I began playing this game knowing very little about it. I knew that a couple of my friends had played and liked it. I didn’t know a thing about the premise, hadn’t read any reviews, any blog posts, nor had I recalled hearing buzz about it, either positive or negative. I didn’t have a PS3 when UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune was released, so at the time there wasn’t much reason for me to pay attention to it, had I even been more aware of its existence. It wasn’t until this year that UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune fully appeared on my radar, when Olivia started talking it up a bit more than before. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a tweet on the Sony PlayStation official Twitter advertising free passes to the UNCHARTED 2: Among Thieves Cinema Events. Knowing that Olivia was interested in the first game, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try to get passes to this preview event. Free stuff, right? After we reserved our passes, we later bought a used copy of UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune at GameStop and decided to try and finish it before going to the event for its sequel.
I was surprised at how much I actually liked UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune. Spoilers liberally strewn throughout, so you’ve been warned.
We were playing on Easy mode, partly because we wanted to get through it relatively quickly, partly because we are not that good at action games, and for my part, because I didn’t want to get stressed out and frustrated if I failed to do things well in the game or if I died a lot. My tolerance for frustration in many games is generally low (though I admit this doesn’t entirely explain why I continued playing Mirror’s Edge).
The basic premise plot of a treasure hunt was not incredibly compelling to me, which is a reason why I wouldn’t necessarily be interested in this game at first glance. The story seems to draw from pulp adventure stories, which probably inspired the Indiana Jones films. Looking beyond the basics, either I didn’t follow the story that well, or it had holes big enough to drive a tank through. A lot of details didn’t make sense. The game seems to imply that Francis Drake had been to the Lost Colony before faking his own death, then returned to the colony to destroy it (whilst dying in the process). His journal has very specific notes about locations and structures that couldn’t have been written had he not been there. However, the original purpose of Francis Drake’s journal was to find El Dorado, as the the way the notes were written, it seemed as if Francis Drake was puzzling through a lot of the same clues that Nathan Drake was. If Francis Drake had never been to El Dorado and was taking notes along the way, then how could his journal be so detailed? Furthermore, if Francis Drake never wanted El Dorado to leave the lost colony because he didn’t want the curse to destroy other places, why did he leave all these big fucking clues in his journal, that would potentially lead people to it? Why fake his death, but leave his journal behind (albeit in a coffin at the bottom of the sea) for others to find? Details like this violated my need for consistency.
Later on in the game, the plot revealed supernatural aspects, turning it into almost a fast-paced survival horror game. I don’t dislike survival horror, but the change was jarring to me because I’d already established in my mind that this game fit a certain genre, and now here it was going against those expectations. The shift wasn’t necessarily welcome. There were clues about this early on in the game, for sure, but to have them confirmed almost completely changed the kind of game this was for me.
At the end of the day, the story was passable and entertaining enough for the most part, but the characters were more interesting to me than the story.
Nathan Drake as a character is much more fleshed out in terms of personality than I feel the average videogame protagonist is. He is just about the right level of cocky (if one likes that sort of thing), has a socially-acceptable level of jerk-itude, which makes him come across as “cool” rather than a total ass. Being someone who flees from pirates and seeks treasure, he’s not exactly living the most conventional life, so this is kind of interesting. He has personal reasons for trying to find the same treasure that his ancestor, Francis Drake, sought, so this is kind of a cool angle as well. But whilst his personality and the hints of his past are interesting, it doesn’t necessarily follow that his character is likable. They certainly try to make Nate likable. He banters like a champ, and his in-action commentary is fun. However, throughout the game I was kind of apathetic about his character and his motivations. I didn’t dislike Nathan Drake, it’s just that beyond his wit and commentary, there wasn’t too much else.
Elena Fisher is a reporter who’s television show originally financed Nathan Drake’s expedition to find Francis Drake’s coffin at the bottom of the ocean. She’s driven by professional interest. I like this about her. She wants the story and does everything she possibly can to get it, including risking her life, and trying to convince Drake to follow-through on his goal because it will help her with her job. She certainly holds her own in every way, both in terms of being a foil to Drake, and also as an NPC ally. The fact that she has her own motivations, personality, and self-interest contributes to her being a three-dimensional character, even if the game was completely focused on Nathan Drake as a character. I like Elena Fisher, she’s pretty cool.
One of the things I disliked about the Fisher/Drake dynamic was the utterly contrived and completely unrealistic romance. The two had no mutual attraction to each other throughout the story. Drake was certainly attracted to Fisher, but I felt that the feeling was not mutual. As is the standard trope in so many games, the only woman in the story must surely be the love interest. No, we can’t possibly have a videogame where a man and a woman are thrown into life-threatening circumstances and not have any sort of romance. Fisher and Drake had some nice back-and-forth banter, but it lacked romantic chemistry. I felt that Fisher was friendly towards Drake partly because that’s her personality and also for professional reasons: to foster a good working relationship with Drake. After all, they would each save the other’s life and help each other out many times over in the game. Fisher displayed absolutely no interest in Drake at all until the very final cut scene. At this point, I felt the romance was artificially tacked-on, stilted, incredibly awkward, and it was easily one of the weakest aspects of the story. Here we have another female videogame character who the designers have been trying to fit into the mould of love interest whether she fits or not, simply because she is a woman and she is there. Elena Fisher is a cool character, and I was a little disappointed that yet again the only woman in a videogame story Must Be The Love Interest.
