Sony has done a lot to piss gamers off since the Playstation 3′s launch, but they seem to finally be getting their act together by concentrating on fixing the biggest problem – the lack of good fucking games to play. Since waking up at 6am to fight the holiday shopping crowds for a Playstation 3 last December, I’ve used my PS3 very little. There’s a layer of dust over the system that I could draw pictures on with my finger. That’s changed the last month, though, with the release of Ratchet and Clank Future Tools of Destruction and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.
Uncharted has been on and off of my gaming radar over the past year or so. I first saw a trailer of the game late 2006. The graphics looked pretty impressive, but I had no idea what the game played like. Other people were immediately slapping “game of the year” and “Sony’s best first-party title” labels on it. Shills they may be, but the hype at least piqued my interest in the game.
Fast-forward one year later and I still had no idea what the game was like. Reading the interweb only gave me the impression that the game was “Tomb Raider, but with a dude instead of Lara’s tits”. Fortunately, the 1200MB demo hit the Playstation Network earlier today, allowing me to finally see if this game was worthy of the hype.
The short answer is yes.
I’ve had a chance to go through the demo a few times and have been quite impressed. The game combines tight, responsive controls with gorgeous graphics, realistic human animations, and challenging (but winnable) combat to create one of the best games I’ve played this year. A simple way to describe the gist of the game would be to say that it’s an amalgamation of Gears of War, Tomb Raider, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, and Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror. If the full game delivers on the puzzle solving element and continues the solid combat and platforming from the demo, I’ll be ready to proclaim it the best title on the Playstation 3 thus far and the best reason to finally take the PS3 plunge.
Read my detailed impressions after the jump
Uncharted comes from Naughty Dog Studios, creators of the Jak and Daxter and Crash Bandicoot franchises. It will be Sony’s last major first party holiday release on the Playstation 3 this year. You play as Nicholas Drake, a descendant of the famed explorer Sir Francis Drake. Nicholas is searching for El Dorado’s fabled treasure, which apparently is a shitload of gold. The demo starts off with a cutscene of Nick and his female companion, Elena (who seems to be modeled after Ellen Degeneres), flying a plane to a mysterious island. Their plane gets shot down by unknown assailants and the two parachute down to the island separately.
The first thing you’ll notice is that Nick Drake moves very fluidly and realistically. For example, running and jumping doesn’t make Nick do a gravity-defying long jump like Mario. He’ll take a short hop with his legs apart. It kinda looks like a long skip, exactly what you would look like if you were to run and jump in real life. Climbing rocks doesn’t look like an insta-pull up. Nick will appear to be pulling himself up carefully with his hands and knees. Don’t worry, these animations don’t take forever. They’re comparable to existing game character animation times, just infinitely more realistic looking.
Despite the many gameplay comparisons to Tomb Raider, the demo focuses mainly on the combat aspect of the game and a little on the platforming side.
Combat feels a lot like Gears of War combined with the precision of a Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror. There’s no crosshair when you are running around normally. Pressing L1 puts you in a zoomed in firing mode with a crosshair, just like in Gears. The cover system is also implemented fairly similar to Gears. Pressing the O button nearby cover will make Nick snap to cover and from there you can use L1 to pop out, aim, and fire at enemies. There’s plenty of cover around combat areas, although you’ll want to pick the right spots because some pillars are annoyingly narrow and don’t provide much help. You’ll also “regenerate” your health if you sit behind cover for a little. The screen turns white as you take damage and returns to normal as you “recharge”. I’m a big fan of this recent trend of health tracking in video games as it makes it more forgiving if you make a single mistake.
Where the game differs from Gears, though, is the actual fighting. For starters, the character models are not superhuman linebackers in thick armor. They are normal dudes and you’ll need precise aim to take them out. In the demo, you have access to a pistol, an AK-47, shotgun, and grenades. The pistol feels VERY satisfying and effective. One headshot or four or five shots to the body will drop someone. I had flashbacks to the Halo 1 pistol while playing Uncharted. It felt that good. Similarly, the AK and shotgun felt precise and powerful. The gunplay in Uncharted is very fluid and you feel like you have good control over where your shots are landing.
Melee attacks, on the other hand, are the first problem I have with the game. Nick has a melee attack with the press of the square button. The tutorial in the demo says you can press square triangle square for a “deadly combo”. In practice though, I found it pretty difficult to pull off consistently. Since triangle does not execute a melee attack by itself, sometimes I would find myself standing helplessly as I tried to do the combo. Spamming the square button also leads to unpredictable results. Sometimes Nick will do a couple of jabs, sometimes he’ll beat the shit out of the bad guy, sometimes the bad guy will block the hits and administer beatdowns himself. All of this punching takes time, too, and while you are kung-fu’ing, other dudes are shooting you in the back. Running and hitting the melee button also has unpredictable results. There are times where Nick will do this totally awesome drop kick/jump punch takedown that pwns the enemy in one hit. Then there are other times where it does no damage or the enemy blocks it and counters you mercilessly. Eventually, I just gave up on melee attacking and just concentrated on shooting.
Another thing that annoys me about the game is the tacked on SIXAXIS motion controls. The demo has only two instances of using the tilt-sensor functionality of the Playstation 3 controller, but both do not particularly add much. The first instance is when Nick walks over specially textured logs. You’ll tilt the controller like a balance bar while Nick balances himself across the short log. It’s not broken, but feels totally unnecessary. The logs could have been normal rock formations and it wouldn’t have detracted from the game at all. The second use of SIXAXIS is the more annoying one. Aiming a grenade in Uncharted requires the use of both the thumbsticks AND tilting the controller. The tilt of the controller controls the arc of the grenade throw. I found it extremely hard to aim a grenade where I wanted it simply because of the imprecision of the tilt sensor. When you combine this with having to use the thumb sticks to aim horizontally and having enemies shooting at you, you get a pretty frustrating experience. I hope the full game lets you disable the SIXAXIS controls and lets you aim simply with the thumbsticks, because as it is, grenades are too much trouble to use effectively in the middle of a firefight.
The platforming in the Uncharted demo is fairly simple, you’ll shimmy, you’ll jump, you’ll climb across and up onto rock formations. Nothing too challenging, but I’ll say that the controls felt very responsive. Nick goes where you want him to most of the time, which is more than you can say for many other 3d adventure games. I imagine the full game will have its share of challenging platforming predicaments.
All in all, Uncharted is shaping up to be a great blend of fun gaming activities, and I will definitely be picking this one up on November 19th when it hits stores. That’s going to be one heckuva week with several AAA titles being squeezed out in time for the holidays. Mass Effect, Rock Band, and Unreal Tournament 3 are also hitting stores that week. If you have a PS3, I recommend you check this one out. If you don’t, it may be a good reason to justify buying one. It’s not Metal Gear Solid 4 or Final Fantasy XIII, but if you are looking for reasons to pick one up, Uncharted is definitely one of them.
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