Derivative but great, up until the horrible ending
There is nothing in "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune" that you haven't seen before and in most cases, done better in other games. However, the combination of gorgeous graphics, great pacing, and solid gameplay make it a very fun action-adventure game. That is, up until you reach the absolutely terrible ending, which comes close to spoiling the entire show and leaves a bad taste in your mouth in the process. Uncharted provides eight hours of great entertainment, followed by an hour of spectacularly bad "What in God's name were they thinking?"
"Uncharted" is one of those games that makes a wonderful first impression on you. The opening cut scene is so gorgeous, you will think that you are watching pre-rendered CGI, but you aren't. The main character, Nathan Drake, and the beautiful reporter sidekick/love interest that he is with look stunningly lifelike from head to toe. They would be perfect, were it not for some funky mouth animations when they speak. The water looks downright inviting. The lush jungle rounds out a beautiful outdoor look that takes second place only to Crysis. The combat animations for Drake are pretty good – what you would expect from a cover-based shooter. The platforming animations are OK, but not on par with Assassin's Creed or Prince of Persia. The explosions are also pretty boring to look at. Even with these minor issues though, the graphics are a huge asset for the game.
Beyond the graphics, the game does have some gameplay to offer that is solid, albeit not extraordinary. It alternates between cover-based firefights, platforming sequences, and occasional puzzle solving. To call the gameplay completely derivative would be an understatement. Everything in it is something that you have seen a half dozen or more times in other games, and in some cases, done better. That is not to say that "Uncharted" has bad gameplay – it may not excel at anything, but it also doesn't fail at anything. In addition, it has excellent pacing and finely tuned combat and levels that keep the fun factor at a high level for most of the game. All of the gameplay elements come together very nicely along with the characters and story to make a convincing action-adventure.
Cover-based shooting makes up for about half of the game. It is not extraordinary in how it tackles the shooting, but it is still very fun. It executes the mechanics very nicely. The game seems to have been designed with a great deal of knowledge about what makes cover-based shooting actually work. Unlike Gears of War, for example, there is actually a separate button for jumping and clinging to cover. Hey, a game where one button isn't mapped to 100 different functions. Wow, what a revolutionary concept! Enemies do a little bit of moving around, but not a lot. They are pretty good at using cover themselves. They are also adept at using grenades if you linger in one place for too long. The weapons are adequate and typical shooter fare. The ammo dropped by enemies is tuned so that you will probably use all of the weapons in the game, constantly switching to whatever you have most recently found ammo for.
Platforming adds a sense of adventure to the game, although it doesn't add many memorable moments from a gameplay perspective. It gives you the sense of being a movie action hero/treasure hunter, and thus, it is also is an asset to the game. Beyond this sense, it is very unremarkable, and it has nothing that you haven't already done many times if you are an experienced gamer. It is simple and takes few chances. You jump from one high ledge to another and mantle up. You shimmy along ledges, swing from ropes, and find treasure in hard to reach places. The controls work very well, and the game has very few really hard jumps or timed sequences in it. If you have played a pure platformer like the Prince of Persia series though, then you probably won't be blown away by what you find here.
Puzzle solving is the last significant element of "Uncharted". Like the platforming, it fits in with the Tomb Raider/Indiana Jones theme of the movie. However, it is very mundane and easy. It basically boils down to "flip the switches in this order", "shoot the exploding barrel to get through this wall", or "rotate the statues in the right direction". If you are an experienced gamer, then you have seen these types of puzzles hundreds of times by now. They work in this game, but it is somewhat disappointing that Naughty Dog didn't spend any effort at all trying to come up with something more interesting.
Without a truly memorable element of gameplay, it is difficult to describe what makes the game fun. The game excels at execution, pacing, and tuning – concepts that don't make for bullet points on the back of a box. For example, the default difficulty level in this game is very well calibrated, so that you can pop out to aim for a head shot just long enough to line one up before you get killed. There are some very challenging sequences that may require a few retries, but not much more than that.
One feature of this game that may go unnoticed by a lot of people is the generous placement of save points. Uncharted saves so often for you that it is almost as if you had a quick save key. If you die during a fight or in a platforming sequence, it is rare that you will ever have to play more than about a couple minutes worth of gameplay. Sometimes it is only a few seconds. The way in which this game always challenges you but rarely frustrates you is a tremendous asset that many other games should imitate. It never gets boring, and by the same token, it never makes you want to throw your controller across the room. Pacing is another aspect of the game that "Uncharted" accomplishes perfectly. There are no loading screens in the game, and it constantly changes up the gameplay. A combat sequence or a platforming sequence never overstays its welcome. There is also a hint system if you get stuck, which can happen occasionally.
The story in "Uncharted" doesn't sound like a lot on the surface. You are a treasure hunter, a descendant of Sir Francis Drake looking for one legendary artifact. Along the way, you travel with a beautiful woman and an older mentor type guy. The story manages to be surprisingly good though. The dialog is very well written and the voice acting is top notch for all of the major characters. Towards the end, the story reveals itself to be deeper than you might expect with a pretty big plot twist.
"Uncharted: Drake's Fortune" is a great action-adventure game with a fun story, up until the end. What you have read up until now about the game's solid design goes completely out the window in the last hour. Quite simply, the last few chapters of this game are a disaster of epic proportions. I have finished over 150 games in my life, and the abysmal ending here easily qualifies as one of the top 10 worst. I don't want to spoil the story by telling you why, but I will say that suddenly, the game changes from a cover-based shooter with platforming into something resembling a survival horror game where you are constantly fighting groups of enemies that rush at you and jump on you at close range. The controls clearly weren't designed for these parts, and thus, they fail miserably. At this point, the game also inexplicably becomes very stingy with save points. Not only does the gameplay tank horribly, but the difficulty skyrockets. I was truly enjoying this game up until a major plot twist. After the end, I was relieved to just get it done and get the thing out of my PS3.
The ending isn't enough to make me tell you to stay away from this game, but it is enough to make me not want to replay it. Since it is a standard linear 10-hour game, it is tough to recommend as a purchase, but easy to recommend as a rental. It is a great showcase for the graphical abilities of the PS3 and a fun game for most of its length. Ultimately, if you haven't played this game you should. Hopefully, Uncharted 2 will avoid a couple of the pitfalls from the first game.