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Developed by Naughty Dog
Published by Sony
Written & directed by Amy Hennig
Music by Greg Edmonson
Starring Nolan North, Richard McGonagle, Emily Rose, Robin Atkin Downes, Simon Templeman, James Sie

Drake’s Fortune” is the first installment of Naughty Dog’s lauded Uncharted series, an action/cover shooter inspired by pulpy adventure novels, serials and literature. In a lot of ways it is the video game equivalent of the original three Indiana Jones movies.

Uncharted-drakes-fortuneThe game starts off with Nathan Drake (Nolan North) and TV journalist Elena Fisher (Emily Rose) finding a 400 year old diary in the coffin of sir Francis Drake, who was buried at sea, somewhere on the coast of Panama. The duo is ambushed by pirates, before being rescued by Drake’s mentor and partner, Victor Sullivan (Richard McGonagle). From that point on, they are beset by enemies from various angles, and they need to haul ass and shoot their way out in order to survive and uncover what happened to Francis Drake. They need to uncover Drake’s fortune.

The first Uncharted is different in a number of ways from the sequels that would follow in the wake of its success. The most notable among these differences is that everything takes place on one location, the uncharted island in question on which Drake strands. Another difference is that this first episode is static for the most part, with only a handful of cinematic events that would later become the series’ calling card.

What this first chapter did offer was a cast of loveable, but underwritten characters for the protagonists as well as the trio of antagonists. This chapter has rogue adventurer Nathan Drake, intrepid reporter Elena Fisher and father figure/mentor Victor Sullivan – along with loan shark Gabriel Roman (Simon Templeman), mercenary Attoq Navarro (Robin Atkin Downes) and pirate chief Eddie Raja (James Sie) who has a personal vendetta against Drake.

Uncharted-drakes-fortune-screen-2One of the hallmarks of the series is the combination of platforming (traversal), hand-to-hand melee combat, light puzzling and cover-based shooting galleries. While all these elements are generally easy and not hard to figure out, its the intuitive combination of those that gives the title remarkable replayability and longevity. There isn’t a whole lot that can be told about the story, as it is fairly typical for the genre. Loyalties are tested, discoveries are made, bonds are forged and lots of stuff blows up. Naughty Dog made sure to emphasize the action part of their action/adventure. In case you are expecting adventure in the old Sierra tradition, you will sadly find it not here, despite the posturing and cinematic gravitas.

Not to say that Uncharted is narratively empty or horribly executed, far from it. In fact, this game is probably the hallmark to which most contemporary titles, for good or ill, tend to aspire. That is to say, the story facilitates a reasonable excuse for big setpieces and some ridiculous plot twists. The story itself is your run-of-the-mill pulpy adventure, taking cues from Indiana Jones, Allan Quatermain, the old Tomb Raider and Pitfall games and literature of the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Louis Stevenson to name a few obvious and hard to miss sources.

The level design is a lot more open compared to later installments, but it is never hard to tell exactly when all hell is about to break loose. Just walking around the various parts of the island will have the player discover different pieces of cover and places to hide behind. After the first firefight, you can easily predict when you’ll need to take up your firearms for another wave of enemies. The levels are linear in design, and exploration is fairly limited unless you are in a location where exploration is the main goal. At least there are no invisible walls, but the straightforwardness of the endeavour is both a plus and a negative. The game has a high level of replayability, but it doesn’t try very hard.

CtxUiDKpzAnother thing that I touched upon earlier is that “Drake’s Fortune” is a lot more static compared to later sequels, and a couple of vehicle sections only serve as padding to get the next location for a setpiece or shootout. This staticness also reveals itself in the second half of the game, as you’re running around in circles on the uncharted island. In this case even literally, as Drake will over the course of the game visit key locations from two or three different angles (the monastery is a particular gruelling example of this). You might not notice it on your first playthrough, but in repeated play sessions it becomes all the more obvious. Thankfully this was ironed out in later sequels.

Exclusive to this title are also about three or four vehicle sections, in which you control Drake and Fisher simultaneously by driving the waterscooter and shooting enemies on the shore. There are only a few of these sections, thankfully. They aren’t especially bad per se, but it is a good thing they were abandoned after this chapter. The sections are functional, but serve no real purpose other than getting the protagonists to the next set piece or location. There’s an on-rails shooting gallery in which Elena drives a jeep and Nathan is holding off approaching enemies on motorbikes and military vehicles. It isn’t half-assed to the slightest degree, it just doesn’t add a whole lot to the experience either. It somewhat telling that exactly these sections were cut out for the sequels. They weren’t mechanically bad, but the chance to play as Elena was at least a nice touch. Even though this is only limited to two or three small sections of the game.

