Uncharted: Drake's Fortune Review (PS3)

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune Box Art

  1. Summary
  2. Introduction
  3. Review
    1. Running and Gunning
    2. Jumping Around (Platforming)
    3. Story and Environment
  4. Conclusion
  5. Areas of Improvement
  6. Bonus (End of Game)

Summary [7.5 out of 10]

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is a diamond smeared with peanut butter. Uncharted oozes polish from every pore except for shooting mechanics… and unfortunately for it, shooting makes up more than 1/2 your time in this adventure. The constant dying you will be doing due to failed fire fights is offset by a very forgiving checkpoint/save system causing you to never loose much progress. If you do pick this game up, I highly suggest you play on the easiest difficulty level.

Introduction

In Uncharted you play as Nathan Drake, a descendant of the great explorer Sir Frances Drake. The premise of the story is that Nate is quite the treasure-hunter and is currently on a quest, with financial-backing from a documentary TV-show, to follow in Sir Frances’s footsteps. Nate gets his hands on Sir Frances’s original diary that had maps and information to El Dorado, a giant statue of gold, with help from his long-time friend Sully, and a tag-alone news reporter Elena Fisher (who is from the show that financially backed your expedition to find the coffin of Sir Frances Drake).

To get a better idea of what this game is like, image any of your favorite 80s adventures like Romancing the Stone or Indiana Jones and you more or less have it. The characters are all likable in their own way, the story is constantly moving and keeping you entertained… playing Uncharted is honestly a lot like watching a movie. There are a few twists in the story to keep things interesting, but nothing epic like your best friend turning out to be a zombie king.

Review

The first time you load up Uncharted you notice a slew of things right off the bat:

  • The music in this game sounds like the score from a summer blockbuster, it’s excellent.
  • This menu is not only nice looking, but responsive and easy to navigate. I really have to make this point clear… my wife commented on how “nice the menu was”, that’s when I realized it wasn’t just me… it’s a really nice/polished menu.
  • I love watching these cutscenes… to the point that cutscenes become your reward after long battles because they are so entertaining.
  • This voice-acting is spot-on… that’s just how I would imagine these characters would sound.
  • This is gonna be fun!

And it’s after that last point that you pretty much feel like you are holding a 9 out of 10 game in your hands… but there is a handful of tweaks with the shooting mechanic that make the game harder/more work than it should be.

Before I continue, I have to say that Uncharted offers the most polished pacing, direction and guidance at the beginning of the game that I’ve ever seen in a game. For folks that have already dug into Mass Effect, a game notorious for no pacing at the beginning, Uncharted is exactly the opposite.

The combination of slow “discovery” areas that let you just walk around and learn how to play, jump, grab, etc. and then some simple shooting and introductory cinematics and character development all tied in between all those sections like glue… honestly the first 15% of the game that leads you up to your first major encounter with the game’s bad guy is flawlessly executed. I can’t even imagine how many play-tests Naughty Dog went through or focus groups to make that section of the game as polished as it is… but it shows.

Review – Gameplay

The general character control in Uncharted is almost spot on. There were only a few times that I found myself frantically trying to lock on to some cover, couldn’t and ended up dying. When I have my senses about me and not freaking out, I never had a problem with the controls and felt the animations of the characters were really spot on.

For folks curious about SIXAXIS support, there are only 2 portions of the game that use it:

  1. Walking across 2 logs in the game
  2. Throwing a grenade

I am glad Naughty Dog didn’t use it more, I don’t think SIXAXIS in general is a great gameplay addition and actually think it makes using grenades much harder than they should be (see more down in Area for Improvements). As for the logs… there are 2 logs to walk across at the beginning of the game… you use the SIXAXIS to stay balanced (it’s pretty forgiving) and then you never see any other logs ever again… so not much more to say about that.As for NPCs, there are a decent-sized handful portion of Uncharted that you play with 1 or both of the other characters by your side including both general adventuring/walking around as well as shoot outs… and in all those scenes I found myself genuinely happy to have the company. The AI for the NPCs seemed pretty decent, I never had any qualms with what the characters was or wasn’t doing and as I mentioned, preferred those portions of the game when I had a side kick. That’s hard to pull off with an NPC, but Naughty Dog did it nicely.

