From Crash Bandicoot to Jak & Daxter, famed Sony developer Naughty Dog has always focused on cartoon-like characters and fantastical settings. Not so for its latest project (and first PlayStation 3 game), Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. The game casts you as the eponymous treasure hunter, an intrepid Indiana Jones sort of guy who believes himself to be descended from the famous explorer Sir Francis Drake. In the interest of reinstating his rightful family legacy, Drake has set out to find the lost treasure of El Dorado, which will conveniently also make him filthy rich. At the outset of the demo version of the game we got to try, Drake and an unnamed female companion were traveling via biplane to the island where they believe the treasure to be hidden away.
Unfortunately, things very quickly go awry for Drake--as if you didn't see that one coming. The plane suffers a violent mechanical failure and his copilot has to bail out of the plane. (We have to imagine she'll be popping up again later on in the game.) Drake himself finally parachutes out after trying to salvage some equipment and finds himself alone in a steamy jungle with nothing but a pistol, his agility, and his wits to save him. Soon, he'll find himself wrapped up with the black-market antique and artifact trade, and he'll tangle with a group of testy, well-armed mercenaries who are none too pleased by Drake's presence on the island.
Naughty Dog president Evan Wells says Uncharted's gameplay is made up of three major components--traversing terrain, shooting, and hand-to-hand combat--and we got to try all three in the demo. Navigating through the jungle is very reminiscent of the movement in games like Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia (though it's much less over the top than the latter). You'll be able to grab onto ledges and pull yourself up, tightrope walk your way across precarious fallen logs (using the Sixaxis' motion control to keep your balance), and other adventurous moves of that nature. When we made one particularly great leap across a wide chasm, the camera shifted to a cinematic angle and the action went to slow motion to highlight the action-movie style of the jump. This particular moment seemed to be scripted, but there's no word whether such moments in the final game will happen dynamically or only where triggered by the designers.
Gun combat is indeed another pillar of the gameplay, and in the demo we picked up an AK-47, a shotgun, and a handful of grenades in addition to our starting handgun. You'll only be able to carry one large weapon and one sidearm at a time, so you'll have to strategize to make sure you're using the right one at a given moment. You can shoot from the hip, but that's not terribly accurate since you have no crosshair when running around. For precision aim, you can go to an over-the-shoulder aiming view a la Gears of War. In another nod to that game, hitting the circle button when near a flat surface will snap Drake to that surface so you can use it as cover, and you can pop up or around walls to return fire at the mercs who are ruining your little island vacation.
Finally, we tried the hand-to-hand combat portion of the game a little bit, although since all the enemies we encountered were armed with firearms of some kind, we didn't have many opportunities to get up close and personal with them. At any rate, once you enter into a melee situation, the action will pause for a brief moment and the camera will zoom in a little, and you have to hit the square button at that precise moment to perform a one-hit kill move. When we got this to work, Drake did a double-footed dropkick right upside the enemy's head. But the moves are said to be contextual, so for instance, if you're near a wall when you pull off the move, you might grab the enemy and slam their face into it instead. Indeed, the other time we pulled off a melee kill, Drake wrestled with the enemy and then snapped his neck. From what we could tell, failure to properly time this attack will result in missed punches and general flailing around, giving the enemy time to fight back.
Naughty Dog has always had a reputation for squeezing the utmost performance and fidelity out of Sony's hardware, and it looks like that tradition will continue with Uncharted. The game looks beautiful, thanks in no small part to the entirely new graphics engine it's running on. The characters are among the most detailed and lifelike we've seen to date--especially in cutscenes--with some spotty lip-sync animation being the only thing that broke the illusion in the demo we tried. The jungle environment was flush with fully modeled foliage that swayed in the breeze, and the rushing water of a stream we saw was extremely impressive--the reflection and refraction effects as we tilted the camera to a bird's-eye view were exceptionally true to life.
The gameplay in our demo was pretty straightforward, as Drake alternated between climbing on mossy rocks or jungle ruins and engaging in firefights with the bad guys. Wells promises more explosive weaponry will be available later in the game, though, and at the end of the demo, Drake happened upon the crashed plane and discovered a map that we're sure will come in handy later. In addition, a trailer shown at the event indicated that Drake will get caught up in all kinds of trouble. So we're confident that Uncharted will turn out to be more than a Tomb Raider knockoff in the final analysis, especially given Naughty Dog's nearly spotless track record in the last few years. The game is due out on the PS3 toward the end of the year, so we'll get to see the result of the developer's labor in a few months.