This past weekend I bought the Uncharted collection on ps4 and marathoned through all 3 games in anticipation for Uncharted 4. Doing this has given me new perspective on the series and what each individual game brings to the table.
Note: I have yet to play Uncharted 4, so this piece is only informed by my time with the first 3 games, and a bit of pre release info of UC4. So for people reading, you dont have to worry about UC4 spoilers from me. There will be some light spoilers for UC2 and heavy spoilers for UC3. People who have played UC4, please avoid discussing spoilers in the comments. Now on with the show!
While Uncharted 1 is a fun romp, it reads like a prototype for what was to come, which is why I won’t be talking much about it here. It was good then, and it’s fine now. It got a new coat of paint in the collection that makes it feel fresher. It’s worth looking at again for those who might be interested.
To me Uncharted 2 was a monumental shift when it released back in 2009. Many games had attempted to capture the essence of the summer blockbuster before, but UC2 was the first to succeed in a big way. It redefined what I expect from games when it comes to quality, scope, style, action, set pieces, acting, etc. 7 years after the fact it might seem derivative, but that’s because so many games have copied it’s successes since. And it’s crazy how impressive it remains even today!
With my enthusiasm for UC2 came the inevitable hype for its sequel. My excitemt for UC3 could be described as both unhealthy and unrealistic. I went to a freaking movie theater event in NYC for the damn game so I could play it before release. Eventually I played through it in one, long, session and, ultimately, came away disappointed. It wasn’t that it was a bad game- on the contrary. It just was never going to live up to the ridiculous expectations I set for it. After playing all 3 games back to back to back, I can safely say it’s my favorite of the original trilogy.
On many fronts UC3 is derivative of UC2. The graphics are nicer, but not by much, the set pieces up the ante a little bit, but in context don’t impress in the same way UC2 did (except the desert sequence. I loved that so God damn much), they made some good tweaks to the overall gameplay, but at the end of the day you’re still shooting/punching dudes, climbing shit, watching slickly made cutscenes, and solving the occasional rudimentary “puzzle”. The one thing it doesn’t get any credit for is how much more nuanced it is at handling its story and characters. UC4 has been getting a lot of praise for maturing the series, but if pre release info is anything to go by it owes a lot to the groundwork laid by UC3.
I can heap praise at UC2 until the cows come home, but even on release its story was stupid in the way most summer blockbusters are stupid. Drake is a walking quip sound board, there is an old guy who is too old for this shit, a love triangle with 2 pretty ladies, a douchey British guy you want to punch in the face, and a villain who is Russian and has facial scars. It’s as cliche as cliche can get, but it’s execution was so top notch and unlike anything ever seen in games we all gave it a pass.
This is the shift that UC3 made, and I, regrettably, glossed over it 5 years ago. The well warn concepts are there, but it asks questions that the series never asked before. Who is Nathan Drake? Why does he do what he does? How does it affect him and the people he cares about? These are the types of questions that are necessary for you to really give a damn about characters and their stories. Without this type of depth, how can you relate yourself and your own experiences to amplify the effect fiction can have? It’s a small alteration that changes the stakes in a big way.
And it does a decent job of answering these questions as well! Drake is a person who had to rely on himself as a child. He comes from nothing and has a chip on his shoulder about it. He romanticizes famous explorers such as Francis Drake and molds his identity around mottos like “greatness from small beginnings”. He pushes himself in ways his idles didn’t , trying to prove what he’s capable of even if no one is asking him to. He aspires to “greatness”, but is reckless in doing so. It puts him and the people he cares about in unnecessarily dangerous situations; forces them to make choices no one should have to make. The person he loves loves him almost unconditionally, but how long until that love is cut down short? Is it worth all the pain and regret his lifestyle will ultimately bring? It isn’t, and they always end up drifting apart.
So at the end of UC3 Drake beats the bad guys, again, finds the lost city, again, and comes away with little more than bragging rights, again. What changes from the past is that for the first time he understands the weight of his actions, and it’s all thanks to a bunch of great character moments peppered throughout the course of the game that paint a clearer picture for him to see. Moments like when Cutter jumps and breaks his legs to avoid burning to death. When Chloe (who is, basically, Drake’s female counterpart) looks at the situation they are, says “nah, I’m good”, and walks away, telling Drake he should do the same. When Drake meets up with Elena in Yemen and she conveys the unfair danger and stress he puts on Sully, who is like the father he never had; someone who would do anything for him. When Drakes actions finally catch up and, as Elena predicted, Sully pays the price. When he returns to Elena and allows himself to be vulnerable with her after flirting with death and the regret of how bad things have really gotten.
After going through so much and coming out, almost, unscathed, but with little to show for it, Drake finally gets over his bullshit and chooses his loved ones over his, understandably fragile, ego. This is where Uncharted left off, and UC4 picks up from it in a very direct way, a way Uncharted hasnt before.
Usually these games are very self contained, but from what I’ve seen of UC4 you’d be doing yourself a deservice if you didn’t play UC3 to get the context of why Drake is where he is. And that’s why I’m writing this. To give credit where credit is due. To offer my apologies to UC3 for treating it so unfairly, and finally give it the respect it deserves. I’m very excited for UC4 and I’m glad I replayed the other games before it. I hope it’s the grand conclusion that this classic series deserves.