a review of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
a videogame developed by naughty dog
and published by sony computer entertainment america
for the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
I can’t precisely say that it doesn’t make me a tiny bit uncomfortable to admit that I so totally have nothing against actual dudes starring in videogames. The hero of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is a Guy in a T-shirt and jeans, with gun holsters over his shoulders. He jumps and climbs and shoots guys in the face. He never expresses guilt when he kills anyone, which leads us to believe that he might actually kill people all the time, which I suppose makes me feel a tiny bit like a Barbie-owning teenage girl must feel when her first boyfriend nonchalantly mentions after her first sexual encounter that the last condoms he used weren’t quite so tight.
Nathan Drake may or may not be the distant descendant of historical legendary explorer Sir Francis Drake; the game starts with him excavating a sarcophagus from the depths of the ocean at the precise point where Sir Francis Drake was apparently buried at sea. It doesn’t entirely make sense, though it turns out that Drake had faked his own death. There’s a girl there, whose voice-actor is not a professional by any stretch (every time she says “damn” or “hell” it’s like watching a whole little girls’ soccer team spontaneously combust seconds before the final whistle), and she complains a little bit. She’s filming a documentary or something. Seconds later, there are modern-day sea pirates shooting at you, so you’re shooting at them. There are a couple of cut-scenes, each of them directed competently, gently unfolding the B-minus-movie plot, and soon you’re on an island, with a jungle, and sunlight, and textures that look vaguely delicious, as much a treat to the refined eyes of an adult with a vintage AC/DC T-shirt collection as a bowl of Froot Loops was to the tongue of a fat ten-year-old; if you have a Very Expensive Television, you may soon be tempted, as I was, to finally remove the little strips of “protective” blue Scotch tape that were stuck to the corners of the display when the deliverymen dropped it off in your living room two years ago. Minutes after this epiphany, you’ve learned to play the game, and minutes later, you’ve sunk hours into it.
I heard someone call this a “videogame mix-tape”. I guess that’s right. Though everyone and their three-year-old sister are rushing to call it “Tomb Raider with a Dude” — or even “Dude Raider” — Uncharted is distinctly post-Gears (yes, we still consider Gears the Game of the Decade). It uses the Unreal Engine, it puts level design above all else, it has intense, cover-based firefights, and, more than anything, it stays heroically focused on and convinced in its hammy plot from beginning to end. That it also includes Prince-of-Persia-like climbing and platform sequences is absolutely essential to a post-Gears game design: you have to put something on the table. (When all is said and done, the third Prince of Persia game is still the king of tricky jumping puzzles. I’d love to see those guys make a game called “The Tower of Babel”, where all you have to do is climb to the top of one enormous tower. I’m sure they could make it work.) Uncharted also adds a nifty (mostly original) semi-rhythm-based melee combat system to the mix. It makes me think, man, as soon as someone makes a Dynasty-Warriors-style battlefield brawler with awesome music and rhythm elements in the fighting, the gaming press is going to stuff aluminum bricks and spray-paint them silver.
There’s really very little Tomb Raider influence to speak of, really. If you say Tomb Raider, I only have it in me to think of the first two, which were, if nothing else, enthralling (at the right time of year / lapses in medication) in the structure of their cavernous, empty, echo-y, massively puzzle-heavy dungeons. If Tomb Raider is “Indiana Jones”, Uncharted is “Planet Terror” — every time a puzzle comes up, Drake flips open Sir Francis Drake’s old notebook, and there’s the solution. Half of me wants to groan like a man groans when his daughter announces she’s getting married to a hobo; the other half admires the gall: because you know what? If big arcane tombs housing phenomenal treasure hordes were actually real, do you seriously think that you’d be able to get to the gold just by pushing a couple of blocks and lighting a couple of hecking torches? No, of course the solution is going to be literally impossible to figure out on your own, and if Nate Drake didn’t have that little notebook (must not wonder how Sir Francis Drake was able to figure out the puzzles in the first place), we wouldn’t have a videogame. Either way, you’ve got to really question the psychology of a person who would lock up a treasure horde in some big fascinating structure. It’s unthinkable in modern times, I guess — maybe way back before YouTube and “People’s Court” and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” the human race was graced with a significantly higher percentage of people who wanted to bequeath their legacy to someone who was smart enough to pull only the levers with star marks on them. What kind of evil, stupid, gimp-ass sons did some of these ancient kings have, I wonder? Either way, I’ve noticed that, more often than not, the fantastic artifacts are always hidden in such impregnable fortresses or tombs because someone genuinely wanted to keep the ancient artifact out of reach of future generations because it was dangerous. Microsoft Excel didn’t exist back in the days of El Dorado, so no one was able to plan up a schedule to illustrate that destroying the dangerous artifact (or maybe just dumping it into the infinite expanse of the sea) would actually take less time than enslaving a couple thousand heretics and forcing them at spear-point to build an elaborate temple dungeon.
