Saturday, May 24, 2014

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune Sucks

When it comes to PS3 exclusives, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune may be the most overrated, most over-hyped game in existence. This game was so immensely popular and successful back in 2007 that it instantly became a flagship series for Sony and a prime selling point for the PS3. This was the game that you absolutely had to buy if you owned a PS3, and it was reason enough to consider getting a PS3 over an Xbox 360 just to be able to play this game. I have no idea what people saw in it, because it's absolute rubbish. 

The thing that annoyed me the most is that I was expecting a fun, lighthearted action-adventure / puzzle-platformer game in the style of the Indiana Jones movies and the early Tomb Raider games -- that's exactly how the game was marketed, and those are the exact comparisons everyone made when describing the game in reviews and forum posts. What I got, however, was a straight-up action shooter that only borrows the general theme from Indy and Lara's adventures. That would be fine, of course, if the game were actually any good as a shooter, but it simply isn't.

You play as Nathan Drake, a modern day treasure hunter of sorts, just as he discovers the lost coffin of Sir Francis Drake, buried at sea. As a descendant of Francis Drake, Nathan is on a personal mission to uncover more about his ancestor's legacy and finish Drake's search for the golden idol of El Dorado. In the coffin, he finds Drake's diary, which points him in the direction of the city of gold. The rest of the game follows Nathan and his companions (treasure-hunting partner Victor "Sully" Sullivan and filmmaker Elena Fisher) as they follow the trail to El Dorado and, eventually, attempt to stop the bad guys from unleashing a terrible curse.

One of the game's more original, memorable scenes.

The story has been frequently praised as one of Uncharted's best assets, but I was completely unimpressed with it. For starters, the game has no worthwhile hook -- nothing to catch your interest and no reason to care about the main character's actions. The whole goal of the game is to find the golden idol of El Dorado, but the only reason the characters want to find it is because they want the fame and fortune associated with discovering it, and that's not a particularly likable motivation to instill in the player. We root for Indiana Jones because he's trying to keep powerful relics out of the hands of evil -- the stakes are set high and there are consequences for failure; in Uncharted, we root for the main characters because ... they want money.

Character interactions between the three leads are all enjoyable enough (good voice acting, solid writing for dialogue, pleasant animations), but none of them feel as complex as they perhaps ought to. Once they're introduced, they never break out of their starting roles -- Elena is the resourceful filmmaker who will do anything to get her story; Sully is the debaucherous "old man" with a past that keeps catching up to him; and Drake is the plucky, carefree, wise-cracking hero. They feel more genuine than basic stereotypes and archetypes, but I wouldn't describe them as anything more than "average" for video game characters.

There's a scene in Uncharted, for example, that mirrors the final scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but it carries none of the emotional weight of the original scene. In Uncharted, Elena has to drop her camera (and thus her story) to prevent falling to her death; in The Last Crusade, Indy has to let go of the holy grail to prevent falling to his death. The scene from The Last Crusade is significant because it reveals something about the two characters; Indy felt neglected by his father growing up because of Henry Jones Sr's obsession with finding the holy grail, and now that they've come within a finger's reach of their goal, Henry Jones Sr realizes that his son means more to him than the grail, and urges Indy to "let it go." They each make a personal sacrifice and their relationship grows in the process. 

"I can't hold on! Give me your other hand! You've got to let it go!"

In Uncharted, nothing is revealed about either of these two characters in the process of Drake saving Elena from falling to her death -- it's simply a life-or-death decision. Between dropping the camera and dying, Elena makes the only valid choice, realizing that her story would be worth nothing to her if she's dead. Seeing as her story was just a greedy, self-centered motivation for her in the first place, I felt absolutely no remorse about losing it. Afterward, she curses her loss, then the two characters carry on as if nothing happened. It's worth stressing that this is the exact same scene (same scenario, sames lines spoken by the person holding the other) and yet the characters don't change or grow as a result.  

The game doesn't introduce any kind of worthwhile conflict until the final stretch of the game when it's revealed that the idol is actually cursed, at which point the heroes' motivation shifts from "I want to get rich" to something resembling heroism in stopping the bad guys from selling the idol as a weapon. The twist is kind of interesting, but it comes way too late -- by that point I was already mentally checked out and ready for it to be over. Until that point, the idol is nothing more than a plot contrivance to get the characters in motion, and the only conflict is that a rival treasure hunter is also trying to find the idol, which is way too trivial for the excessive amount of violent confrontation the game presents along the way.  

