The Uncharted (PS3 – PS4) series is a quadrilogy of action-adventure video games by Naughty Dog, the famous Sony Playstation developers of the Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter series, as well as The Last of Us. They feature the climbing, scaffolding, spelunking, and puzzle-solving adventures and treasure hunts of Nathan Drake (Nolan North), a descendant of Sir Francis Drake, his partner Victor Sullivan (“Sully”), an elder Sean Connery type who raised Drake like an adoptive son, and Elena Fisher, a journalist. With top-of-the-range graphics, they feature tombs, mountains, caverns, and lost cities that the player uses Drake to navigate and move through.
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007), the first game, involves an excursion in the Amazon for El Dorado, the final voyage of Sir Francis. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009) has Drake racing against an ex-Soviet warlord up Marco Polo’s Himalayan path to the fabled city of Shambhala (Shangri-La) and the tree of immortality. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011) glimpses into Drake’s childhood and first encounters with Sully, informing his personal drive to traverse the Rub’ al-Khali desert for the lost city of Ubar (Iram of the Pillars) against an old nemesis. And Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016) swings Drake out of retirement when his presumed-dead brother Sam brings forth a lead on Henry Avery’s pirate treasure.
Thanks to our CineKatz contributor Linus, I was able to power through the series in the span of a couple weeks, allowing me to write this as both a fresh review and light retrospective. The short version is this: the first game is decent, the second is a pulp action-adventure masterpiece, the third is fun but disappointing, and the fourth fires all cylinders towards a top-notch game and franchise ending.
The long version…
I’ve never been a good critic of gameplay, but Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune had a camera I can only assume was operated by two film-school amateurs fighting for the editor’s graces. I’ll be climbing a wall, and suddenly the camera will zoom back and out like it was a satellite the whole time. Yes, the game is pretty and I can tell a lot of work went into the graphics, but let me put it to you this way. If you were an avid explorer with American Ninja Warrior climbing skills and fingertips made out of Kevlar, would you rather explore Mount Rushmore in a boring helicopter tour, or by leaping from the top of Abe Lincoln’s head onto Teddy Roosevelt’s mustache and crawling up to get a good look at the spider webs inside Thomas Jefferson’s left nostril?
The camera is even worse when I’m inside claustrophobic areas, seemingly more interested in documenting the determined look on Nathan Drake’s face than on where he’s supposed to be jumping to. It does get better from Uncharted 2 onwards, though, but there was at least one tomb in a giant cave that I remember thinking was one of the most sparkling, gorgeous setpieces I had seen in a long time… but I could barely get a good look at the whole thing because of the third person perspective and the fact that I was just riding and climbing from one wheel to another like a rat in a maze.
Then there are the puzzles, which are less challenging than the Connect-The-Pipes hacking mini-game that was the sole redundant flaw of the original BioShock. In the only puzzle for which I had to look up, the answer turned out to be found in an area of the room where you stand and look down at the floor, telegraphing the solution. I know that’s what I like about puzzles, as opposed to, y’know, logic and creativity.
But at least the puzzles are nicely varied, something I wish I could say about the hand-to-hand combat. I’ve never had a problem with quicktime events but every brawl with a big beefy thug plays like robotically acting out the exact same fight choreography take in a studio. They don’t look like an exasperated Indy fighting an overeager German mechanic, but rather a schoolboy slapping up a brain-damaged bully with Sherlock Holmes’s slow-motion calculation. Thankfully, Uncharted 4 removes this silly mechanic entirely, to its immense benefit.
Yet, a great thing about Uncharted 2 onwards is that sometimes you can avoid loud combat by stealthing your way through a compound. Granted, it’s the linear, guard-killing Splinter Cell kind of stealth, but the games are a lot more fun that way. If Drake is to be the gaming blend of Tintin and Indiana Jones, this seems like the way he’d navigate an area, but in Uncharted 3, it is often hard to tell when you actually have the option. That game especially has a weird issue of throwing Drake into places where not being discreet guarantees failure and suicide, but then it interrupts that stealthy flow by having commando teams of enemies show up exactly where you are on a trophy-hunting expedition for your head. If I had done my stealthing right so far (which I had), what reason could they possibly have to know that not only was I there, but right there?
Of course, that brings up a story problem that distinguishes the third game (in particular) from the second and fourth. In Uncharted 2, Drake is roped into a museum heist that ends up being the first step on Marco Polo’s adventure, which Drake himself has little interest in except to keep its riches and powers from the grasp of a ruthless ex-Soviet war criminal.
