September 19, 2007 // 9:26 pm
- Uncharted: Drake's Fortune pits you as Nathan Drake, descendant of the famed British explorer (or bloodthirsty pirate, depending on your point of view) Sir Francis Drake, heading off on the trail of a great treasure supposedly found by the great man himself, shortly before he faked his own death. It is very much a game in the mold of Eidos' Tomb Raider franchise, but this isn't something Naughty Dog has a problem with; it's a rich genre, they say, and there's room for more than one franchise in it.
The game harks back to not only such modern cultural staples as Tomb Raider, but also the Indiana Jones movies, and it goes further back into the realm of Boy's Own adventures, old pulp novels, and 19th-century Penny Dreadfuls. As you'd expect with such a rich heritage, the story will be key, rather than just an excuse to get you from one gunfight to the next.
Over the course of the game, you will travel from a boat in the middle of the Pacific searching for Sir Francis Drake's coffin all the way to the mythical city of El Dorado, via ruined forts, deserted Spanish colonies, and all manner of other locations. The developer claims that the game will have 15 visually distinct areas, populated with a wide variety of puzzles and enemies.
While the puzzles are promised to be relatively challenging, the game will often help you along either with voice cues from NPCs or visual hints toward where you're trying to go. This hints could be a trail of lights up to the entrance you're looking for, or diagrams in the diary of Sir Francis Drake that you come across quite early on, in the unlikeliest of places.
In the sections we played through, the puzzles we encountered were fairly simple. One involved finding ways up to two platforms on either side of a body of water to raise the water level so we could proceed; the other involved following some mildly cryptic instructions from the diary by leaping around a ruined library to open a secret door.
As you'd expect, when not solving puzzles you will spend most of the game outnumbered and outgunned, but you won't be alone--you receive some support in the form of non-player characters. In the section we played through, from quite late in the game, one of the main characters--a budding documentary maker called Elena--was tagging along with you, providing a certain amount of cover fire but generally making a nuisance of herself. While there is no direct control over your support, the help can be invaluable.
In the section we played, Elena would move up fairly cautiously, providing small-arms fire when needed. While she won't take out many enemies by herself, the artificial intelligence is set up so that if she's the only one firing, it becomes much easier to outflank the approaching mercenaries, which proves useful given your low initial supply of ammunition and range of weapons.
While there is no official aiming assistance, when ducking out from behind cover to shoot, the crosshair tends to automatically pick up the enemy closest to the centre of your field of vision. This helps make life easier without making the combat too much of a breeze.
As has become par for the course in such games, you can carry only two firearms at any one time in Uncharted: a sidearm, which is generally a pistol or submachine gun such as an Uzi, and a heavier weapon. The heavier weapons cross the gamut you'd expect: in the sections we played there was a sniper rifle (with a measly five bullets) as well as an array of assault rifles and shotguns. You can also carry grenades, but these seemed rather hard to come by in the sections we played through. Playing the game, we found ourselves sticking to whichever assault rifle was being used by the opposition characters that carried them, and occasionally resorting to melee combat.
The melee element is an interesting addition to the relatively fast and loose gunplay, as the actions performed will vary considerably with the location and position of the enemies. You can sneak up behind unwary foes and snap their necks, charge down stairs and find yourself levelling enemies with a dropkick to the head, or just floor enemies on the flat with repeated punches to the gut.
The control scheme is intuitive, and the combat system will be instantly familiar to anyone who's played Gears of War; the nature of the combat leads to a very similar style of gunplay in which you find yourself ducking behind cover most of the time. One nice touch in the game is the reaction of the characters when taking cover--you can see Drake visibly flinch, and hear him curse as bullets ping off whatever item is currently shielding him from gunfire. The Naughty Dog team has developed a proprietary "emotional layering" technology that changes characters' facial and other physical expressions dynamically with their position. While the characters may only have a few thousand animations, these can be combined ad infinitum to create characters that feel considerably more real than you might expect from a relatively stylised world.
The use of the layering technology is not just restricted to emotional interaction, though--it also comes into play with Drake's interaction with his environment. As you roll through water, for instance, you'll suddenly find yourself wet; his jeans become darker and his action-hero grubby white shirt clings to him. Things gradually go back to the way you were as you dry off, in a manner that is also environmentally dependent--if you're wading through water, for example, the bottom of his jeans will remain sopping wet even as the rest of him dries off from a recent tumble.
Environmental interaction can have more lasting effects, too--blasting through a rotten balcony railing in an abandoned library with your shotgun can seem like a good idea when you see the first mercenary below, but you may find yourself wishing you hadn't demolished some of the precious little cover you have to protect you from his friends.
Another example of the game's versatility is the relatively advanced AI, as mentioned earlier. Your main foes are a band of pirates who rely on force of numbers and brute strength, and a group of heavily armored mercenaries, who are considerably more cunning. Both groups seem to react quickly to both your action and inaction, easily flanking and overrunning your position if stay still for too long, and reacting well when outflanked themselves.
The pirates seemed to be much more inclined to just lunge forward without considering your next move, which leads to more intense and slightly less tactical gun battles, whereas the mercs will move forward a little more reluctantly. Tied in with this is the game's dynamic difficulty setting; if you breeze through one waypoint section, you will find the next notably more difficult than it might otherwise have been, while the opposite is true if you are obviously struggling with one section.
This change was particularly apparent when playing through one two-waypoint section of the game for a second time; a slice of luck and experience from a first run led to a swift demolition of both waves of enemies up to the first waypoint, which led to a much harder second section, with the mercenaries there playing in a much more defensive mode than they did when the first section proved something of a struggle. Trying to then coax them out of cover without first exposing yourself to their weaponry proved a little trying but gave the game an interesting edge, and most gamers should find that the game's story plays out over the estimated 10 hours irrespective of skill levels.
While the game is unlikely to have much replay value, there are items scattered around the world to collect for the completionists out there, and Naughty Dog also promises a wide variety of internal points-style achievements that will become apparent as you play through.
While Uncharted: Drakes Fortune looks very unlikely to bring anything new to the table in terms of gameplay, it should provide players with an engrossing world, interesting story, and believable characters, tied together with genuinely fun fight sequences and interesting puzzles. The version we saw was prebeta, so it's shaping up nicely for its projected fourth-quarter release.