The Uncharted series is one of the most celebrated and divisive series of games in recent memory. And while critics seem to unanimously think these games are incredible, the gaming community is split about whether these games are any good. For starters, some people seem to virulently hate on the series for being “playable movies”, while those who enjoy the series praise the characters and the memorable moments these games have in store. So what are these games really like? As someone from the outside looking in, I was sort of confused to the backlash these games were getting. Why do people care so much about a simple action/adventure series of games? I was thinking about this a lot recently, and the more I tried to figured out what was up with the series, the more I ended up making baseless assumptions about what these games are like. So, about a week ago, I decided to find out myself. I picked up Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection from my local GameStop. Since then, I have played through all three of the games in the Uncharted trilogy, and I completely understand why these games seem to divide people, and force them to pick a side.
Now, before I go into great detail in the upcoming analysis’ of the series, I’ll give you my working thesis right now: Uncharted aims to be a cinematic experience that is visually engaging enough to make you forget that you’re on rails. I think this is also why the split in opinion happens about these games; a lot of gamers want games to mechanically satisfying first, while a bunch of gamers would rather have the opposite. And, to tell the truth, this is probably the biggest divide in the gaming community to date. It’s the difference between playing Alan Wake and playing Baldur’s Gate. It’s story and doing things that look cool versus gameplay, which one should be the most prominent, and why. I feel even while writing this, some of you have already begun to mentally place yourself into one of those camps. Let me just say this now: neither of these opinions are bad, in fact they are just the yin and yang of what videogames are: a combination of interactivity and story. However, it’s how these two elements interact that can potentially make a game either good or bad. In the case of Uncharted, I say that at its best, the mechanics enhance the stakes, and at worst, they cause the games to fall on their faces.
Okay, with all of that out of the way, let’s talk about the very first installment in this series. Ladies and Gentlemen of Destructoid, this, is Uncharted: Drake's Fortune.
Uncharted: Drakes Fortune is an awkward game. It is by far the weakest game in the series, mostly due to its poor balance of the elements that make the Uncharted series work well as a whole. With this first attempt at settling into a new series, Naughty Dog hit a lot of snags, and it’s easy to identify exactly where as this game stumble about over its 5 ½ hour playtime. And yes, you heard me right, the first game in the series is only 5 ½ hours. This might not seem all that bad, after all games like Resident Evil can be completed in just a few hours too. The difference here is that the only reason to play through the Uncharted games again is to experience the story and thrills, while in Resident Evil, you can unlock secrets, play through as other characters, and play challenge modes. However, there is little to no replay value in Uncharted 1; there are a handful of great character moments that make the game worth playing once, but the combat, puzzles, and platforming are so poor that it would make a repeat playthrough and absolute chore for all but the most dedicated fans.
Let’s talk about the characters. This is by far the most important aspect of these games, and without the likable characters that populate these wacky adventures, this series would never have been labelled a flagship series for Sony. Luckily for the first game, the characters are strong here as well. We’re introduced to Nathan Drake, Elena Fisher and Sully within the first ten minutes of the game during the combat tutorial. The opening cut scenes and in game dialogue immediately give you a good feel for our protagonists. Drake is our charming, impetuous hero who frequently spouts jokes, as if he’s slightly aware that he’s a videogame character. Elena is full of whimsy, but is also far more level headed than Drake. Elena and Nathans dialogue and scenes together are always the best character moments in every game and a lot of that can be attributed to the stellar writing that both get. Finally, there’s Sully, and he is best described and older, rougher version of Nathan Drake. This explains why they get along so well without having to frontload their backstories onto the player at the outset either. In fact, you don’t learn anything about how these two came to meet until the third game into the series. I can see why someone might want to know these details, but I think Naughty Dog made these characters feel so real on screen that explaining their backstory wasn’t necessary.
Now the game that these characters come packaged in is a completely different story. Like I said in the intro for this game, the entire experience feels unbalanced, specifically in the combat area. See, people like to classify Uncharted as a third-person shooter because the gunplay is cover based, but this series has far more in common with Jak and Daxter than it does with Gears of War. This series is at its very best when the gunplay, platforming, and puzzles are mixed together cohesively to keep the player engaged. Since each element isn’t all that deep mechanically either, variety is necessary to keep players from getting bored. And this is not at all what this game does. You get hit with gunfight after gunfight, with the blandest version of cover shooting I’ve ever seen. The monotony was so bad that I’m forced to believe that Naughty Dog was strapped for time when developing the game, and this area bore the brunt of the hit from crunch time. After this first half or so of the game, the variety gets better, but the strength of the other elements making up the Uncharted formula is at a series low here as well.
This note I’m about to make becomes important in the other games, but here I can only say it once for the sake of it not getting repetitive: This game’s environment is terrible. The entire game takes place on an island in the jungle. And it all looks the same honestly. Later Uncharted games would rectify this egregious error, but in this freshmen effort it’s nothing but green literally everywhere you turn. This is a huge shame, because especially in this series, when the environments are given love and detail, they truly convince the player that they’re on a globetrotting adventure. But in Uncharted 1, you’re just in a jungle. It makes the game feel, well, very videogame-y, in most derogatory way in which you can use that use. Like, imagine if Sonic the Hedgehog only had levels that looked like Green Hill Zone. It would drive you up the wall!