But in Uncharted 3, Drake is pursuing closure on another of Sir Francis’s adventures for himself, which game attempts to tie into his identity. One of the better things about it is that it generously hints at Drake’s obsessive nature, particularly over treasure and ancestral legacy, but it contains other digressions that don’t satisfy at all (like a drug that references Batman Begins but doesn’t explain itself or tie into character). It makes sense for his enemies to think that Drake will be onto them and thus want to lure him into traps accordingly, but their moves don’t echo character motivation. They’re more-so just explained by “because plot” because they’re nothing more than Bond henchman villains that Drake would have no reason to care about if they weren’t connected to his past. The game (badly) wants to have a plot, but a plot implies circumstances outside of Drake himself that give context and purpose to his immediate decisions. Every decision in the game is entirely his own and has essentially nothing to do with anything else, let alone the villains. Around the middle, the story screeches to a halt so Drake can navigate two titanic areas that cumulatively must have taken up almost a quarter of the entire game. They’re great setpieces for sure, but they’re so thoroughly devoid of context that (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) they’d be better off as their own DLC expansion pack. Once the game gets that out of its system, the plot continues without a single consequence.
And yet the funny thing about that Tom Bombadil like chapter is that the story of Drake actually would benefit tremendously if it was given real consequence, but the game doesn’t seem to know what its value is. The entire purpose of navigating it is because Drake wants to rescue a friend. Per the theme, this is the single most obsessive thing he’s doing in the immediate, but for a change it’s not for treasure. Perhaps from the experience, Drake’s should learn something, like what’s really important in life, or that he’d make an excellent firefighter or rescuer. But that first requires his actions and choices to matter, and in Uncharted 3, they simply don’t. This is why the game strains so hard to come up with strange ways to put Drake at a disadvantage in order to convince the player that there are real stakes involved. Drake should have been his own worst enemy; instead his enemies are mafia bosses that he’s tackling head-on with no chance of failure and even less chance of perspective.
The first game also has a strange idea of Drake’s enemies. I’ll be underground, solving puzzles and making my way through catacombs, while the bad guys just drill their way downwards. In the very beginning of the game, Drake respects the dead like a toddler with bubble wrap respects the rules of a library; why couldn’t he just hijack the enemies’ tunneling system and go from there? Yeah, it’s louder, but Drake didn’t know what stealth was in that game, so what would’ve been different?
One particular plot point in Uncharted 3 that I liked a lot is a cutscene introducing a short action level where Drake himself, as a result of his own obsessive impatience, stupidly gives away his position for no apparent reason, resulting in his enemies throwing him into a brazen near-death experience that I had to fight my way out of and effectively blow up the place in the process. It was a neat little way of showing disconnect between Drake and the player, where I, the player, exist to revel in his adventurous lifestyle and also solve his own self-generating problems.
But if we’re going to judge the game by its overall story, the standouts are the even-numbered games with “thief” in the title. The first game’s story stakes are stupid even on its own most generous terms. Follow the footsteps of Sir Francis Drake to find the gilded treasure of El Dorado so Sully can pay off his debts… to a gangster shark who is himself searching for it and trying to keep you away. This is like forcibly restraining your car-addict friend who’s great with tools and owes you a favor from touching your totaled Aston Martin and shelling out thousands on a sleazy mechanic instead. What long-term profit plan is that supposed to accomplish?
But for all that doesn’t work in that game, at least the characters do. The Uncharted series presents an easy example of the fact that a character need not necessarily be interesting in order to be compelling. Drake is a handsome, wise-cracking stock type convinced that he’s the hero of his own adventure story. But it’s fun to play him and watch him exert himself while physics and even harsher forces of nature try to have their way with him. He even feigns reluctance in certain moments of the first two games, as if he just wants a pep talk because the story has reached a breakpoint. The first game doesn’t quite register this irony but things do pay off quite spectacularly in the penultimate levels.
