Saturday, October 20, 2018

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

"Greatness, from small beginnings" is the Latin phrased etched onto the ring that Nathan Drake keeps tied around his neck, and it's kind of amazing how fitting the adage is for the Uncharted series. Granted, Naughty Dog was far from being considered "small" in 2007, but Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is most definitely a humble outing compared to the ambitious heights its younger siblings would reach. It's also a... much worse game too. Yet there are glimmers of good ideas shining through the bedrock—it's just that you have to shoot like a bazillion guys to get to it.

Of the good ideas, two that Drake's Fortune possesses immediately spring to mind: technical verisimilitude and cinematic cutscenes. Both of these have been handily outdone by a sundry of contemporary titles, but I remember being fairly impressed with Drake's Fortune back in the day, particularly with the lush and dense greenery of Chapter 2. Likewise the dialogue, voice acting, and mocap has a very natural and cinematic feel to it. Sure, it's a bit jittery and exaggerated (no doubt due to Naughty Dog coming off fresh from the Jak series), but it doesn't take away from the simple fact that the game is nice to look at.

Unfortunately, "nice to look at" is where my plaudits end, as Drake's Fortune is hamstrung by how utterly restrictive the game is. Occasionally the game will attempt to mask it's linear nature, but the disguise is paper thin; most of the time you'll wander through corridor after corridor, shooting wave after wave of faceless baddies. There's nothing inherently wrong with this kind of structure—Vanquish is my favorite TPS and that game is corridor city—but Uncharted is at its strongest when it's adventurous like Indiana Jones, not oppressively violent like Rambo.

And the sense of adventure in Drake's Fortune is... fairly tame. It boasts a total of two similar islands for the player to explore, alternating between verdant exteriors and drab interiors. There's actually a wide range of settings the player gets to explore (monastery, city, cavern, nazi facility), but the restrained color palette and similarities between areas gives the impression that the player really isn't journeying all that much. I always feel that it's a bit unfair to compare entries in a series to those that come later, but it's impossible not to come out of Drake's Fortune underwhelmed after experiencing the world-hopping travelogue of... well, any of game in the franchise.

The combat stinks to high hell too. Enemies robotically pour into an area and can perform impossible maneuvers, like firing at you as they simultaneously move from cover away from you. There were multiple instances where I thought I had the drop on a foe, just for them to spin around like a sentry turret and 1-shot me with a shotgun or pistol. The variability in enemy accuracy and damage was all over the place on Hard, especially in encounters where you start by taking damage before you can even get into cover (like the aggravating final Chapter). I rarely felt I had any agency in turning the tide of battle; I was often pinned to a single piece of cover, tasked with dispatching a foe quickly or consuming a hail of bullets. There was no advanced planning or skillful flanking involved—if I lived I lived, if I died I died, and there wasn't really much I could do to tilt fate other than firing faster. And since combat takes up most of the game, Drake's Fortune can drag on and on.

The last thing I want to mention is that although I appreciate how the player is dropped into the game without narration, there are a number of story beats that fall flat because you haven't had time to invest yourself into the characters. Namely, the way Drake's Fortune plays around with Sully as a potential turncoat is... strange, because we've only traveled with him for a handful of chapters—there's no sense of betrayal if we barely know the guy! Likewise, all three of the villains feel as though they've manifested themselves out of thin air, and any betrayal and bickering that emerges elicits less of a "holy cow!" and more of an "... alright." Really, the only thing that still held up story-wise was Elena: she's confident, sassy, and fun to hang out with. Oh, and the line delivery on some of the jokes is fantastic too.

Throughout my revisit of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, only one section tickled my fancy: the labyrinthine vault with its myriad of false pathways. While running around and looking for ledges to grab onto, it struck me how infrequently the game lets you soak in a locale without the fear of getting murdered. There's like, the opening bit with Sully and... that's it? Most of the time you're just running to and fro, doing some mild platforming as a bridge between exhausting, drawn-out combat scenarios. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is by no means a bad game, but the journey is a lot more rocky than it initially lets on.

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