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I sometimes think Naughty Dog’s games are underrated just because they wear their influences so clearly and so loudly on their sleeve. Crash Bandicoot arrived on the scene as the bastard child of Mario and Sonic, with a sprinkling of Tex Avery cartoon madness and a selection of 3D sequences thrown in to show what the original Playstation could do. Jak & Daxter, meanwhile, felt like a marriage of Mario and Zelda, combining the 3D platforming antics of the former with the combat and wide open landscapes of the latter. Jak II and Jak III then bought in a huge dollop of GTA-style driving and open-world gameplay to the mix (albeit with not such brilliant results). Generally, the games have been none the worse for this, simply because Naughty Dog knows how to do these things slickly and polish the gameplay until it shines. The first Jak & Daxter remains a highlight of the PS2 years for me. However, it does mean that, because the games don’t actually feel that groundbreaking, they don’t always get the credit they deserve.
I’m worried that this trend continues with Naughty Dog’s PS3 debut. Worried, because to my mind this is the second truly great exclusive for the PS3, not to mention one of the very best games of a very good year.
At least the influences are a little wider spread this time around. On the one hand, any game that focuses on treasure hunters exploring ruins in exotic locales is guaranteed to be compared to the Indian Jones movies and the Tomb Raider games, and Uncharted hardly shies away from that, though there are also bits that remind me of Romancing the Stone and of Persia: Sands of Time. On the other hand, it’s also indebted to a range of third-person shooters, principally Gears of War and Resident Evil 4. Notes I made while playing also mention Ico and the Broken Sword series. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best, right?
So for some of the game, our protagonist – Nathan Drake – can be found hurling himself across gaps, scrambling his way up crumbling walls and hanging onto precipices by his fingertips, not to mention swinging around on vines and chains and other assorted acrobatic feats. In other parts, he’s too busy shooting pirates and mercenaries while ducking for cover to bother with any of that stuff, with the game playing close to Gears of War in terms of Drake hiding behind the nearest wall, doorway or column, then popping out at a touch of the aim button to fire a cluster of shots into the nearest hostile.
You can only carry two weapons at a time, the armoury covers a wide range from pistols and SMGs to assault rifles, shotguns, explosive shotguns, grenades and sniper rifles, and the AI is surprisingly sophisticated. Lower-class enemies will simply do the standard duck-and-cover routine, but the smarter mercenaries play tough, fanning out to outflank you or using a combination of snipers and shotgunners to flush you out and leave you open for a killer shot. Given the studio’s background we might have expected Naughty Dog to handle the platform aspects well, but the surprising thing is that the gunplay is every bit as good. And did I mention that it does close-quarters fisticuffs better than Gears or even Metal Gear Solid 3?
From here I can see why some critics have looked at the basic gameplay, remarked on how competent or even excellent it all is, then gone on to talk about the graphics and considered their jobs well done. You see, the graphics tend to distract your attention from the game’s finer points, seeing as in an alternate reality where Crysis had not been launched, this would have been the year’s best looking game. From the screenshots you can see that the jungle scenery is lush and colourful, that the lighting is moody and glorious and that the ruined architecture is heavy on surface detail. You might also note the superb lighting, reflection and refraction effects on the water, the brilliant use of atmospheric haze and the sheer amount of rubble and vegetation on screen at any one time. Depending on the stage of the game, the look evokes everything from Ico (dramatic structures, diffuse light with gloomy shadows and vertiginous drops) through Gears of War (magnificent ruins and gritty realism) to Resident Evil 4 (it’s bloody dark and bloody scary in here). You might even be able to appreciate how beautifully modelled and detailed the characters are.