The gameplay element break-down in Uncharted is (approximately):

  • 50% shooting
  • 30% platforming
  • 13% running/walking
  • 6% vehicles (1x jeep, 2x jet ski)
  • 1% context-sensitive (a la God of War)

Unfortunately I have some minor qualms with the shooting and context-sensitive aspects of Uncharted, while the platforming, running/walking, and vehicles are action-packed and a lot of fun. Details on the shooting qualms are in the next section, but my problems with the context-sensitive portions (3 of them, from what I remember) is not that they aren’t cool… they are, but they are so few and far between that you are never expecting them and usually miss the first button press or two.

I haven’t made my mind up about context-sensitive scenes in general… the idea is to allow you to do awesome/cinematic moves with simple single button presses, but the problem is you are so damn focused on watching for the next indicator that you can’t enjoy or watch what your character is actually doing on the screen. I felt this way with every single context-sensitive moment in God of War (both games) and others since then. I suppose fortunately for Uncharted, even though it seems like the type of game that would have a lot of these moments in it, it does not.

Review – Running and Gunning

After you and Sully go digging into the first level together to figure out what Sir Frances Drake was hiding (rumored to have faked his own death), you discover some important things pertaining to the great treasure and are greeted by the games nemesis. After a cutscene sets the pace for the game the shooting begins in earnest… no more super-easy shooting levels with a handful of guys that die easily… no, the honeymoon is officially over.

NOTE: Here is where I need to make a clarification to my comments below about shooting in Uncharted. If you are play on Easy (you can change it in the Options menu during play, no need to restart), the game is great and in harder scenes you won’t be reloading much. If you play on Normal or Hard, you will be reloading so much you will likely get frustrated and not want to keep playing. This is all due to 1 simple design decision that Naughty Dog made, and I’ll outline that below. So just keep this caveat in mind… if you get Uncharted, play it on Easy and it’s a great game.

It isn’t that the game’s plot or quality suddenly go down hill, if anything the story picks up and gets better and better. It’s just that you now have to participating in shooting scenes… a lot, and they can be obnoxiously difficulty (on Normal or Hard only). Shooting in Uncharted is much more difficult than other games it emulates like Gears of War or Rainbow Six Vegas, not because Naughty Dog didn’t get the controls right, it is all caused by one simple design choice: There is no crosshair when you are behind cover.

What that means is you cannot pre-aim, then pop out of cover and shoot. Every time you duck behind cover, your cross hair disappears, meaning you only have the opportunity to aim when you are out from cover. That doesn’t sound too bad… but when you combine that with the fact that all the bad guys you fight are dead-accurate, it’s an extremely frustrating experience that occurs over and over and over. You have 4 guys shooting at you, you pop out and begin to adjust your crosshair to shoot one of them… in the mean time the 4 are still shooting you and hitting you. On harder difficulty settings this means dying unless you are popping out only for a second at a time.

There is also a portion of the game where you have to Run & Gun, at the same time, and the lack of a crosshair while you are not in “Aiming” mode is a true kick to the nuts. The enemies you are fighting are ruthlessly fast at this particular point in the game, and it’s more or less 1-hit, 1-kill situation… so scrambling around a room trying to pick them off while another attacks from the side leaves very little time to aim as soon as you have stopped and leads to a lot of deaths… I hated this particular level in the game :(

Many of you might be thinking “well just stay behind cover and pick them off”… I’d love to, but unfortunately their will throw grenades to get you out from behind cover and the AI is actually fairly impressive, in that they will charge or flank you… forcing you out from cover and then owning the shit out of you.