Moving on. I liked the costumes in the game. I really liked Nathan Drake’s outfit. I mean, it wasn’t anything special, but it was neutral enough that I didn’t get tired of looking at it, and it looked good as well. On a special note, I liked his shoes. The only part where you can get a good look at them is when he and Elena Fisher are in the jeep after they’ve gone on this wild ride through the jungle. I liked the fact that they didn’t have Elena just wear the one outfit in the entire game, but made it realistic: in the first couple of scenes in the game, she is wearing one thing. Time passes, there is travel, and she is wearing something else.
I like that Nathan Drake wasn’t designed to be some bull-necked gorilla, though unfortunately he is also a generic, bland, white guy, which is all too common for videogames. Elena is a generic white woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. I didn’t get the feeling that she was particularly sexualised in the game, which is a great plus. Nathan Drake’s friend, Victor “Sully” Sullivan, is an old white dude. The villains are all people of colour, except for the one British white dude. Come on. Can we get any more clichéd and racist than this (okay, yes we can)?
The voice acting in UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune is superb in my opinion. You could tell they hired real actors, and you could tell that the actors played off of each other in some of the scenes. I was told that some of the lines were improvised, which is pretty cool.
A unique feature of our used copy of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is that we have all the European vocal tracks. I don’t think this is typical for North American copies of the game. Indeed our copy was listed on the cover and the disk as “Not for resale”—a nice bonus for us. It was interesting to hear the voices in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Swedish, and Dutch. I do prefer the English, obviously because I can understand it, but the Spanish vocal track is really cool, too.
The music in the game is pretty good. It changes at key moments, even outside of cut scenes, and I found this really cool.
Nate does an huge amount of climbing, jumping, and so on throughout the game. Something that made the character feel more real to me (because his superhuman physical abilities certainly weren’t realistic!), was that he had a huge variety of grunts and yells and the like he emitted. Each time he jumped from ledge to ledge or rolled or teetered on the edge of a cliff, he made a different sound, and generally he made different sounds in similar situations. He conveys a lot of emotions through his shouts, like fear or the rush of adrenaline. Nate also does some running commentary whilst exploring. It’s little details like this which make doing the same things over and over again less boring, because when there’s a lot of repetition, you begin to notice things like a character’s tone of voice, little details of what they’re wearing, and so on.
I’m sure most reviews covered how incredible the game is visually. UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune is truly one of the most beautiful games I have seen. What really floored me was the amazing lighting. The game takes place on a remote island, and the player really gets a sense for what time of day it is by the position of the sun in the sky, the way the environment is lit, and how the shadows fall. There’s very few games I’ve played in which I’ve seen such amazing attention to detail paid to just the lighting effects. The technical art can’t be faulted. Buildings and architecture look amazing. I have no idea whether everything is historically accurate, but damn—everything was so pretty. I spent a lot of time in the game admiring the view.
Another feature of note is the NPC AI. During several parts of the game, Elena and Sully help you out during gun battles. There are a couple of fire fights during which you’re teamed up with Elena, and those are a lot of fun because she capably takes care of herself. Now, I don’t know whether your partner takes damage in Normal mode, but in Easy mode it was nice to have an invincible ally to draw fire for you, even if you ended up being the one who killed the majority of the enemies. I did note, however, that enemies tended to focus on you as their primary target. There were more than a few times when I thanked Elena for killing a particularly annoying enemy wielding a Desert Eagle or a grenade launcher. Seriously, I loved having her as a partner. Rather than a hindrance, she was an asset, and my experience with her (and Sully’s) AI was positive.
The enemy AI was only annoying in the sense that it was doing what it was supposed to be doing, that is trying to kill you whilst evading your attacks. They were generally pretty good at dodging around in an effort to thwart my aiming, which proved challenging, but not enough to be frustrating. I think the developers struck a good balance here.
There’s something else that’s significant about UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune. As someone who is particularly sensitive to gender issues and issues concerning marginalised groups, this game is noteworthy in that there were fewer problematic issues than I expected. This is a good thing! For instance, I fully expected Elena to not only be the token woman in the story, but to be stereotyped, hyper-sexualised, portrayed as incompetent, unable to take care of herself, and to require saving all the time. Nate displays a certain amount of chauvinism towards Elena, however this is how the Nate the character acts towards Elena, which is different from the developers portraying Elena in a particularly problematic or disrespectful way. Whilst UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune is not without its issues, it’s a step in the right direction for the portrayal of female characters in videogames.
In conclusion, I think UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune is a great game. The major issues I had with it were plot and character related, but my gripes didn’t affect the game play, which was super fun. I enjoyed this game so much that right after we beat it, I started a new save game and played it for about four hours straight. I rarely do this, so this is a testament to how much I actually liked UNCHARTED: Drake’s Fortune. Seriously, this game is awesome, and I’m so glad we got it.