Sony announced a few days ago that they’ve sold over 30 million PS4 consoles. Not too shabby. What blows my mind is the Sony wags think that at least half of those gamers have never played Uncharted. That’s so crazy town banana pants. Uncharted is one of the most influential franchises of the last generation; it’s like saying you never played Halo. Well, practically. But maybe you didn’t. Life, the movies, or that persistent need to come up with a better Facebook status got in the way. Maybe you’re just, god, young, and you never had a PS3. But it’s okay. You can make it right with the world, because Naughty Dog’s put out Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection. With Christmas coming, this could be a great chance for you or that curious gamer in your life, the one with their arms all withered and bent like a T-rex from clutching a controller to their chest, that somehow didn’t get around to hanging with Nathan Drake and the Uncharted crew. Featuring all three Uncharted titles formerly exclusive to the PS3, these titles have been polished and buffed for the next console generation. But if you never played them, why would you bother with a revamped reissue? If you ever wanted to be Indiana Jones, hunting for antiquities across the globe, fighting the bad guys, wise-cracking with a whiff of the supernatural breathing down your neck, then this is the franchise for you.
The geniuses at Naughty Dog studios put Uncharted together (the same studio that did the ground-breaking The Last of Us in 2013). Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection gives you 2007’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, 2009’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and 2011’s Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, all on one Blu-Ray. In each instalment, the story centres around Nathan Drake, a wily smart-ass explorer with the physical talents of a circus acrobat crossed with a chimpanzee—Nate can really jump around. His buddy/mentor Sully accompanies him on most of his journeys, and there’s a few formidable women who keep him company: Elena, the resourceful reporter; and Chloe, a darker, more mercenary version of himself. Uncharted draws heavily from Indiana Jones, and Romancing the Stone (1984), as well as the Tomb Raider games of the nineties. The series is chock-full of witty, globe-trotting adventure, sarcastic romance, and messing with ancient forces best left alone. When the series debuted in 2007, it was a breath of fresh air, leaving behind the grim, tortured aesthetic of contemporary first person shooters and action movies. Instead we got treasure maps, decrepit jungle temples, Nazis, monsters and a trove of wry banter and flirty repartee. The voice-acting is first-rate, with Nolan North essaying a note-perfect Nathan Fillion for Drake’s switches from caustic confidence to bewildered vulnerability. The settings are gorgeous and the action set-pieces stand out as some of the best bits of gaming in years. (The endless sequence of Drake on a train in the middle of Uncharted 2 is the real high-water mark of a bravura FPS.)
The remaster was done by Bluepoint Games, and they’ve done a superb job, bringing the games to 1080p and running fluidly smooth on the PS4. (I experienced only one nasty crash in the middle of Uncharted 2 that told me I’d need to reinstall the game. Thankfully, that was wrong, and relaunching it brought me right back to where I was before.) While the graphics can’t escape their older gen origins, they’re markedly improved. From jungle vistas to snowy mountains to dark, torch-lit shrines, these visuals pop.
Playable cinema is the aesthetic Naughty Dog is striving for, and it’s both the series’ strength and its achilles heel. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is a strong debut, but a little wobbly. As beautiful as the scenes are and the way they jump from action to cut-scene to action, the controls are finicky as hell. You’re as likely to send Drake hurtling into the void as you are to land on that distant cliff-face. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves finds the best balance between story and action, while Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, admittedly the most ambitious of the lot, veers too far toward extended cinematics. You really sense the degree to which the story is firmly on rails, waiting for push-button cues (TRIANGLE, pause, SQUARE, etc.) in some of its scenes. The puzzles are just challenging enough to be interesting, without becoming completely obscure. As a first person shooter, the series never changes much. The mechanics aren’t as fluid as pure shooters like the Call of Duty games or Destiny, but they’re workmanlike, and landing a headshot is that much more satisfying for the challenge involved. Some people complain that Uncharted‘s breezy tone is at odds with Drake’s casual killing—he does mow down hundreds of bad guys over the course of a game—but I think that’s in keeping with the tradition of adventure yarns, going back to the movie serials of the forties. It’s in the style of swashbuckling fun, never too gory, and dammit, sometimes you just want to find the treasure, get the girl, and shoot a bunch of Nazis. Pretty male-hetero, but you can always play Dragon Age: Inquisition if you’re looking for a wider variety of personal expression (more on that later this month!).
So whether it’s a gift for yourself or someone else, if you own a PS4 and you haven’t experienced Uncharted, you really should. “Sic parvis magna” reads the ring Drake wears around his neck, originally given to Sir Francis Drake by Queen Elizabeth. It means “greatness from small beginnings”, and with these three games, Naughty Dog achieved something undeniably great. Remastered and squeezed onto one Blu-Ray, there’s nothing small about them. As an easily twenty-hour primer to the hotly anticipated Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, coming in 2016, you can’t go wrong.
The trailer’s a little elegiac, what happens by the time you’re getting to the fourth chapter in the series I guess, but gives you some of those magical sights and sounds: