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Uncharted: El Dorado no Hihou
By Craig Snow 07th Feb 2009 | 10,269 views
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is often likened to the gaming equivalent of a Hollywood action movie. The story has a slightly epic feel to it and sends our main character, Nathan Drake, from one exotic and mysterious location to another, as he raids tombs and ruined buildings in search of a cursed treasure, at each stage being continuously hounded by villains and stumped by various obstacles. It’s full of little twists and turns, including one big (if slightly too predictable) one, and well created characters. The action is fast paced and unrelenting, the graphics, cut-scenes and overall presentation are all superb, and it’s even a bit short on content like the movies it’s often compared to. It certainly bears the hallmarks of a highly stylised and cinematic game.
Presentation is undoubtedly Uncharted’s strong point. The cut-scenes are some of the best out there, and although the character models do on occasion have an out-of-place plastic-like sheen, they are nevertheless impressive. The transitions from gameplay to cut-scene and then back to gameplay again are almost seamless, thanks to the complete lack of loading screens and overall level of graphical quality. As such it’s easy to find yourself in-game with Nathan standing still waiting for you to realise that the cut-scene has actually ended. There’s one very long loading screen when you first boot up the game, but it’s well worth it because thereafter everything runs extremely smoothly without even the slightest hint of a load screen, which is very impressive given how strong the game is visually.
A few instances of screen tearing aside, the in-game visuals are excellent. All of the characters are well detailed, from their equipment to their clothing, for example you can see just how dirty Drake’s clothes are and they realistically darken and cling to his body when they get wet. Drake’s animations are superb. If you don’t quite nail a jump and he barely manages to grab hold of the ledge, he’ll dangle from it with one hand and you can visibly see him struggling to maintain his grip. When moving behind cover, Drake will smoothly transition from his ordinary stance into a crouch at the press of a button. If you engage in melee combat he will launch into a stylish brawl and if you manage to successfully trigger a combo the action will slow down as you see Drake before a finishing move. There are absolutely loads of these sorts of excellent animations throughout the game, and Drake’s overall personality and style really shines through in them, making him a joy to control.
The environments are even more impressive than the characters. During part of the game you fight your way up a steep incline, battling against the usual waves of enemies, and the closer you get to the top the more the sunlight beams onto your screen. Finally, you reach the top and see this wonderful scene of a reddened sunlit sky in the distance and all around you the cliff is surrounded by the sea which stretches out for miles. That is just one example - the game takes you through a lot of different locations and settings, and each one is just as finely detailed. The sun filters through the trees and vegetation in the jungle sections, showing off the great lighting and shadow effects, and the water ripples and reacts to Drake’s movements as he wades or swims through it. And pieces of rock and debris spray off destructible cover as it gets riddles with enemy bullets. Little touches like this really make the world more convincing.
The sound effects, score and voice acting all continue the trend of excellent presentation. The voice acting is very well done, and the interaction between the characters during the cut-scenes really does make the game feel like an animated movie. One nice touch is that during gameplay Drake will sometimes make sly quips about the repetitive nature of the gameplay and some of the more predictable Hollywood-esque plot twists, and hopefully this is an area of the game that is expanded upon in the upcoming sequel.
The score is generally quite up-beat, and the main soundtrack very much mirrors what you would expect to find from a blockbuster film in that it’s a large sweeping anthem. As you would expect the music will increase in intensity shortly prior to and during battles, and will then settle back down during the puzzle-solving or platforming portions of the game. Overall the sound effects are solid. Although the sound of the weapons isn’t up there with the precision of military shooters like Call of Duty 4, it does the job adequately, and each weapon has its own unique sound as you would expect. More impressive are the environmental sound effects, like the falling of rocks, the scuttle of dirt and grit, and the thunderous crashes of the waterfalls, which are all accurately realised.
The gameplay can roughly be split into 2 key elements - platforming/adventure sections and combat sections. There are also nice asides which break up what can sometimes feel like excessively repetitive gameplay, such as vehicle sections and puzzles, but I’ll come onto those later. What’s great about the platforming in Uncharted is the absolute ease of use and fun that is involved. Tomb Raider enthusiasts are in for quite a shock. In-keeping with the fast paced nature of the game, platforming is generally an easy task. For example, when attempting to jump from one ledge to another, you only need to line Drake up in the rough direction of the next ledge, run towards the edge, and then press X to jump. The game will do the rest for you – if you didn’t quite build up enough speed Drake might just grab hold of the ledge with one hand, or if you walked towards the edge but didn’t jump in time you generally won’t go flying off the end, Drake will double-back and cling onto the ledge.