I can forgive any loop holes in the plot because I loved Indiana Jones as a kid, even though my brother insisted that he was going to grow up to be Indiana Jones, so I had to settle for James Bond, which was, believe it or not, the short end of the stick (it’d take a PhD thesis to explain why). My brother has three kids and two cars now, and I’m a videogame designer in a punk rock band that has actually never finished a song that’s less than seven minutes long, so I guess neither one of us is living the life of death-defying archaeologist. Either way, I can appreciate the jungly context in Uncharted. I see Nathan Drake as the kind of adult-looking guy who might have sighed and looked out the window when the big dude sitting behind me in algebra class slapped a fat wad of gum onto the back of my hair. He would have never kicked me down the stairs, though he wouldn’t have helped me up, either. He wouldn’t even think, “That kid’s got to fight for himself.” He would just turn away and keep walking. He’s the kind of guy who lacks crucial contextual tidbits, and he’s all the more of a dude for it. When Drake has his back to a big stone pillar and there are dudes shooting at him, he gets this look on his face — console games are still three or four hardware generations far from perfect photo-realism, though none of that matters to Naughty Dog: they give Drake actual expressions, and at moments, whether it’s one of the dozen or so unique stumbling animations that will occasionally occur as you climb stairs or the truly terrified look on his face while he’s being shot at, Nathan Drake rises above other videogame characters. He’s more than just a polygon man — he’s, like, the son of a real dude and a woman whose father was half-cartoon. And, whether he knows it or not, he is afraid of death. And not just in a “videogame character breaking the fourth wall” kind of fear of death. It’s just right there on his face. The game rolls right on to its conclusion, through spectacular yet reined-in vistas, increasingly difficult gun battles, tricky jumping puzzles, and even difficult battles while navigating tricky jumping puzzles (though I could honestly do with a little bit more of that last one). When the story manages to spring its “big reveal” on the player, it’s done with amazing nobility. It pulls no punches and makes no excuses. It’s just like, “There it is. Now keep playing.” And that’s what you do. It’s awfully sweet and kind of the game. There’s absolutely no shame about the open-ended ending, either. There’s no groan-worthy bad-guy hand reaching out from beneath the waves, triumphantly clutching air. It’s basically like, the girl says “That adventure was fun let’s go on another” and the hero’s like “Yeah sure”. I, too, was like “Yeah sure”. It’d be really nice if they could maybe write truly excellent dialogue for the next one, though I’m far from worried — if Uncharted is Naughty Dog’s Jak and Daxter for the PlayStation 3, I have high hopes for their Jak 2. I give their first attempt a healthy score of three stars instead of the two-and-a-half it probably deserves because I appreciate its awesome thoughtfulness, and I don’t want to be caught with my pants down when the sequel turns out to be truly excellent. In the meantime, hey, Naughty Dog: thanks for caring.
I played the region-free US version of Uncharted on my Japanese PlayStation 3, and I didn’t notice that the game had been “heavily censored” until my friend Spencer Yip pointed it out to me. How weird is that? Apparently the Japanese version of the game manages to scoop out all of the blood, gore, “impaling deaths”, and even the god damned rag doll physics — and even if you play the uncensored American version of the game on a Japanese PlayStation 3, it somehow manages to censor the game just as though you were playing the Japanese version. Curious! Before learning this factoid, I had played the game for four hours, and never once thirsted animalistically for blood, nor had I even once wondered why people weren’t gushing gel-like red ooze all over the place whenever I touched them. I had, however — only twice — wondered why the enemies all do the exact same “Matrix”-ish arm-flail-swooping animation whenever they get shot. Where’s the real-time flinching, popularized by such games as Turok 2 on the Nintendo 64? At first, I thought it was a design choice — and I managed to applaud it. (This happened late at night.) In Gears of War, your character can completely heal to full health after being shot something like thirty times. All he has to do is crouch by a wall and wait, and then he’s healed. This makes the game about moments, yes — about staying in the zone, about multiplying the rush as you stay in that zone. Though ultimately, if you suck at the game, it comes to look exceedingly silly. If you’re careful enough to survive through three staight levels, you have to wonder how a guy can keep running like that — he must have at least a thousand rounds of ammo embedded in his muscles. The weight in lead alone should keep him pinned to the floor. Yet Gears was — as Uncharted is — a game where the idea of “suppressing fire” works as both a concept and a method — it’s not like Brothers in Arms, where the enemies’ “suppressed” circle turns red if you shoot in their general direction enough. The abstraction is kept to a minimum by the sheer power of the concept, uh, literally working. Here I was thinking of how clever it was that neither Drake nor his bad guys ever got hit by a bullet unless that bullet was the killing bullet. I mean, it’s a pretty brilliant concept. It’s like, as the look of fear grows to encompass Drake’s face, it’s not because he’s getting hurt, it’s because he’s getting scared, and thus getting sloppy, and that’s why that last bullet — that last tick off the hidden “life meter” in the sky — manages to hit, and kill. This was a really healthy way to think until, well, I looked up some videos on YouTube and was like, dude, it actually looks cool when people are getting shot. You have to wonder, why allow people to die in a game at all if they’re not going to at least look a little dead? I mean, why not just make them throw down their guns, surrender, and run off into the jungle with their hands gripping the backs of their trousers whenever the PlayStation 3’s CPU registers a “killing shot”? I could be a millionaire with these ideas.