Review: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (**** stars)

Uncharted-Drakes-Fortune

The Biblical texts sometimes tell the same story twice, with different details. When you read the Bible cover to cover, you tend to notice these sorts of strange things. Two different authors want to focus on two different aspects of the same story, and that’s great! The two narratives don’t contradict necessarily, but coalesce into a greater picture for us to observe. Video games like Uncharted, for their part, work similarly to the analysis of texts.

We figure out their genre, and then we can see the various genre tropes, influences, and game mechanics put into new molds. Uncharted Drake’s Fortune lies in the FPS/TPS cover-based shooting boom of the late 00s. Whereas other contemporaries such as Gears of War and Rainbow Six: Vegas took a relatively straightforward army/cops and terrorists motif, Uncharted evokes the grand old adventures of penny dreadfuls, 1940s serials, and the same series inspired by those serials: Indiana Jones. Nathan Drake is our cocksure hero, while Elena Fisher fits into the “spunky heroine/damsel in distress”, and Victor Sullivan (“Sully”) plays the role of old guy/mentor/other. Really, the story’s narrative tropes played well in other mediums, and to no one’s surprise it works here. By the end of the game, you’ll root for the characters and actually find yourself invested in this story of a Spanish colony gone wrong, Nazi submarines, treasure hunting, and ancient curses.

In our Biblical text case, 1 Kings 1, it seems that the kingship of Solomon wasn’t a sure thing; Adonijah claimed the throne, simply because Solomon’s age disqualified him for the throne. Probably his status as a “bastard child” certainly didn’t help thing. But, with the help of his mother Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan, Solomon eventually claims the throne. Of course, he’s a little kid at the time who could care less, but his mother certainly want this. Dying kings led to coups and deaths, and supporters of the young Solomon didn’t want to die. When a little deception brings him to power, you’re not surprised:

11 Then Nathan spoke to Bathsheba the mother of Solomon, saying, “Have you not heard that Adonijah the son of Haggith has become king, and David our lord does not know it? 12 So now come, please let me give you counsel and save your life and the life of your son Solomon. 13 Go at once to King David and say to him, ‘Have you not, my lord, O king, sworn to your maidservant, saying, “Surely Solomon your son shall be king after me, and he shall sit on my throne”? Why then has Adonijah become king?’ 14 “Behold, while you are still there speaking with the king, I will come in after you and confirm your words.”

It’s a complete coincidence that the prophet Nathan pops up here (no relation to Francis Drake). Apparently, they took advantage of his old age, as I cannot find a single verse in 1 or 2 Samuel that says otherwise. On the other hand, the Chronicles narrative makes it unerringly clear, multiple times, that David chose Solomon before his death. The “coup” story doesn’t even exist in that retelling. When David sets up the materials to build the Temple, God tells him he won’t. Instead, He delegates the task to Solomon in 1 Chronicles 28:

5 Of all my sons (for the Lord has given me many sons), He has chosen my son Solomon to sit on the throne of the kingdom of the Lord over Israel. 6 He said to me, ‘Your son Solomon is the one who shall build My house and My courts; for I have chosen him to be a son to Me, and I will be a father to him. 7 I will establish his kingdom forever if he resolutely performs My commandments and My ordinances, as is done now.’

Which is strange, right? But two people might tell the same story in an entirely different way, even when presented with the same facts. We see two different narrative emerging, both of which shed a different light from the inspired authors of the Bible. Many mediums work the same way, the most notable example being Rashomon integrating this right into its narrative. In the case of video games, you can overlay a new aesthetic appeal to bring new life (and slight differentiation) to old mechanical tropes.

Unlike, say, Call of Duty, nobody expects realism in an adventure like Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, and that aspect of the Indiana Jones template actually works to the game’s benefit. Yes, you will shoot lots of dudes and possibly punch/kick them to death, but that happens in Indiana Jones too! Evil monsters like the ones in the game don’t exist either, but you don’t see me complaining. The story, thematically consistent with its forebearers, allows Naughty Dog to craft elaborate setpieces and frequently take you out of your comfort zone through genre switches. It reminds me of their experimentation regarding the Jak & Daxter series when Jak II turned into a lighthearted Grand Theft Auto clone with shooting elements in addition to the Super Mario 64-esque platforming. Here, though, Uncharted works with a greater deal of focus and becomes the better for it.

While the enemies don’t vary too often, in contrast to Gears of War’s variety in this respect, the different weapons they hold and the configurations of rooms make each one a test of tactical mettle. Which enemies present the most dangers? Probably the ones with rocket-propelled grenades, sniper rifles, or high-octane weaponry. At the same time as these bead down on your position, other enemies will attempt to flank your precarious position. Most cover isn’t safe, then, for a long period of time as foes try to flush you out with grenades. You, of course, can do the same to them if you understand what they’re trying to do. Furthermore, limited ammo stocks force you to expose yourself to pick up dropped ammo from dead enemies, and melee attacks can provide you with double ammo if done with the right button combination. I can’t remember a time I specifically ran from cover in Gears or Vegas because I ran out of ammo, but it happens all the time in Uncharted. It keeps things lively and interesting, if a bit difficult for most folks not used to this sort of thing. As for taking you out of your comfort zone, let’s say that events in the game compel you to fight enemies in darkened areas without the benefit of cover. It completely switches the game on its head and makes for some intense moments.

