Exploring the long lost land of the bargain bin
For almost two years now, I’ve been refusing to buy Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune on account of the game’s $70 asking price on the free market. While some of the praise lent to the game by friends of mine tantalized me into making the plunge, I could never bring myself to invest money in the archetypical “next-generation game.” By that term, I mean that Uncharted has cutting-edge technology, “Hollywood-esque” story and production values…and not an original idea to be found in the whole damn jungle island. So I waited, and waited, and finally, Sony has added Drake’s little scallywag to the $30 Playstation 3 Greatest Hits Collection. This allowed me to buy the game used for five bucks less and keep all profits from reaching Sony HQ.
Nathan Drake is the star of this action movie game thingy. He works at Jean Machine, enjoys high protein diets, shopping for belt buckles at the local dwarven blacksmith, and gelling his hair with grease and cement powder. He pays for his high-expense lifestyle by moonlighting as a treasure hunter, following in the footsteps of his flop of a great-grandfather in searching for a mysterious trinket thingy. There’s an obligatory smarmy female love interest and a salty old man, both existing primarily to be kidnapped by the obligatory foreign terrorist enemies with no non-jerk-related qualities and…well it’s an American action movie plot. National Treasure and Indiana Jones are the two obvious franchises that one can point at as possible inspirations, but this game is practically imitating the many, many, many major action films designed over the years. I can’t help but view that as lazy or safe storytelling; I can’t buy this “Hollywood” approach as being a homage because we’ve already gotten too many similar video games and even more actual “Hollywood-style” Hollywood movies still being made with multi-million dollar budgets. It’s as frivolous as Infamous or Prototype trying to pass themselves off as “comic book-inspired” like that somehow justifies their own cliché storytelling.
Really, my biggest problem with Uncharted is that it ironically explores no uncharted territory at all. Every idea, mechanic, concept, level and so forth has been taken from other, often better games. I was trying to think of what could be considered “uncharted territory” in Uncharted (pun poorly intended) and the best that I could come up with was a technical aspect; your $150 designer white t-shirt will get wet when drenched, but only in the spots where water has come in contact with the cloth. Impressive technological feat, but one I wouldn’t have noticed had video game website previews not pointed it out to me years ahead of time. It also bears mentioning that Drake and friends have spent an extended vacation tanning on top of the uncanny valley, and are entering this video game with a Barbie doll skin complexion.
About thirty percent of this treasure-hunting adventure game is spent engaging in the actual adventuring process. Drake runs, jumps, climbs, shimmies, swings and falls to his death with the same bravado and passion as any good tomb-raiding personality. The controls are fluid and lean on the forgiving side. Drake animates with the same animated level of struggle and panic that you’d expect out of someone barely latching on to smooth stone with their fingertips. Plus the architecture of the tombs, jungles and cliff sides are visually stunning enough to be postcard worthy and are strong enough to immerse the player into this exotic island adventure. On the opposite end, there is almost always a singular, linear path that you can explore, and you’ll often make blind jumps to your pretty-boy death from mistaking part of the environment for a platform that you can climb.
But that’s only thirty percent of the action-packed thrill ride. The other seventy consists of drawn out enemy gunfights ripped page-for-page, tab-for-tab, cover-for-cover from Gears of War. You take cover, you pick off enemies with conventional weapons (of which you can only hold two at a time) and Drake’s high intake of asparagus not only prevents prostate cancer but allows self-regenerating health. I could copy and paste most of that paragraph into so many, many other video game reviews and you’d be hard pressed to tell it originated in an Uncharted review, prostate cancer line and everything.
But the gunfights in Uncharted can either be fairly exciting or very annoying, and they often lean on the latter. Several gunfights take place in wide-open areas, with very large numbers of troops picking you off with surprising accuracy from long distances. That so many enemies can fire at you from so far away is made all the more annoying when you consider how sniper rifles have limited ammo and only appear sporadically and towards the game’s final act. Hence, you’ll have to rely on standard weapons and heavy squinting to pick off these sharpshooters (and I was playing on an HD set most of the time.) And these guards, whose protection can vary from “torn, old wifebeater” to “exposed beer gut” can take a surprising number of bullets to their vital organs. Hence, I’ve found myself clinging to the handgun as the most reliable means of securing those succulent headshots. Enemies respawn in an unnatural fashion, as if they were coming out of a respawning machine from Gauntlet instead of coming across as “reinforcements”, leaving you to spend more time stuck in a set-piece section of the game than you’d want to be. And these enemies can sometimes appear right behind you, scoring an easy kill and Game Overing your ass back to the start of an already-lengthy battle. Someone will tell me that this is an example of great AI in that they’re trying to flank me, but being flanked sure takes some of the thrill out of what is supposed to be a straightforward action movie game thingy. Not every game needs to be a damned tactical military shooter.
Oh, and don’t even try the three-punch melee attack to save ammo by knocking out an enemy with your enzigiri. Reliable as you’d think it is, you’re still vulnerable to enemy fire. I’d say “save it for the last goon on the field”, but you can never be sure with the random rate that enemies respawn. Though…I guess it’s more realistic that enemies can open fire while you’re in the midst of beating up a single goon. You’d just be left to think that Drake would concoct a more efficient way to disarm a foe than a six hit flurry.
All that said, I will state that I did enjoy Nathan Drake as a character. About a quarter of the way through the game, a major setback causes Nathan to lose his smile and adopt a John McClane-psyche of viewing every crisis and situation with complete panic. No matter how many grenades he dodges or how many hundreds and hundreds of pirates he snipes off in the head, he will always embrace the smallest crawling spider with fear and profanity. This is more relatable than the Marcus Fenix rage-induced machismo of Gears past.
And what little else there is to discuss about Uncharted are features that seem to be mandatory for action games of today. There are two jet ski vehicle sequences, a jeep gun turret sequence, and very infrequent quicktime events. None of which make any kind of memorable contribution to the game experience and serve simply to break the monotony of frequent foreigner gunfighting and cliffhanging. In the aforementioned tombs, there are the odd puzzle sequences where Nate can look at his ancestor’s diary for guidance (or rather, to outright spell out each puzzle’s solution.) Aaaaaand….that’s about it.
You may or may not have been able to tell from this review, but I actually kind of enjoyed the Uncharted experience. A few annoying setpiece battles notwithstanding, the game is very playable and straightforward as a whole. And ten-odd hours of killed time are worth the reduced thirty-odd dollars that’ll either be donating to Sony or Gamestop. It’s just that I feel like I’m walking away from Uncharted no better a human being than I was before. Everything that I experienced here, I’ve found before, and done better in other games. To be exact, Gears of War 2 and the Prince of Persia reboot execute the exact same gameplay ideas, but also manage to find a unique angle of which to make their own. Not every game needs to be an abstract and unique snowflake, but when you cling so hard to existing conventions while attempting so little to contribute anything new or bold to the gaming fold, then you’ll be ensnared in the 3-star scoring range within my reviews for a long time.
3 ½ stars