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Uncharted: El Dorado no Hihou
01st Mar 2018 | 1,621 views
It’s certainly strange to come away from one of the PS3’s so-called “must-haves” during its time with a sense of great bewilderment and disappointment. During an era of over-blown squabbles over a certain game “saving” a console—as if the library was completely bankrupt of solid exclusives until that happened, this was the one which seemed to hit that plateau critically speaking and had the respectable Naughty Dog team (Jak + Daxter series, Crash games on PS1) developing it. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune admits new ideas aren’t so much a priority as it is in the proficiency of tying proven game mechanics into a blender with state-of-the-art visuals and a heightened focus on cinematic storytelling. The cracks in this foundation don’t necessarily lie it feeling like a “been there, done that” scenario but rather in how it’s executed: leaving it feel more like a motley mixture of gameplay qualities and an adventure that doesn’t stand up to its aspired Hollywood source material.
Appropriating the quixotic atmosphere of mid-20th century pulp novels, the story opens up with our snarky main protagonist with the coolest half tucked-in shirt style in videogames, Nathan Drake, on the cusp of disinterring the long lost coffin of Sir Francis Drake, which Nathan claims is his ancestor. That great adventurer plays prominently into the story because it’s through his cataloged discoveries that Drake enabled to find an ancient relic believed to be hidden on a deserted island. The two supporting cast members are Sully, a cigar-chomping scoundrel who may as well as had “Betrayal or Death?” emblazoned on his shirt the moment he makes his entrance, and Elena Fisher, a TV reporter whose air time splits between being a sidekick and damsel in distress.
From the cinematic panache to dialogue, it’s obvious just how keen Uncharted is on recreating another Indiana Jones counterpart by way of a long-lost National Treasure script…and just about any other adventure series that’s spawned since then. While that sort of pacing is well-harnessed here, the unbridled sense of adventure often attributed to greater works is too often usurped by Uncharted’s thrill and focus of head-hunting. For the first four chapters before reaching an island, both the gameplay and storytelling complement the thrilling pastiche as you’re always feeling a step ahead thanks to Drake’s acquired journal. After that, it becomes rather redundant just how often every single vault, tomb, and catacomb has been littered with guards and Drake's just left scavenging collectible trinkets. Even for secret pathways to ruins that are only ever visually understood through Sir Francis Drake’s journal and prescribed as “the only way in,” it’s rather stupid how often you stumble into an area with well-armed pirates present and ready to ambush you.
For all the gusto some may perceive in me for pointing out over-done clichés and other problems present, I do have some ounces of respect towards the snappy dialogue and general enthusiasm embodied in this adventure. As brought up by the creative leads behind this within unlocked developer videos, Uncharted does contain that quality of feeling as though the player’s “charting out” on a whiz-bang adventure while hearing a bunch of amusing one-liners; like the interactive interpretation of what an older generation would find while flipping through pulp magazines like Thrilling Wonder Stories.
The problem comes in just how underwhelming all of that potential pans out with the actual narrative. For a game built on rollicking set-piece moments, I can’t say I ever came away with witnessing anything truly spectacular or never-seen-before; instead, those intense moments look more photorealistic. There’s a healthy amount of interesting plot details to take in: Nazis, the list of main antagonists, the mystery behind El Dorado and a sunken city betokened early on. But most of the twists and turns over-inflate their true value and impact; in fact, a big final twist to the endgame is just one of the most worn-out JRPG clichés and ties up the game in an uninteresting fashion.
Is this all to say Uncharted’s story is bad? Not exactly. That sounds conflicting with so much written previously here, but I can explain. The script displays expertise in understanding how to convey ACTUAL human emotions in a frolicking adventure setting and characterizations ranging from the protagonists to the goofy Eddy Rajas all at least have to room to breathe their own quirks and personalities into the character while navigating from Point A to Point B. Even though I personally can't help but shake my head when seeing others call it a "great story," so much stock has been invested into these character dynamics that it's tough not to become invested yourself--to some measure. But it also goes to show just how important the plot scenarios happening around the characters carries tremendous weight in keeping the player excited.
Even if what’s happening during cutscenes may not bear much importance it always looks great. DF’s graphical prowess can still be noted with its meticulously recreated jungle locales. Luxuriant plant life is packed into so many areas and often over-running many of the ancient ruins up for discovery. Plants bend where Drake steps, water looks refulgent and acts closely like real water, and textures have a great level of detail. Even Drake’s shirt will momentarily look completely wet or partially wet depending on whether water splashed part or his whole shirt.
