Naughty Dog could have played it safe. The studio's Jak and Daxter series has been a huge success and a PS3 follow-up as their debut next-gen title would have made perfect sense. So, the fact that they chose to give us the Indiana Jones-like Uncharted: Drake's Fortune should be commended. The fact that it's turned out to be one of the best games released on the console to date is more worthy of celebration though. Dust off your Sixaxis - another great first-party Sony title is in town.
Uncharted sees you step into the shoes of treasure hunter and all-round nice guy Nathan Drake, descendent of famed explorer Sir Francis Drake. Nate thinks he's found the body of Drake during a dive off the coast of Panama, but it turns out that he's actually got his hands on Drake's journal - a journal that holds the key to some long-lost treasure. Of course, some Spanish pirates soon turn up and it's a race to get to the treasure and stay alive.
Along for the journey is Nate's long-time friend Sully and likeable Cable TV reporter Elana. After a rather awkward opening that sees you struggling to grasp the rather loose controls as the Spanish pirates board your diving boat, what follows is equal parts adventure game and third-person shooter, combining some of the best bits of Tomb Raider and Gears of War in an eight-hour story that feels just the right length.
As is popular in games these days, pressing L1 on the controller zooms the camera in over Nate's shoulder, slows his movement speed and allows you to aim your weapon. Firing from the open isn't advisable though, as it only takes a few shots before the screen is drained of colour and Nate is on his last legs. Moving from cover to cover is key, with the Circle button making him hug a wall and roll from cover to cover. You can also pop out from cover to fire off a few shots by holding L1 or simply fire blind while still in relative safety.
Aiming certainly feels far too loose in the beginning, and although I got used to it, things never felt as they should. On numerous occasions my character also refused to pop up out of cover or stayed out of cover long after I'd released L1. The AI of the enemies, who are in the most part Spanish pirates, is excellent, forcing you to move from cover to cover as they get closer and closer to you position. You can still rely on them popping their heads up for an easy kill, but things get tricky if you allow them near you position of safety.
Nate's climbing skills are far better than his shooting. It really does feel very much like a modern Tomb Raider title, and rarely are you asked to do anything that seems impossible. The game even gives you clues if you've been wandering around an area for longer than it deems normal. This means the game moves along at a brisk pace, never giving you time to become bored or frustrated - other than the moments where a checkpoint placement forces you to replay frustrating combat sections over and over again.
Puzzles crop up from time to time, and these use Drake's journal to provide the clues. They're never anything too taxing, often requiring you to turn an object in the correct manner or activate switches in the right order, but it all adds to the Indiana Jones feel. The modern setting and likeable characters are actually quite similar to Nicholas Cage movie National Treasure, with the storyline certainly something that could easily have come from a movie. The characters are fairly simple, but the relationships between them evolve as you progress and for once you're unlikely to find anyone getting on your nerves.
When you're not on foot you're either shooting from the back of a jeep or on a jet ski, stopping to shoot while enemies attempt to take you down. The jet ski sections really didn't work for me, with the instant kills by exploding barrels and the stop-start nature of the gameplay feeling out of place. It's also a shame that instant kill snipers crop up fairly frequently towards the end of the game and that the final showdown feels wholly unoriginal compared to what went before it. At least some new enemies are introduced, but there's a definite feeling that Uncharted isn't all it could have been.
Of course, some wonderful visuals and audio help no end. Although Crysis on the PC has wiped the floor with every game available, on the console front Uncharted is right up there with the best. The jungle settings are gorgeous and make use of some stunning lighting, while the indoor settings are detailed and moody. Character animation is also great, although it tends to make Nate climb stairs rather oddly. The musical score by Greg Edmondson is also deserving of praise, fitting the setting perfectly and evoking memories of all the great adventure movies down the years.
Things aren't perfect though. As is common with many next-gen titles, textures load in far too late. What this means is that you'll enter a new area that looks rather plain, before textures load in, giving the game its stunning looks. It's a shame considering the presentation is so impressive, and perhaps is something that a few small loading screens could have fixed. The frame rate is also a little sporadic, but nothing to get too upset about.
Another potential criticism will be the game's length, which clocks in at around the eight hour mark. It certainly doesn't feel short and there are plenty of medals to go for and unlockables to gain, but for those looking to get the most bang for their buck this Christmas, Uncharted might not be the best choice.
Negatives aside, Uncharted: Drake's fortune is an excellent effort by Naughty Dog and hopefully the start of an exciting new series. While multi-format developers still seem to be struggling with Sony's latest console, the platform holder's recent titles have shown what is possible. Uncharted is without doubt another title that absolutely deserves to be in your collection.