Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

I’ve got a pointless story that’s full of impotent venom for a large corporation that doesn’t care what I think… but this is a largely happy post, so let’s not dwell on that too much. Suffice to say that I obtained my Playstation 3 via a Sony promotion for the princely sum of AU$25 post-and-packing; the day I received it, I wandered down to my local gaming retailer and looked for something to impress me. Uncharted 2 had been critically lauded, but the original game seemed to be highly regarded, too – and I’m not one to leap into a series halfway through. I slapped down AU$50 for Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and went home to put the third pillar of this gaming generation through its paces.

When I first played Uncharted, I hated the controls – the DualShock deadzone made everything feel loose and sloppy. The story, whilst interesting, lost the plot quite disgracefully in the last quarter, and the characters – though well formed – didn’t compel. The mêlée combat felt onerous, and the gunplay unsatisfying, with enemies that appeared to be bullet sinks. And, worst of all, was the fact that the game didn’t feel very well signposted: there were a number of spots where I had to look up a FAQ or walkthrough just to figure out what I was supposed to be doing, or where I was supposed to be going.

I pushed through to the end of the game (on Easy) with the help of vash12349’s playthrough – and, to be quite honest, I almost preferred listening to vash’s commentary than playing the game itself. After sinking seemingly endless bullets into a seemingly endless stream of pirates and mercenaries, I was dreading my inevitable attempts at the harder skill levels – and, worse still, I was ruing the AU$75 I’d spent on my Playstation 3 so far.

But then, over a year later, I had that feeling in my fingers, and I picked up the controller again.

Returning to Uncharted was a surprising experience: I expected to engage in more bullet-sink drudgery but, in an attempt to snaffle Trophies, I discovered the simplistic joy of the pop’n’punch – running up to an enemy, firing a single pistol-shot from the hip, then following up with a quick mêlée for a near-instakill. This form of attack turned tedious cover-based battles into gloriously silly games of chasey, where I’d try and separate one foe from the pack before running straight at him for the pop’n’punch kill. That shifted dynamic, combined with the fact that I actually knew where I was going, made my return to Easy difficulty a delight.

As soon as I (re-)finished Easy, I started a game on Normal. And, whilst Nathan Drake’s tolerance to bullets was noticeably decreased, the pop’n’punch still worked a treat. A couple of post-work plays and Normal was done; and then I went straight back in on Hard.

And Hard was… well, hard. Opportunities to utilise the pop’n’punch were limited, as running into the open became untenable; old habits returned, and I’d cower in shelter before popping up for headshots. And, for some reason, this felt OK: the characters didn’t feel like bullet sinks anymore (god knows what I was doing on my first playthrough!). Despite the marked increase in difficulty, the Hard playthrough was completed in less than a day.

Then came a half-soothing, half-nervous two-day break.

Then came Crushing.

Uncharted‘s hardest difficulty mode starts off quite gently; the first couple of Chapters are very low impact. The first encounter with Eddy’s mercenaries, however, demonstrated just how fragile Drake was now: three quick pistol shots saw you killed, and the enemy were even occasionally capable of headshots. Running out into the open was suicide; the game became all about cover and headshots.

Chapter 4 was the eye-opener: a sequence of tricky gun battles, with swarms of enemies trying to flank you at every opportunity. But I started figuring out what made the game’s AI tick, and how I could use cover against them. Many battles were overcome through bloody-minded repetition: checkpoint, pistol, head-or-body-shot to slow one guy down while I push to cover, wait, grenade, stopping shot, move to next cover… then figure out what to do next. In fact, it reminded me of playing Quake on Nightmare: you’re initially overwhelmed by the brutality of ogres bombarding you with grenades, but you soon figure out their quirks; the game becomes more of a puzzle game thereafter.

And, far from being boring, I found this repetitive puzzle-solving to be delicious.

The infamous “plane wreck” sequence in Chapter 4 proved to be the trickiest of the game’s 22 Chapters for me. In about fifty attempts, I couldn’t replicate the behavior (or skill) in that video, so I started skirting around for other approaches. Experimenting with various other bits of cover proved useless, until I found two boxes near trees at the very back of the level. Hiding behind them seemed to anger the enemy AI – within seconds, the area was swarming with all five waves of enemies. But they seemed unable to navigate their way to the clear shot at me from the side, their persistent gunfire was stopped by the indestructible boxes, and the (ogre-like!) cascade of grenades were thrown in such a way that they bounced far enough away to not kill me (though there was most certainly risk involved).

All I had to do is line up the enemy’s head in the middle of my screen and blind-fire.

Of course, once that band of enemies had been dispatched, another wave poured in – and they did know how to deal with box-hiders like me. But I’d survived that wave, and managed to get to another checkpoint… and generous checkpointing is something that Uncharted gets very, very right.

The rest of the Crushing difficulty was… well, it wasn’t a doddle, but it wasn’t really daunting, either. I relished the opportunity to hone my approach to certain sections; I’d congratulate myself with a fist-pumped cheer if I cleared a battle at the first attempt. FinalAeon’s Crushing playthrough videos helped, to be sure, but the wonderful thing was being able to wage my private Pacific war my own way. After Chapter 4, the only bit that really worried me was the final church battle; it was only after being swarmed by shotguns a few times that I realised that the church door I’d suicidally barreled through was still open, so on my next attempt I waited for the enemy spawns and… left the church. Sully tackled some of the mercenaries himself, and the rest were easily mopped up with a couple of grenades and headshots as they emerged from the church in search of me.

So, having emulated vash’s battle cry (“Bitch… fuck… yo… life!”) as I punched out Navarro for the last time, I saw the Platinum Trophy toast appear. I kicked back with a nice glass of wine while I dug through all the unlockable art galleries and movies: the evolution of Roman’s character was a delight, as were the dev whiteboards full of feedback.

I felt really happy. It turns out, after a less-than-auspicious start, that I’d really enjoyed my time with Uncharted – and I clearly identified two big takeaways from the experience.

The first is that my first impression can be useless. I should have already learned that from my time spent with No More Heroes; still, it makes me wonder what other games I’ll love when I return to them. Maybe No More Heroes: Desperate Struggle isn’t shit after all?

The second big win was that I realised how glad I am that I possess this borderline OCD; that I had experienced this joyous fortnight of Uncharted because of a pathological need to check all those boxes obtain all those trophies. Again, something I should have learned from No More Heroes, but something that is (apparently) easily forgotten.

Yes, the story gets a little silly – but the voice-acting and motion-capture make it work. Yes, you do run around a jungle slaughtering hundreds of people with little-to-no emotion – but it’s a gorgeous looking (and sounding) environment, and (once I’d settled into the groove) the combat feels ever-so-satisfying. And yes, at times the game can feel like a grind – but it’s an exceptionally well-paced grind, liberally sprinkled with checkpoints, and pushing through one of the larger altercations elicits a rewarding response.

And that just makes me hunger for the next Uncharted game. And the one after that.