One of the strongest and most popular new franchises to emerge from the Playstation 3 era, the Uncharted series took the gaming world by storm. Developer Naughty Dog shifted gears from past games, creating a series that perfectly captured the fun of a blockbuster adventure film, with the agency of a top quality video game. Now, as Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End approaches, let’s look back at the franchise that defined a console generation. Join us in Uncovering Uncharted.
Part 1 – Drake’s Fortune
Arriving almost exactly a year after the Playstation 3 launched, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was a prime example of what true next generation gaming looked and felt like. Featuring tight, cover based controls and gorgeous graphics, Uncharted also blew gamers away with new features such as realistic water effects, use of performance capture, and some of the most realistic cinematics ever seen at the time. Now, just shy of ten years later, the final installment of the series is releasing. Let’s take a look back at this all-important first game.
Ask almost anyone what is the one thing they remember most about Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and you are likely to hear the same answer; The Story. While many games before it told intriguing, and high-quality stories, there was something undeniably special about Uncharted. It felt like a blockbuster action adventure film, drawing heavy inspiration from Indiana Jones and that entire genre of film, and making Uncharted’s characters felt real. While gamers were meeting Drake, Sully, and Elena for the first time, after the just a few minutes, you understand that they have a history. Unlike many entertainment properties before it, this was not an origin story. Think of it more like the opening scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Story Spoilers Begin
The game opens with Nathan and Elena uncovering the coffin of one Sir Francis Drake, a famous explorer and the person who Nathan not only shares a name with but claims he is descended from, despite Elena’s skepticism. Elena Fisher is the host of an adventure television series that funded this expedition in exchange for being allowed to film it.
Upon opening the sunken coffin, it’s not a body they find, but a journal which when deciphered, will lead them to the lost city of El Dorado. Soon, Drake and Elena come under attack from pirates but are rescued by Victor “Sully” Sullivan, Drake’s oldest friend and mentor in the treasure hunting business.
Realizing the opportunity that the journal presents them, Drake and Sully ditch Elena and make their way to the Amazon to find the treasure before anyone else. The trail is not what they think and instead of finding a city, they discover El Dorado is actually a large golden statue that had been removed long ago. Disappointed, they continue their search and come across an old German WW2 submarine that has been stranded up a river. Inside is a map with a location to where the treasure was taken.
Before Drake and Sully can explore this further, they are set upon by rival treasure hunter, Gabriel Roman and Atoq Navarro, his hired gun. It is revealed that Sully helped them track Nate due to a large debt that he owes Roman. Drake hands over the newly discovered map, only to watch as Roman shoots Sully and attempts to shoot Drake. This is interrupted when the submarine blows up, due to an old torpedo that Drake accidentally knocked over. Escaping the killers, Drake discovers that Elena followed them as well and the two make it out of the Amazon, deciding that they will use Sully’s plane to fly to the island in the Pacific and get to the statue before Roman and Navarro.
Things aren’t quite that simple. Drake and Elena’s plane is shot down over the island and they have to parachute out, but become separated. Drake then proceeds to shoot, punch, and climb his way across the island to rescue Elena and, deciding that going after the treasure is now too dangerous, tries to find a way to escape. Elena, however, kept her camera and was able to capture footage showing that Sully is still alive and with Roman.
The two then decide to find Sully and get some answers. They continue following the island’s clues and eventually meet up with the old mentor, discovering that he was saved from the bullet by Drake’s journal in his shirt pocket and has been forced to help Roman and Navarro. Although, he has purposefully been leading them astray. Now that they are so close to the treasure, the trio decides they need to get to it before the others.
Deep underground, Drake and Elena discover that Francis Drake didn’t die when he was said to, instead making it to this island, but died before he could claim the treasure. Soon after the two discover why, when they are attacked by feral human creatures. It turns out the treasure is cursed. The statue is actually a coffin and opening it releases a disease that causes anyone nearby to become violent ghouls. Roman and Navarro capture Elena and uncover the coffin, with Drake and Sully hot on their heals. Navarro, it turns out, knew of the curse and wants to sell it as a weapon. He betrays Roman and attempts to escape the island by helicopter with the statue and Elena. Drake follows and in a final confrontation, defeats Navarro and the treasure of El Dorado is lost to the sea. Sully picks the other two up on a boat loaded with gold, and the three sail off into the distance.
Story Spoilers End
The story of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune follows many of the twists, turns, and tropes of popular action films, but that gives it a fairly unique feel when compared to most other action games at the time. However, it was the characters that made the game special. Instead of generic action hero and damsel in distress, Drake, Elena, and Sully feel like real people. Their history is told through their conversations, as for most of the game, you play with an AI companion. The characters would converse as they made their way through the jungles, giving the player insight into who they are and where they came from, instead of forcing them to fit specific archetypes.
