Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune – a critique

Warning: This is not a review. If you want a review of this title go here, or here, or here etc, etc. This is a critical look at the game itself, both design wise and from the perspective as a piece of art. Oh and another note, MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD. This is written with the idea that anyone who read this has played the game.

Uncharted is a year old, but I recently got my platinum trophy and I feel that enough time has passed that I can take an unhindered look at the game.

First the basics, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is about Nathan Drake, a supposed descendant of Sir Francis Drake in the search of a lost Spanish treasure they later find out is El Dorado. He has an elder partner Sullivan and female journalist/documentarian, Elena, following him around/chasing him with a camera. Unfortunately Sully couldn’t keep his mouth shut and told Gabriel Roman, a man who he owed money to and who put a contract out on his life. He brought along a bunch of pirates and mercenaries to help in getting the treasure. This leads everyone to an uncharted island in the middle of the Pacific, thanks to a WWII Nazi map. Just run with it, it makes less sense explaining it than it does in game. I wont bother with a full plot summery, because one, that would be boring and two, I’m expecting that you have already played the game or have read it elsewhere.

If you read other articles of mine you may have noticed me gushing over this game a little. It is a phenomenal, well executed, tightly designed game. I mentioned it before in relation to how it merges story elements with its gameplay ones. Because of this, to look at Uncharted one has to look at the term cinematic gaming. Uncharted is the very definition of well-executed cinematic gaming.

I would rate the architecture of the game was one of the best I’ve seen in the last few generations let alone years. I played through the game numerous times and never once hit a glitch. The loading screen that happens during gameplay where I am warned not to turn off my machine during appears only once: at the beginning of the game. It is seamless throughout. I checked the game data next; this is where the disc downloads data from the disc to facilitate load times. The other great games of the PS3 have any where to half a gig of data to MGS4 incredible 4.5 gigs of downloaded data, which gets replaced after ever chapter. Uncharted has none. Everything runs off the disc. The 13megs are for when it was updated with trophy support.

On the gameplay aspects, everything within the game has been refined to a mirror shine and I don’t just mean the graphics. Few games respond like Uncharted do. The cover system works as well as it possible can and the shooting has certain nuances that I didn’t know about or take advantage of until I played through on high difficulties. The collision detection is far better than I’ve ever seen. Objects are recognized perfectly and there is no clipping between the models. Finally the platforming has been called reminiscent of Tomb Raider, but it flows much better so I would liken it more to Prince of Persia, minus the ability to wall run.

Graphically it is one of the best looking games in the present generation. The environments are vibrant and realistic and a wonderful change from the browns and grays of modern gaming. The animations are top notch as the development team put extra effort into facial animations and character movements. What’s even more amazing is the detail that goes into differentiating the enemy characters. Each one is different. Roman is sophisticated and calculated in his movements. Navarro is very hard and deliberated. Eddie Raja is like a man unhinged, flailing wildly all over the place. The mercenaries are very professional in the firefights and are tougher opponents because of it. The pirate characters on the other hand are more ambitious in their attacks. They take more risks than the mercenaries. One of the animations has the character jump out fast and fire wildly around. This makes them an easy target, but infuses a lot of personality into them. Another type of pirate will advance steadily and take hit time with his shots with a very powerful gun.

The heroes also have their own animations that personify them beyond just polygonal avatars. For instance, Drake is not a superhuman, he is a real person, a highly skilled person, being an adventurer, but among us mere mortals and his animations display this in the subtle small movements. Up until chapter 4 I was convinced Nathan was just another video game character Mary-Sue persona that can get up from just about anything (until the player takes control of course). Then the intro cutscene to chapter 4 has Nathan acting all heroic, making Elena get out first and he tried to take control of the plane, for like 2 seconds, after which he exclaims, “What am I doing?” and then proceeds to leap out of the plane, count at a rapid pace, of which I am almost positive he skips a number and pulls the cord a little too late and get caught on a statue. This reminds me of the good Indiana Jones movies where he would survive by the skin of his teeth. In the platforming sections where the grips Nathan is holding on are crumbling, you’ll hear him pleading “oh, no, no, no.” Which brings me to my next item, the voice acting.

The voice acting is top notch. In the first chapter, when the pirates are seen in the distance, Drake gives Elena a gun and asks her if she know how to use one. She nervously replies, “Yeah, sure. Just like a camera. You point and shoot.” The delivery is perfect with a nervous waver in her inflection. We know that this person can use a gun, but is rather nervous, if not frightened for what is about to happen. Sullivan gets his own little moment that separates him from being just another stock character. After the first firefight is over and the boat blows up, Sullivan is introduced and helps the Elena in and complete ignores Drake’s hand. It happens with such a sense of panache that it presents Sullivan’s character perfectly and the game continues with it every time he shows up.

The story is told though a variety of ways. Cutscenes are the most obvious means, but the game also uses in-game conversations, environmental and quick button clues that shift the camera to look at certain points. Even the animations in the gameplay are telling about the characters. And none of these elements are really intrusive on the experience. The cutscenes are short. The longest one couldn’t have been more than a minute or two long. The conversations take place during lulls in the fighting or other action-oriented sequences, like travel time or puzzle elements of the game so you aren’t distracted. There are a few points when the game will flash the R2 button in the corner. If you hit it Drake will look to the point of interest, but it isn’t necessary to push it, but if you do, it adds to the experience. The time that sticks out the most was during the complex hiding the treasure. In the second section, before opening the gate the R2 icon will appear. If hit, it will make Drake look into the corner and see a figure scamper away on a different stairway in the distance. This is foreshadowing to a future plot development. After you hear Drake comment, “What was that?” you move on. It isn’t necessary, but is fun and remakes a useful literary device into the language of video games.