To make this point more clear, I watched someone from the Naughty Dog team on a show give a demo of Uncharted during a scene that takes place inside a run down ruin/cathedral area. He died 3 times and had to restart while showing the demo. I got to this part in the game, and it took me 5 restarts to finally get past it… this isn’t fun. It wasn’t until I hit a point 65% of the way through the game, that after 8 reloads, I finally said “fuck it” and turned the difficulty down to Easy… then I started to have fun again.

Fortunately, Naughty Dog has been very generous with it’s check-point system, meaning every time you die you are likely only restarting right before the last group of guys you were killing or last fight. You won’t be starting back at the beginning of any levels or anything drastic like that.

NOTE: Again, to clarify, the complaints above about shooting only pertain when playing Uncharted in Normal to Hard. Some of the bigger fights (inside the church, twice, at base camps, etc.) you will likely die and have to redo over and over and over again unless you drop the difficulty down to Easy… and even then, you may end up retrying it a few times until you get it, but at least it’s a bit more reasonable difficulty.

Another quirk I would mention, that was obnoxious during high-stress scenes, is that even on Easy mode, enemies can take 3-5 shots to put down. Unless you are shooting people in the goddamn eyes, they seem to dance around like monkeys after getting shot, not allowing you to pop them 3 or 4 more times without retracking them with the cross-hair. Like I said, this was only obnoxious in the bigger fights when your life was low and almost out of ammo… I did find myself mouthing “Fuck YOU” a few times at the screen as some pirate dances around after the 5th shot to the chest… those are some serious pirates.

With those caveats aside, the shooting mechanic, when you have a bit more time to aim and fire, is actually pretty good. Aiming is smooth with the Dual-Shock controls, pop-out using L1 and fire using L2 feels natural, you don’t have to give it much thought. Honestly if that one single change of leaving the cross-hair intact when behind cover was implemented in a patch, I would say shooting would be just as fluid/natural as in Gears of War and give the game a 8 out of 10 easy.

Another thing Uncharted does really well is the cover system, and shifting from cover is done smoothly as well. Not quiet as smoothly as Gears of War did it, but smooth non-the-less. Shifting from one pillar to the next, or leaping from cover behind another is all done easily and auto-locked on, so you don’t have to scramble around like a crab on fire once you leave the first cover point.

On last thing to discuss about fighting before continuing on is that Uncharted does use a “wave” approach to introducing bad guys. Meaning as you walk into a room there may be 4 bad guys… you kill them, and then 4 more burst from the doors and 2 climb over a wall. I don’t personally like this approach because of how contrived it seems, but I did not ding the game on this in the score for it as some gamers don’t mind “waves”. Also, from a gameplay perspective, it never distracted from the game in a negative way, no enemies spawn behind you or anything cheap like that, so it was easy to look past this; I just wanted to note it in this review.

Review – Jumping Around (Platforming)

In this area, Uncharted really shines. There is no level-branching in Uncharted and only one way to go, but this is disguised by never making the platforming boring, always looks good and at least half of it will have your heart pumping afraid Drake might fall off. I also have to point out that as hard as a good camera angle is to pull off during platforming, Uncharted does it flawlessly throughout the entire game. Of all the jumping, ledge climbing, shuffling across edges, etc. I think there was 1 time during the game I thought the camera angle was a few degrees off, making it hard for me to tell where to go next; and in that case all I did was adjust it myself and see where I had to go.

Bravo to Naughty Dog for polishing the climbing and camera work so well.

One of the nicest design decisions Naughty Dog did in Uncharted is that when Drake is platforming and hanging off the edge of something and you try and point him at the next ledge you want to jump to, he will get into a prepared-to-jump position that indicates the direction he’s about to jump in. Here is an example of what it looks like:

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune Platform Leaning

This becomes hugely important during some of the more complex platforming sections where it’s not immediately clear where you have to jump, but you are hanging off a ledge 200ft in the air… being able to see approximately what Drake is aimed at is critical, and Uncharted pulls it off perfectly.