For all the great things about the combat sequences, there’s a few flaws in the actual design. I knew, in most areas, that I would need to kill every enemy, and that they would come in multiple waves. However, it’s difficult to tell that you will die from a rocket launcher in your currently held position in the next wave until you die. That frequently happened, as I found that the game wanted and nudged me to move forward, but I thought cowardice the better part of valor. Pro-tip, then: always keep moving down the rails! The linearity is your friend! I am fine with the trial-and-error nature of the sequences, and the long spaces between combat checkpoints which foster consistency, but sometimes you just need to memorize threat and enemy placement. Gears and Vegas suffered from the same issue at times, but your protagonist had more leeway AND body armor. Here, a few moments out of the safety of rocks and other walls lead to death. Quick, painful death.

A bigger problem comes from the hilariously unrealistic nature of the AI. One thing the setting does not justify is enemies with X-ray vision who see you before you even enter a room. I mean, seriously, how can they track me if they didn’t even see me? And this goes for every enemy. Come on, they’re a ragtag group of pirates, how could they know exactly where I am from that distance? This makes sense later, but not in the beginning of the game. Most enemies also take unbelievably punishment, something in the range of ten gunshot wounds to the chest without body armor. Again, this break the immersion a bit when your action hero cannot kill a guy in a single shot except through the ubiquitous head-shot (always a crowd pleaser). Lastly, anyone savvy enough can exploit the AI in some sequences through bottlenecks in the stage design. This made me laugh quite a bit when soldiers, monsters slowly crowd through a door or stairway to “flank” me only to explode in white hot shotgun death.

Thankfully, Naughty Dog buttresses these action sequences with frequent breaks from the action in the form of platforming in the vein of Tomb Raider/Assassin’s Creed and driving various vehicles while shooting things. The latter comes up a few times in a jeep with a turret (fun!) and a waterski where you stop the boat to aim (not so fun). The former, however, becomes a primary part of the game once you stumble into an area and say “where am I going”? Take note: I disabled Game Hints intentionally to see whether I could figure out the linear sequence of events myself. For the most part, my brain would look for the desired location and then work my way backwards to the first platform in the jumping/climbing set. I’m not sure whether they intended this or not, but that’s what you need to do if the game isn’t spoonfeeding you the next scripted event.

As for the platforming itself, there’s no actual challenge here. It just looks cool and breaks the pace for a few moments from the constant shooting. I found myself dropping off a cliff more than I liked as walking would cause a grand camera sweep and cause me to fall to my death, but all in all it’s just there. Same goes for the puzzles; after looking at Sir Francis Drake’s journal, you’ll know what to do instantaneously – not really a challenge. Even so, I appreciate the gestures – they break the game up into distinct, edible chunks which make sense. Whereas Gears got exhausting after a while and Vegas felt like it emptied its bag of tricks towards the end, Uncharted avoids this problem through deft pacing and different game elements.

If there’s one pace breaker that really irked me, the quicktime events would take the cake. They come infrequently, out of nowhere, and kill you. Rarely do they ever constitute anything interesting, and frequently the button prompt pops up in the bottom left hand corner of the screen. Without fail, every time I would completely forget and die. Thankfully, they place checkpoints right before it, but why bother when you can die so easily for no reason? It’s not fun, just tedious. Like God of War, the “cinematic” nature of the game receive emphasis through these sequences, but they always seem to hamper my enjoyment. On a further note, Gears of War does this extremely infrequently, if at all, and Vegas contents itself with context sensitive actions that look incredibly cool like rappelling (and you actually control it!).

So, in the end, Uncharted strikes a distinct stance from other cover-based shooters through the additional difficulty and relatively smart AI. To avoid tedium, it breaks the game up with puzzle and platforming sequences, rout but enjoyable. Some experimentation provides less success (the waterski is boring, sorry) and certain sequences require complete rout memorization (the final “boss” comes to mind), but all in all Uncharted Drake’s Fortune succeeds at recreating adventure movies in a video game while convincingly putting you in the action. Although it doesn’t contain the refined gunplay and melee of Gears or the strategic depth of Vegas, it holds its own as a unique experience in its own right by comparison.

Intended Audience: Uncharted is more than likely intended for viewers familiar with Indiana Jones or any recent adventure films of the past 3-4 decades. As such, it contains semi-realistic shooting and driving sequences, light double entendres, and the language of a hard PG-13 movie.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.