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In comparison to a lot of video games that came around this period, it is instantly recognizable due to its wide color palette and vivid color scheme. The locations are lively and colorful, with animated fauna and flora. Where a lot of games were grey, brown-ish, this game has lush greens, blues, reds and yellows – all warm colors that exude an exotic and tropical feeling. Walking through out jungles, and past bodies of water, you can almost feel the sun as you walk out of the shadows into the blazing light. This is another facet of the game that would be expanded and explored in later sequels to a much more detailed degree. The vistas, interiors and exteriors are breathtakingly beautiful – and a lot of the time it is unfortunate this is an action game first, and an adventure game second. Just imagine what this game could have been had this been a traditional point-and-click adventure. The possibilties are just endless.

One of the classic problems that rears its ugly head early on is the one of ludo-narrative dissonance. Through out the cutscenes and dialogues it is made clear that Nathan Drake is generally a pacifist, only resorting to violence when cornered and he doesn’t like to incessantly and violently murder at random. This is, of course, at odds with the cover-shooter gameplay and the majority of what makes up the single campaign of this title. This is not a problem specifically related to the Uncharted series, but most of this type video games in general. That isn’t to say that the writing is poor. Let it be known that Uncharted as a whole is one of better written franchises in contemporary gaming. That doesn’t change the fact that writing (as a general rule of thumb) isn’t exactly exemplary or strong in most video games narratives to begin with, the standards aren’t very high.

One of the most outstanding scenes in regard to ludonarrative dissonance happens in the ‘Drowned City’ chapter, as Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher escape with the skin of their teeth from pirate chief Eddie Raja. After once again being ambushed and shot at from multiple angles, Drake imparts to Fisher that he wants to give up, considering they are outnumbered, outgunned and he doesn’t want to have her bullet-ridden corpse on his conscious. Never mind that you spent a good hour or so previous shooting numerous nameless mooks to kingdom come, yet here he is strangely comfortable shooting down hordes of armed pirates, para-military forces and mercenaries the next minute now that he feels the damsel of the piece is in danger. This ongoing inconsistency in tone is aggravating to say the least, and it gets even more annoying once you really stop to think about it and see how many times this thing occurs through the entire single player campaign. Let us not even dig into the nebulous and insidious implications this has as far as gender roles is concerned between our two loveable main protagonists. At least Naughty Dog tried.

In comparison to a lot of other franchises, and video games in general, Uncharted does well in its representation of the female gender. Not only is Elena Fisher an intelligent, level-headed, resourceful and competent character in her own right: quick with her wits, fists and capable with a gun, she also dresses in the proper attire for the situation. The opening level ‘Ambushed’ has her in an all-covering wetsuit, no needless showing of skin or cleavage. Later levels continue this sensible fashion decision with Fisher wearing a tanktop, knee-level shorts and sturdy walking shoes. Other than that it happens more than once that Fisher ends up saving the supposed hero of the story, Drake. The banter between Drake and Fisher is well-written, and both characters can be heard changing tone as they get deeper into the situation. There is a growing respect, and mutual admiration (or adoration, in case of Drake) between Drake and Fisher. Sullivan’s role as father figure (later explored more thoroughly in the third episode) works excellent with Drake’s youthful bravado, and Elena Fisher’s voice of reason.

In that regard Uncharted is better than 70%-80% of other games on the market as it trusts its audience in not being drooling baboons that need to obsess over virtual T&A and teasing. Instead it avoids lowest common denominator pandering altogether and the characters are much better for it. This still is a total sausagefest, as Elena Fisher is the only female character for this installment. As the saying goes, less is more – and in this case it rings true. Overall, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is a highly responsive modern cover-shooter with a classic adventure paintjob. Anybody who has seen a number of genre movies or read some literature will find no surprises in the story at any point. Nevertheless is this a fun game that is a whole lot more mature and intelligent than a great majority of others currently clogging the shelves in retail stores.

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Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

Developed by Naughty Dog
Published by Sony
Written & directed by Amy Hennig
Music by Greg Edmonson
Starring Nolan North, Richard McGonagle, Emily Rose, Claudia Black, Robin Atkin Downes, Rosalind Ayres

“Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception” is in many ways the technological pinnacle and creative nadir of Naughty Dog's universally lauded Uncharted franchise. “Drake’s Deception” is a highly responsive, visually stunning but creatively hollow experience that despite looking absolutely breathtaking has nothing to add to the existing canon.

