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February 4, 2016

UnchartedPalooza!! Drake’s Fortune

It should go without saying, but for posterity’s sake?  The entire purpose of this post -- and by extension this whole miniseries -- is simple: I want to find out how good the Uncharted series really is.  Or if it’s even good in the first place.

I wouldn’t know, because as embarrassing as it sounds, I’ve barely played any of the games prior to this.  Based on how much traction it’s gotten, I’d like to at least assume that the franchise is good.  Perfect?  Probably not.  But you don’t get to become a marquis title on one of the big three consoles by being merely average.  You have to be something special.  Something awe-inspiring.  Something fantastic.  True, it’s entirely possible that Uncharted’s traction is unfounded, and that its definition of “special” is actually a bunch of smoke and mirrors -- the most basic of the basic, elevated to godhood thanks to marketing and hype.  Or maybe the series is actually incredibly good, and deserves its place in the spotlight despite its AAA status.  Who knows? 

The only thing I know for sure is that I’ll find and present my own personal answers via this miniseries.  Well, actually, that’s not entirely true.  I know that based on my experience, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is roooooooooooooooooooooooooooough.

And yet, it feels strangely familiar.

Okay, so here’s the setup.  Nathan Drake is our leading man, recruited by the intrepid Elena Fisher; she needs him to get material for her TV show, while he needs her to get funding for his trip.  Together, they find the supposed coffin of Sir Francis Drake, and so begins Drake’s quest in earnest.  With his wizened partner Victor “Sully” Sullivan in tow, they’re off to find the legendary El Dorado and line their pockets with money (well, it’s more personal for Drake, but Sully’s got some debts he needs to shake off).  Things go off the rails pretty fast, thanks to the villainous -- and British -- Gabriel Roman getting in on the action with an army of gunmen.  Now it’s a race against time to find Sir Francis Drake’s treasure, all while uncovering the secrets of the past.

Before I go on, it’s worth noting that this game came out in 2007.  It’s hard to believe we’ve reached a point where we can say “that was a long time ago”, but I guess that’s just how time works.  The gaming landscape -- and the world at large -- was very different back then, especially considering that the PS3 didn’t exactly have the best start.  Memories of “giant enemy crabs” and “$599 US dollars” haven’t faded into the ether just yet, and that stigma made people scamper in droves toward the Xbox 360.  So the console needed a killer app to justify the price; ideally, Drake’s Fortune (and Naughty Dog) would step up to claim that title.

That kind of makes judging this game difficult.  Should I go easy on it because it doesn’t have years of advancements to its name?  Or should I be hard on it because of the faults built into the package?  Should I be kind because I don’t have the ability to weigh in on such an old game from the lens of a 2007 release?  Or should I be ruthless because of the supposed pedigree the franchise and the company carries?  Hard to say.  But the only thing I can do here is be honest, and report my personal -- and I stress personal -- thoughts on the game.  Okay?  All right, then I guess that’s enough of the kid gloves.

In case it wasn’t obvious, I didn’t enjoy Drake’s Fortune -- its remastered version, but ostensibly the original game -- very much.  It’s not an unsalvageable mess, because there are some nice things about it.  As of this post, I’m absolutely under the assumption that the franchise only took off because of Among Thieves -- the perennial “second chance”.  Drake’s Fortune has the elements of an award-winning franchise, but not the execution of one.  The gameplay works, but not well.  The story has that cinematic feel, but partly because it imports Hollywood’s vices wholesale.  I was surprised to discover that it’s very short -- beatable in a couple of sittings -- but the jackass in me thinks that even then, the game lasts too long.

I’m throwing a lot of shade on this game.  Let’s start with the good.

Again, this is my first major experience with the Uncharted franchise, so I went in expecting certain aspects.  Chief among them?  Setpieces.  You know the type by now -- special, scripted sequences that feature lots of spectacle, even if it means wrestling control and agency away from the player for the sake of a cool moment.  In all fairness, I don’t think setpieces are an instant fail-state in a game (see: Metal Gear Rising), but you have to use them carefully, make them utterly amazing, or not use them at all.  And oddly enough, Drake’s Fortune leans toward the third option.

That’s not to say that there aren’t setpieces.  As the company behind Crash Bandicoot, there are still moments where Drake has to run at the camera while danger chases him.  Likewise, there are times where he has to ride around on the vehicle du jour, shooting at the baddies coming his way.  But really, the adventure is grounded in honesty -- in the gameplay, so that the player is in control of those quintessential moments.  It’s actually appreciable that a AAA game -- or the progenitor of the modern-day understanding, at least -- can create a good flow without breaking up the action.  To an extent, at least, but I’ll come back to that.

