As some of you may know, I have a nasty habit of being late to the party on so many great gaming experiences. It was just last year when I finally played through the Metal Gear Solid series after having the first three games sitting on my shelf for no less than six or seven years. And while it hasn’t been quite as long, I’ve had the first two Uncharted games sitting there waiting to be played (and still in the shrinkwrap, no less!) since I picked them up on sale in 2012.
Of course, even in 2012, I was five years late to the party – three years for the blockbuster hit that was Uncharted 2. So, with the conclusion to Drake’s story on its way, I set off at the beginning of March to try out the series and, if I enjoyed it, to catch up in time to grab Uncharted 4 on release day. Since I’m now sitting here on release day waiting for the 5GB patch to finish downloading on my godawful rural internet, it goes without saying that I met my goal.
So before moving on to Uncharted 4, I thought I’d chronicle my thoughts on my journey through the series. Since I already owned the first two games, I decided to just go ahead and play them on PS3 and forego buying the Nathan Drake Collection on PS4, since I could just pick the third game up for $6 and change. Therefore, all my impressions are based on the original games rather than the remasters – and there will, of course, be spoilers.
Having heard rumors of how brutal some of the gunfights in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune could be, I set off on my journey on Easy (don’t worry, I bumped it up to Normal in the sequels). Everything seemed to be going well until I hit a brick wall at the infamous post-plane-crash Chapter 4. Huge open fields with seemingly endlessly respawning enemies that constantly flanked you, flushed you out of cover, and took an ungodly amount of shots to kill…it was nearly enough to turn me off the game entirely. Thankfully, I persevered, and everything started to look up after that point.
After finishing the first game, I honestly couldn’t understand the sheer hatred it gets from some parts of the gaming community. Yes, it has its fair share of problems – the gunplay is lackluster (and is probably the game’s biggest issue), it has some infuriating moments like the one I just talked about, enemies are overly bullet spongey and don’t really react to being shot, and the needless Sixaxis controls flat-out suck. And don’t even get me started on the horrendous jet ski level.
But the game does a great job of establishing the characters and lore – and honestly, it’s clear that they were going for an Indiana Jones style tale, and Drake’s Fortune feels more like one of those movies than any other game in the series. And while it may be lacking in the over-the-top set pieces and adrenaline-pumping sequences that characterize the rest of the series, it has its share of moments. Who can forget the first encounter with the cursed Spaniards? The game had done a fantastic job of dropping hints leading up to that point, but in such a subtle way that it was still a huge twist when it finally happened. And then there was the heart-pounding intensity of the bunker, which was creepy in itself even before you realized that it had been taken over by hordes of those same Spaniards.
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is dated, yes – it’s almost nine years old at this point. Of course, it’s been outclassed by other games in its genre, and even its series. But it’s still an enjoyable experience and and an outright good game that establishes the characters and their relationships, and it sets the tone and lays the foundation for the rest of the series. Even though some aspects of it have aged better than others, I was surprised at how well it holds up in 2016 – especially considering the vitriol that gets spread about it online.
Although, after moving on to the second game, I think I may understand the first game’s cooled reception a bit better. Naughty Dog refined the gunplay a lot (although by modern standards it’s still a bit clunky) and obviously learned something about encounter design since Uncharted, giving you more options in taking out enemies as well as more variety in terms of weapons. It’s overall just a more refined experience gameplay-wise. Not only that, but there’s a lot more variety in environments from just the jungle of the first game, spanning from an Istanbul museum to a modern Nepalese city to the Tibetan mountains.
But the biggest change going from Uncharted to Uncharted 2 is the sheer number of Michael Bay-esque moments that have come to characterize the series. The game even begins with a bleeding-out Drake waking up and having to escape a train car that just so happens to be hanging off a cliff. Then there’s the entire sequence where Drake and Chloe have to flee a chopper by running through a massive hotel, all the while evading gunfire as the chopper rains down hell, tearing down walls, and finally blowing up the whole damn building – as Drake and Chloe make a daring jump to another building at the last second as the hotel crumbles to the ground. And of course, when Lazarevic’s forces storm the Tibetan village and Drake spends an entire chapter running like hell from a tank in dogged pursuit.
It’s set pieces like that that have become the hallmark of the series. The much-lauded train sequence, spanning multiple chapters in the middle of Among Thieves, has become the poster child of Uncharted set pieces, and as demonstrated in that last paragraph, it’s just one of many, many heart-pounding moments throughout the course of the game. Uncharted 2 is pretty much a non-stop roller coaster ride of action and thrills throughout its campaign, and just when you think it can’t get any crazier, Naughty Dog throws something even more over-the-top into the mix. It set the bar for fans’ expectations of the rest of the series, and I think that’s what colors their perceptions of the first game in retrospect – especially going back to it after experiencing later entries.