It's really hard to care about the story when your hero is essentially a mass murderer with a sweet tooth for gold. During cutscenes, Drake is portrayed as a decently likable character; he's lighthearted and whimsical, has his own sense of morality, and always knows when to drop a witty one-liner. He's not an invincible badass like most action heroes, and in fact it was quite refreshing to play a character who, halfway through the game, realizes the danger he's up against and decides to give up and run away because he's not overly fond of getting himself killed. In gameplay, however, Drake kills hundreds and hundreds of dudes just because he wants the treasure and they're trying to stop him from getting it.

I'm not averse to gore and violence in media, but there's a time and place for it, and it doesn't feel appropriate for this game given the kind of atmosphere they were going for. Everything about Uncharted suggests a fun, lighthearted adventure -- this includes Drake's personality and mannerisms, the bits of humor in dialogue, the colorful visual design, the premise of treasure-hunting, and the introductory sequence exploring the tomb with Sully -- yet when you get into the actual gameplay, you realize that it revolves entirely around murdering tons of dudes. That works fine in Gears of War, but it clashes quite heavily with this game's intended theme.

Combat in Uncharted plays like any typical third-person cover-shooter -- you press circle to take cover behind a row of crates, then press the left trigger to pop out from cover into aiming mode and press the right trigger to shoot. That sounds fine in and of itself, but the whole thing feels like a clunky, unwieldy mess. 

Taking cover, for instance, is frustratingly inconsistent -- this being a "press to take cover" game means you're sometimes at the mercy of the game deciding where you're going to take cover for you whenever you press that button. If there are enemies in front of you and you want to take cover behind the fallen pillar in front of you, you might find yourself instead taking cover in front of the boxes behind you because you just happened to be closer to those boxes, thus leaving yourself totally exposed to enemy fire. If you're trying to take cover behind a round pillar or a square box, you might find yourself on the wrong side of it. 

The game was gracious enough to give you a fancy dive-roll dodge maneuver to help you dodge bullet fire, but it does practically nothing to protect you from enemy fire because you still get hit while dodging -- all it does is reduce the amount of time you're exposed to enemy fire when moving between cover sources. In a stroke of genius, the roll dodge is mapped to the same button as the "take cover" action, so if you find yourself flanked by enemies in multiple directions and need to retreat to a new vantage point, trying to roll dodge to avoid enemy fire will often lock you into cover instead, causing you to sit there for a moment getting shot in the back while you try to detach yourself from the wall. 

Getting out of cover is a process of either pressing the circle button to detach yourself from the surface, walking away from it, or pressing the jump button to vault over it or shift around a corner. None of these options are good options when you're in the middle of a fight because they each cause you to stand up and expose yourself to enemy fire. Pressing circle to detach yourself from cover often means you'll inadvertently roll into a new cover position, often in a worse position than you were before; moving away from the cover forces you to brazenly walk around it while taking fire; and using the jump option to shift around corners doesn't put you back into cover automatically, so you're once again back at the mercy of pressing circle and hoping it puts you in cover where you want to be.  

Most of the game's weapons are totally unsatisfying to fire because they feel so under-powered. They sound like you're shooting cap guns, and enemies brush off bullet wounds as if they were hit by a paintball -- unless you hit them with a shotgun at close range, in which case they go flying into low earth orbit. Otherwise, when you hit an enemy, you see a tiny blood splatter at the source of contact (which actually looks a bit like a paintball exploding), the enemy staggers for half a second, the blood disappears, and they're back to shooting you as if nothing ever happened. 

The weapons feel like they're so woefully inaccurate that you'll miss shots where the enemy's head was perfectly lined up inside the targeting reticle, just because he was far enough away for the random number generator to decide that your bullet went through the random pixels of dead space on the edge of the crosshairs. At other times, they feel so detrimentally accurate that you can miss shots at close range just because your aim was off by one pixel. Enemies, meanwhile, move so unpredictably because they seem to snap into different positions instantly, making it a constant struggle to line up a good shot.

Even things like ammo management are an annoying hassle in this game. You can only carry two weapons in Uncharted at a time -- one pistol and one rifle -- and your ammunition is tied to the weapons, meaning if you drop your AK47 with 100 bullets in favor of a shotgun with six shells, and then later want to go back to your AK47, you have to find that one, specific rifle you dropped which has all the ammo in it or else start your ammo collection over again with a single clip found in a new AK47. 

