Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection is a history lesson on a grand scale. It weaves through maps, journals, and diary entries long separated from their ancient authors, in abandoned ruins across the world. But this collection also delves into the series' own dark recesses, highlighting the progress developer Naughty Dog made from the first Uncharted to the third. There is brilliance in this collection. But there are hints of mediocrity as well.
It begins with the first entry in the series, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, which shipped in 2007. This marks our first moment with its hero, Nathan Drake. He's since become a video game icon, but eight years ago, he was Naughty Dog's first departure from the affable Jak and Daxter. At the time, Drake had yet to prove his worth.
The Uncharted series combines third-person action, cover-based shooting, and cinematic storytelling. Throughout its three installments, we've followed our hero across deserts, between mountains, and underground through ancient tombs. Each title is replete with action-oriented set pieces, from Uncharted 2's perilous train intro to Uncharted 3's premature plane evacuation.
By grouping all three PS3 titles together in one place, The Nathan Drake Collection comprises a larger story arc. We can experience the entire original journey, from beginning to end, in 1080p, at 60 fps.
But this adventure's early moments are unsettling. Despite its upgrades, the first Uncharted has not aged well. Drake's Fortune used to be an enjoyable, accomplished game--but that was in 2007. This remastered version looks gorgeous now, its lush jungles greener, its shooting controls tighter thanks to Bluepoint Games' refinements. But set against modern standards, its overall quality is middling.
Drake's movements are floaty and imprecise. The cover mechanic places me in danger far too often. Climbing sequences leave little room for error, often leading to death for unknown reasons. There are even rare storytelling missteps: the entire middle section of the game is devoid of much meaningful character progression, opting instead for imprecise jetski treks against the jungle's raging rivers. Furthermore, at the perceived death of his closest friend, Drake allows himself a single gasp, before his mourning is displaced by excitement for another adventure. He's smiling ten minutes later, laughing as he looks into the sunset toward the next "X" on the map.
Wading through Drake's first outing means suffering constant frustrations. But in the end, it's worth playing, because of what its story leads to: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, a fantastic sequel successfully modernized by improved cosmetics and smoother aiming controls. Naughty Dog's characters show real complexity here, and their relationships shift, align, and resettle as the story takes haphazard turns.
Its pacing is masterful as ever, too. Small skirmishes and full-scale battles in the Himalayas perforate a story with real charm. In slower sections where other developers might falter, Naughty Dog uses endearing dialogue and cinematic shots to give the story a sense of gravity. There is, as they say, never a dull moment.
Much of the same rings true in Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. Although the pacing stumbles throughout, and the story introduces supernatural elements in a predictable manner, Uncharted's characterization is at its peak here. Drake's bright personality shows some darker shades. Sully tries to anchor things with a warm, comforting presence, and Elena's apprehension toward Drake mirrors our own, as we grow to question his actions.
Much has been made about the disconnect between the characters of Uncharted, and the actions they perform. Drake, Sully, and their crews are amicable people. But they have almost no problem killing on a whim. To be clear, this doesn't make any of the three games less fun--they are shooters, after all, and the resulting action is tighter here.
But the narrative disconnect does pull me out at times. In a series so focused on story, it's odd that the characters collide against the gameplay with such friction.
Uncharted 2 and 3 both make self-aware nods to this dichotomy--one of the main villains even points out Drake's murderous streak with a clichéd "You're not so different from me"--but it's hard to get past the speed and ease in which Drake and Sully switch between jovial exposition to mass-murder.
This disconnect is more pronounced in 2015, considering Naughty Dog's work on The Last of Us, a game in which its characters, their actions, and the world around them all made sense together. There is violence in The Last of Us--but it belongs there.
Despite Uncharted's inherent juxtaposition, these games are still fun shooters with colossal set-pieces. There are also new modes that add variety to the series, such as the punishing Brutal difficulty, the easier Explorer mode, and a Continuous Speed Run mode that keeps track of your time during certain sections of Drake's travels.
But as of this writing, we know Uncharted 3 isn't the end. Uncharted 4 is on the way, and with it, the continuation of Drake's story. And in preparing us for the vagabond's encore--likely his final chapter--Bluepoint Games has delivered a polished prelude.
The developer has compiled a singular story arc leading into the fourth chapter, and revamped it for modern visual palates. Like the best stories, those of Uncharted and its characters have changed over time. The Nathan Drake Collection smooths out the crinkled pages, clarifies the memories, and buffs all the right details in the retelling of this storied series.
In preparing us for Nathan Drake's encore, Bluepoint Games has delivered a polished prelude.
At various times throughout the Uncharted games, our protagonist carries the ring of Francis Drake on a leather band around his neck. The ring's inscription reads: "Sic Parvus Magna," or, "greatness from small beginnings."
I can't imagine a better way to encapsulate this collection. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was a fine game in 2007, but its wrinkles are deeper now, its age more apparent.
With Uncharted 2 and 3, though, Naughty Dog transcended Drake's own small beginnings. The Nathan Drake Collection is a firsthand account of Naughty Dog's growth as a storyteller, and this collection is the best way to relive that history, and witness its transformation up close.