Monday, July 26, 2010

Duck Tales! Woo-ooo! – Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

Summer is well under way, and so is Blockbuster Movie season. We've had a fine crop this year, with "Iron Man 2" kicking off in May, "Prince of Persia" helping lead June in (and depending on your preferences, "Sex And The City 2"), and everyone raving on about "Inception" (which I'll get around to seeing at some point). However, with the exception of "Prince of Persia," there haven't been many good adventure movies; most of the films promising adventure and romance have fallen flat on their faces (see The Killers, Knight And Day, The Bounty Hunter, etc). To my rescue comes Uncharted, an excellent summer blockbuster experience at an excellent time.

For those not in the know (and it's worth reestablishing even if you are), Uncharted is an action-adventure game in the vein of adventure serials from the 1930's and recent movies inspired by them ("Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Romancing the Stone," etc). It combines platforming and exploration with cover-based gun battles à la Gears of War, and serves it over a lush, tropical environment that drips with the feeling of summer escapism.

As far back as I can remember, I've had a soft spot for treasure-hunting stories. I blame it on "Duck Tales."

The plot is pure pulp. You play as Nathan Drake (Nolan North), descendent of the famed explorer Sir Frances Drake and amateur treasure-hunter in his own right. The game opens with Nathan discovering the coffin of Sir Frances Drake, only to find it completely empty, except for a diary from Drake, detailing that he did not die, but in fact set out for one last discovery. From there, we follow Nathan as he attempts to find the treasure written about in Drake's diary, assisted by his partner Victor "Sully" Sullivan (Richard McGonagle) and journalist Elena Fisher (Emily Rose). The trio explores South American ruins and solves ancient puzzles, all while fending off a rival group of treasure hunters.

Uncharted is a deliberately and ambitiously cinematic game, which is to say that it aspires to its movie heritage much more so than other games "inspired" by the works of cinema. There are many instances during the game when the camera pans back to let you drool at the environment, and dialogue between characters is reminiscent of movies from the 40's, with characters bantering back and forth and generally sounding much livelier than your average game protagonists.

Speaking of the protagonists, Uncharted contains three of my new favorite game characters. I love Nolan North's everyman portrayal of Nathan Drake (heck, he's spent most of the last three years reprising the role!), and he has an effortless charm I couldn't help but like; he basically does for the half-tucked T-shirt what Indy did for the Fedora. McGonagle's Sully is a gruff, older figure often involved in movies like this, but his crotchety manner is endearing. Rose's Elena is a character all-too rare in gaming: a strong, independent woman who holds her own in the action. Far from Princess Peach, Elena kicks ass right along with the boys, helping Nathan in a firefight rather than letting him mop things up himself. Together, they form an ensemble cast whose charisma drives the action as much as the plot does.

They may not look like much, but they're three of the best-realized characters in gamedom, and it's a pleasure getting to know them throughout the game.

Adding to the game's cinematic flair is a wonderful, exciting soundtrack composed by Greg Edmondson, who also did the music for "Firefly." Edmondson mixes sweeping, traditional-sounding strings and brass with tribal drums and unusual-sounding instruments, creating a thrilling and involving soundscape that underscores the action perfectly.

Lastly, helping tie together the feeling of watching a killer summer movie (I have a fair amount of affection for these) are the DVD-style extras. Throughout the game are hidden trinkets; finding these trinkets unlock a smattering of bonus features, from concept art of Nathan and the environments to several full-on making-of featurettes. Similar to DVD features, these bonus features helped expand my understanding about the game and added significantly to my appreciation of it; why more titles don't do this is a mystery to me.

You'll notice that I've spent four or five paragraphs enumerating the game's many presentational strengths and almost none talking about the gameplay. This is because the gameplay, while pretty fun, is not particularly memorable. As I mentioned before, the gunplay is a serviceable Gears of War imitation; Nathan takes cover behind objects, peaking out periodically to take shots enemies. The guns actually feel more powerful than GOW's tissue-paper-and-frozen-pea-shooting weapons, though it still takes a rather large number of bullets to take down enemies, considering you're mostly fighting shirtless Somali pirates.

You'll spend a good amount of time trading bullets with the local mercenary scum.

The platforming segments are pretty fluid, and work well for the most part, acting as a showcase for Uncharted's beautiful animation system; Nathan transitions in and out of climbing animations in a surprisingly lifelike and natural manner. However, there are many instances where Nathan will miss his jump because you either misjudged the jumping distance or jump at a piece of the background you mistake for a graspable ledge.

There are also several segments where Nathan and Elena hop on a jet-ski. These represent the nadir of the Uncharted experience; the gameplay isn't terrible, but they kill the pacing dead, and overall don't add anything to the game. One segment in particular involving exploding barrels and waterfalls caused me to contemplate shutting it off for the night in frustration, but I stuck with it, and it eventually ended; the best thing to be said about the jet-ski parts is that they're short and infrequent.

It's not that they're bad, it's that they're not as good as the rest. And they're slow and tedious. Whatev.

However, none of the gaffes and missteps affect the experience enough to tarnish what Naughty Dog has put together. With a wonderfully pulpy story, a strong cast of characters, and a polish akin to the best adventure movies, Uncharted is a well-executed combination of Indiana Jones thrills and next-gen gaming standbys. I cannot wait to play the sequel.

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