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.
The 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.
One 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.
Another 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.
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.