The prologue – a melee bar brawl after a deal gone sour - in London, England sets the tone and just runs with it hard, for better or worse. This third installment takes everything people loved about the previous two episodes and turns them up to eleven. Drake (North) and Sully (McGonagle) meet up with Talbot (Atkin Downes) who works in service of a mysterious benefactor called Katherine Marlowe (Rosalind Ayres). As a trade-off results in a barfight and the eventual shooting of Drake – we jump back two decades in the past, to a flashback in Cartagena, Colombia to revisit Nathan’s past as teen. Marlowe is introduced as one of Sullivan’s past love interests, who has an agenda of her own. Both parties seek Ubar, the City of Brass. The Atlantis of the Sands, as T.E. Lawrence calls it. This is any and all story this chapter offers, at best.

uncharted_3_fireThe detour into Drake’s Colombian youth adds a lot of depth to the character, it plays out almost indentical to the entire pre-credit intro the “The Last Crusade”. Like that scene added depth to the character of Indiana Jones, so does this sequence add depth to the duo of Drake and Sullivan. But not everything is handled quite that well, either by circumstance or by choice. “Drake’s Deception” is beset by troubles from many sides. The setpieces no longer seem to flow organically from the story as was the case with previous two installments. At one point Nathan goes through an insane amount of trouble to rescue Sullivan from the pirate Rameses, but this extended rescue mission adds nothing of note to the central narrative. It exists only to show off a couple of admittedly cool looking and technically impressive setpieces, but nothing more.

Not only is Rameses, for as much fun as he actually is, an expendable character of the worst kind – his entire little character arc has zero purpose in the game’s narrative. The entire ship section is obsolete and is only there to artificially lengthen the game’s time, for all intents and purposes it has no other function than to show off the development team’s technological fireworks. These are cool and technologically impressive, no doubt – but exactly how much to they add to the package when their inclusion is artificial at worst and superficial at best?

There are other aspects that seem to trouble the already questionable plot for “Drake’s Deception”. A new character is introduced in Charlie Cutter (Graham McTavish). He appears to be an old associate of Drake’s and Sully’s, and is the current paramour of Chloe Frazier (Claudia Black). The London and Syria parts of the game go great lengths to explain the character’s backstory and relations to the principal cast we knew of the past two games. Just when you thought that the Cutter character was going to be vital in the game’s conclusion, he gets injured late in the Syria level escape and is conveniently carted off. Why you ask? The Cutter character had to be sidelined in order for McTavish to the able to partake in the shooting of Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” trilogy. Why introduce a new character if you’re not going to use him fully?

Uncharted-3-10As much fun as Chloe was in “Among Thieves” here she’s reduced to nothing more than a wisecracking, domesticated and uninteresting sidekick. Much of her adventurous spirit has been toned down due to the presence of the Cutter character. Many things that made her so loveable in the preceding episode have been either toned down or cut out entirely, for one reason or another. Safe to say, you won’t find yourself jumping on speeding trains to rescue her. Chloe is as interesting as a cardboard box here.

If there’s one person you can always rely on to bring the fire, it must be Emily Rose. As this story focuses on the father-son relationship between Drake and Sullivan it is understandable that the women are relegated to supporting roles. The last time we met Elena Fisher she was an international reporter for an unnamed TV station.  A few years have passed and she was once again promoted. Elena now is an international correspondent in Yemen, but that is as far as the good news goes.

For whatever reason Naughty Dog has grown timid and artificially introduced conflict in what used to be an established and healthy hetero-normative relationship. Nate and Elena apparently have separated, although both keep wearing their supposed engagement (wedding?) rings through out the game. What instigated their parting is never fully explained, and a few throwaway lines suggest that they drifted apart due to conflicting lifestyles. Elena being happy with her relatively stable life as an international correspondent, while Nate is still risking life and limb for loot on a daily basis. The fact that both have bonded – twice! – over life-threatening situations is brushed to the side for a soap opera worthy excursion into banality. Naughty Dog also seems to have forgotten that the entire point of the preceding “Among Thieves” was about Nate choosing who he loved most: his reliable and trustworthy ally Elena Fisher or the exotic Amazonian minx Chloe Frazier. Nate chose Elena.  Somehow, this is put into question for the duration of the game. Why? Good question. Artificial conflict is the only reason I can think of, and it’s a shame that Naughty Dog need to resort to such lowly techniques.

Uncharted 3 Gameplay WallpaperWhy sabotage one of gaming’s most celebrated relationships of recent memory? After building the relationship for two games, they throw it away for this unnecessary and insulting conflict? Why? Gamers can handle a mature relationship, thank you. Don’t let the 14 year olds tell you otherwise, Naughty Dog. What exactly is gained here?

