Looking Back at Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

With all the hype surrounding the current beta for Uncharted 3 and the runaway success of part 2, 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.

Long before Uncharted, California based developer Naughty Dog rose to prominence with the PS1 platformer, Crash Bandicoot. 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 Jak 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 work on Drake’s Fortune. 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.

Uncharted was the result of Naughty Dog being tasked with showcasing the capabilities of the new platform. They opted for a new IP instead of continuing the Jak and Daxter franchise, as it would better allow them to show-off the new hardware and feature more realistic character models and effects that weren’t possible on the PS2. Despite some supernatural elements and our charismatic lead, Nathan Drake, possessing 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  To help with this sense of reality the plot would include some loose historical references and revolve around the treasures of Nathan’s ancestor, Sir Francis Drake.

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. It also borrowed elements from a number of popular video game series, including Tomb Raider and Gears of War. 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.

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 brought to life by the actors who portray them both in action and voice. Nolan North has come to own 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.

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 the competition 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. A common theme throughout the numerous “Making Of” documentaries available on Youtube is 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.

Drake’s Fortune struck a chord with gamers and gave early adopters of the PS3 something to brag about. We took Nathan Drake, the most loveable of rogues, under our wing; a character who we couldn’t help but sympathize and relate to, despite his sociopathic behaviour. 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. We could finally take the role of Indie, minus the whip, and it is just as much fun as we imagined when we were 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 a premier developer. 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 and a half 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”. What started in the early days of the PS3 with an unfamiliar treasure hunter recovering a coffin from the ocean floor has since developed into one of the most celebrated series in modern gaming, and it shows no signs of letting-up.

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Written by Matt M

Matt has been a gamer ever since Father Christmas left him a Master System II in the early 90's. Santa was clearly a Sega fan, as a Mega Drive and Saturn would follow in later years. Matt has long since broken free from the shackles of console monotheism and enjoys playing a wide range of games, almost as much as he enjoys meticulously ordering them on his living room shelves.

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