About three seconds into the first jungle scene in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, the game encourages you to disobey its own rules. While your idiot sidekick urges you to explore and push forward, the leaves, the sheer density of foliage and the lighting - oh, that lighting - dares you to stop. And you do. Twisting and pushing the right stick into ever more improbable angles, testing, willing the graphics to 'break' - but they never do. Uncharted's foliage is so rich, so dense, so sublimely lit - your mind is fooled into thinking it's a real 3D object, passing the cast-iron test of any lighting model: thinking you could pop your hand into the screen and pluck objects out.
Same with Drake. His likeness is so uncannny, it's almost as much fun pushing him against bizarre scenery and rotating the right stick to zoom in on his face as it is actually jumping and shooting. And it's during one of these moments, that the symmetry hits you... the moment in Gears of War on Xbox 360 (Level 3), when it starts raining and lightning flashes and - dammit - you don't want to fight aliens but just push up close into AI soldiers and admire their fried bacon frowns in the dampest rain you've ever virtually seen.
Both games have the power to break their own structure with the allure, or distraction, of their visuals alone. In fact, arguably, Uncharted is the best looking next-gen game (full stop) *since* Gears of War - if not, in fact, better. The aching sunlight baking the cliff edge as you near the fort? Priceless. A moment of true transcendental beauty that sort-of makes you think games are capable of giving your mind a holiday - of providing glimpses of raw true beauty - rather than powering acres of grey FPS streets in another tedious WWII game.
But the likeness doesn't end there. Just as Xbox 360 mags (incorrectly) raved about Gears of War, we'd be equally wrong to elevate Uncharted to such a lofty pedestal. Truth is, both games, while stunningly beautiful, can't mask the underlying functionality, and repetition, of their gameplay skeletons. Within a few hours, you can see Uncharted unfold like a giant map... jumpy bit, shooty bit, puzzle, jumpy bit, puzzle, shooty, shooty... vehicle - and the pattern starts to fray at your will to proceed. Gears of War was worse - shooty bit, shooty bit, change of scenery, shooty bit, slight change of pace (the sound-detecting super-aliens or the bats felt like cut 'n' pasted gameplay spikes, rather than a genuine result of narrative flow). In Gears of War, it didn't take long to see a series of barrels, walls or sheets of metal in a quiet room, only to suffer the shuddering realisation you'd walk in, endure *another* massive scrap just like the last... then walk straight into another. Depressing.
Uncharted's shooty bits are the same, utilising a similar cover system imbued with the same joy-dampening sense of dread when you walk into an open area. Contrast that with, say, Metal Gear 3 - where the gameplay gets turned on its head every hour or so, enforcing periods of panic, dislocation and relief, and you'll see why we'd be wrong to hail Uncharted as a classic. It's incredibly polished, true, and perhaps the first glimpse of PS3's long term potential, but the gameplay's meat and potatoes - albeit of the finest pedigree.
Not everyone will agree. Not everyone on PSM3 agrees. But Uncharted, as the title suggests, is merely the first step on the path to something truly great. And that game may still be a year or two away...
Have a great weekend
p.s. Anyone finished Half Life Episode 2 yet? Case closed.