I think the best puzzles in Uncharted are the ones that require a little, but not a lot, of thought on the players end. The point is to make the player feel smart, without all the legwork that games like The Witness or Talos Principle might have you doing. In my honest opinion, the first game in the series has no puzzle that is like this. Most of them are so simple that the game practically gives you the solution when you open Drake’s notebook. It’s nice when these puzzles crop up because it means you get a break from the combat, but it’s not a good kind of nice. It’s equitable to the kind of “That’s nice” you might hear from your girlfriend when you explain why SEGA needs to make another Jet Set Radio game. Yeah…
The actual platforming is uneventful. The game has a big platforming section early on amidst the gunfights, but there’s no effort needed. There’s only one path in which you can proceed, no timing to make your jumps, nothing. Just tapping X and holding down the direction you want to move in, and this remains true for the rest of the game. That’s sad. Videogames are supposed to make you forget that you are just tapping on a piece of plastic by employing game mechanics that make the way you are tapping on a piece of plastic challenging, and Uncharted 1 has absolutely nothing going for it to make you feel like you aren’t. The animation is convincing (even if Drake is sometimes able to make jumps not humanly possible), and Drake has good weight to him, but the lack of challenge turns these sections into dull “look at how well we animated this cliff side” moments. If you’re into that, great, but the lack of substance here will drain any inkling of danger you may have been picking up on.
Another big part of the Uncharted formula is the set pieces. These are the most mechanically deep part of the series, and they’re used to both exhilarate the player and keep the game feeling fresh and alive. These are okay in Uncharted 1. The first set piece has you platforming onto a U-boat, exploring the inside, and then hightailing it out of there. The entire set-piece is also bookended by cut scenes, and during the gameplay Sully keeps you entertained with banter. It’s a strong start to the game, not because of the actual set piece, but because its paced fast and there are a few good moments thrown in with Sully and Elena. Next up is a chase in a jeep, where Drake has infinite ammo on the back of a truck and must shoot down advancing trucks and motorcycles. It’s a standard concept but it plays well enough, plus you can shoot down trees in the area as well for extra fun.
The third set piece is probably the worst in the entire series however. You get on a jet ski, and, controlling both Drake and Elena, make your way towards a sunken city, blasting enemies with a grenade launcher along the way. The problem here is that this is incredible tedious. There are explosive barrels littering your path forward, so you must take out the enemies so they don’t shoot the barrels, and then…shoot the barrels. If you hit them with your jet ski, they blow up anyways, so what should feel like a thrill ride ends up feeling like a bad Ubisoft side quest. And soon after, you get a reprise of the terrible Jet ski sequence, but this time while fighting up the current of a river. This only aggravates even more and I’m surprised that anyone at Naughty dog thought this was a good addition since the idea is executed so poorly. Then you have a set piece towards the end of the game where you fight some monsters in a circular arena with no cover, so you’re forced to run and gun. This is okay as well, it’s not very challenging or new, but it feels go to fight a different kind of enemy for once, so I give this one a pass.
And…if I’m not mistaken, that’s it. You can count the run and gun part if you want, but it only lasts 20 seconds and could’ve just been normal gameplay as far as I’m concerned, so I personally don’t. So, just a few sequences that help break up the monotony of the core gameplay, but none of them are outstanding enough to merit a replay of this game. There is so much that could have been done to make these scenes more memorable, and I think Naughty Dog knows this, because the first sequel to this game corrects a lot of the boring elements in both set pieces and the balance of gameplay.
Let me level with you for a second. I’m breaking down this first game based on its parts, but I’m going to try and move through the latter games chronologically. The reason for this is that in my opinion, the first game is how to do these parts of the game wrong. I really don’t like this game, but it’s a perfect example for explaining how these games are supposed to function. Let’s wrap this bitch up, shall we?
I’ll quickly go over story. You are trying to find El Dorado (it’s a statue in the game, not a place). Another faction of people is after the treasure, and they end up beating you to the island where El Dorado is. Elena is with you because she wants to film a documentary about El Dorado, and Sully wants to find it to potentially get rich. Turns out, El Dorado is cursed, and turns people into weird humanoid monsters. The faction tries to take it, you sink El Dorado to the bottom of the ocean, and the game is over. I’m going over the story quickly because its generic even for a generic game. As expected, there are a lot of plot conveniences that irritate people like me, but ultimately, what you get from the story is minimal besides the excitement of buried ruins and treasure. I’ll talk about story more in the next write up, but I can’t bring myself to google the stupid details of the stupid story for this mediocre game. It’s just sort of…there. Over in the corner. You see it? It looks hungry, like it hasn’t had the taste of originality in years!
The Uncharted series is at its best when the illusion is working. These games feel great when you feel like you are making all the cool stuff on screen happen, and when you are invested in the characters, following the story. However, it’s a thin line to walk, and Uncharted: Drakes Fortune is hanging onto to the line with a damn pinky. Rarely do any of the events feel like they have stakes, largely due to the set pieces being so typical that your brain just goes on autopilot. The minute to minute gameplay is shallow and weirdly skewed towards combat. The sequels improve vastly upon this, and I think Uncharted as a series improves with every series in the gameplay department. But with the introduction to the series, it’s monotonous trek through several attempts to impress the player that stumble and smack against the floor. At its best, the characters are keeping you happy with excellent banter, but at its worst…fuck, it feels like taking a shot of whiskey with Ambien in it. At noon.
THAT’S IT. That’s everything I wanted to talk about! I got so tired writing this damn thing, but I think it was worth it considering all the groundwork for comparison has been laid. I may end up doing a story write up on this first game sometime soon too, but its not the biggest fish to fry here. Next week, we move into far more interesting territory with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. See you then lads!