Drake may be trying to sell that everyman look with his half tucked-in shirt and Levi's, but it’s the animations that make this action hero. From wildly flailing while jumping to a scalable object just within reach to the subtleties like wincing behind cover, the level of detail can be rather astounding at times. Even when the outrageously acrobatic stunts are pulled off, the quality of the animation sells that sense of imperfection to each move. It’s just as easy to become rapt in attention to those sorts of details during cut scenes too. Great facial animation and mo-cap work lend themselves to making otherwise predictable scenes a bit more engaging. Despite all the praises given to the small details, not all the technical hiccups have been ironed out. Screen tearing and slow loading textures are bound to happen here and there. And while I do like the varied tropical island setting, the art style for characters in-game has this strange quasi-cartoony look that doesn’t really blend well with the background. These are just minor things that harm an otherwise spectacular looking title that pushed this hardware the hardest back then.
As is expected with such a high level of production values for the looks, the same typically goes for the way Uncharted sounds. Sound effects for the standard arsenal fare are solid—some sound rather distinctive but the rest aren’t exactly noteworthy. The selected actors fill out their respective roles well; depending on the situation, each one will loquaciously express their tension, joyful uncertainty, anxiety, or normal demeanor. The dynamic score is often big and sweeping and able to segue between different tones masterfully whenever a change of scenery is occurring. For the most part, a lot of the instruments and notes do veer towards a similar kind of exotic background as something like the Survivor TV series; but then the main theme for Uncharted goes in a completely different direction with a grand orchestral score and is possibly one of my favorite themes of the entire list of seventh generation titles. There are also a number of minute details sprinkled throughout, such as Drake talking to himself in order to keep his cool or the ringing-in-you-ear sensation when explosives go off near Drake.
For the majority of play, Uncharted could be funneled down into a “Gears of War meets Tomb Raider” game for the sake of an easy description. There are sundry elements here that all inevitably lead to the oft-expected problem with these sorts of hybirds in the game: juggling so many kinds of different gameplay concepts with none of them ever being very good as a result.
There are two polar gameplay concepts to Uncharted that will take up the majority of playing time, though they don’t often interconnect and share a focal problem given by the game’s visuals. The Tomb Raider aspirations are clear with the environmental traversal, except here the platforming is much more forgiving. Whether hopping between aged mortar, ledges, or swinging from vines, just read Drake’s body language of him reaching for the next platform and hit ‘X.’ One of the problems with platforming is the difficulty in pathfinding, ironically due to the rich details of the environment. Certain failures in making certain jumps or reaching correct ledges is that there’s little to distinguish between what’s meant to be scalable and what’s simple background text. With the overbearing amount of direction given for these areas and how easygoing the game’s system act for platforming...it’s closer to just a fun distraction that other games have executed more elegantly.
Combat on the other tips towards the other direction and accounts for most frustration. The gunplay replicates Gears of War's cover-based, third-person shooting but with a standard arsenal of pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, and grenade launchers. The general sensation of firing weapons does provide a proper punch, but there’s something about the handling and general movement of the controls that doesn’t feel quite as kinesthetically pleasing as other shooters. It’s also tough to do any evade rolling around cover since both options are mapped to the O button.
One problem I come back to is the enemy design for many scenarios. As mentioned for platforming, the visuals popping like they do here make it often tough to spot enemies until they’ve bore down on you and get a few precise shots on you from afar—which is essentially their standard accuracy—or snuck in a few shots off-camera. Aside from that, they seem to act like bullet sponges for many of the standard weapons. A bunch of early enemies that typically wore t-shirts could still absorb quite a few bullets despite flailing around at times. Admittedly, they are rather smart when it comes to interacting with cover and attempting to flank you; but with the other design problems considered, it just gets so annoying when it feels like one wave after the other comes in and then you move forward just to get into another firefight. Same process in a different location. It eventually becomes a jarring dissimilarity to the casual platforming aspect.
There was one evanescent instance throughout the shooting bits which would’ve elevated this beyond the “nimbler Gears of War” portrayal: booby traps. For one short scenario, players not only have to consider cover shooting against incoming enemies but also pay close attention so as to elude ropes tied close to the ground that will spring spike traps (think like that one scene in Rambo: First Blood). While I’m not trying to outright ignore the difference of a more agile Gears shooting gallery—that’s nice too, this little detail was a quick glimpse of gameplay that added legitimate texture TO this deserted tropical location. To see that so effortlessly tossed away for the rest of the game seems nonsensical to this day.
When growing tired of extirpating non-white ethnicities solely with guns, players have a few environmental hazards to exploit to their advantage or chuck grenades. Drake also has a selection of melee attacks to use against his enemies. The variety of animations makes it look much more dynamic than the button-mashing actually is, which is both praise for how sensational it looks when executed and a slight against its simplicity. There are a few moments to use stealth. Drake slinks up to an unsuspecting guard and takes him out with one quick grab. The AI is very rudimentary though and has a large cone of vision that will instantly alert everyone, even if just a sliver of you can be spotted behind cover. “…now if I can get past these guards unnoticed,” says Drake before entering a new area. That insignificant part frustrated me so much because it’s nigh impossible to make ANY kind of legitimate process after silently taking out the first guard. While "ludonarrative dissonance" was still in its infancy, and has been overused since then, this part is one clear instance of gameplay betraying the narrative's promise in a similar fashion.