Another assumption that I made was that the Uncharted games were about globe-trotting adventures.  That might be true of the later installments (the third game infamously has the boat, plane, and desert sequences), but this first game keeps things focused on one or two choice areas.  And actually, I think that’s a good approach.  For the most part, it creates a sense of consistency -- and while sticking to a single spot on the map should get boring, I had no problems with the scenery.  Maybe that’s because I love ruins/temples in video games, but it’s not like that’s all the game has to offer.

Since I played through the remastered version, it was practically a given that the visuals would be pretty strong.  But it’s less about raw graphical power and more about what’s being rendered -- and in this case, there are times when I couldn’t help but admire the game’s scenery.  True, Drake’s Fortune is as linear as it gets, but you can still see some cool stuff in both cramped areas and wide expanses (including one of the late-game levels in the distance).  The world is extremely verdant and teeming with life, at least when you’re in the jungle depths.  That’s not to devalue the ruins, though -- and when the two are woven into one another, I can’t help but think, “All right!  That’s cool!

Wait, wasn’t there another Naughty Dog game with plant life woven into its man-made structures?

Eh, I’m sure I’m just imagining it.

This is kind of a minor thing, but there’s an interesting mechanic that I wouldn’t mind seeing more of.  With the way Uncharted works -- and plenty of other games, by extension -- there’s neither an opportunity nor incentive to get all punch-happy, unless you want to unlock the ultra-secret Dead Drake costume.  With that said, Drake’s Fortune includes the “Brutal Combo” system; by hitting Square, Triangle, and Square on a nearby opponent, you’ll instantly take down a foe with some flashy hits.  More importantly, it makes the downed foe drop twice the amount of ammo as before.  It’s risky, without question, but it’s something that makes the venture away from cover potentially worth it.

I’ve been focusing on the gameplay a lot, but I’d be a fool to pretend like the story is without merit.  We’re not exactly talking high art here, but there are some good moments in there.  I think the game is at its best when Drake and Sully are together and playing off of each other -- as you’d expect of partners that go way back.  Some of the comedic bits are really strong, too, like Drake’s panic when a parachute escape goes wrong, or when our hero shows off his sheer brilliance by smacking his head on a low clearing.  And yes, there are times when Drake actually gets to show off his human side, and prove he’s not always the sociopathic killer some would make him out to be.

Speaking of which, I think it’s time to address the herd of elephants in the room -- and segue into one of the game’s biggest problems.

The “joke” that gets tossed out when it comes to Nathan Drake is that he’s actually something very close to a villain -- or if not that, he’s a remorseless murderer in a game that puts on airs of being a breezy action-adventure movie.  That’s a major issue, and for more reasons than one.  It’s certainly not helped by the fact that Drake spends most of the game gunning down people that are a different race than him, i.e. not-white; even the last boss is decidedly ethnic, since he prevents a clash with the distinctly-British Gabriel Roman.

I’m not as hung up on race and implications as I could (or should) be, because at the end of the day we’re all members of the human race -- even if we’re talking about nonexistent video game characters, but whatever.  The problem is that Drake carves a warpath from the first minute of the game on, tossing out quips and completely ignoring his slaughter from seconds earlier.  I don’t think I need to tell you that Naughty Dog probably still needs to iron out that issue.  Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think the problem is necessarily that Drake is a secret psychopath.  The problem is twofold (though for now, it’s related specifically to Drake’s Fortune).  First off, Naughty Dog couldn’t find any way to provide compelling gameplay besides “spawn more dudes to shoot”.  And second?  The pacing in this game is complete shit.

Let’s be real here.  Drake’s Fortune is rife with gameplay opportunities.  You don’t need me to tell you that; true, there’s a story that needs to be told via cutscenes and dialogue, but the game can create a narrative that runs parallel via the gameplay.  And on a conceptual level, it does.  You could divide each gameplay type into different categories -- platforming, puzzle-solving, setpieces, and gunplay, if we pare it down to basics.  Unfortunately, the balances is skewed WAY in the favor of gunplay; even if the devs plotted it out so that there’s an even distribution of those four elements (and they didn’t), the gunplay is by leaps and bounds the most time-consuming of the bunch.

It would help if that gunplay was actually compelling, but it isn’t.  As always, I played on the Normal difficulty (notably, the game is set to Easy by default), but the challenge level is virtually negligible.  Drake is limited to carrying two weapons and a maximum of four grenades, but I cleared one firefight after another by relying exclusively on pistols; scoring headshots is phenomenally easy, to the point where I was rolling in trophies. 

