Last week, Sony graced us with a demo for their upcoming PS3 action/adventure, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. This is the second of their two-pronged holiday attack, following the excellent Ratchet and Clank Future. Although it's necessary to withhold judgment until the full game is out, it seems unlikely that Uncharted is going to live up to its end of the bargain. The short demo certainly isn't bad, but its flaws could be fatal over several hours of play.
What should be one of the game's greatest strengths actually makes it creepy to behold. Half the time, it's a marvel to watch Nathan Drake scramble over fallen logs, leap gracelessly from one pillar to another, and slam up against a wall like a sack of potatoes. The developers have opted to make him a rough-and-tumble hero from the Indiana Jones mold, and it works especially well when he fights -- instead of the same identical, telegenic punches, Nathan throws off-balance haymakers and throws his weight into vicious tackles. I can't think of another video-game hero who behaves quite this way.
But there's also something a little unsettling about it. The lifelike animation places the characters deep in the uncanny valley. While playing Ratchet and Clank Future, one of the most visually appealing games I've ever seen, it occurred to me that graphical horsepower is better used for the fantastic than the realistic (take a spin through the asteroid belt in R&C and try to tell me otherwise). If developers want a grittier aesthetic, there's still a way to render a world with verisimilitude without plunging into zombie territory. Gears of War is a good example of this. As fluid and convincing as this animation is, a computer can't render life in a character's eyes -- at least not yet.
As for the gameplay, Uncharted is a strange mix of the cover-shooting mechanic of Gears of War and the environmental swashbuckling of Tomb Raider. The demo showcases wide-open jungle environments with lush greenery overgrowing crumbling, ancient architecture. There are only a couple of scenarios, and each is the same: clear out some foes, climb and jump your way to the next area, repeat. But there are some indications that it could end up more fun than it seems. At one point, I rushed an enemy from his blind side and hit the melee button, fully expecting to throw a punch. Instead, Nathan leaped onto the guy and broke his neck. I like when a game can surprise me like that. A wide enough variety of attacks and animations could keep the game fresh throughout.
One other point: the island is just littered with exploding barrels. They're everywhere. I'm not going to pretend I don't enjoy wiping out a group of opponents with a well-placed exploding barrel shot, but it'd be nice if there were at least some half-assed attempt to explain their presence. Who brought them there? What are they for? I could buy that the mercenaries needed to bring demolition with them, but dozens of unwieldy barrels just strewn evenly around the jungle? It would make more sense, say, to have a truck loaded up with them. Or to have them grouped around the exterior of a cave. Not lying on their side on top of a low wall. That shit makes no sense!