Then, there’s also turret and vehicular segments. In regards to sheer excitement, the time shooting and grenading baddies while on the back of a jeep contains the best set-piece moments. There are also moments where you commandeer a jet ski and ride through flooded ruins or up-current while Elena sits behind and is used to fire at baddies or explosive barrels. What had the chance of being a gameplay highlight turns to be one of its biggest banes. The watercraft doesn’t really control fluidly—especially against rapids—and any kind of sensation of speed built up is destroyed by having to constantly switch to Elena and have her shoot grenades or bullets (never needing to reload her gun either) at enemy pirates just waiting around the next corner. Every aspect of those levels feels lazy; as if someone thought of Coco’s jet ski levels from the Crash Bandicoot days and the team decided to “modernize” it without examining the fundamentals of what made those past implementations so fun to play. Naughty Dog may poke fun at other grey shooters at the time with silly "Next-Gen" visual filters, but they were just as susceptible to other nonsense AAA tropes at the time.
Speaking of “modernized” content pried in the game, what early PS3 game would be complete without SixAxis controls? From the secondary option of tilting the controller for arcing a grenade to balancing on a couple of logs, the sensation of Sony corporate breathing down their neck is almost palpable. And then there are the quick-time events (QTE’s). As an early fan of Indigo Prophecy back then, I’ve never been one to complain about QTE’s in all games. It’s another tool in the developer toolbox. But it should feel as though it’s serving a purpose, not thrown in there just because. Here, there’s maybe four QTE’s aside from the final boss fight scattered throughout random cutscenes where you’re in the “controller resting” state of just watching a scene unfold and then a quick off-focus camera angle with a button prompt jumps on the screen only giving a moment’s notice to react. I'm pretty sure I needlessly died all four times I initially played back in 08/09 and AGAIN upon replaying years later.
With earlier gripes on overly-simplistic mechanics, one could suspect the few straightforward puzzles would be another easy target for me. But given the context the game provides, they're married with the gameplay quite well. It seems understandable for an explorer to meticulously jot down specifics about ancient relics and secrets and the few moments they’re involved in the game do fit naturally. As mentioned before, I just hate how the outcome in some of these completed puzzles resulting in dim-witted pirates always happening to stumble upon some back entrance.
Even after putting Uncharted through my grinding wheel of criticism, I’m sure some of these annoyances will just be pegged as peevish by many. And that’s fair to a degree. Even with extraneous problems considered, the core gameplay could still be considered...mostly serviceable, I suppose. How could it not be, though? When you have every core concept followed in lock-step with other franchises that either created a template or refined it in a way to give it a separate identity...how could you mess up in any spectacular fashion? On top of just being unadventurous (pardon the pun), the impressive panoply of mechanics present don’t really provide much of their own kind of texture or distinct quality that distinguishes it from a hodgepodge of disconnected ideas; and when moments of uniqueness do crop up, they don’t satisfy for very long before going back to the slog of pirate slaying.
Replay value is a bit of a tricky situation that’s dependent upon a couple of factors. The beginning of the seventh generation brought a lot of narrative-driven games down into the single digit hours. There’s definitely a lesser sensation of padding in comparison to older titles (which I appreciate), but it also challenges the up-front investment and what publisher constitute as being “worth” full price. On top of trophies added in simply depending on the copy you have or having an internet connection to upload a game patch, there’s an in-game reward-based system as well that unlocks making-of videos, different costumes, fun visual filters, and the like. The overall length will probably run the gambit of the eight-hour mark, depending on if looking for all the shiny collectibles is your thing, so it’s certainly feels a bit strapped for content. My problem with value is geared more towards the meat of the game’s value instead of the length, however. There are really just a few small gameplay moments that actually feel worth replaying for years to come.
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune embodies the swashbuckling adventure tradition of many exhilarating films and comics in decades past. It means only to entertain; and in some respects, it succeeds. It serves as an outstanding graphical showcase for the early PS3 days in both the well-crafted cut scenes and gameplay not satisfied with being segmented by loading screens. Looking past that, however, is a title with a respectable array of mechanics that feel either distracted or unrefined compared to its contemporaries and a story that doesn’t quite live up to the developer’s cinematic scope. Like one of the glistening trinkets placed throughout the campaign: the satisfaction upon first glance of this shiny bauble is present, but soon feels hollow compared to the real treasure that’s promised to lie at the X on the map.
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