That’s not to say you won’t die at the hands of devilish platforming sections, it’s just that there’s no need to precisely line Drake up and then hope for the best, lest you fall to your doom. I want to be clear - pulling off a series of well-timed jumps is still enjoyable, and a lot of the platforming sections are challenging, they’re just not brutally unforgiving. Drake completes all of these moves with his usual flashes of style, his movements are very fluid, and pulling off spectacular leaps looks impressive.
The combat elements are a mix of gunplay and melee combat. How you approach a gunfight is up to you – you can make use of the game’s excellent cover system to hold back and pick-off the waves of enemies from cover, you can ‘run and gun’, or you can single out enemies and engage in melee combat. The cover system is great, and it’s very similar to the one found in Gears of War. It’s all dealt with using the circle button, so when you’re stood near cover you need only press the circle button to cause Drake to make use of it, then press circle again, or just pull him away from the cover using the analog stick to exit cover. The circle button also causes Drake to roll, so if he’s too far away from an object to reach it with ease, he’ll roll forwards and move into cover as he exits the roll.
The gunplay is quite basic but still engaging. There are no extravagant re-loading animations and no aiming assists similar to the ones found in the Call of Duty or Halo series, so aiming can be quite a tricky affair initially. After a while you get used to the difficulty of aiming fully manually, and this system helps to keep the combat challenging by ensuring that head shots are quite difficult to pull off. The enemy AI is pretty good. They’ll seek cover as you do, and will throw grenades at you and eventually advance on your position in an attempt to flush you out if you decide to hang back too much. One key disappointment is the way that these gun-fighting sections become far too repetitive. Enemies all pull off the identical side-stepping move in an attempt to avoid your bullets, which looks a little weird, and there is an overall similarity between the different enemy types and the tactics they employ. Enemies always attack in groups, and you usually have to kill a couple of waves of enemies before you can advance. It’s a feature found in a lot of TPS and FPS games, but it somehow feels more blatant and irritating in Uncharted.
That said, towards the end of the game, when the repetitive nature of the way these skirmishes unfolds starts to become really tiresome, the gun-fights completely change direction. There’s a plot twist you see coming a mile off that means you’re no longer inclined to hold back and make use of cover, you’ll find yourself aiming from the hip much more often, and killing enemies with a much greater level of urgency. I loved the plot twist, although a lot of people are heavily critical of it, precisely because of the change in both gameplay and atmosphere that it introduces.
Melee combat also makes up a key part of the gameplay. If you manage to press the combat buttons with the correct level rhythm and flow, Drake will land all of his blows and then perform a brutal finishing move which kills/incapacitates his enemy. If you fail to use the correct combination, or your timing is off, the enemy will counter Drake. The melee combat is very cinematic, it almost feels like watching a cut-scene, but that also brings some problems because it only just manages to avoid feeling like a series of quick-time events.
Finally, I’ll just make a quick mention of some of the other gameplay elements you’ll find in the game. There are some nice puzzle elements that break up the action nicely, they’re pretty well embedded in the story and there’s one towards the end which is really well implemented and looks stunning. It consists of lots of different stairways set out across loads of levels and heading in all different directions, complete with plenty of death traps; it almost looks like that optical illusion drawing with all of the staircases that intertwine. There are also some good vehicle sections, which make for a fresh gameplay experience and add some variety. They don’t last very long but they’re good fun. Finally, the Sixaxis controls are used for controlling Drake’s balance as he’s crossing fallen logs and for determining the trajectory of your grenades. I could have done without them, they don’t really feature enough to hinder the gameplay, but they just seem rather redundant.
Uncharted’s main story is quite short, probably clocking in at around 10 hours during your first playthrough, and whilst it’s certainly well worth replaying there’s no getting away from the fact that with such a short playtime, no other modes and no multiplayer on offer, the game is short. That said, there are 4 difficulty levels to work your way through, and hidden treasures to collect for those that obsess about doing and getting everything in a game. As an extra reward, those treasures unlock things like bonus outfits, artwork and videos. Also, to their credit, the developers retrospectively added trophy support, which is great to see, so if you like your trophies there’s certainly some added value here and it’ll take you some time to get them all.
I would argue the case that Uncharted remains the most cinematic game released so far this generation, and it’s not just because of graphical prowess of the game and the cut-scenes – the production levels across the board are what make Uncharted a cinematic experience, yes because of the level of graphical detail and polish, but also from the voice acting, the score, the sound, the accessible and fluid shooting and platforming elements, the excellent pacing, the seamless transitions from gameplay to cut-scenes, and the absence of loading throughout most of the game. Uncharted is a great action game, and if you can look past the short playtime and a few gameplay gripes, then it’s definitely worth a purchase.