I’ve heard the allegation that the story is cliché and that its filled with stock characters and a lot of the story falls flat. I don’t think that’s true. Does the story have elements from over half a dozen different movies and adventure serials? Can the characters be boiled down into archetypes? Yes on both counts, there is no way to deny it, but there are enough nuances in the story and the characters that it doesn’t matter. The characters feel alive and the story compels you to want to continue with the adventure, not just for the gold. There is a good section of the game where they give up on that in favor of getting out alive, until they realize all the boats are with the bad guys…who are looking for the gold.

Uncharted has been likened to the Indiana Jones movies, but those in turn were based off of the old adventure serials of the 1930s. The pacing of the story follows that model instead of a movie and it shows. That model is much more suited to the medium of a video game. Games that are based off of movies always seem to have the need to add levels or stretch out certain plot points just so it will be a worthwhile gameplay experience. That is all well and good from the gameplay side of things, but it suffers in the story telling department. However, serials are much more suited to this type of medium. There are set backs, new twists or rather further developments whose scope is not limited to a two-hour time frame.

The game is tight in every sense of the word. Not once did the game hiccup on a glitch or bug. The story elements all mesh together. You may think I will put far too much thought into the game in the next segment, that I am reading too much into it, but I think of it more as a natural occurrence of great design with a compelling story all polished to a mirror shine. When a great design team brings on a writer at the start, one who has credentials on previous games something wonderful comes out of it. The following is a result from the compilation of all the quality work I detail above.

A major theme running through Uncharted is greed. I’m sure that seem pretty obvious given that the characters are searching for El Dorado and I was willing to leave it at that, until I thought about it a little further. The story revolves around El Dorado and everyone wants some piece of it, but each character’s motivations as to why they are after it are different.

 

The bad guys are almost uniformly motivated by greed. They want their stake in the treasure. Navarro is slightly more nuance in wanting the dangerous, mystical dust inside the golden statue. The good guys are also after the gold, with Elena more interested in the story of finding it than the material worth itself, but you cannot really call them greedy. They don’t throw away everything else for their avarice. In fact it’s this difference that makes them more relatable and puts you on their side despite the fact you are killing legions of human beings.

The true display of greed for the characters comes in what the characters are willing to give up and how far they are willing to go in their search of El Dorado. (I’m sure there is a Heart of Darkness reference I could make here.) Eddie Raja and his men sacrifice their lives for the gold in the face of their fears and common sense of what has been happening to them the entire time they were on the island. The one time Eddie wants to abandon the search, he is threatened to be cut out. Navarro sacrifices everything, his men, any semblance of honor, and the life of his employer; he holds the price of his ‘weapon’ above all else. Gabriel Roman is behind all the bad guys and is financing the whole thing, but he’s only going so far so that he’ll get a sizable return. Money is his only objective and foolishly sacrifices his life and literally humanity for it. The Spaniards are the ultimate representation of greed consuming them. Much like as described in Dante’s Inferno, they have succumbed to their sin and have become the embodiment of that sin. They are slavering humanoids only interested in killing and feasting on their prey. They consume others in a metaphorical fashion of how greed had consumed them. The entire island itself is a further display of the effects of greed in its almost angel of vengeance like repercussions, from the crumbling fortress, to the sunken city, to unholy cathedral.

On the other side of the fence are the three ‘heroes.’ Let’s go with protagonists. They all start out with aspirations to get the treasure before the other guy, though Elena is more interested in the search itself. They do not remain solely focused on El Dorado as other factor change their priorities. Drake wants to save his skin, valuing his own life over the gold and later the lives of Elena and Sully, once he learns he is still alive. Elena’s moment comes at the rickety bridge, when she fall through the wood and is clutching the camera with one hand and Drake with the other, in a situation more than slightly reminiscent of the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Elena makes the better choice in those two situations. Finally, Sully, like Drake, just wants to get out of this alive. The treasure becomes secondary and they are only still hinting it because their ride off the cursed island are still hunting the treasure and later is revealed that the treasure is a danger to the whole world and so they act altruistically for the last chapter and half of the game.

Maybe I did over think a game that’s aspiration was to be like the old adventure serials of the 30s and 40s and only provide a source of entertainment. Maybe I did, but what is also evident is that my analysis of the game holds up when you think about it. Was it the designer’s intent to have thematic resonance in the game? I don’t know, but I doubt that much literary thought was put into it. It just occurred naturally as the team tightened up every other aspect of the game.

If on the other hand you like this type of analysis applied to video game you can check out my new site dedicated to this sort of thing. See it at www.thegamecritique.com. I will continue to give design related analysis, for what its worth, here on Creative Fluff.

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Eric Swain

A graduate of Boston University, majoring in English and Creative Writing and has spent significant time studying story structure and theory in the mediums of books, film and video games. His articles offer unique perspective on deep game development and design through his eclectic prose. you can find his critical analysis on www.thegamecritique.com.

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