I’d say you don’t even need to bother with machine guns, because A) you can practically snipe with the pistol, and B) if you’ve got a shotgun on hand, you can fire from the hip to blow away foes that try to creep up on you…or, alternatively, you can run and gun at leisure, scoring instant kills with a pull of the trigger.

It’s still possible to die, but not for the right reasons.  Drake’s movement isn’t exactly conducive to combat (or platforming, in some cases); he’s unusually sluggish, even if you’re mashing his dodge roll.  More pressingly, snapping into cover is not at all smooth.  Usually when I died, it was because I got stuck on a wall I didn’t even want to get on -- or, alternatively, I couldn’t get on the wall at all.  Movement in general doesn’t feel particularly good, but that’s a problem you can overlook in what’s ostensibly a cover-based shooter.

But that just feeds right back into the same problem: cover-based shooting is, generally speaking, boring as hell.  Enemies give you countless opportunities to score headshots, or at the very least stop them cold -- especially when they get bored and try to rush your location.  They try to prevent you from turtling by tossing the occasional grenade, but there’s enough cover to duck into more safety immediately afterward.  Ammo is very rarely a concern because a single headshot will do the trick, and battlefields are littered with it once the bodies start dropping (making Brutal Combos even more of an afterthought).  So basically, Drake is a walking armory.

Hey, wait.  This sounds familiar.

Hmmm.  Weird.

So you know how games ramp up the challenge level by introducing new obstacles to face and opponents that require new strategies, testing the player’s skill and knowledge of the mechanics?  Drake’s Fortune doesn’t really do that.  Okay, yeah, you fight zombies that totally aren’t zombies later on --

Seriously, am I the only one getting déjà vu here?

You fight zombies later on, but you can mow them down by the dozens thanks to the game tossing out even more machine gun ammo in one sequence, starting you off with a shotgun in a second sequence, and having shotguns merely existing in the game.  As for the rest?  Basic gunmen, separated just barely by weapon types; there are some heavier dudes that opt to rush at first, but that’s not exactly the pinnacle of tactical combat.  And WAY later you get some sniper guys, but you can snipe them right back before they can even get a shot off.  So the only way the game can challenge you is with tests of endurance and attrition; spawning more dudes is the answer to everything, except when it isn’t.  So many goons to shoot down, again, and again, and again, and again.

I’m not exaggerating here.  There are multiple instances where you’ll clear a firefight with Drake, walk into a room or up a staircase, and then immediately launch into a fresh firefight.  Exploration?  Interaction with a lavishly-rendered world?  A breather?  Nooooooooooooope.  Just more dudes coming in, all the time.  It’s no wonder people say Drake is a psychopath that kills everyone; you can’t even make it to the halfway point without amassing enough corpses to fill a graveyard.

I don’t understand how this happened.  I mean, in a way you could think of Drake’s Fortune as a sort of bizarro American Zelda; there are environments and temples you have to explore, finding a way to reach the end goal amidst various obstacles.  Granted the puzzles in either franchise aren’t exactly brain-benders, but they’re still there, and on top of opportunities to soak in the majesty of the environment.  But whereas something like Zelda manages to balance its elements and strategically place enemies (of all sorts!) along the way, Drake’s Fortune dumps countless firefights into the player’s lap.  Countless.

It doesn’t make any sense, and in more ways than one.  Did the devs think this was the most exciting part of the game?  Did they think it was the most integral?  Did they just not have the resources?  Why focus on the least interesting part of the game, especially since it comes bootstrapped to foibles of the gameplay mechanics?  It doesn’t work -- and it doubly doesn’t work, because the gameplay informs the story, and the story stops being believable.  Where are all these guys coming from?  How are they getting into areas that have been sealed off for ages?  Why does Drake need to solve puzzles and move ancient machinery if the baddies can just teleport wherever they need to?  Did Naughty Dog add in guys wherever and whenever just so it could try and create a “tense” firefight?

Wait.  “Tense”?  That tickles my brain for some reason.

I feel like it’s on the tip of my tongue.

I will be fair, though.  There is one boss fight in the game -- the final boss fight.  And it’s with great pleasure that I can happily report it’s one of the most hateful and infuriating experiences I’ve ever had with a boss fight.  The setup is that Drake gets helicopter-lifted onto Navarro’s boat, and the only way to stop the baddie (formerly nothing more than Roman’s stooge) from carting the El Dorado idol (and artifact that turns people into not-zombies, because reasons) is to slaughter everyone on-board.  That’s no exaggeration, either; the boss fight isn’t against a solo Navarro, but all of the gunmen he’s got left.  And from the first minute on, it suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks.

