Let’s hope Naughty Dog never ditches game development for a stint in chic kitchen appliances, because they’re just too damn good at making pretty objects that break immediately. In Uncharted, every rickety bridge is doomed to split apart, every ancient tomb is destined to tumble, every ornate floor is just a few steps from crumbling into an abyss. There’s good world-building, and then there’s good world demolition.
The lush escapades and last-minute escapes of Uncharted represent more than just a shallow romance with movies, though. After an uneven debut in 2007 on PlayStation 3, Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series has become more deeply entrenched in the language of cinema, using it to urgently direct your actions, frame intense shootouts and bring an unmatched earnestness to its characters. It’s also been at the forefront of real-time graphics, which have perhaps aged faster than anything committed to film. The Nathan Drake Collection, named after Uncharted’s charismatic thief, compiles and remasters all three of Naughty Dog’s Uncharted games for PlayStation 4. Think of it as a playable Indiana Jones biography with lots and lots (and lots) of shooting.
The stellar work done to Mr. Drake comes primarily from BluePoint Games, easily exceeding its previous revamps for God of War, Metal Gear Solid and Shadow of the Colossus. All three games from the core series, from Drake’s Fortune through to Drake’s Deception, emerge at 1080p resolution and, with rare exception, 60 frames per second. The crisp gains in image quality do wonders for Uncharted’s far-flung places, with the time-hewn stonework of ruins popping with such clarity, you can almost sense the skin being grated off the hero’s fingertips as he clambers across.
High resolution and framerate are merely the foundations of this collection, which also sees more detailed character models throughout the series, more distant views of those lovely Himalayan vistas, warmer lighting peeking through Borneo’s dense swamps, and sharp shadows skittering in musty catacombs. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune has the most to be thankful for, shedding its bothersome visual tearing in the bright glare of more sophisticated lighting effects. You’re not likely to mistake it for a PlayStation 4 game, but at the same time it’s hard to imagine a 2007 game ever looking this vibrant. Be sure to bust out the rich photo mode during Drake’s memorable tour through a drowned city in Costa Rica.
Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection packs in over 20 hours of adventurin’, a fact you can now track with the on-screen timer in speedrunning mode. If you want to speed things up you can drop to a new super-easy difficulty level, ‘Explorer’, in which Drake can take an inhuman amount of damage, even for him. The notoriously challenging ‘Crushing’ difficulty is unlocked from the start, but it’s now second place next to the new, even tougher ‘Brutal’ level. Good luck with that.
The story that comes out of playing every Uncharted together is of a developer gradually mastering its inspirations. The first game gets the heart right but not quite the heartbeat, its Indiana Jones-style adventure unfurling in stops and starts. Naughty Dog is also lacking finesse in its combat encounters at this stage, with unending waves of bullet-sponge goons creating tedium in the latter half. You’ll suffer some cheap deaths (I’m looking at you, grenade launcher guys), mainly because Drake’s Fortune isn’t always clear in revealing a scene’s ideal course of action.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, on the other hand, is a masterwork of pacing, with shootouts flowing into hair-raising catastrophes, then pooling into perfectly judged moments of downtime. There emerges a gameplay director of sorts, the camera showing you where to run and when to hunker down and shoot. Drake’s multi-stage battle against a tank as it rolls through a brittle Nepalese village should be the most annoying, frustrating thing, but if you stop wrestling the camera and just play in the moment, you sense how Naughty Dog has laid out an entire stage for you, complete with directions. At its best, Uncharted makes you feel like you’ve scrapped, dodged and improvised as a stuntman trying to hit his marks and please the director.
While the sequel shows much better judgment as a shooter, it’s also where Uncharted perfects its habit of unsettling the environment - literally - just as the gunfights start feeling placid. The complex moments, like Drake’s assault across a moving train or a brief shootout on a stone slab, sliding down a mountain, still have a punch modern games struggle to replicate.
The staging only becomes more extravagant with Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, a game that cracks under pressure in trying to outdo its predecessor in every way. Though its burning French chateau is the best blend of spectacle, clambering, fisticuffs and concentrated shooting Uncharted has to offer, it’s also in this game where Naughty Dog warps its cinematic view with one too many “video gamey” concepts. The absurdly impervious boss enemies, for example, tip some of the encounters into frustration. On the other hand, it’s also the only Uncharted game with puzzles that require more than just a glance at Drake’s solve-all notebook.
The Nathan Drake collection wraps all three games in a neat menu, pinned to a convenient set of options that filter through to each game. It even indulges minor preferences, like whether you want a film-like motion blur applied to the whole scene or objects alone, and makes sensible adjustments to older games when newer mechanics just work better. The impact of firearms is wildly different in each Uncharted (and they get progressively louder), but for once the feel and responsiveness of aiming is consistent across all games. Rather than meddling or cutting, Bluepoint polishes and arranges elegantly.
Ok, fine, motion-controlled grenade tossing has been removed, but we all know that’s best buried for future generations to find. Behind traps, preferably.
Depending on your reasons for coming to Uncharted, you could criticize The Nathan Drake Collection for being an incomplete preservation of the PS3 trilogy - it drops the multiplayer components of Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3 entirely, the latter game’s 3D mode is gone, and none of the behind-the-scenes videos make it over (likely to squeeze all three games onto a single disc). As a package of three single-player games, though, it still packs a cutting-edge wallop.
Playing every boisterous Uncharted back-to-back results in a pleasant sort of exhaustion, and maybe an unhealthy impulse to sidle alongside your bathtub and use it for cover. The narrative arc of Nathan Drake’s games pair with a technological arc of sorts, starting with the small beginnings of Drake’s Fortune and ending in the ‘climax’ of Uncharted 3’s stunning desert canyons and how’d-they-do-that lighting. If you value the craft of games and appreciate how they evolve, here’s your chance to see how Uncharted grew up.