I wouldn’t go so far as saying that it’s a masterpiece of game design and worthy of a posthumous replacement of my Game of the Year 2009 (that title still goes to Assassin’s Creed II). The gunplay is better but not fantastic, enemies are still pure bullet sponges, and the villain is a walking cliché that leads up to one of the worst final boss fights I’ve ever experienced. But Uncharted 2 is a clear improvement over the first game and it cemented my enjoyment of the series.
Uncharted 3, however, has a much more mixed reception among fans, and that’s reflected in my personal feelings as well. The plot is a lot more disjointed than in 2, which maintained some semblance of continuity despite its obsession with ridiculously over-the-top set pieces. In Drake’s Deception, however, Naughty Dog has confirmed that they thought up the set pieces first and then developed the plot around them…and it shows. The pacing is also way off; the first ten or eleven chapters are fairly dull and uneventful, and there are a lot more “slow walking” expository moments.
A lot of the set pieces lack the outright explosive bombast and adrenaline of the ones in the second game as well. That’s not to say they’re not jaw-dropping in their own right – the desert level in particular gives an epic sense of scale as you control Drake walking across seemingly endless dunes. And Uncharted 3 has its share of bombast too, whether it be escaping a sinking cruise ship or hanging out the cargo hatch of an airplane in flight.
Naughty Dog also downplayed the combat a lot in Drake’s Deception, and it’s not a bad thing. While the first two games went from overly long gunfight to overly long gunfight, the fights in the third game are a bit more spread out, and even more importantly, have more ways to be tackled. Stealth is encouraged a lot of times, and enemies don’t continually come in seemingly endless waves – at least, not as noticeably as they did in the other games. On the flip side, I’m not sure what ND was smoking when they designed the original aiming controls, but they’re nearly unusable, and I’m glad they patched in the aiming from the first two games.
Uncharted 3 also tries to expand the background of the franchise’s characters, with mixed results. Seeing how Drake and Sully met and became partners was great; listening to Katherine Marlowe taunt Drake about his past while leaving open a ton of loose ends and plot holes was not. I’d also have loved to see more of Drake and Elena’s relationship – at some point between the two games, they had gotten married but were apparently already split up, and then they seem to establish a relationship again but it barely goes anywhere by the end of the game.
I’d say that Uncharted 3, more than anything, is a divisive game – generally, people either love it or hate it. I’d agree that Uncharted 2 is the best game of the series – it has high and low points but it’s generally an evenly fantastic experience. Comparing the first and third games is a little bit harder though. Overall, Uncharted 3‘s highs are some of the best in the series, but its lows are lower than even the first game’s lows. It evens out in the end though, and I think I enjoyed all the games equally.
The closest analog to Uncharted in my previous gaming experience would have to be the Tomb Raider reboot and its sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider. And while Lara’s adventure got far darker than Drake’s ever did, the spirit of Uncharted is clearly visible in nearly every aspect of that game’s design. Rise kept its Uncharted trappings but also broke free of that template and became a true survival game with its hunting and crafting elements – and I’ve heard a lot about how it “out-Uncharted Uncharted.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, since I think Rise broke out of the mold enough to limit a one-on-one comparison, and I loved that game for totally different reasons than I enjoyed Uncharted.
I’d compare the Uncharted series to a popcorn action flick. There’s not much substance once you get down to it: the actual gameplay is good at best and serviceable at worst. Although the series knows how to tell an enjoyable tale with some seriously likable characters (Nathan Drake has become one of my favorite gaming characters, and Sully and Elena are both fantastic as well), no one would ever accuse it of being overly profound or thought-provoking. And that’s just fine, because not every game needs to have some deeper meaning – sometimes it’s fun to just see stuff explode in a hilariously over-the-top, unrealistic fashion.
And that’s exactly what Uncharted is. It’s a fun, lighthearted romp through jungles, ancient temples, Middle Eastern deserts, and a host of other exotic locations, with nonstop action and increasingly overboard (but awesome!) set pieces. They’re beloved games because they don’t try to be anything that they’re not – and there’s most definitely a place for games like that alongside the Witcher 3s and Papers, Pleases of the world. To me, all three of them are the epitome of four-star games – they’re great, well-designed games, yet they have some basic flaws that hold them back from being five-star masterpieces.
Overall, the past few months have made me wish that I played the series sooner, and while I still have Golden Abyss to play somewhere down the line, I’m ready to see how Drake’s story ends in Uncharted 4. And now that the patch has just finally finished downloading, I’m off to do that right now!