I had been hoping this would come from the day I bought a PS4; the Uncharted franchise always appealed to me but I never had a PS3 so never got a chance. I now see what all the fuss was about, although the experience felt slightly hampered by having been, in my opinion, outdone by other games which have been influenced by this series, most notably the Tomb Raider reboot.
The Uncharted series follows Nathan Drake, a rougish Indiana Jones-esque figure who claims to be the long lost descendent of the legendary explorer Sir Francis Drake. All three games concern mythical lost cities, with the first game Drake’s Fortune relating to the El Dorado, the City of Gold. The second game, Among Thieves, is a tale of betrayal set against the hunt for Shangri-La. Drake’s Deception, number three, is a personal tale which delves into Drake’s core motivations in the hunt for the lost desert city of Ubar, known as the Atlantis of the Desert.
The storytelling in the Uncharted series has been widely praised and I can see why. The voice acting is good and the characters fairly vivid if not exactly complex. All of the characters seem like film characters rather than game characters, but I think that pretentions towards being ‘cinematic’ can sometimes obscure lackluster storytelling. Perhaps it is a side effect of playing all three back to back in this collection, but I found them all quite similar towards the end. Pretty much identical story beats occur in each one and the ‘lost city hiding a terrible secret’ got a pass from me in Among Thieves but had me rolling my eyes with Drake’s Deception. Nathan Drake is a likable protagonist but I don’t think he really gets beyond that; he has frequently been compared to Indiana Jones but he never approaches the quality of that character. That’s not to say that the stories for the Uncharted games are bad, but they never approach the quality of Naughty Dog’s later The Last of Us.
The Uncharted games are a hybrid of Prince of Persia-style platforming and third person cover based shooting. You’ll spend most of the game climbing around walls and shooting foes from cover and two thirds of the time it works really well. There is a massive jump in quality between Drake’s Fortune and Among Thieves which is then maintained until Drake’s Deception. It never fails to shock me how quickly games age and Drake’s Fortune is something of a slog. The setpieces are underwhelming and the combat involves unsatisfyingly gunning down wave after wave of identical foes ending in an abysmal boss encounter. I’m sure that this game was more impressive when first released, but playing it initially in 2015 even an extra PS4 lick of paint can’t save it. Thankfully, Among Thieves is an improvement in pretty much every way and a significantly better experience. The combat actually becomes fun and the set pieces begin to get more and more ridiculous. Across Among Thieves and Drake’s Deception many of the set pieces genuinely had me on the edge of my seat, with thrilling platforming sections and combat encounters.
Despite having a few extra bells and whistles in number three, I think that the second Uncharted game, Among Thieves, stood as the best. It hits the sweet spot between ‘gamey’ and ‘cinematic’. Drake’s Fortune is too videogame-y, with a terrible turret section and arbitrary wave after wave of enemy. The gameplay got in the way of its cinematic ambitions, but Drake’s Deception goes a little bit too far the other way. The camera is wrestled away from you far more in Drake’s Deception to give things a more cinematic bent and I found myself missing the sweet middle ground of Among Thieves, which also has the strongest plot.
Drake’s Fortune aside, the games do look bloody lovely. Recently a gaming site mistook Uncharted 2 for Uncharted 4 at a trade show and while that’s a pretty significant oversight, you can see why it could happen. Running at 60FPS these games look incredible, with fluid animations and a sense of chaos and immersion. It goes to show what a difference frame rate makes; I would argue that these PS3 games put up to 60FPS look better than most PS4 games running at 30. The voice acting is very good and generally elevates the story beyond what it probably deserves; Nolan North deserves particular praise as Drake, although I also really liked his sardonic and somewhat grizzled sidekick Sully.
I bought The Nathan Drake collection to find out what all the fuss was about and by and large I did. Elements of these games have dated already and I’m not sure how I’d feel about paying full price for just one of them when Uncharted 4 comes out next year, but all said I enjoyed them. They’re popcorn games to enjoy between meatier experiences and that’s ok.