If you asked a bunch of people to list the most influential games of the last console generation, there's a solid chance most of them would include the PS3's Uncharted series. Four or five years ago, when we needed to show a friend how visually impressive video games had become, we often reached for one of Nathan Drake's adventures.
The first three console Uncharted games are being re-released tomorrow for the PlayStation 4 as Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection. All three games have been remastered by a studio called Bluepoint — they all run at 1080p and 60fps, and all feature greatly improved textures and lighting effects. I've been playing back through them over the past week, and have been having a good time.
The collection is fun in its own right — it might make me reevaluate my distaste for Uncharted 3? — and it also stands as a neat, self-contained demonstration of how far video games can advance during a single console generation.
Playing all three Uncharted games in such close proximity is almost like taking a Doctor Manhattan-style multi-dimensional look at the PS3 — how it started, how it grew, and in the end, how far creative developers like Naughty Dog were able to push it.
I captured video of the first ten minutes from each game, and thought it'd be cool to place them side-by-side and check out what changed.
Uncharted: Drake's Fortune
The 2007 original was the first thing I played when I started The Nathan Drake Collection, and I gotta say… it's a bit rough, isn't it? I haven't played the first Uncharted for several years, so it's a bit of a jolt to see such a first-draftish version of everything.
The whole intro sequence floats along ok — curious reporter, roguish adventurer, exposition, exposition, exposition. The characters are all sketches, but that's to be expected with any first outing like this.
Then the pirates show up, and the game immediately begins to feel dated. You're thrown into an awkward 360-degree gunfight before you even know anyone's name.
Much is now made of Naughty Dog's cinematic style, but as I played the first few sections of Drake's Fortune, I kept noticing how flat and workmanlike most of the directorial choices were. The camera goes where it's supposed to go — it frames the action, it cuts back and forth between people as they talk — but it rarely does much else.
Which makes the leap to the next game feel all the more remarkable…
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
I barely remembered the intro to the first Uncharted, but I remember its 2009 sequel very well. Uncharted 2 blew everyone's pants off. Replaying the opening sequence, it's easy to see why.
I like a lot of things about this intro, but nothing quite so much as Drake's laugh right there at the start, as he dangles beneath an about-to-tumble-off-a-cliff train car.
Now that is how you start a frickin' video game! The whole intro sequence is really strong, particularly in how it mixes the present-day events on the mountain with flashbacks to Drake's fateful museum heist, sneaking a comprehensive tutorial in between explosions and sexy hotel-room dalliances.
Playing Uncharted 2's introduction again after so long was also a reminder of how restrictive and linear the first three Uncharted games could be. I almost felt like an actor remembering my blocking — I remember when Drake jumps from this seat to that one; how that boulder almost knocks him off the train but not quite; how I have to swing off of that one pipe before I run out of time and he falls.
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
2011's Uncharted 3 has proven the most interesting game in the collection, at least for me. I've played Uncharted 2 several times, so I have a better understanding and recollection of the game. I only played Uncharted 3 once, and most of my memories of it involve lovely visuals, questionable character motivations, and really annoying gunfights. I finished it, but didn't really look back.
Playing through the introductory chapters again this many years later, I've found Uncharted 3 to be much more enjoyable. The intro sequence, for example, is irresistibly confident in its approach and execution. The directorial flair of Uncharted 2 is cranked up even further, with quick cuts and dramatic camera angles setting up the barroom showdown that kicks things off.
Everything gets a little weird once the fighting starts, mostly because the fistfighting in Uncharted games is terrible. There's no rhythm or pop to, and it feels more like Space Ace than Arkham Asylum. Still, some good pacing keeps things bouncing along nicely enough.
It's also notable just how long Uncharted 3 goes without the player having to shoot anyone. After the barroom brawl, the game goes full Last Crusade and flashes back to a 20-years-younger Nathan Drake, who we get to control through another non-combat section that does double duty as a tutorial.
I'm having a good enough time with Uncharted 3 that I'm planning to replay the entire game; I'm curious whether Blue Point has in any way tightened up and improved the later sequences that annoyed me so much the first time out. (I'm looking at you, boatyard shootout.)
By playing the first Uncharted in such close proximity to the third, I'm struck even more by how far the PS3's flagship series progressed over the course of four short years. As a point of comparison, here's the climactic action sequence in Drake's Fortune's intro:
And here's a similar scene from a bit later in Uncharted 3:
At times, it's hard to believe that both games were running on the same hardware. The Nathan Drake Collection is a good reminder not only of how far a video game series can go in the space of a few short years, but also of how much more impressive console games become as developers get more comfortable working with given piece of hardware.
As for a recommendation on whether you should pick up The Nathan Drake Collection... as usual with this sort of thing, it depends. If you've never played an Uncharted game and have a PS4, then yeah, go for it. These games are great. If you've already played all or most of them, you could probably hold off, particularly given that the collection will almost surely be heavily discounted before too long.
Other stray thoughts on The Nathan Drake Collection:
- I'm actually not loving these games at 60fps. Many of Drake's platforming animations look rubbery and strange, and his body stretches in cartoonish ways that don't really work for me. Cutscenes suffer, too — I didn't like The Hobbit at a high frame rate, and it's similarly odd to watch Drake and Sully talk while looking "too real." It's definitely easier to control Drake — his aim in particular — but it's often apparent that these games were originally designed to look good and work well at 30fps.
- There's a now neat little leaderboard tracker that compares you with your friends who are playing. I kept getting little pop ups telling me how many headshots I'd gotten when compared with my colleague Jason Schreier, for example. You can turn these off if you want, but I actually liked trying to beat Jason's various scores. (I have now blown up a couple more people than he has. Take that, Schreier.)
- It's weird playing this game at the same time as I'm playing so much Destiny, which also features actor Nolan North in a major role. After briefly relinquishing his "Guy Who's In Everything" title to Troy Baker, North appears to have reclaimed it. I'm sure the pendulum will swing back soon enough.
- The AK-47s in Uncharted 2 are HILARIOUS. They're maybe the loudest video game guns I've ever heard? Were Uncharted 2's guns always this loud?
- The Nathan Drake Collection doesn't come with any of the multiplayer options that were included with the second or third games. I actually had more fun with Uncharted 3's multiplayer than I had been expecting to, but I'm fine with them leaving that off. Still, something to consider if you're thinking about buying the new collection.
- I remember it was such a big deal that Drake could get wet in the first Uncharted — if you walked him partway into a pool of water, he'd only get partly wet. Whenever characters get wet in these games, they talk about it an enjoyable amount. Maybe that was to draw attention to how impressive the wetness graphics were? I don't know. It's funny, though.
- The Nathan Drake Collection also features a photo mode similar to the ones in games like Infamous Second Son and Shadow of Mordor. It's as fun to use as ever. I'll close us out with this this doofy picture of Nathan Drake looking askance at the trophy I just earned.