Much like in the fifth console generation before it, Naughty Dog had much success in the PlayStation 2 era with their Jak & Daxter trilogy of 3D platforming games. Shortly after the release of Jak 3 in 2004, Naughty Dog assembled their most technically proficient staff members and began development of a new project under the codename Big. Meanwhile, Sony was working on their newest console: the PlayStation 3. Rather than continue the Jak & Daxter series on this platform, Naughty Dog opted to create a new franchise to better suit the hardware capabilities, terming the art direction as “stylized realism”. Taking inspiration from pulp magazines and contemporary movies such as Indiana Jones and National Treasure, they sought to create an action adventure game with mystery themes that explore various what-if scenarios.
This project was unveiled to the public in 2006 at the annual gaming exhibition, E3, with the working title, Uncharted. When gaming fans learned of its platforming and shooter elements, they inevitably drew comparisons to Core Design’s Tomb Raider series of action-adventure games that became well-known in the original PlayStation era, eventually earning the nickname “Dude Raider” based on it having a male protagonist. The developers distinguished their game by placing a greater emphasis on a cover-based play mechanic, citing the pioneering third-person shooter, Resident Evil 4, as an influence along with other popular titles. The game saw its official release in 2007 under the name, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Critics and fans alike praised Uncharted for its stunning visuals and entertaining dialogue. As the PlayStation 3 met with a tepid response due to a lack of games, this was one of the exclusive titles that helped turn the tide in their favor along with Metal Gear Solid 4 a year later. Doubtlessly was it impressive that managed to sell one-million copies before its platform caught on with enthusiasts. How did it accomplish such a feat?
Playing the Game
Uncharted is a third-person shooter. When fighting enemies, players are advised to fire from behind cover because the protagonist does not have superhuman endurance. From cover, you can either fire blindly at the enemy or pop out and aim. Naturally, the former will make the enemy less likely to hit your character and the latter allows for better accuracy. If he takes a hit, a red tinge will adorn the section of the screen from whence the successful attack came. As he takes more damage, the colors will become progressively more desaturated until they fade away entirely. When the game is in this state, one more attack will be enough to finish off the protagonist. In the event that he dies, the game will reset to the most recent checkpoint. You can recover from damage by finding a safe spot that enemies can’t reach and waiting until the colors return to normal.
At any given time, your character is allowed to carry one handgun and one two-handed firearm. Upon defeating certain enemies, you can either switch weapons or pick up ammunition of the corresponding gun in your inventory. You can also engage in hand-to-hand combat, which involves getting close to the enemy and pressing the appropriate buttons as they appear onscreen. As your carrying capacity for ammunition has a decidedly strict limitation, you don’t want to expend too much of it at once; it’s a sound idea to resort to melee attacks when there is only a single enemy left.
Furthermore, you can hold a limited number of grenades. When throwing one, the arc it will take is shown to you, allowing you to gauge where it will land and subsequently explode. They’re handy when you need to dispatch several of them at once – usually when the enemy is firing from all directions and leaving cover would prove too perilous.
Uncharted would appear to be a typical shooter of its time, being one of the countless titles inspired by the success of Epic Games’s 2006 effort, Gears of War. On the surface, this is true of the core gameplay, yet there are a few elements that distinguish it from its peers. It’s evident from playing Uncharted that a lot of effort went into its visuals. The environments, especially for its time, are beautiful to look at, and the artists used a full range of colors as opposed to the stereotypical late-2000s action game approach by arbitrarily limiting themselves to various shades of brown.
The visuals on their own would be nice, but Naughty Dog goes a step further by incorporating them into the gameplay. Specifically, there are many parkour sections in which your character is made to climb set pieces to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. Some ledges crumble when latched on to, so it’s best to go into these situations having first analyzing the area so you’ll know where the protagonist is to end up. Should the need arise, you can shoot while hanging onto a ledge, but in these situations, you are limited to your handgun.
Moreover, Uncharted incorporates adventure game elements into the experience. Occasionally, there are passages which are blocked and the only way to proceed is to solve a puzzle. When this happens, the protagonist will take out his journal, giving the player a hint on how to go about solving it. Usually, it involves interpreting sketches in the proper context and interacting with the appropriate mechanisms until you have deduced the solution.
The developers encourage their audience to explore the environment they devoted much care and attention to by littering it with various artifacts. They’re not usually placed too far off the beaten path and collecting them is completely optional – they exist for the more astute players. Discovering these treasures will award points, which can be used to unlock bonus features, including alternate costumes, unlimited ammunition, concept art, and making-of videos.