What you can’t see, however, is how marvellous the animation is. As with Altair in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed, Drake has been animated so that he moves fluidly and naturally no matter what surface he is running or clambering over or what gap he has to leap. The controls are a little more old-school than with Altair’s free-running antics, but the visual effect is every bit as impressive. Your companions – the older mentor figure and the feisty blonde girl reporter – are handled just as brilliantly, and even the meanest foe has a nice repertoire of nervous peeks and excitable slides into cover. Meanwhile, if you thought Lara’s wet look was impressive in Tomb Raider: Legend, it has nothing on the way a quick dip darkens and shrinks Drake’s clothes for a while. Details like this show just how much thought and effort Naughty Dog has put in. Put it all together and you have an absolutely stunning game, and one of the first to really showcase the graphics horsepower of the PS3.
But on top of all the big and impressive stuff the engine is doing, the game is packed with examples of the sort of great game design that separates a top tier studio from the guys lower down the prestige pile. Take the minimal interface, with no health-bars and only the most basic ammo gauge. The game uses a steady screen-bleaching effect to show how badly you’re hurt or wounded, and your status slowly recharges, Call of Duty-style, when you’re in cover. You also have to look at the way the game uses subtle cues in the art and lighting to point your way forward, and understated hints at a press of the L2 button when you might be really stuck. The game is fairly linear, but you never spend more than a few minutes searching for the next place to go or the next thing to leap onto. It’s a generous game, but not a patronising one.
Importantly, it’s a deeply cinematic one. By this I don’t just mean that it’s full of epic camera movements and showy camera angles – though it is – nor that it’s narrative driven (ditto). What I mean is that it’s constructed like a really big adventure film, with proper set-pieces, proper character development, a nice range of twists and turns and a real sense of when to build pace and when to give you some breathing room. There’s some really enjoyable dialogue, particularly between Drake and his female lead, and the game even manages to pack in three major villains, each with their own distinctive style and their own big moments (and one is a ringer for Hollywood’s current favourite Brit-baddie, Jason Isaacs).
The close-up work isn’t as impressive as Heavenly Sword’s, but there’s still something very natural and likeable about the motion-captured performances. About a third of the way through the game something unusual happened – I got caught up in the storyline, and I actually started caring about the characters. It’s a confident step above the usual clichéd sci-fi and fantasy tripe we usually accept in video games, partly because it stays close to basic Hollywood rules of plot structure and motivation, and partly because it’s clever enough – like Raiders of the Lost Ark – to hold back on fantasy elements until the final section of the game. What’s more the music is excellent, and I love the elegant way the score cues you in to nearby dangers or hints that the coast might be clear.
Uncharted even excels when it comes to the pacing and the difficulty level. This isn’t a huge game – I clocked it in about ten hours – but it flows beautifully from one sequence to another, and while there are a few peaks in the level of challenge, I’d disagree with anyone who says these cause the game to drag. I’m no Counter-Strike honed ninja gamer, but I think that as long as you use cover and think tactically, Uncharted gives you the tools and opportunities to fight your way out of even the trickiest situation. Replay value is only slightly bolstered by achievements, collectible treasures and harder difficulty settings, but I’d rather have a great ten hour single player game than a padded twenty hour one with a poorly thought out and ultimately redundant deathmatch mode.
Sure, there are things that Uncharted doesn’t do that Naughty Dog might like to think about in the future. There isn’t a lot of scope to wander outside of the game’s fairly linear parameters, and there’s little room for the sort of creative solutions or emergent gameplay you might see in a Crysis, Deus Ex or Half-Life 2. But overall Uncharted does for the Tomb Raider/Prince of Persia style action adventure what Call of Duty 2 did for the WWII FPS: it transforms it into a streamlined, polished piece of entertainment that gives you moment after moment of heartstopping tension and gobsmacked awe. In one way, it’s not the most innovative or forward-looking game, but in another way it feels like the future. Didn’t you always want a great Spielberg/Lucas blockbuster you could play? Well, while other developers are struggling to give you second-rate Michael Bay or Stephen Sommers, Naughty Dog has just gone and done exactly that.
There’s not much in Uncharted that’s original, yet this magnificent action adventure is so much more than the sum of its parts. The Playstation 3’s finest hour to date.