First-time Players: The Uncharted series

GR+'s First-time Player series is a chance to see how beloved games stand up under the scrutiny of modern standards. We've documented how individual classics like Banjo Kazooie and Gears of War look to those who're playing them with a pair of fresh eyes - but thanks to Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection on PS4, we can now appraise an entire trilogy in one go. Three of our editors completely missed out on Nathan Drake's treasure-hunting adventures the first time around; here's what they think of Sony's ruggedly handsome, half-tucked-shirt hero all these years later.

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune - Maxwell McGee

Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is one of the best games I've ever watched. Here, a raised eyebrow or a twist of the lips can subtly convey what other games trip over themselves to spell out. The game's voice acting, facial animations, dialogue, and the million-and-one other details that make me empathize with a character are all masterfully executed. Nate, Sully, and Elena aren't some trio of angry space marines. They're charismatic, believable heroes who I want to see succeed on their treasure-hunting adventure. When people compare Uncharted to a Hollywood blockbuster, it's because of these performances.

Unfortunately, this adventure involves a lot of shooting dudes in the face, an activity I found dull by 2015 standards. Nate doesn't move through cover with the fluidity of modern cover-based shooters, and his rhythm-based melee attacks feel at odds with the frantic gunplay. There's also nothing in the way of active reload or bullet time mechanics to break the cycle of 'line up reticle, pull trigger'. In fact, my sole source of spice during the firefights came from the game's stellar voice acting, such as Nate whimpering "Oh no no no..." whenever a grenade rolls to his feet.

Nathan Drake also doesn't seem to care much for history, which surprises me. I always associated the Uncharted series with historical adventure movies such as National Treasure and the Indiana Jones series, so I expected a certain level of reverence for anything older than, say, Nate's grandma. But the very first thing you see him do is take a crowbar to the tomb of his supposed great ancestor - Sir Francis Drake - the same way Gordon Freeman searches for ammo. Nate didn't know for sure the tomb was empty, or that it would contain a hidden treasure map, so he could have been defiling priceless ruins. But, you know, whatever.

Uncharted brings together some of the best game designs of its day into a beautifully packaged whole, but I found it ultimately didn't transform any of those elements enough to form its own identity. If this game should be remembered for anything, it's the outstanding execution of its cinematics, which can be enjoyed outside the game itself.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves - Daniella Lucas

Why did no one tell me about that spectacular, nerve-wracking intro?! This was a much more impressive start to my first Uncharted experience than I was expecting. Even by modern standards, that tumbling train was impressive. Sure, I’ve seen games that are a lot prettier, but the way something breaks when you least expect it to, changing the path you thought you were on, really ratchets up the tension.

I was also surprised by just how well-rounded each of the characters are; all the fun little asides and facial expressions hold up quite well. I’d always assumed that Nathan Drake was just another random, stubbly video game dude, so discovering just how personable and realistic he feels was a joy - you really get a great sense of the type of person he is. Given the game’s age, I was expecting things to feel a lot more stiff and unnatural, but I guess good performances and stories never really get old.

The only area where I noticed the passing years was in the environments: the rooms you sneak, shoot, and leap through feel quite barren and overly large. It makes sense as you need plenty of space for any action to take place, but when you’re used to more modern games filled with crowds and rooms littered with stuff, it does feel a little cold. You also get the occasional limited camera angle when leaping across wall ledges, which can be really frustrating. And during the museum sneaking section, I found myself being caught by guards more often than I liked, because I just couldn’t tell where they were or what direction they were looking in.

While the tech definitely does feel a bit out of date in places, it’s never off-puttingly so. And weirdly some of the set pieces feel more inventive than those seen in games released over the past two years, just because they had to push harder with a more limited tool set to elicit an emotional response. It feels a bit like Uncharted was the point at which the bar for action set pieces and character performance were set, and now studios have spent the last few years slowly trying to improve upon it. Playing through it has made me realize just why people are so hyped for Uncharted 4, and I can’t wait to see where it takes the series next.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception - Lucas Sullivan

Playing on Normal was a mistake. I should've gone with Explorer difficulty, the notch just below Easy - extra insurance that Uncharted 3's many set pieces would all play out as smoothly as possible. It's been a couple of years since I played the first two Uncharted games, so I had forgotten the potent annoyance of repeated deaths, all accompanied by that duduk flute death ditty that almost sounds like it's taunting you. Nothing annihilates the tension and excitement of a well-paced scene like dying 15 times to an enemy who's effectively a walking turret.

Of course, when you're not being mowed down by the same minigun-toting goon over and over again, Uncharted sure is incredible. I prefer ancient temples in the tropics to the ruins of crusaders' crypts, but the castles, chateau, and desert finale of Uncharted 3 are all gorgeous to behold and fun to explore. What really got me from a technical standpoint was the lighting; maybe it's a benefit of the Remastered version, but I was transfixed by the way sunlight gave every actor and object the perfect amount of luminosity.

It's easy to pick apart bits and pieces of Drake's Deception, especially when you've been conditioned by Internet groupthink to assume it's the worst of Nate's original trilogy. Why is Talbot literally a "magic man" (as Nathan calls him), able to withstand bullets, control minds, and miraculously follow your trail at every globetrotting turn? Why is Elena always being time-deployed throughout the series, only showing up once the stakes have already been established? Why does wearing a beanie imbue regular thugs with the determination and resilience of the Terminator?

But for all my little gripes, I have to hand it to Naughty Dog for the way Uncharted 3 orchestrates its many memorable moments, giving me just enough time to take a breath in between the exhilarating action scenes. The way each obstacle subtly nudged me towards the correct path or ledge is a hallmark of superb level design, making me feel clever for finding the way forward even when I'd been funneled directly towards it all along. And the scene with the cargo plane is still phenomenal in 2015, despite the growing sense that I've become desensitized to the intense, visually astonishing set pieces that seem to crop up in every big-budget game.

I'm now sufficiently pumped up for Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, and from the footage we've seen so far, I'm thinking it'll build off the best elements of Uncharted 3's gameplay, like the open-ended firefights in the ship graveyard and the convoy chase scene. I just need to remember that I should swallow my pride and start that first playthrough on an easier difficulty.

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