This article goes with my review of Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, so you should probably read that first.
Memory is a faulty thing. What we store in our brains isn't quite the original experience and given enough time, it may diverge from that experience completely. Sometimes, you'll find that revisiting a game, comic, or television show you love unearths a whole host of problems and issues that you ignored or simply forgot the first time around. Alternatively, you may find that the experience is exactly as your remembered it. Your fond memories of something may not be an idealized version of something stretched, distorted, and then cast in amber; they may be indicative of the actual work.
Over the course of the last week and weekend, I was able to play through all three Uncharted games - Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception - in Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection for PlayStation 4. (In addition, I popped in the originals for a brief spell, since I still own them.) Traveling back through all three games in the Uncharted series was sort of a revelation for me. I generally don't go back and replay single-player games, so this was a chance for me to see where nostalgia and reality diverged.
Taking Up the Whip and Fedora
I enjoy Uncharted a great deal. There's no denying that the series is a spiritual successor to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones. It took until the second game to truly capitalize on that feeling of world-traveling adventure. Drake and Jones share the same cocksure attitude, the illusion of vulnerability while still being invincible juggernauts, the propensity for murdering tons of foes while still offering a pithy phrase. Both characters are also rather bad at their chosen professions: Drake and Indy's adventures usually end in the ultimate destruction of whatever MacGuffin they were chasing. (At least Drake is nominally a pirate, Indy has no excuse.)
Indiana Jones as a series has essentially be dead since the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989. Nothing has really filled that pulp adventure slot since then, so there was room for Drake to capture hearts and minds.
What Uncharted does well is provide a rollicking adventure for Nathan Drake and his friends. The latter is the real strength of the franchise, as Drake is only as good as who accompanies him on his adventure. Series mainstays include father figure Victor Sullivan ("My friends call me Sully.") and on-again, off-again love interest Elena Fisher, with Uncharted 2 introducing old flame Chloe Frazer to the roster. It's a ramshackle family for Drake, who by the third game is revealed to be an orphan; he borrows his last name from explorer Sir Francis Drake. Together, they travel around the globe destroying ancient artifacts, killing people, and having a great deal of fun doing it.
Part of that adventure is the elaborate action scenarios cooked up by Naughty Dog. Uncharted 2 features a stunning action sequence on a train ending in a snowy derailment, while Uncharted 3 leaves Drake in a sinking cruise ship and drops him out of a cargo plane. The series is a technical masterpiece, but that technology is used in the service of creating tension. We know Drake will survive these scenes eventually - we're controlling him, so of course he will - but the journey is still amazing. Buildings fall and vehicles explode around Drake on a regular basis; when he survives that you can't help but have a smile alongside him.
Carrying the Past With You
That's not to say the Uncharted series is all sunshine and roses. There are shared issues across the entire series, though many of the problems are lessened by time you get to Uncharted 3.
The biggest issue that affects every game stems from the meeting of the game's traversal mechanic with the semi-realistic enviroments. Players will come up against sections of gameplay where you're wandering around the environment, trying to figure out what you can jump on or jump to to proceed. Many times, the world assets you can jump on aren't readily apparent, meaning you'll leap towards a wall thinking Drake will latch onto it, only to plunge to your death. Uncharted 3 makes big leaps in fixing this issue with improved highlighting for platforms, but you'll still occasionally find yourself puzzling out what the game designer wants you to do to move on. Even in action sequences, there's usually a single way forward, and it's up to you as the player to figure out what the developers intended.
It's the old LucasArts point-and-click adventure game problem in platforming form. I'm hoping it's something that's on Naughty Dog's radar for Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, because it kills the narrative momentum dead when you run into those sections. Even the vague hints given are annoying: yes, Uncharted, I know I should go through that window, I'm busy trying to figure out how to get up there.
There's also an issue with precision, though it's something I've gotten used to over a wide variety of game. Like Assassin's Creed (or Dark Souls!), Uncharted's movement leans heavily on animation priority, versus an input priority game like Devil May Cry. Yes, the game will fudge some distances, magically moving you a bit to make a connection, but if you make a leap, sometimes the difference between grabbing a ledge and falling to your death is a scant one.
