Brainthoughts – Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

Do people still use the phrase “Killer App”? I remember it being the term of choice when foaming-at-the-mouth games writers were using Halo to justify buying an X-Box. As far as I can tell, though, it’s gone the way of “talking to the monsters” and “Tomb Raider… with pirates” – a phrase used only as an ironic preamble to a more salient point (much like this paragraph). I think it’s for the best, really. “Killer app” always sounded more like an angry kettle than a ravishing vidja game.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was the PS3’s angry kettle for a long time: one of Sony’s few early, must-play exclusives. The console’s line-up has strengthened considerably since then (probably – I stopped paying much attention fourteen years ago), but since I’m cheap and rubbish, I only just bought a PS3 and Uncharted this past weekend. I understand it’s recently spawned a superior, prettier sequel, but alas, my steadfast morals refuse to allow me to spend more than €30 on a game. Because, like I said: cheap and rubbish.

Either way, since I’m not playing it under the intimidating banner of “THE ONLY GOOD REASON TO OWN A PS3”, the question of whether Drake’s fortunate enough to be considered a Killer Ape matters not. All that matters is whether the game is wonderful. Or not.

It is, of course. But not quite as much as I might have hoped.

You see, for the first few hours you spend in its company, Uncharted is perfectly splendid – an inspired mix of platforming and combat that adds up to the best iteration of this kind of game since Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. If Prince was a Michael Curtiz swashbuckler, this is a Spielberg blockbuster, with all the derring-do and derring-don’ts that come with the territory.

Examples! The scenery is quite often stunning; an early emergence into a clearing along the Amazon river stands out as being staggeringly beautiful, especially as the sun-drenched vista contrasts with an old rusted out U-Boat that’s washed ashore. Developers Naughty Dog have an eye for the spectacular, and they put it to good use, having Drake run and gun back and forth through dense jungles, huge torch-lit subterranean caverns and long-since-deserted canal cities, all in the name of finding some fancy treasure or other – in this case, “El Dorado” (which loosely translates as “The Dorito”, I think).

But that very goal is one of the game’s stumbling blocks, see? Drake is, at the very core of it, a fairly dislikable old cad. While they were clearly aiming for an Indiana Solo vibe (similar to the rebooted Prince of Persia – they’re both voiced by Nolan North, who does a bang-up job of voicing selfish oafs, it seems), Drake’s too glib, too detached to ever earn much sympathy, and he falls – nay, pratfalls – short of that heroic status. I mean, he spends most of the game murdering other human beings in order to get his grubby capitalist hands on a golden statue. Whatever, guy.

Luckily, said destruction of men is appropriately mirthsome and entertaining, for the most part. A well-engineered cover system makes the firefights with your very capable enemies as much a matter of timing and positioning as mindless strafing and – in my case, at least – blazing, suicidal stupidity. The shoulder buttons-controlled shootery becomes fairly intuitive once you smarten up to the games slightly elasticised camera movement, and allow for the generous application of auto-aim. (Which is good, because gamepads’ analogue sticks are inherently rubbish for accurate boomstick aiming: compared to my usual set-up of keyboard and mouse, it’s the equivalent of substituting a rifle-scope with a couple of spoons bunged up a pipe.)

And, of course, because games developers are all just pretending to be clever, before inevitably revealing themselves to be monumentally idiotic, it’s this very gun-based tomfoolery that proves to be Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune’s Undoing: Drake’s Mess-Up. You see, in constructing the final third of the game, Naughty Dog appear to have suffered an unlikely bout of collective amnesia, forgetting nearly everything that made the game enjoyable up until now. Where combat had been an entertaining occupational hazard, made all the more palatable by Drake’s intelligent use of the environment as a primitive shield, it now becomes an omnipresent, tiresome slog. Gone are the tense, fun encounters with rival mercenaries in wide open jungles and crumbling, exotic temple ruins. In their stead: a series of wars of attritions with rabid mutant Spanish soldiers in brown corridors. Yes: so stupid. It’s a sad, fundamental misunderstanding of the game’s core strengths. As design decisions go, it’s about on par with Valve deciding that GlaDOS should release a limitless wave of Cyberdemons to muck you up at the end of Portal. Except, of course, Valve didn’t do that. We love Valve.

It stinks something rotten, because it leaves you with a bad taste in your mouth at the end of what is, in actual fact, a rather excellent game. Admittedly, it’s hardly the first action-adventure game to overestimate its combat mechanics, or indeed, to pad out its final sections with pointless, guffy fighty bits. Tomb Raider is guilty. Assassin’s Creed is guilty. The Prince of Persia series is certainly guilty. But the blatantly obvious level of creative talent that’s been on display throughout Uncharted up to that point makes this game’s deterioration into shooty-bang territory more tragic, somehow. It’s enough to make me want to nail the Naughty Dog team to their office chairs, slap them around the ears with the design document, and force them to play the original Far Cry‘s more offensive Trigen levels on a constant repeat, shouting “LOOK AT WHAT YOU’VE MADE ME DO TO YOU! LOOK! WHY WON’T YOU FOR CHRISSAKE’S LEARN?” through a bullhorn. Really – I’m going to have to go for a lie down.

The sad fact is, I’d have traded the entire final hour or two of Uncharted‘s already-short lifespan for a single environmental puzzle that wasn’t solved by hitting Select to automatically open your Journal to the relevant page, and matching an illustrated symbol within to a stone slab somewhere within three feet of you.

I really hope they’ve fixed this stuff in Among Thieves, because this is the exact kind of game I truly want to dearly love. Maybe I’ll find out when it goes cheap in a year or three.

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