You’ve only got a shotgun at the outset, which wouldn’t be so bad if not for the fight’s circumstances.  Navarro can and will one-shot you if you’re out in the open for even half a second, meaning that you have to hide behind destructible crates to land shots.  Since this is a video game, shotguns drastically lose effectiveness at range; essentially, you’ve got a short amount of time to kill Navarro’s goons with weakened blind fire and awful vantage points, while Navarro himself is invincible because reasons.  So you kill those three goons, and…you have to fight additional waves of goons as you move to different areas, all from awkward (and still-destructible) cover, with controls that make it ridiculously easy to screw up and leave you open to an instant-kill.

Also, there’s a QTE event that’ll kill you instantly.  Granted it’s right after a checkpoint, but that just begs the question of why it’s there in the first place if it’s so utterly inconsequential.  Also, minor tangent, but...like…isn’t a remaster supposed to improve on a game?

It all leads to a final skirmish with Navarro, one-on-one -- and it sucks, too.  Drake loses his gun (his only gun throughout the whole sequence, mind), which forces him to get close to Navarro and use his patented Brutal Combo.  Unfortunately, the boss is still armed with his instant-kill gun; not only can he end the fight instantly, but you’ll actually die even though he’s not aiming at you -- an alternate take on the “walk out of bounds and instantly die” moments in Call of Duty

The trick is to wait until he unloads his shots, then jump to some new cover; there’s a sort of rhythm to it, so there are gaps in his offense.  So you get close to him and use your Brutal Combo to knock him down, and he temporarily loses his gun.  I say “temporarily” because you’re supposed to rush him and combo him again after the first barrage.  If you don’t, he’ll kill you immediately -- which wouldn’t be so bad if Drake didn’t move at such a slovenly pace.  And your reward for landing another combo is an end to the battle, and the game at large.  Via QTE.  It’s about as satisfying as you’d expect.

I mean that in more ways than one.  Navarro is strictly a background character for most of the game, and even then he’s absent for huge swaths of it.  There’s some lip service paid to his backstory (a single line where Roman mentions he pulled Navarro from the slums), but I get the feeling that he’s only a traitor because plot twist -- or because Roman’s too old to be a legitimate boss fight.  So instead of having a character Drake’s genuinely invested in -- Roman seemingly shot Sully dead in the opening hour or so -- we get a character that’s just kind of there.  Riveting stuff, for sure.

But that’s to be expected.  Drake’s Fortune has a bad habit of shooting itself in the foot.  And then incinerating the rest with a laser cannon the size of a rhino.

Okay, so the draw of Uncharted -- or any story, really -- is the cast, right?  Fair enough.  Drake’s Fortune starts things off with Drake, Elena, and Sully.  Of the three -- and based on this game alone -- I’d say that I like Drake the most.  He’s not a masterwork, of course, but he’s still fine.  Fine-ish.  He at least tries to have charm, though his motivations aren’t entirely clear and not all of his witticisms land.  He’s pretty much what you’d expect from the stereotypical smug, snarky action hero.  Even so, he still does better than Sully.

I like the idea of Sully, of course.  He’s a foil to Drake, in the sense that Drake’s out for…I don’t know, nerding out over ancient ruins, and Sully’s out for money.  And by default, old guys in games are pretty cool.  But even though the synergy between the two characters has plenty of potential, it doesn’t come to fruition the way it could or should have.  Sully gets “killed” and left for dead by Drake, so the majority of the game has him pretty much gone -- which, naturally, cripples his quality.  (If Sully was in the game more, he’d probably be my favorite.)  And when he comes back he…doesn’t really add anything.  He’s got a couple of good lines in there, for sure, but -- as of this post -- it’s been less than a week since I finished the game, and I’m already struggling to remember what sort of major impact he had.

Elena is the worst off by a good margin.  It’s not that she’s a bad character; it’s just that there’s nothing remarkable about her, in the best case scenario.  (That’s a complaint you could toss at Drake and Sully, if we’re being honest.)  Drake’s Fortune is trying to ape cheesy action-adventure movies, and succeeds best with its treatment of Elena.  That’s not even remotely a good thing; despite being pushed as a smart, confident, and able heroine, she has to be helped out and/or rescued by Drake on multiple occasions.  Inevitably, that means she ends up getting kidnapped (because Roman, Navarro, and a squad of goons can teleport to wherever the plot needs them to be).  Also, all of the baddies call her a “girl” when she’s very obviously a woman.  Let’s not think too hard about why that might be.

