Monday Spotlight - Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
Each and every Monday I take an in-depth look at one video game topic. This can be anything related to games and the industry, from individual titles and consoles to developers and prominent figures, and everything else in-between. All related topics are fair game and I will offer some history, commentary and insight for each. Check back each Monday for a new spotlight, and click here for past entries.
With the huge success of Uncharted 2 and the hype surrounding the beta for the next instalment, it is easy to forget about the game that started it all - Uncharted: Drakes Fortune. Although it may not have the celebrated multiplayer of its offspring, it does share the fluid gameplay, visual flare, exciting plot and likeable characters and stands as one of the most important games of the last five years.
California based developer Naughty Dog first made a name for themselves with the popular platformer, Crash Bandicoot on the PS1. In 2001, off the back of this success, the studio was bought by Sony where they continued to make games exclusively for the PlayStation brand – most notably Jack and Daxter, which would spawn two direct, critically acclaimed sequels.
With the coming of the PS3, Naughty Dog moved away from their expertise and began to work on the series which would come to define them. An action-adventure game with 3D platforming and third person shooter elements, Uncharted was released in winter 2007 and shifted 3.5 million copies within its first eighteen months. It was one of the first platform-exclusive titles to warrant shelling-out for the pricey PS3, and gave Sony’s console a much needed push over the holiday season. With the arrival of Uncharted, working two jobs to afford a PS3 suddenly seemed a little less ludicrous, much to the relief of Ken Kutaragi.
Naughty Dog were asked to create a game to showcase the capabilities of the new platform, thus Uncharted was born. They opted for a new IP instead of continuing the Jak and Daxter franchise as it would allow them to fully show-off the new hardware and feature more realistic character models and effects that weren’t possible on the PS2. Despite some super-natural elements and our charismatic lead, Nathan Drake, possessing some exaggerated abilities, Naughty Dog wanted to create a game grounded in reality, populated with real, believable and down to earth characters. To help with this sense of reality, the decision was made early on that the plot be full of historical references and revolve around the treasure of a historical figure, Nathan’s ancestor Sir Francis Drake. However, this historical context doesn't stop the narrative from becoming increasingly far-fetched as it nears the end.
Drake is cast as the every-man hero and his actions, though exaggerated, do feel plausible as he constantly avoids death by the skin of his teeth. He is beaten and bruised throughout, leaping around in his grubby t-shirt, ever lamenting his current situation. He has great chemistry with his on-off partner, Sully, and their amusing banter helps to develop their rapport. Intrepid journalist Elena is far more interesting than the average female sidekick that these kinds of adventures seem to generate, and their relationship is a heart-warming one. These memorable characters are bought to life by the actors who portray them both in action and voice. Nolan North owns the Drake character to the point that it is slightly uncomfortable hearing him in different roles, such as the Prince of Persia and Desmond in the Assassin’s Creed series.
Uncharted drew influences from a number of varied sources. It owes a great debt to matinee movies and pulp action adventures of the past, as well as more modern films like Indiana Jones, and also borrowed elements from a number of popular video game series, including Tomb Raider and Gears of War (the intuitive cover system). Visually, however, Uncharted would blaze its own path separate to those of its gaming influences. Naughty Dog strived to move away from the greys and darker palettes of similar titles like Tomb Raider, a game which Uncharted was constantly being compared, even being labelled “Dude Raider” by the press. The result was a lush and vibrant island setting, full of colour and a veritable playground for the player to explore.
These detailed, open spaces are still very impressive, in particular the water effects which made full use of the new hardware. My most vivid memory of playing Uncharted for the first time is wading through a marooned and partially-flooded submarine and being in awe of the realistic water effects, where the crystal clear waters shimmer, glisten and ripple as you dip in and out. The water effects are a microcosm of the stunning visuals and attention to detail that is present throughout.
At times Naughty Dog were overwhelmed with the new possibilities offered by the PS3, but through extensive trial and error they familiarized themselves with the new technology. The finished result was a game which looked head and shoulders better than anything else available at the time, and played as well as anything on the market. Uncharted was one of the first titles to make use of the motion functions of the Sixaxis controller, being one of only a handful of titles to be demoed alongside the new controller at Tokyo Game Show. It was also an early adopter of trophies, introducing a patch in August 2008, integrating them smoothly with the already available, in-game medals.
It would achieve a near perfect balance of gameplay styles, mixing platforming with smooth combat and puzzles. In researching this post, I watched a number of short "Making Of" documentaries on Youtube. A common theme throughout these collections of talking heads was Naughty Dog’s desire to make all aspects of gameplay feel just right. They had plenty of sections which looked great, but if they didn’t feel good they were quickly jettisoned. This may go some way to explaining the relatively short run-time, but it is hard to argue with the quality of what is present.
The platforming is intuitive, but never falls into the trap of being too simple - as seen in Enslaved, for example. The combat is hugely satisfying and they nailed the cover system on the first attempt, making it effortless to pop out of cover to steal a cheeky head-shot, accompanied by one the most satisfying sound-effects in gaming, and then duck straight back out of sight. Melee is great fun, offering an excellent alternative to shooting your way out of every situation, and puzzles, short vehicle sections and some treasure hunting round out an excellent and uncluttered package.
I was a little slow on the uptake with Uncharted, as it took me more than a year to see beyond the hideous front cover and finally give it a go. I was instantly hooked; amazed by the visuals and impressed by how easy it was to lose myself in the adventure. I would play Uncharted through to the end three times in the space of ten days, something I have never done with a game before or since. With its blockbuster production values and memorable cast, it’s a winner from the word go.
Nathan Drake is the most loveable of rogues - killing without hesitation in a quest to sate his lust for treasure. Yet we can’t help but sympathize, love and relate to him despite his sociopathic behaviour and quips. Bolstered by a strong and always interesting cast of characters, the story is just as gripping as the climbing and shooting. With a tropical setting full of treasure, obstacles to climb and leap off, lots of guns and plenty of villains to point them at, Uncharted is a boyhood dream reborn. I could finally take the role of Indie, minus the whip, and it is just as much fun as I imagined it would be when I was ten years old, jumping out of trees and looking for buried treasure in the back garden.
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune set the standard and the series has yet to disappoint. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves continued the excellence, cementing Nathan Drake as one of the most popular protagonists in modern gaming and Naughty Dog as one of the premium developers in the business. They seamlessly added a multiplayer component at a time when it was fashionable to do so, but unlike many of its contemporaries it absolutely belonged there and I can no longer imagine Uncharted without competitive and co-op multiplayer. The beta for Uncharted 3 is predictably brilliant and although it isn't developed by Naughty Dog, Uncharted’s forthcoming portable debut Golden Abyss looks promising. Who knows, perhaps even the troubled movie will turn out to be half decent, even without Naughty Dog’s Midas touch.
Once upon a time, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was considered a rather derivative game, but only three years later it has become the benchmark by which other adventures are judged. We may now speculate how Uncharted-like the new Tomb Raider reboot will be, the very same Uncharted which was once referred to as "Dude Raider". Nathan Drake and co. have come a long way in such a short time, and the series shows no signs of letting-up.