I completed a third playthrough of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune yesterday and savored it every bit as much as the first. I rarely revisit games - it seems there's always another must-play title vying for my attention - but Uncharted delivers such pure gaming bliss that I decided to take another ride.
Uncharted is the rare cinematic game that makes a virtue of its reliance on cinematic conventions. Game reviewers tend to use familiar genre terms to describe Uncharted: action-adventure; Lara Croft-style 3D platformer; 3rd-person shooter.
While these are apt descriptions of Uncharted's gameplay mix, stylistically Uncharted owes its greatest debt to the Republic Pictures serials of the 30s and 40s (The Lost Jungle, Zorro Rides Again, Flash Gordon) - rousing adventures that alternated action sequences with narrative intrigue in roughly the same fashion as Uncharted - complete with screen wipes, episodic chapters, and (literally) cliffhanger suspense. All present and accounted for in Naughty Dog's stylish homage.
Likewise, Uncharted's cast of characters is pulled right out of the old western/sci-fi serial playbook :
- The hero - Nathan Drake
- The saddle pal or sidekick - Elena, in this case also the romantic interest
- The brains heavy - Gabriel Roman
- The action heavy - Atoq Navarro
- The oldtimer - Victor "Sully" Sullivan
George Lucas famously pastiched these old serials in his Star Wars films, as well as in his screenplay for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but these films move slower and contain more ponderous exposition than their Republic forerunners. Stylistically, Uncharted is a more direct link to those ripping yarns of old, albeit with a modern sardonic sensibility. As a cynical disinterested hero, Nathan Drake probably owes more to Indiana Jones than Flash Gordon. But unless you blow through the game in a single sitting, Uncharted plays like a ludic version of pulp serial fiction doled out in short action-packed episodes.
If you commit to building a cinematic game, you need to make good on that promise across the board. That means a satisfying story, solid performances, a deft directorial hand, an evocative score, and well-timed cutscenes that enhance the adventure and make taking control away from the player feel like a gift, rather than a crutch.
Uncharted meets those challenges admirably well, its cinematic style well-suited to an episodic treasure hunt adventure delivered in a 3rd-person perspective. The game's storyboarding, scripting, and recording sessions were integrated into the development process from the beginning, enabling the actors and Game Director Amy Hennig to rehearse, improvise, collaborate, and revise.
I've written often about voice acting (ad naseum some may say), so I won't revisit the topic here. But compare Nolan North's subtle and organic performance in this game to his work in the more recent Prince of Persia, and you will appreciate the wisdom of Naughty Dog's methods.
Uncharted manages to seamlessly weave in and out of its gameplay sequences, building momentum as the game progresses and enabling the player to deploy its full arsenal of platforming maneuvers and cover system gunplay. This playthrough made me especially appreciate the game's clean and streamlined interface. No HUD, no menu or inventory screens; when Drake loses health the screen blurs and the colors desaturate.
Speaking of color, this game is a welcome respite from the drab browns and grays of nearly every other shooter released around the same time. Graphically, the game still looks terrific, especially its fluid character animations and facial expressions. inFAMOUS could have taken a cue from Uncharted in this regard, as could many other recent games. The dynamic lighting and real-time shadows are employed to excellent effect as well, especially in the jungle sequences. I'm not a graphics nut, but loading up Uncharted after months of other games reminds me just how good this game looks and controls. Uncharted may shine most brighly as a platformer, but it's no slouch as a smooth-controlling shooter.
Much of Uncharted's success can be traced to its hero, Nathan Drake - a regular guy with no special powers or skills (well, he is a pretty good climber). Nate's ordinariness helps explain the game's overarching structure. Nate is basically in it for the ride, tracking a story he does not control, figuring it out as he goes along. In this way, Uncharted's linear narrative makes perfect sense. This isn't a sandbox experience because Nate isn't driving the events forward. He's doing his best to keep up, angling for an edge wherever he can find one.
I'm not crazy about games that lean on the language of film, and I'm leery of strictly linear narrative games. Uncharted reminds me that consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. ;-)
Uncharted has that special joie de vivre that great games possess. It isn't perfect. The puzzles are weak; the collecting is pointless, and the interiors (e.g. the monastery tunnels) are less interesting than the jungle locales. But the pacing is spot-on. Elena is fun to hang around with for nine hours. Climbing, jumping, and vertical pathfinding never lose their appeal. Uncharted pins you in your seat and delivers a thrill ride even Flash Gordon would envy.
Note: I gave short shrift in this post to Greg Edmonson's terrific score. I highly recommend this article if you'd like to know more about his work on Uncharted.