After a large battle, you might have a choice of five or six weapons to choose from defeated enemies, and you might want to take whichever weapons will currently give you the most ammunition before moving on. Figuring that out requires you to comb the entire battlefield meticulously searching for the same weapons you're already carrying so you can consolidate their ammo into that weapon's pool, then exchange them for other weapons (and hope you remember where they are) before combing the entire room all over again consolidating ammo in a different gun. 

The idea, I suppose, was to make the player "live off the land" in a kind of survival-type feel, so that you have to make decisions about what weapons to carry not only based on what's better, but also on what happens to be available at the time and how much ammunition you can scrounge up for each one. I like that mechanic in certain games like STALKER, but in this game it's just a really slow, tedious process after every battle to refill your ammunition and figure out what weapons you have the most resources for. This could have been alleviated a little bit if they'd let you carry more than two weapons, or if you held your excess ammunition on your person so that you always had more ammo available as long as you'd already collected it. 

So combat feels like a clunky mess in Uncharted, and that issue is doubly problematic considering you spend the vast majority of the game in combat. You can expect to be ambushed by no less than 10 enemies for nearly every action you make in this game. You walk into a room; 10 enemies spawn. You kill those enemies; a second "wave" of 10 more enemies immediately spawns. You kill those guys and walk across the room; 10 more enemies spawn behind you. You walk into the next room and the process repeats itself. Literally every fight is just wave after wave of enemies, and it gets stale really fast fighting wave after wave of enemies, room after room, all the damn time. 

I think I had a small brain aneurysm after the 237th time I heard an enemy yell "There he is!" while I was enjoying a moment of calm downtime between ambushes. 

It feels almost like content padding to me, masked in the form of "challenging gameplay." It's as if they realized there's not that much content in the single-player campaign, and compensated by making you fight repeated instances of the same fight over and over again, against enemies with bloated health values, just to make it last longer. It's absolutely absurd how many guys you fight in this game, and it's ridiculous that enemies wearing nothing but t-shirts can take nine rounds from an AK47 to the chest before going down. 

There's virtually no variety to the combat, either. You fight literally the exact same mercenary henchman for the first 80% of the game -- they even have the exact same character models as one another, based on what weapon they're using. Guys with shotguns all look the same, guys with grenade launchers all look the same, and so on. In virtually every chapter of the game, you walk into a square room with boxes and assorted cover-sources spread around, and you fight 20-40 guys in a fight that practically mirrors the same fight as the last 20 rooms. You find a few different weapons as you go through the game, but they're all just minor variations of one another, and the game doesn't introduce a single new enemy type until the final stretch of the game. It's just so boring and repetitive.

Every so often, the game remembers that it was also supposed to be a puzzle-platformer; these sections are a welcome change of pace from the excessive shooting, but there just aren't enough of them and they're not all that remarkable, either. Platforming isn't very challenging -- you basically never have to worry about timing jumps in a complex series of actions, and the system is pretty forgiving about letting you step off a ledge before pressing the jump button, or extending you just enough to grab a ledge if you jumped too early. It felt pretty consistent in the sense that I rarely died due to fluke accidents, but everything is laid out so obviously that I never felt any satisfaction from conquering a platforming section.  

More of this, please.

The puzzles, meanwhile, could scarcely be called puzzles at all. For the most part, you just follow the completely obvious path to a switch, and press a button to make it do exactly what the character needs to be done. If you need to move a rope to climb up to an unreachable height, you push a button and Drake moves it into position. Everything else is just a matter of shooting something with your gun, or picture-matching something in the environment with images drawn in Drake's diary. There's absolutely no problem-solving involved in any of the "puzzles," so they're about as rewarding to solve as if they'd just been in a cutscene instead. 

The only other distraction from shooting enemies behind cover are the occasional vehicle sections, which may as well not have even been in the game for as much good as they were going to do. At one point, you get to shoot a heavy machine gun from the back of a jeep while Elena drives, blowing up dozens and dozens of ATVs in hot pursuit -- nothing unique and nothing to write home about. On two occasions you get to drive a jetski upriver while Elena shoots from the backseat, and these are just no fun at all because the river is so cramped that you can never get the jetski up to speed. The game even forces you to stop the jetski in order to shoot anything, which defeats the entire purpose of giving the player a vehicle and makes it just like regular combat, except far more cumbersome since you can't move or take cover. 