Naughty Dog also didn’t fall short on giving Nate generous abilities like an incredible long jump or leaping 30ft after swinging off a vine, and grabbing a ledge with your finger tips. All of those details serving to make the game more fun, make Nate look cooler and to have you worry less about pin-point precision which can become really obnoxious in a platformer. Thankfully Naughty Dog just lets you feel cool while you platform, and doesn’t beat you down with mechanics and precision.

There is one issue that you will have consistently with platforming in Uncharted, and that is figuring out where to jump next. There were 3 or 4 parts of the game where I actually had to leap to my death over and over towards things I thought were the next hand-grab, because I didn’t know where to jump next. Luckily, as I mentioned before, the checkpoint system is very generous so I would just start back at the same point in the puzzle after dying or right before it… not a big deal.

Part of the reason that it’s common to get stuck trying to find where to jump next in Uncharted, is because they made the world look so real and didn’t make the hand-grabs painfully-obvious which is something I appreciate. So I’m not dinging the game on score for this, it actually made the micro-challenges of finding the next hand-hold fun and there was only 1 truly frustrating part where I got stuck and had no idea where to go for about 30mins (HINT: It’s in the puzzle-cave near the end, and my tip to you is that you need to go where ever the swinging fire-lamps are. Use them as guides.)

Review – Story and Environment

I grouped these 2 elements together so I could rate them all at once: 10 out of 10.

A lot has been said about Uncharted’s graphics, and while I don’t think they are mind-bending, they are certainly fantastic. I think the people that have said “Uncharted graphics are amazing” really mean a combination of both the great visuals combined with the excellent level design. The environments themselves are impeccably detailed with me really only disliking 1 level of the entire game, and that was more of an issue with the bad guys you fight on that level more than the level itself (HINT: I mentioned it in the Running and Gunning section).

One level in particular that I was really captivated with, that I think people will find more… satisfying than they think it should be, is the jet ski level where you have to race upstream. There was something… so real about this level and “getting wet” as you raced your jet ski up stream, over white water rapids, dipping it down and getting your clothes soaked that felt really adventurey to me… I don’t know what it was, but I totally dug it.

The characters in Uncharted are colorful, funny, personable and accurately portrayed. The genuinely interesting script, combined with perfectly voice-acted and mo-capped characters with sprinkles of humor in between made me constantly hoping after each fire-fight I would be rewarded with another cutscene… thankfully Naughty Dog didn’t disappoint and the game is just chalk-full of cutscenes, end to end. By the time you are done with the game and have unlocked all the cutscenes, you can absolutely sit down and watch the game like a movie with a friend and they would probably be interested.

As a quick example of the characters, cutscenes and story line, the introduction cutscene goes a long way to exemplify the rest of the game:

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The story itself starts off simple enough: find treasure. The spice of it comes from the characters involved in the finding-treasure. Then just as you think you have the story all figured out and think it’s pretty basic or straight forward, there is a twist in the story… then another one, then a surprise that is morbidly cool and not something you would have expected this late in the story. As I mentioned the twists aren’t epic, but they certainly keep you interested.

The pacing at which the story unfolds in front of the player is, again, spot-on. I was never bored and never over-stimulated. At the few points in the game where I started to think “hmm, well I’ve got it all figured out, I guess the cutscenes will stop and I’ll just burn through the rest of the game” there would be some twist introduced that got me interested again. And just to clarify, the cutscenes don’t die off thankfully, there are a ton of them all scattered evenly through the game.

Naughty Dog, hats off to telling the story of Uncharted, you did a great job at it.

Conclusion [7.5 out of 10]

Uncharted is an excellent game marred by some slightly obnoxious design decisions that make the game harder than it needs to be. These design decisions, while each one tiny by itself, combined make certain parts of the game painful to complete and end up taking the wind out of your sails as you end up getting frustrated more than having fun.

Luckily though, the game is such high quality and the design issues small enough, that Uncharted is a 6-8hr adventure that can be a lot of fun to play. The storyline, environments, characters and overall polish on the game make it a great buy for anyone that has ever played a Tomb Raider game and enjoyed themselves. For twitch-FPS fans coming off of UT3 or Crysis, I would probably suggest you skip Uncharted, it may not be what you are looking for.

