but it sometimes just breaks the illusion that you are controlling a fierce treasure hunter.

The rest of the graphics aren’t too shabby either. The character models themselves are all full of life and up till the last one display these small human touches that make killing a mercenary really satisfactory (if I just came off like this psycho, chill down, I rarely leave my dungeon anyway). And the environments… just wow. They sometimes have this cartoony look (huge grass stalks, bright colors) that doesn’t really add up with how the characters look, but for the most part they look superb. Nice vistas (almost rivaling the ones found in Crysis), detailed ruins and foliage that reacts to the player (leaves bending, branches snapping) help make the illusion complete.

And the sound is just as good. The small one-liners I’ve mentioned toward the start of the review? They are just fabulous. Like the small animation niceties Nate does, they help make him human. His comments range from playful over nasty stuff said at enemies to sad observations after fights. And Elena has tons to say as well, most of it just as good as the stuff Nathan has up his sleeve. Sound effects follow a similar pattern, with weapon sounds clearly defined and environmental effects that just suck you in. And the music, ahh… what can I say about it that would do it justice? You know the Indiana Jones tune that John Williams wrote all those years ago? Well, Uncharted is filled with songs just like that. If that doesn’t get you drooling, you clearly don’t appreciate good adventurous music.

Conclusion

Well, I can safely say that after a few big titles for the PS3 that were not all out great games, Uncharted is finally a title that could sell the console on its own. The blend of shooting, jumping and hanging, as well as vehicle intermezzos is driven up to perfection. The story, while predictable has some nice “unexpected” turns and characters that can be related to (though I doubt any of us will ever find ourselves in their shoes). Perhaps the only shortcoming is the length of the game. If you aren’t rushing through it, you’ll probably spend about 8 hours at it. A decent length, I agree, but when you realize that is everything the game has to offer (no multiplayer) it suddenly doesn’t sound like that much anymore. For what it’s worth, games like this shouldn’t be judged by their length – it is the ride itself that matters after all, not the destination or the time it took to get there.

Gameplay
88/100
A mix of Gears of War and Prince of Persia (with a heavy emphasis on the first) ends up being quite a refreshing experience.
Graphics
89/100
No loading times, great animation and some amazing locales sure show the power of the PS3.
Audio
92/100
Superb voice acting and music that will have you packing your climbing gear in no time.
Value
82/100
Completely linear experience that will take about 8 hours to complete. That’s it folks!
Overall
(not an average)
88/100
New IPs often end up being overlooked over games with better known names. Don’t let Uncharted suffer that same fate – it is one of the best games released this year.



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