The game is totally linear; you don't get to explore off the main path, and you never return to areas you previously visited. The only way you're rewarded for exploration is with hidden treasure, which show up only as a sparkle on the floor. It's literally invisible except for the occasional sparkle, and makes it feel like a lame afterthought for the sake of adding trophies to the game. There's no incentive to collect them at all unless you want the achievements or want to unlock bonus content like cheats or alternate costumes. They also have the effect of training you to aim the camera at suspicious-looking dead ends and stare at it for 10 seconds, waiting to see if a sparkle will appear, which is completely dumb and time-wasting.

Elena shooting an M79 from the back of a jetski.

Virtually the entire game takes place on the same island, so you spend the whole game seeing essentially the same jungle scenery from beginning to end. There's not much variety in the locations with the exception of a few interior locations (a ruined fortress, a ruined monastery, a ruined catacomb) but even these don't feel all that distinct from one another. As with the combat, the game saves its best variety for the final stretch of the game, which does a lot to make the game seem interesting towards the finish line but is otherwise too little too late. Most of everywhere else feels like a phony stage built for the sake of combat encounters and platforming sequences, which took me out of the experience significantly. 

I just don't understand why this game was praised so much back in 2007. My only theory is that, because the PS3 didn't have a lot of quality exclusives at the time, the Sony fanboys were desperate for something to lord over their friends who bought Xboxes, as a way of justifying their over-priced console. I guess if I'd bought a $600 console and didn't have very many good games to play on it, I would've been eager to like Uncharted, too, but playing it after the fact makes it painfully clear that it's just not a very good game. It pales in comparison to other shooters released around the same time, and it doesn't stand up very well as an action-adventure game. 

As it stands, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is boring, tedious, and repetitive. If the story had more narrative thrust and conflict in it, if the characters had better motivations, if the platforming and puzzles were much more prominent and a little more challenging, if the environments were a little more varied and little less linear, and if the combat just didn't suck quite as much, then it might have been a good game. If you're considering playing the Uncharted series, I'd recommend skipping Drake's Fortune and going straight to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, because that game is actually fairly good


  1. Viktor MannászMay 25, 2014 at 4:23 PM

    I expected a better story from writer Amy Hennig. :( Her previous work, the Legacy of Kain series has one of the best stories I've ever experienced (after Torment :) ), so Uncharted sounds very disappointing.

  2. Hands down, this review is 110% accurate and I couldn't agree more on how overrated the first Uncharted is.

    Only thing I might add is the inconsistent use of QTEs. The devs somehow thought it was a good idea to show you 450 cutscenes and then start to randomly strew in QTEs into that said cutscenes. WTF?

    You assume people liked Uncharted because the PS3 couldn't offer a better exclusive that time. I think people just got tricked by the visuals. Uncharted looked top notch 2007 and was (imho) the best looking game the consoles had to offer during that time. Even though I think it looks dated now (details on characters, lightning, ....) the overall art design of the levels, the environment, is still pretty okay.

    Uncharted 2 by the way, improves in nearly every aspect. The game looks better. The overall story and characters are better written. You have better and varied level design (train chapter!) and most importantly the gunplay feels way way better and responsive than in the first one. They even simplified but improved the close combat system. Uncharted 3 unfortunately is just garbage again.

  3. The game was always overhyped by fanboys but unlike the glowing reviews U2 recieved, U1 had a fairly mixed reception even then. What made U1 stand out was the, at the time, impressive high production values on the writing, acting and mocap. That's what even the non fanboys would note. Today its mostly remembered as an off but nice start to a mostly liked series. Later on U2s success would make more people hype up U1 in retrospect.

  4. All three stories are basically the same. The story lines are boring. The game play is repetitive. All three games feel so 1990s. And Halo 2 (2004) had better graphics than UC3 (2011).

  5. I would disagree with some things in this review. Uncharted 1 received a new wave of dislike several years after it came out. I don't think the game was over hyped. Initial reviews for it were quite good but most reviews were critical enough to highlight the negatives.

    The game in fact was groundbreaking for its time because of the cinematics. I understand your frustration with the gameplay. A lot of people felt that way too but it didn't detract much from their experience or mine.

    So no I don't think it was over hyped because it did blend movies and games well. That's why it became so popular. What happened was a lot of people didn't play the first game until several years after it came out. By then many of the game mechanics were outdated or at least felt very simple like the generic duck and cover system.

  6. I completely agree with this review! I knew I could not be the only person to dislike this game.