The second game solves that problem by having old friends seeking out a vacationing Drake and inviting him to join them on an epic quest that’s too delicious to decline, after which he promptly steals everyone’s thunder. There’s certainly enough to enjoy in the first game, but don’t believe the fanboys; you can skip it and just start with this one. Uncharted 2 is a near-perfect thriller with great supporting characters and excellently-paced linear setpieces. It’s a unicycle steadily gliding a razor wire, juggling museum heists, helicopter chases, train derailing, armored sieges, and cave diving. Like awakening a sleeping giant, Drake’s moment of reluctance comes at a time where what he’s really looking for is context, and so is the player. The game paints a convincing picture of Drake as the kind of sociopathic high-adventure junkie who has no trouble murdering entire armies as long as doing so guarantees that he’ll be the man. It flubs the final boss fight and overall could’ve used more Sully, but those are just bits of sour grapes buried in an otherwise tall and scrumptious vanilla crème supreme cake.
Uncharted 3 repeats a lot of that fun but its pacing is weird. It’s extremely indicative of the fact that Naughty Dog (by its own admission) built the big setpieces first and then – pun intended – charted the story through them. Even apart from the friend-rescue digression, it’s choppy, with one big sequence set in a burning building that must’ve taken me half an hour to navigate out of (smoke, it seems, only make Drake & Sully stronger). But as soon as I cleared it, Drake teleports to another continent. Transitions, apparently, are for dweebs.
Still an immensely enjoyable game, by all accounts, but I spill hundreds of critical words over what makes it so disappointing precisely to illustrate how incredible Uncharted’s 2 and 4 are for their context, clarity, and organic flow.
And Uncharted 4 truly excels. True to the new console generation, the graphics are better than ever, the levels stand out, and the stealth mechanics are top notch. The addition of grapple swinging in particular adds to the swashbuckling feel of the pirate adventure that is the story, and allows you to more expediently find different angles, vantage points, and methods of stealth takedowns. It feels more organic than ever because the player is challenged and can royally screw it up. Even better, your allies aren’t dimwits. Many games render friendly A.I.s drooling morons at best. But here, they move about their own hiding spots, quietly take down enemies who get too close to them, stay out of your way, and even let you climb over them. The only thing you can’t rely on them for is to do the work for you.
I stress the stealth because there’s a lot of it, which makes the noisier, frantic moments all the more memorable. And I’m not just talking about when buildings are crashing down; shootouts get surprisingly difficult. I’m always running out of ammo and having to duck from cover to cover to escape grenades; and that’s just in the tight spaces. Once I was on a high cliff, taking fire from enemies below: a grenade landed next to me, so I impulsively jumped, grappled onto a hook point and swung across the battlefield, firing at one enemy, then jumped, and then landed on the heavy sniper next to him. This is the kind of watercooler story that makes a game memorable, and it gave me every bit the euphoric high I imagine Drake himself feels. The best part was, it happened completely by accident.
Uncharted 4 offers countless opportunities for feats like this. The game is long; so long that I’m surprised they fit it all onto one disc. Like Uncharted 2, Drake is living the simple life, content to leave his memories, good and bad, in the past. But when his brother Sam resurfaces and asks him for help in finding Avery’s treasure to pay off a debt, Drake lies to Elena and reverts to his old ways. Plotwise, that’s all I’m going to reveal, but Uncharted 4 is as much about the theme of Drake’s action-addicted singular-minded obsessiveness as it is the location of the treasure. It ties with Uncharted 2 for the best villain, an old partner who reflects the dark side of Drake. It’s got a real moral beneath the crust of all the epic pirate fun, and its secret is that it makes use of the same tools of good storytelling that movies do. Cutscenes don’t just interrupt gameplay, but add context. More-so than the others, Uncharted 4 uses them to delve into the perspective of other characters, fleshing out their own story and motivations, and relaying information that will be immediately important. Even more importantly, they don’t tell the whole story. Once Drake lands on Libertalia, the island he and Sam race towards in the stormy prologue, if you pay enough attention you’ll find evidence of a previous excursion for the treasure that also ended in outright disaster. In the immediate, they help lend a guess as to what you’re in for; in hindsight they also build upon the theme of inevitable dissatisfaction in choosing this as your life.
I really cannot envision a better way for this series to have ended.
Maybe the Uncharted series should’ve just been a trilogy, with 2 and 4 as they are, and the other two fused together with better function. I daresay such a thing might collectively form the ingredients of the best action-adventure roller coaster game ever. Still, the games as they stand are good, and two are even great – sure to be all time classics that demonstrate what games are capable of.
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune: 6.5/10
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves: 9/10
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception: 6.5/10
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End: 9.5/10