Uncharted is far from the first 3D action-fixated experience the medium had to offer, and its incorporation of platforming elements isn’t entirely unprecedented either, as Tomb Raider, the game many fans compared it to when it was initially unveiled, debuted nearly a decade earlier. Thanks to boasting superior hardware than its spiritual predecessors, Naughty Dog was able to successfully translate the look and feel of an action movie into an interactive medium in ways that were largely infeasible in previous console generations.
While the action sequences would be impressive even if cel-shaded models were utilized, the semi-realistic art style goes a long way in enhancing the tension of these situations. It broadcasts to the player that, like an action-film protagonist, the player must be alert at all times; one false move will send the player character to an early grave. Indeed, the numerous ways in which it’s possible for him to die throughout the course of his adventure – be it from enemy gunfire or a mistimed jump – gives one a whole new level of appreciation for equivalents in non-interactive mediums who invariably make these awe-inspiring stunts look so easy.
However, despite the clear amount of effort that went into creating this game, it’s still not without its flaws. To begin with, though the action sequences are good, they lack variety. I appreciate that the developers were able to create an interesting experience without including any boss fights, but it still means for every gunfight, you’re just going through the motions until all the entry-level bad guys are dead.
It’s admittedly more exciting than it sounds, but the rest of the game also suffers from somewhat spotty execution. The puzzles aren’t exactly challenging, and the journal sketches barely stop short of outright explaining the solution. If the player is still unsure, pressing up on the directional pad when prompted will provide another clue – usually courtesy of a nearby character’s observations. I sympathize with wanting to keep the game at a brisk pace, but if the puzzles are going to be this simplistic, the development team may as well have dispensed with them entirely.
I think what’s also worth nothing is that the parkour sections lack polish. The game often doesn’t make it clear where to go when negotiating these jumps, and I died far more often in these sequences than to enemy gunfire. It doesn’t help that there are many instances in which a prompt will appear and you must press the appropriate button in order to avoid instant death – whether it’s in the form of a crumbling ledge or a collapsing pillar. These moments, known as quick-time events in gaming circles, are the absolute worst trend to result from the success of Resident Evil 4 and universally reviled by enthusiasts everywhere for all the right reasons. To be fair, they’re not terribly intrusive, and 2007 was before developers realized just what a bad idea they were. Having said that, it’s still the worst design choice they made by a significant margin, as they utterly fail to add anything of substance to the experience; they only succeed at making the game more annoying to get through.
To summarize, the gameplay of Uncharted comes across as the result of somebody examining a style guide, making a checklist, and contributing only a few personal touches. The result is a game that works well and isn’t terribly broken in any way, yet feels a little unambitious.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The following section will contain unmarked spoilers. Skip to the conclusion if you wish to experience the game blind.
Self-styled fortune hunter, Nathan “Nate” Drake has recovered the coffin of Sir Francis Drake off the coast of Portobelo, Colón in Panama. Claiming to be one of the historical figure’s descendants, he is accompanied by a journalist named Elena Fisher who is there to record the events. To their surprise, the lead coffin is empty except for a diary written by Sir Francis Drake. Nathan had a theory that Francis Drake faked his own death in his final years to secretly embark on one final expedition, and this record would seem to prove it correct.
Before they are able to fully examine the text, Nathan and Elena are besieged by pirates led by Eddy Raja, an old rival of his. Though they’re able to fight off the ruthless corsairs, their boat is destroyed. Luckily, Nathan’s best friend, Victor “Sully” Sullivan, is there to rescue them in his seaplane. Looking through the diary, they determine Francis Drake’s goal was to find the mythical city of gold: El Dorado. Fearing Elena publishing her documentary would draw unwanted attention, Nathan and Sully leave her behind, traveling to a region in the Amazon Rainforest housing the remains of an ancient civilization. Little do they know what’s in store for them in these old ruins…
Working within technical limitations at the time, most artists who sought to create 3D games in the 2000s resorted to heavily stylized designs. They ranged anywhere from the cel-shaded cartoonish look of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker to the Metal Gear series, which opted for a style that wouldn’t feel out of place in a graphic novel. By using the PlayStation 3’s hardware to portray realistic character movements and expressions, Uncharted managed to stand out from the crowd in 2007, demonstrating the machine’s potential. It helps create an immersive story, for when one watches the wonderfully rendered cutscenes, it’s easy to get the sense that the characters are real humans.
Many critics who have lauded Uncharted cited the dialogue as highly entertaining. I certainly see why they would say this, and it’s important to have a good lead in video games; if you fail, then players aren’t motivated to see things through to the end (or if they do, they’ll wish they hadn’t). This is certainly a field Uncharted excels in, as Nathan is likable, has no shortage of funny dialogue, and has good chemistry with Sully and Elena when they’re not fighting for their lives.
