By Matthew Codd
Many years ago, a friend of mine described Uncharted: Drake's Fortune as looking like "a more badass Indiana Jones".
This judgement was based solely on the cover for the game, but I can't think of a more perfect way to describe the series.
After a comparatively humble first outing, Uncharted has grown into one of Sony's biggest first-party powerhouses - to the point that Xbox bought exclusive rights to Rise of the Tomb Raider in order to compete.
With Uncharted 4: A Thief's End coming out next March, and the remarkable install base of the PlayStation 4 (many of whom won't have had a PS3 before it), it only makes sense that Sony would want to remaster the first three games for this generation.
Enter Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection.
The three Uncharted games on PS3 were simply fantastic. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was pretty rough around the edges, and hasn't really aged all that well (more in that in a bit), but it laid out the formula for this "more badass Indiana Jones" - a cinematic, bombastic action-adventure game, but with a sense of heart and character that few games could rival.
It introduced Nathan Drake, the lovable rogue who, in the tradition of Han Solo, Malcolm Reynolds, and The Princess Bride's Westley, is a wisecracking smart-arse of a vagabond with a surprising depth of knowledge and nobility.
Alongside Nate were Elena Fisher, a reporter who's more than capable of holding her own in the countless bad situations that Drake gets them into, and "Victor 'goddamn' Sullivan", Nate's mentor, father figure, and all-around bad influence.
Though it's billed as a third-person shooter, Drake's Fortune's shooting gameplay was unremarkable even when the game first came out in 2007. What set this game apart was its story, its characters, and its unmatched (at the time) sense of adventure.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves took these ideas to new heights, and in my (possibly controversial) opinion, it remains, to this day, Naughty Dog's finest work. It offered higher stakes, more laughs, and a bigger adventure than its predecessor, with a near-perfect balance of wild action and grounded, heartfelt character drama.
If I didn't know better, I'd say these games have been made specifically for PS4, not remastered.
This was and still is one of the finest examples of linear, cinematic storytelling in a game. It also found a much better balance in the gameplay loop between gunplay, exploration, and puzzle solving, and perhaps its crowning achievement, it introduced Chloe Frazer, the single greatest videogame character of all time.
Finally, there was Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, a game that, while a bit more uneven than Among Thieves, brought with it an even grander adventure spanning London, France, Syria, Yemen, and Rub' al Khali Desert.
Drake's Deception took a more personal direction, exploring Nate's childhood and his relationship with Sully. It also expanded on Uncharted 2's multiplayer mode with an unexpectedly good online component that even me - who typically dislikes "tacked-on" multiplayer a lot - loved it and devoted a whole lot of time to it.
I know I'm not the first person to make this connection, but it bears repeating: the motto of Sir Francis Drake, Nate's ancestor and a driving force behind all his adventures, is "Sic Parvis Magna" - "greatness from small beginnings". How apt.
I don't think I'll ever forget the first time I fired up Uncharted 2, and was blown away by just how gorgeous it looked. After playing through the remastered version, I went back and played that opening sequence again on PS3 - and it looked horrible by comparison.
Which is to say, the remastering that Bluepoint Games have done is impeccable. Improved lighting and weather effects, higher resolution and framerate, high-resolution textures, and myriad of other technical enhancements mean that these three games look their absolute best. If I didn't know better, I'd say these were games that had been made specifically for PS4, not remastered.
Obviously, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune had the most to gain, and so it shows the most marked improvement of the three, but even in Drake's Deception - which looked incredible on PS3, and still does - the upgrade is impressive.
The soundtrack's also been remastered from the original recordings, to great effect. I actually thought that the collection had been given brand new arrangements until I double-checked the review notes, that's how stark the improvements are.
On top of that, efforts have been put in to streamline the experience across all three games. It's not quite on the level of Halo: The Master Chief Collection as far as creating a seamless, start-to-finish experience goes, but they've done things like standardising the controls and shooting physics across all three games, to unify them as much as possible.
This also means that Uncharted 3 now has different filters, skins, and tweaks (one-shot kills, fast/slow motion, and so on), which were present in Uncharted 1 and 2 not noticeably absent from the original release of 3. There are a whopping 81 skins to unlock - all of the ones from Uncharted 3's multiplayer, as far as I can tell, plus a few more - which means that you can finally play through Uncharted 3 as Chloe, Sully, and plenty of others, like you could with the previous games.
For all its technical improvements, Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection offers little in the way of new content or features. There are two new difficulty settings at either end of the spectrum, a Speedrun Mode that displays your elapsed time as you play, a Photo Mode similar to that of The Last of Us Remastered, and some new skins - that's the extent of the new stuff.
Photo Mode is definitely a highlight here, and over the course of the three games, I've taken literally hundreds of photos. The suite of tools is pretty standard - camera movement, colour filters, frames, and so on - but it's enough to take some really cool shots.
At the same time, options to actually use this mode are disappointingly limited. You can't go into Photo Mode during cutscenes, while aiming your gun, or while any characters are talking. I can understand the cutscene thing, though I still think it could have been made to work, but the others make no sense. Given how much wonderful banter there is, that limitation is particularly restricting.
I was never expecting any new content as such in this collection, but I also feel like there are some missed opportunities to touch up some things beyond the presentation. Despite the visual upgrade, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune still feels very dated; some of this is to do with level design and other deep-seated problems that are beyond the scope of a remaster, but smaller, more niggly problems, like unreliable context-sensitive controls, persist from the original release. Uncharted 3 has similar problems, especially to do with jumping to and from moving objects.
And then there's the lack of multiplayer. The resources needed, both pre- and post-release, to add online multiplayer to this package make its exclusion very understandable, but I did feel a bit let down by not seeing the co-op stuff return, at least.
Some of my best memories from Uncharted 3 are from the co-op adventure levels, and given that they had splitscreen support in the original release anyway, they would have been a welcome fit for this collection. It'd also have been an excellent chance for Sony to showcase the Share Play function that they added to PS4 a while back.
At the end of the day, remasters like this aren't generally about new content or new ideas; they're about bringing the great games of yesteryear to new audiences, or to old audiences who want to re-experience them in a new way.
For all the game industry's current obsession with open worlds and open-ended narratives, the Uncharted games stand as a shining example of the possibility for linear stories to be infinitely re-playable. They don't need anything more.
At one point in Uncharted 2, Nathan Drake says to Sully, "you've got a great ass"; elsewhere in the game, he makes a similar remark about Chloe's.
And now, thanks to Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, everyone's butts - and the great characters, stories, laughs, drama, and adventures that go with them - are looking and sounding better than ever.
Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection :: Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment:: Developer: Naughty Dog, Bluepoint Games:: Format: PlayStation 4:: Rating: R16