Yeah, Nathan and Elena kiss and make up at the end of this one – but will they stay together if a fourth title ever gets produced? Naughty Dog obviously lacks the confidence to truthfully answer that question. Of course, it’s not the most important question on most gamers minds, but its indicative of how things are “supposed to go” with writing in videogames.

The hand-to-hand combat has lost much of the luster it had in “Among Thieves”. Yes, the animations are the most fluid they have ever been, but the execution is the real culprit. There are only about two or three different animation sets, and much of the melee combat is now reduced to glorified QTEs. Similarly to the train section of the preceding title there are mini-bosses, here called Brutes. These Brutes can only be defeated by a certain combination of melee attacks. For all the shine and polish, it gets old… very quick. The enemy AI is both reasonably smart and/or incredibly dense, depending on the situation. You’ll have enemies rushing, flanking and trying to ambush you from corner and chokepoints – but you’ll also have mooks provoking shoot-outs in burning, collapsing buildings, capsized sinking ships or general scenarios in which it would be logical to just haul ass and get so safer ground. No such luck here, suspension of belief is not a thing, it is a thing that Uncharted 3 just pushes over the edge.

“Drake’s Deception” is the most scripted game to date. Where past titles at least gave the illusion of freedom and a certain amount of choice, everything about this third chapter is scripted beyond good taste. An entire level is dedicated to chasing Talbot through the streets and over rooftops in what arguably can be called the “corridor level”, only to result in Drake getting captured and put on the earlier mentioned cargo ship of pirate Rameses. The desert level (despite looking positively stunning) is nothing but walking forwards in three different scenes. There’s no exploration, no management of food and resources – just walking forward, while in-between cutscenes and atmospheric voice-overs provide, admittedly, reasonable context and urgency to the situation. On all other fronts, it is another wasted opportunity on part of everybody involved.

Later in the game we see a horseback-car chase sequence that seems directly lifted from “The Last Crusade”. When we finally do arrive in Ubar, the Atlantis Of the Sands, there is little done with it. Sully gets shot (again), Nathan gets drugged (again) and starts hallucinating and the most interesting encounter doesn’t even actually happen in real life, not really. After all the running around, gunning and jumping about the player finally arrives in Ubar, and that’s it. There’s no element of wonder you had in the past two games, no sense of discovery, nothing of the sort. The past two games did so brilliantly in their final levels. It looks great, sure, but it is purely mechanical at this point. You eventually end up in a dusty city, you fight some baddies – cue “the end”.

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The Fire-Demons are in the tradition of the first chapter’s Descendants and the second chapter’s Guardians, but despite that they are the toughest supernatural enemy Drake has yet faced – the lack of backstory (it is hinted at) for these creatures makes them that much more futile. They look good, but what are they? How were they created? The game answers this with a few throwaway lines that can easily missed. Hell, I missed out on them on my first playthrough, and I look especially for narrative in video games. A missed chance, for sure.

Drake and Sullivan have never looked better. The hair, skin and clothing textures have an amazing level of detail. The animations and motion-capture is par for the course with Naughty Dog. For some unfathomable reason the character model for Elena went through some changes, especially her face. In past incarnations she really looked like the actress that provided her voice, Emily Rose – but this third installment makes her face rounder with big eyes. It’s almost manga-eque. Why this was done? Who knows… ?

The music by series composer Greg Edmonson is the most worldly it has ever sounded. The soundtrack is full of acoustic guitars, Arabic melodies and string sections worthy of any classic or contemporary action/adventure. For one thing, Edmonson can always be relied upon. It’s utterly terrible that a game this inert and mechanic has such an incredible soundtrack.

The biggest complaint I can level at this Uncharted is how unhinged and disjointed it is. The story sputters and bounces around in all directions, setpieces are plenty and spectacular. The setpiece scenes seem to dictate story progression first and foremost, above all else. From a plain narrative point of view at the end of the game the situation is identical to that of the beginning. There’s no journey, the characters learn nothing and besides a few winks and nods to earlier chapters, there isn’t a lot to recommend here.

“Drake’s Deception” reeks of complacency and the blackest of contempt. It knows it has the all the elements you expect it to have, it just does nothing particular engaging or remotely interesting with them. It seems to say: “here are the parts you requested, have fun with them”. So, to conclude. “Drake’s Deception” is typical of AAA video games in this day and age. It looks great, it sounds great and it plays intuitively, but it is ultimately vapid and utterly forgettable. It has all the parts you expect from an Uncharted title, but little of it truly stays with the player after the experience is over. Greg Edmonson’s score is amazing as ever, and the voice work is superb. When all is said and done, I’d rather boot up “Drake’s Fortune” or “Among Thieves”, because frankly both are just plain better than this series of unfortunate events.

Sure, it looks cool – but is that enough for you?