After experiencing it for myself, I believe there is only one word that can truly describe the writing in Uncharted: adequate. Similar to the gameplay, the plot feels like the result of its writers going down a list of action-film tropes and checking every box. Consequently, there were more than a few instances when I thought to myself, “I knew they were going to say that” or “I knew that was going to happen”. I don’t think this phenomenon was unique to me either; anyone even vaguely familiar with these genres would likely be able to predict these developments just as easily as I.
One of the more subtly irritating aspects of Naughty Dog’s writing would be their propensity to point out plot holes only to not fix them. I remember one particularly glaring instance when Nathan had to navigate a series of precarious ledges in order to follow the antagonists only for Elena to randomly show up. Though Nathan wonders how she was able to reach his location when there were clearly no other paths available, they then focus their attention on the pirates, thus skirting the question entirely. This kind of joke flies in the face of the painstaking lengths to which the developers went to create a realistic look. It’s something you can only practicably get away with in comedies – and even then you have to be careful.
Though Naughty Dog successfully created charming, charismatic leads, the same can’t be said of anyone else. The basic rule of Uncharted is that anyone who isn’t a main character is a disposable, one-note villain. They don’t have much in the way of interesting motivations even when they inevitably begin to backstab one another. By the end of the game, I had completely forgotten their names.
In fact, not only are the antagonists utterly generic, they fail to present Nathan with any kind of meaningful challenge. Sure, they get the upper hand a few times, but he remains imperturbable throughout the entire story. The points in which you begin to question his odds of survival are far and few in between. Barring gameplay-related blunders, which are non-canonical, he’s for all intents and purposes, invincible. This is technically true of nearly every video game protagonist, but the best writers are good at incorporating that improbably good winning streak into the narrative without lending a sense of invincibility to them. I yield it’s a monumentally difficult task, but it can be done.
Perhaps the weakest aspect of the storytelling is that it only barely acknowledges it’s in a video game – a bit of a problem considering the medium on which Naughty Dog chose to create their work. Though they were able to translate an archetypal action film into an engaging game, they ended up overshooting their target when it comes to justifying the presence of certain tropes. To wit, it’s not uncommon for action movies to culminate in a heart-pounding chase sequence where the protagonist hunts down the primary antagonist while avoiding the latter’s henchmen or other natural hazards in order to protect someone close to them. This sink-or-swim method of storytelling is an incredible sight to behold – that is, when you’re merely an observer. Actually playing through such a sequence reveals its limitations when audience participation becomes a factor.
The final sequence involves Nathan chasing after the main antagonist in a shootout on a tanker. He is indeed accompanied by his fellow mercenaries, but returning his fire will prove futile. You can unload an entire clip of ammunition in his head, but the game refuses to acknowledge your out-of-the-box practicality. Instead, you have to gun down his henchmen until you’re allowed to move onto the next section of the ship. Only when you directly confront him can you damage him, and the game’s script will stop at nothing to smack the gun out of your hand, forcing you complete quick-time events just to land a hit. Rather than disposing of him with a single gunshot, Nathan sends him to the bottom of the sea with the treasure they fought so hard to capture. It bears repeating that in the right hands, this would be an astounding action sequence for a film, but in a game, it feels like the developers constantly changing their own rules until they give you an opening by accident.
It doesn’t help that in the ending, Nathan remarks their journey left them empty-handed. This line makes no sense to anyone who had been dutifully collecting the various treasures scattered throughout the game – many of which I’m positive could be sold for a sizeable fortune. Sully does turn up with a literal boatload of gold and valuable gems, but it would’ve been nice if the narrative didn’t forget about an entire dimension of the overall experience.
Drawing a Conclusion
I believe Uncharted to be the Donkey Kong Country of its console generation. Both games came out when people were skeptical about the capabilities of their respective platforms and sought to address those very criticisms. Unfortunately, Uncharted is also like Donkey Kong Country in that it’s difficult to enthusiastically recommend knowing the sequels managed to improve on the original in every conceivable way. The later games retroactively make Uncharted feel like something half-formed. It’s clear the elements for greatness are there, but they weren’t fully realized right off the bat.
I’m aware I probably sounded harsh in my analysis, but having said my piece, Uncharted is honestly an decent game. I concede the issues I had with the game were certainly not deal-breakers by any stretch of the imagination, and could easily be overlooked by anyone who is simply looking for a brisk, action-oriented experience. Though if you do intend to follow the series from the beginning, try not to purchase it alone. Uncharted often comes bundled with at least one of its sequels; if you have a PlayStation 4, the most economical use of your money would be to get the Nathan Drake Collection, which includes the first three installments. Otherwise, I can safely say that as impressive as these efforts were to make Uncharted a killer app for the PlayStation 3, they weren’t enough.
Final Score: 5/10