This feeds into the melee combat - Uncharted's shooting is input priority - making the game's controls feel softer than they should. Throwing a punch or making leap is accompanied by a second or two of pre-set animation, during which the player is a slave to the game. For certain players, it feels more like you're guiding your character towards a goal, rather than directly controlling them. Naughty Dog gets progressively better at this in each game: Uncharted 3 does it's best to alleviate the problem with faster movement and improved melee combat, but it's still annoying at times. Even Uncharted 3's faster melee doesn't have corresponding control, button press to punch; hitting the punch button twice in rapid succession would still only throw one punch because of the animations.
Revisiting the Trilogy
Diving back into nostalgia, I honestly thought that my chosen order for the series was Uncharted 2, Uncharted, then Uncharted 3, but playing all three back-to-back has caused me to rethink that.
The very first Uncharted feels sparse and bland compared to its sequels. There's only so much jungle and tomb you can go through before you need a change of pace. It establishes the characters and basic gameplay for the rest of the series, but I can't say I really want to go back and play the first Uncharted again. Sully and Elena make their first appearance here, but I was surprised at how much of the game Sully is kidnapped or absent.
The first game also establishes Uncharted's trend for annoying ending chapters or boss fights. The last chapter in this game was immensely annoying. "I know you have a weapon preference you've learned through 10 hours of play Mike, but here's the shotgun. That's all you get. Cheers." Even the very last fight runs counter to the player's instincts to run for cover; doing so will just get you killed.
Uncharted 2 stands up to nostalgia and comes through with flying colors. From that amazing cold opener, Uncharted 2's narrative economy is damn near perfect. The story speeds along from place-to-place giving us just the right amount of information we need to proceed. It does grind to a halt in a few spots, where Naughty Dog throws huge, endless shooting galleries that begin to feel like a chore, but otherwise, the momentum never lets up.
This is also the first game in the series where stealth feels like a valid option in certain situations, as opposed to the extra bit it was in Uncharted. I'd argue that some situation require stealth, becoming much more difficult if you go in guns ablaze. In addition, the helicopter attack, train section, and snowy mountainside vehicle chase found in Uncharted 2 are some of the best action sequences the franchise has to offer. Fans even voted the train sequence as the best Uncharted moment of all time recently. All in all, Uncharted 2 lives up to its memory, even if there's still not enough Sully. (MORE SULLY, NAUGHTY DOG!)
Uncharted 3 is the game that shocked me the most. Sure, it's best isn't as good as Uncharted 2's best, but the melee combat is improved, you can finally throw grenades back at enemies (much appreciated), and the game was visually stunning when it released, so the remaster almost feels like a native PlayStation 4 title at times. Uncharted 3's best scenes involve the cargo plane, the sinking cruise ship, and a burning mansion. I admit, they're technically impressive, but the thrill and tension just don't reach Uncharted 2. That's less an issue with U3 and more a problem of Naughty Dog having to match its past heights.
Uncharted 3 does retain the franchise's best villain duo: Katherine Marlow and Talbot, who have the honor of being the only antagonists in the series whose names I actually remembered. Uncharted's old white dude and Uncharted's Angry McRussian are simply not as memorable. Uncharted's primary villian was killed without so much as a shrug from me. I admit, Uncharted is a series where the villains definitely aren't the main event, something it probably carries from its spiritual predecessor. (Quick, without looking it up, what are the names of the villians in all three Indiana Jones films?) In Uncharted 3, I looked forward to seeing Drake's opponents popping up, which more than I can say for the previous entries.
I leave the Uncharted Collection with a newfound respect for Uncharted 3 and the hope that Uncharted 4 learns from the franchise's past missteps. I'm also looking forward to seeing the renewed reception for the series when Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection releasses on October 6, 2015. Will others' estimation of the series successes and faults change? Will Uncharted 3 find some of the love it was denied in the past?
Regardless, as long as Nate, Sully, and Elena are along for the ride in Uncharted 4, I'm sure I'll be in good hands.