This is helped in no small part, because of the advance in graphics. While there were many great looking games at the end of the Playstation 2 era, the ones that really stood out were usually stylized in a way, allowing a certain amount of artistic freedom. Uncharted, on the other hand, utilizing the power of the PS3, went with extremely life-like visuals. The characters were all proportional to their environment and displayed real emotions on their faces and in their body language.
A big part of this was Naughty Dog’s decision to have the voice actors actually act out the parts, wearing special motion capture suits and performing on sets with props. This allowed the animators to really capture them, similar to how a filmmaker does. Combined with realistic characters motivations and flaws, Uncharted came across as more of an experience where the story played just as important a part as the mechanics.
Of course, the mechanics were important too. The team put certain limitations on the main character that made Drake feel real. He was only allowed to carry two weapons at any given time and with limited ammo. Drake could pick up and use any gun dropped by an enemy, but was restricted to one handgun in a hip holster and one two-handed weapon slung on his back. This allowed the game to be played without having to tinker in menus, adding more depth to the realism. There were also no health meters or health pickups. Drake could take a fair few hits, and the screen would gray out until he either took cover and stopped getting hit for a period of time or died. It wasn’t completely unique at the time, but the feature was done well, and again, aided that realistic feel.
The game also incorporated a cover-based shooting mechanic. While that is all too familiar to players now, in 2007 there was only one other significant title to compare the feature with, Gears of War. In this first Uncharted game, this mechanic feels fine. It’s nothing particularly special and works very well within the context of the game. In fact, despite the level of realism in Uncharted, it is still a video game where combat plays a huge role and is, for the most part, unavoidable. Interestingly, the game does not feature a lock on mechanic. The aiming reticle doesn’t snap to enemies when you pop out of cover, a feature that is so common today.
One negative that is often pointed out is the sheer amount of combat you engage in. There are sections of the game that take you from one fight to the next, with very little connecting them. In all fairness, it can become tedious at certain points, but nothing so insurmountable that it should make people stop playing.
The other main way that you engage with Uncharted is climbing. These “platforming” sections are never particularly challenging but are still enjoyable. Usually, there is a clearly defined path up or down a structure, with the game occasionally throwing a falling handhold in your way to add tension. This climbing was pretty unique. Up to this point, we have seen characters in video games make dangerous leaps and grab ledges. Tomb Raider being the most obvious example and certainly a huge influence on the series. In Uncharted, it just felt better and more fluid than ever before. While it’s never the most difficult part of the game, scaling around the truly pretty levels brings a certain joy and excitement.
There are two mechanics that the game utilizes that are, less than stellar; Motion controls and the dreaded Quick Time Event. While they are forced into the game, thankfully, they are rare or can be mostly avoided. On the original Playstation 3 version, you would have to use the Playstation SIXAXIS controller’s motion control to aim grenades and balance on logs. Neither of these worked very well, but they had no large bearing on the overall quality of the game. As for Quick Time Events, or QTEs, they are thankfully very sparse. Unfortunately, because of this, when they do tend to pop up its very jarring and can lead to otherwise avoidable restarts at previous, and thankfully close checkpoints. Again, it is something to mention but nothing that ruins the larger experience.
Recently, all three of the PS3 Uncharted games were re-released as a set on the Playstation 4. While the game still looks good, the graphics of Uncharted 1 are certainly showing their age, even compared to its sequels. However, that was the case on the original system as well. Naughty Dog was certainly trying out new technology at the time and you can see marked improvement as the series continues. The story and characters still hold up excellently, and the pesky motion controls have been removed completely. The Playstation 4 version is truly the definitive way to play this game.
Uncharted wasn’t just a breakthrough IP for Sony in the early days of the Playstation 4. The game received such acclaim that it’s hard not to see how other developers began incorporating popular aspects into their own projects. Since Uncharted’s release, it is now much more common to see games develop characters through in-game dialogue instead of exposition or use of archetypes. A high degree of production value and taking notes from how stories are told in other medias like film and books is another way we see Uncharted having an impact. The most notable example of the effect the series has had would be to look at the current Tomb Raider reboot. While in no way are Lara Croft’s newest games clones of Uncharted, the way they develop her character, how she traverses environments, and how the stories play out all are an acknowledgment to the Uncharted series. This is particularly fitting, seeing how Uncharted was inspired by classic Tomb Raider games, now the next generation of Tomb Raider borrows inspiration from it.
Despite its technical limitations and occasional flaws, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is still an excellent beginning to a series that came to define the Playstation and the action adventure genre. Playing this game is important to see how Naughty Dog evolved this series. While it may now be considered the “weakest” entry, the story and characters that were born out of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune makes it still worthy to be played today.
In Part 2 of Uncovering Uncharted, we dive into what many consider the greatest entry in the franchise, Among Thieves.