Areas of Improvement

As I bemoaned in the Running and Gunning section, one absolute option I would at least add to the options menu is to leave the cross-hair visible at all times. This would make playing on Normal possible and certainly less frustrating. Additionally I’d add a little more variety to the accuracy of bad guys on the difficulty levels. On Normal and Hard, getting sniped from half the screen away with a handgun from a guy behind a tree is very common… and obnoxious. I felt like those two elements tied together to make the game harder than it was suppose to be… detracting from enjoying the game and just slightly punishing the player for no particular reason that I could tell. With that change I would have given the game an 8 out of 10.

To make the game an 8.5 out of 10 I would suggest the following changes:

  • Melee (punching) is an unusable skill once the game gets going because of the fact that bad guys are flawlessly accurate. As soon as you loose cover, you are fucked. If some how the melee, which has some cool moves in it, could be made more useful, that would have been fun.
  • Grenades are harder to use than I think they should be because their distance is adjusted using the Six Axis control (pitching it forward or back)… again given how damn accurate bad guys are, and the fact that you can’t aim without popping out from cover, it takes too long to adjust your distance before throwing it (before being shot to death).
  • When bad guys get hit, they immediately switch into 1 of 5 or 6 side-straffing/dodging animations that makes aiming after them to get the 2nd or 3rd hit a total bitch. I’m sure this is intentional, but goddamn, it was annoying. I would only ding the game like .2 of a point for this.
  • Similar to the point above, on the jet ski levels, not only do you have to drive, but you also have to shoot… and if that weren’t hard enough (because you can’t do both at the same time), they level designers threw explosive barrels in the water… gimme a break. That’s just being cheap AKA “don’t race past all these bad guys we setup to shoot at you”.

If those changes were smoothed out such that I didn’t notice they were pain points, I would have given the game a 9 out of 10 in a heart beat (assuming the previous improvements were also in).

Lastly, just for fun, if the following 2 changes were in, I would have given it a 9.5 out of 10 (but I don’t expect these, they are just “fun”):

  • Dismemberment, persistent ragdolls with bad guys bodies, more gore. (M-Rating)
  • Better behaving water. This is purely for “wow”, because the water already looks fantastic… truly beautiful, but it doesn’t behave that realistic. Ironically enough the game I would give Best Water Award to right now is Halo 3. It doesn’t look that great, but buoyancy, current and realistic responses to force (gun fire, grenades, etc.) are all things the Halo 3 water responds to… making the interaction with it pretty phenomenal. Given that Uncharted has so much water in it, it would have been sweet to really stand back and say “oh shit” after you jumped in it and saw a real wave formed from the jump. Or blown a dude up in water and see his arms float down stream :)

Bonus – End of Game

The following 4 scenes are the last scene in Uncharted including the “boss battle”. If you haven’t played Uncharted yet, but want to, you may not want to watch these. I wouldn’t say they ruin the story really (since the story is slowly built/delivered during game play), but if you aren’t the type to read-ahead in a book, you may want to skip it. Just provided for the folks that like these kind of videos (sometimes I scour YouTube for end-game videos to games I never got a chance to play)

Part 1 of 4

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Part 2 of 4

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Part 3 of 4

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Part 4 of 4

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About Riyad Kalla

Software development, video games, writing, reading and anything shiny. I ultimately just want to provide a resource that helps people and if I can't do that, then at least make them laugh.

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16 Responses to “Uncharted: Drake's Fortune Review (PS3)”

  1. manny December 15, 2007 at 8:04 pm #

    nice review, i gotta try this one.

    i love these type of games and the new indi movie just around the corner :)

  2. Riyad Kalla December 15, 2007 at 9:44 pm #

    Thanks Manny, you are right btw, very Indie-esque. Light-hearted fun, likable characters, all that stuff.

  3. Anonymous January 3, 2008 at 2:37 pm #

    how do you move the statues in place to get the treasure?

