‘Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune’ was released in 2007 and is the first in a four-part series of games featuring likeable adventurer Nathan Drake. The series went on to have enormous critical and commercial success, but as the original game went on sale nobody really knew what it was supposed to be. Many initially compared it to the well-established and long-standing ‘Tomb Raider’ series, even going so far as to give it the nickname ‘Dude Raider’.
However, it was the creators of ‘Uncharted’, Naughty Dog, who were to have the last laugh, as they built a niche for themselves in the gaming market and made it clear that their action-adventure series deserved serious respect. Their games not only rivaled those of the older series in terms of escapism and adventure, but drastically improved upon them with their cinematic action and sheer excitement.
Although ‘Uncharted 2: Among Thieves’ is arguably the pinnacle of the series, it was the first game that laid the groundwork and broke the convention of previous historical mystery-focused action-adventure titles. As the game starts, we are introduced to Nathan Drake aboard a boat off the Panamanian coast. He is in the process of recovering the coffin of his namesake, Sir Francis Drake, from the seabed. With him is Elena Fisher, who is filming the salvage operation for her TV show.
The initial cutscene is both exciting and mysterious as we are presented with a view of the closed coffin of one of the most famous explorers in history. Upon being opened, we find it contains not the remains of Sir Francis, but a small worn leather journal. Although the younger Drake is not surprised at this turn of events, Elena and the player are, and at once we have an exciting mystery to uncover.
The discovery of the journal leads our protagonist and his companions on a search for the legendary El Dorado. They travel to a ruined temple in the jungles of Peru before moving on to a beautiful but decidedly creepy island in the Pacific, somewhere off the western coast of South America.
One thing that makes the adventure so interesting from the outset is how much it ties in with history. It is believed that Sir Francis Drake was buried at sea, in a lead-lined coffin just off the coast of Panama, upon his death from dysentery. However, to date his final resting place has never been discovered. It is also true that the famous explorer—as well as privateer and slave trader—visited Peruvian waters as part of his circumnavigation of the globe. Combining history with a mystery to create the narrative of the game gives extra credence to the story and therefore makes our adventure all the more meaningful.
As time and subsequent releases have proven, Naughty Dog are masters of telling stories through video games, and that was first evident with ‘Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune’. Because how the story plays out is so integral to the enjoyment of the game, details will be kept to a minimum here to prevent spoiling the experience. It is however, safe to say that it is well-constructed and has all the hallmarks of an excellent adventure.
What makes the ‘Uncharted’ series so good is that it weaves a combination of action, atmosphere, and storytelling together so well that it makes the overall experience seem like an interactive high-budget blockbuster film. The gameplay consists of exploration, climbing, gunplay, fistfights, and a few puzzles. Blending these aspects to make a cohesive whole is something that ‘Drake’s Fortune’ excels at.
One minute, Drake can be exploring the jungle—trying to figure out how to platform to the next area—only for him to be attacked by armed pirates and become engaged in a cover-based shoot-out. These battles are intense and usually take place to a background of dramatic music. Drake mutters witty one-liners to himself as he jumps and rolls around from cover to cover while AK-47 rounds whizz past his head and grenades explode around him.
These action sequences are great fun, and because Drake’s voice actor, Nolan North, is so talented and endearing, we really root for the hero during these high-octane encounters. In addition to shooting and punching, there are sections in the game that involve vehicles, including a blast of a jeep chase through the jungle, where we are given the opportunity to fire a big mounted machine gun and send the chasing bad guys’ vehicles off the sides of high coastal cliffs.
Despite there being a lot more action in ‘Drake’s Fortune’ than, for example, the original ‘Tomb Raider’, it doesn’t mean that we don’t also get the great atmosphere that the earlier series provides so well. Drake still gets to explore an old hidden temple, a giant crumbling Spanish fort, a forgotten sunken colonial city, and a long-lost monastery. There is even an abandoned World War Two U-boat to venture inside.
Each of these places has its own distinct feel which is created by the beautiful artwork and sound effects. This makes for a very immersive experience, especially when put together with the story. Perhaps the feeling of isolation is not as evident as it is in 1996’s ‘Tomb Raider’, but that is because a large part of our time is spent outdoors, and for considerable periods of it Drake has a co-adventurer with him in Elena, or his friend and mentor Sully.
The locations are wild enough to make us feel that we are adventuring somewhere untamed; a good example is ‘The Drowned City’. At a point midway through the game, Drake and Elena find themselves at the bottom of a cliff in a large pool of water. From there the resourceful duo must make their way through the ruins of a semi-sunken colonial city.
The atmosphere of this outdoor locale is terrific: the grand old Spanish colonial buildings are pitched at various angles, there are half-submerged fountains, and balconies that rise out of the water. During non-combat sections the whole area seems eerily still even though one can hear the croaking of frogs and tweeting of birds—the only inhabitants remaining in the architectural time capsule. There is a certain melancholy about the place; it is romantic and beautiful—yet at the same time deadly, as exploration is broken up by Jet Ski riding and punctuated by firefights.
Regarding the levels in ‘Drake’s Fortune’, a point worthy of mentioning is that they join up with each other realistically, particularly on the uncharted Pacific island where most of the adventure takes place. Rather than each having been worked on in isolation, it is obvious that great care has been taken to think about the overall design. Considerable effort has been made to connect areas and ensure that progression within any given level is intrinsically linked to the development of the story.
An instance of this interconnectedness can be experienced after reaching the monastery, when we find ourselves traversing previously unreachable parts of an area we had explored earlier. The location contains hidden entrances and concealed doors that are only revealed at predetermined points as the narrative unfolds. Realising you walked right past a secret door a couple of levels back is satisfying and enriches the feeling that you are exploring a mysterious place when you do finally get to enter it. As these reveals feed directly into the narrative, they also stave off any sense of repetitiveness.
The seamless transitions from one area to the next help with immersion because we are seldom yanked away from the adventuring gameplay. Taking control away from the player too frequently became a problem in ‘Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception’, but was not as prevalent in the first two games of the series. Rather than interrupting the gaming enjoyment with too many cutscenes in order to advance the story, in ‘Drake’s Fortune’, quite a lot of narrative pointers are provided by the main protagonist and his companions during on-the-fly verbal exchanges.
Throughout the entire game, Drake, Elena, and Sully engage each other in conversations, ranging from one-off comments offering assistance with how to proceed, to comedic banter about past exploits. This brings the characters and game to life in a way that serves to draw us further in. All the protagonists being likeable certainly helps with this, but it is Drake’s regular-guy personality that steals the show. Making a break with past action heroes, Naughty Dog purposefully avoided the hulking, muscle-bound serious and silent male lead that so many films and other action games had used. It was an inspired decision and works wonderfully.
Drake comes across as someone it would be easy to be friends with. Although he takes care of business with cold-blooded violence when necessary, he also has a considerate side—particularly evident with Elena as the narrative reaches its second half. Moreover, at times he displays the traits of vulnerability and self-reflection, which are still relatively rare in video game heroes. As for story’s main antagonists, they are less developed but serve their roles well enough.
As evidenced by the screenshots in this article, the game was remastered in high definition by Bluepoint Games and released for the Playstation 4 in 2015 as part of ‘Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection’. From a technical standpoint this makes the experience even better than its original incarnation. With the newer version, even more enjoyment can be had from trying to take down the bad guys alongside our hero and his fellow adventurers, as they investigate Sir Francis Drake’s mysterious secret and search for the lost treasure of El Dorado.
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