Thankfully, she and Drake don’t end up sharing a kiss or being confirmed lovers at story’s end (though there’s a strong lean toward it).  But my biggest problem with her isn’t how she’s doomed to certain roles because of her lady parts; my problem is that she’s the most generic of the bunch.  Again, it’s not that she’s bad or anything.  But you know the type, I bet; she’s spunky!  She’s tough!  She’s got a bad case of Dreamworks Face!  She’s a joker!  She’s…basically female Drake, albeit without the breadth of anthropological knowledge (that, and she’s willing to press on with the mission…for some reason…when Drake wants to bail).  I guess that’s okay, because Sully is basically old Drake, Roman -- when he gets to talk -- is evil British Drake, and Navarro -- when he gets to talk -- is other evil Drake.  Part of me wonders if Sir Francis Drake would also be a wisecracking treasure hunter if he was alive in the game.

Wait.  Wasn’t there another game that had all of its characters be slight permutations of the lead?

Okay, this is seriously starting to bug me.  What was that game?  Well, anyway.

Individually, I suppose that the characters are basically okay.  But the biggest differentiation between them is how they all look; their voices and even personalities all kind of blend into this amorphous blob of quips (and to a lesser extent, exposition vis a vis the treasure), which makes their characters less memorable.  Honestly, it makes the game less memorable as well.  The deluge of firefights and the untapped potential of the story makes for a game I stopped being invested in by the end of my first session with it -- a session that, according to the save file I created, got me 48% of the way through.

It seems to me like there’s a severe misunderstanding of what would make the game good.  Let’s set aside some of the dumber design choices throughout, like random QTEs with no impact besides necessitating a restart, or jet ski sequences that force you to alternate between clumsy shooting and bad steering (and navigating a river full of explosive barrels, because video game).  And let’s set aside the fact that, again, allies and enemies alike just show up inside areas that have either been sealed off for centuries, or are only accessible from only one end.  What actually ends up getting accomplished in this game, irrespective of its sequel chances?  What statement did Naughty Dog make with its big foray onto a then-new console?

The answer to that is Eddy Raja.

I guess I’ll have to run back my earlier statement, because Eddy Raja isn’t quite a Nathan Drake clone.  The two of them are apparently business associates (inasmuch as criminals can be associates), but Eddy’s the more villainous take on the job.  It kind of begs the question why he’d send his army of goons to explore the island when he learns about the not-zombies tearing through everything and everyone, but whatever.  The important thing is that Eddy is unequivocally one of the bad guys -- smug, hot-tempered, greedy, and more than a little dumb.  And yet, he’s not that far removed from Drake, is he? 

But if there’s one thing that made me wince, it’s a sequence late in the game.  Drake and Eddy go back to back to gun down the not-zombies -- and naturally, Eddy gets his fool ass in a tight spot.  One of the not-zombies drags him to the edge of a pit, and Drake rushes in to try and save his life.  It doesn’t help, though, because Eddy bites it anyway.  But hey, the important thing is that Drake tried, thus proving that he’s actually a hero despite the copious amount of murder he committed, his ambitions which are at least 50% motivated by greed, and the number of crimes to his name in the backstory, any one of which could have made him partner up with a bastard like Eddy Raja.

So I guess Drake’s kind of an asshole, and his memetic status as a murdering scumbag is basically justified -- and codified by the game throwing wave after wave of fresh victims, who in their own right are acceptable targets because “they’re the bad guys”.  But he’s…the lovable hero with a sharp tongue and a heart of gold?

There’s a pretty telling moment embedded into one of the cutscenes.  Drake explains the meaning of the words inscribed into his precious ring: “greatness from small beginnings”.  It’s not at all hard to imagine that Naughty Dog is (or was) trying to make a statement about their new franchise -- and given the hype that shrouds the Uncharted games, it’s safe to assume that one way or another, they achieved greatness.  But I’m assuming that it’s because of the second and third games, refining the formula on display in Drake’s Fortune.  I pretty much have to at this stage, because if not for the promise of Among Thieves to act as an immediate palate cleanser, I’d be pretty pissed.

Bad design choices and wasted potential make Drake’s Fortune a hard game to like.  And yes, you can’t hold every aspect of a game from 2007 to the standards of 2016.  But here’s the thing: I’ve played older games than that, and they still hold up today.  There’s still fun to be had.  Hell, I never really touched The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask until a couple of years ago, and it’s now my favorite game ever -- despite it being old enough to earn a driver’s license.  I can only play apologist to Drake’s Fortune for so long.  And even if I don’t view it as a relic, I can still view it as-is: a game with its share of good ideas, but no shortage of terrible ones.

So we’re off to a good start.  Let’s see what the non-future holds.

Part 2: Among Thieves >>

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