Sir Francis Drake’s motto—“Greatness from small beginnings”—is a running reference throughout the Uncharted series. It’s what spurs Nathan Drake to become an adventurer. It’s what urges him on in the jungles of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune—to continue at a time when he has every reason to turn back. And it’s also a perfect description of the series as an artistic achievement, and as a journey spanning three games and eight years that the Nathan Drake Collection allows you to take in as a massive 25-to-30-hour saga.
The small beginning in question here is 2007’s Drake’s Fortune, a game with no small amount of narrative ambition, attempting to craft a playable Hollywood blockbuster using the best technology 2007 had to offer. But the game is far too beholden to trying to demo said technology than creating a cohesive tale. It makes the typical game mistake of having the story stop dead until unplayable cutscenes fill in the blanks, and in between are dozens of shootouts involving cowering behind cover and pumping round after round into seemingly-impervious enemies until it’s time to climb somewhere.
The gunplay is functional, but lacking in variety, and later, when it’s not even a guarantee that a well-placed headshot will bring down someone only wearing a T-shirt, it’s an annoyance. But this collection fixes a few of the game’s more pressing issues: The ill-conceived Sixaxis controls are gone, and throwing a grenade is mapped simply and effectively to the L1 button. But it’s not enough to fix the tedium involved in many of the enemy encounters.
Even then, there’s still solid character work on display throughout the series, namely in the introduction of Nathan Drake and his closest friends. His hedonistic Paul Newman-inspired mentor, Sully, acts as a perfect straight man, and all three games do almost heroic work keeping series mainstay Elena from being just “the love interest,” though Drake’s Fortune in particular seems to more directly address the fact that this isn’t a girl who’s going to be waiting for Nathan to make any decisions for her.
Naughty Dog was onto something the second the character of Nathan Drake took shape. He is, as a concept and a physical form, the blank-slate, grizzled, white-everyman hero that most games are designed around these days. And yet, he’s just like the menagerie of personalities that follow him on his first adventure, managing to remain an amiable companion hour after hour on the sheer strength of performance. Nolan North, even with his ubiquity in the realm of gaming’s voice actors, announces his star power from the second he delivers his first lines, imbuing what could have been a thankless, empty, cloying role with humanity, perfect timing, and an innate sense of the relatable reactions to entirely unrelatable situations. Nathan, from his first time out, is simply a great character. What he needed was a great game to star in. He would get exactly that with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
Drake’s Fortune’s best set pieces are rooted in a sort of heightened realism, suggesting what it might be like if Renny Harlin, with enough money and access to swaths of Amazon jungle, were to transform the game into a film. But Among Thieves finds the folks at Naughty Dog realizing the lack of limits afforded by a completely digital canvas, and adjusting accordingly. The game is, by Hollywood standards, a perfect sequel, ratcheting up the action by exponents, while showing a comfort and ease with these characters and the world they inhabit, something it has no problem turning on its ear if needed.
From Among Thieves’s first scene, a dizzying trick of perspective that slowly reveals a critically injured Nathan a hair away from falling off a cliffside while trapped inside a crashed train car, playing through the latter two Uncharted games is a rollercoaster experience. Both Among Thieves and Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception perform the Herculean task of deliberately pacing its character development while still delivering bewilderingly grandiose action, dodging most of the genre’s storytelling clichés in the process.
For every set piece where the player has to outrun a tank on foot through a Nepalese village, or have a shootout while hanging out of the open cargo bay of a plane flying 50,000 feet in the air, there’s the subdued desperation of Nathan’s ever-practical British friend Chloe trying to convince him and Elena to leave an injured man behind, or a sly inside joke shared between Sully and Nathan, or a very public conversation with a villain on a crowded Syrian street. Even as insane as Drake’s Deception can get, its greatest moment is a gentle one: Nathan collapsing on Elena’s couch from exhaustion and saying, “I’m sorry.” It’s an exchange that speaks profoundly and succinctly to the regrets about their entire tenure as friends/lovers.
All the while, Bluepoint Games, the good people behind the remaster, make their mark on the series with a drastic jump in textural resolution and a vibrant lighting system, making even the most mundane moments in the trilogy feel like real, living places with a life all their own. The uncanny valley still shows itself in a few of the faces, but not in a way that distracts as it often did in the original versions. The Nathan Drake Collection is, then, the best kind of remaster: one that’s not only a lovingly crafted technical update, bringing the game on par with the current gen’s best, but also a master class on how a developer can evolve ideas. To play all three games in sequence is to watch a studio sharpen and shine their craft over the course of years, from stunted, cramped ambition to earned, full-bore swagger.