  4. Riyad Kalla January 3, 2008 at 2:41 pm #

    Anonymous, do you mean the ones you have to rotate? You just grab them and match their position to the ones in your Journal ([Select] key)

  5. StormKlowd January 11, 2008 at 2:41 pm #

    On the subject of the missing crosshair while behind cover…If you take note that the cross-hair is always at the exact center of your screen, you can setup your shots pretty well just by centering the enemy on your screen and then popping out of cover. I actually liked this since it added a mechanic of “how close was I?” without the unrealistic perfect line-up of the shot from a perspective where the target should actually be invisible to the player (behind cover).

  6. Riyad Kalla January 11, 2008 at 2:47 pm #

    StormKlowd,
    That is a good point to make, and I will admit after I bumped it down to easy and spent time quickly bursting from cover for a few shots then going back and moving I had a better time of it.

    It’s funny because in Gears of War and Rainbow 6 Vegas and you can pretty much stay put and just take guys down one at a time, in Uncharted they actually come *at* you, so you always have to keep moving and taking cover.

    Out of curiosity, which difficulty level did you play the game on? Did you finish it yet?

    I think the end of the game on anything besides Normal would be pure punishment.

  7. Joonas January 25, 2008 at 3:01 am #

    I played on Normal difficulty and had to retry two scenes a lot – the final level and the big fight where there are two long, opposing staircases, machineguns and lots of cover in the middle, with bad guys coming from all directions.

    Obviously all gamers are different, but I found the fighting great – I wouldn’t have minded if there was even more of it. The grenade mechanic was a little difficult, but I got used to that, too, pretty quickly. I also found use for the melee attacks right to the end.

  8. Riyad Kalla January 25, 2008 at 9:46 am #

    Joonas,
    I know exactly the scene you mean, it’s inside a church or something… that was brutal and the first time I bumped the difficulty down because after the 5th time retrying, I was no longer having fun… just going crazy.

    I also found on that level if that if you try and stay behind cover in 1 location (like I was originally doing) the AI is really smart and will come at you, and circle around and push you out from cover.

    I found when I played more aggressively on that section and charged and constantly changed position, I actually had the upper hand.

    As for the last fight, that would have been a bear on Normal/Hard, I didn’t even bother… but nice job knocking it our yourself.

  9. jose April 6, 2008 at 12:50 pm #

    how do u beat the part where you have to rotate the stones

  10. Riyad Kalla April 7, 2008 at 7:18 am #

    Jose,
    You mean that part where you are inside the library and there are those 4 pillars that you have to rotate?

    You have to check your journal, and in it there is a drawing of the 4 animals that are on the pillars (lion, sheep, whatever, etc.) and they are facing certain directions… like the lion is facing east or something (I’m going from memory, so check your journal to make sure)… then you just grab the pillar for the lion and rotate it so it’s facing that same direction… once you do all the animals a door in the wall opens and you walk into the next part.

    Hope that helps.

  11. alan November 26, 2008 at 1:33 pm #

    there are 3 sections where the sixaxis is employed, not 2. If a mutant grabs you, you need to shake the controller to get free.

  12. Merv December 11, 2008 at 12:13 am #

    The 4 pillars are easy, just grab a mirror when your looking at the journal

  13. Hinsarrarne December 19, 2008 at 1:15 pm #

    Excellent web pages Successes and prosperity to you!

  14. Rick M December 27, 2008 at 3:40 pm #

    Love the game, but even though I only played it a couple times, I could see that this game, will be a great deal of fun, once I got the hang of the game. I love the format of the game.

  15. shane goins September 17, 2009 at 8:22 pm #

    i have rotate the 4 pillers the way they go but nothing happen please help

  16. Riyad Kalla September 21, 2009 at 8:32 am #

    Shane,

    I had trouble with this puzzle as well, my guess is that you have mis-interpreted one of the puzzle symbols in the guide with one of the ones in that room. IIRC I confused the eagle and lion or something like that — look again really closely and you should get it.

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