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  • Writer's pictureStu

I haven't thought that far ahead.

Autumn is approaching fast. As summer ends and work ramps up again, I've found myself once more looking for games to play as escapism. The endless grind of Destiny 2 has its claws into me once again, but as usual I like to have several things on the go. After walking away from Ghost of Tsushima a couple of weeks ago, I found myself flicking through my PS4 pile of shame - looking for something to play besides yet another Dark Souls playthrough. There, in amongst a pile of blue cases, I spotted it. The perfect game to match my general malaise. A game that's the polar opposite of both Dark Souls and Destiny 2. A game series that I'd loved a couple of entries of, and walked away from one entry unfinished. The game? Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection.

I've played through a lot of Sony's last-gen exclusives this year - and for the most part, I've had a lot of fun with them. There's something about Uncharted, though, that sets it apart. It's the one I always think of as being Sony's number one flagship franchise - and if anything, playing through the remasters of the first three games in the series has only served to underline that opinion. Several times. And put it into bold italics, while it was at it. I started with Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, then wandered off to play a couple of other things before playing through Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception back to back. Walking through the trilogy in this way gave the games a certain sense of momentum that I don't recall experiencing playing through them years apart back when they first launched. They're getting on in age now, but the legacy they left is one that's still felt in game design today - especially in terms of the output of Sony's first-party studios.

Quite simply, they're three of the greatest third-person action adventure games ever created - not least for moments like this one:

This moment, from near the end of Uncharted 2, shows off everything that I fell in love with about the franchise - a blood pumping set piece, bookended by character-driven moments that help you grow to love the cast of characters as though they are people you actually know. The series is filled with moments like this one, where the camera spins away from its normal action to give you a cinematic view of the chaos that's unfolding around you - whether it's a bridge collapsing, an ancient city imploding, or a ship flooding. The series owes an awful lot to the movies some of us grew up with in the 80's - with the earlier Indiana Jones movies providing a lot of reference material in terms of vibe, and some of the narrative beats in the later games. The relationship between Nate and Sully, as shown in the third game, owes a lot to the one between Indy and his father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - with some of the camera angles used in cutscenes toward the end of the game acting as an obvious homage. The in media res opening of Uncharted 2 is, for me, up there with the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The series takes absolute delight in digging deep into the relationships between its characters, with the on-again, off-again relationship between Nathan and Elena forming the backbone of it all. I loved the interplay between these characters - especially the scene at the end of Uncharted 2 where we see, for the first time, the flirty playfulness of their relationship. Conversations between Elena and Chloe are gloriously snarky, as they first apparently compete with one another as romantic rivals for Nathan and later gang up on him - not that he ever fails to deserve the abuse he's receiving from them. Several of these moments made me laugh out loud - and it's a rare game that manages that. If there is any criticism that can be levelled at the characterisation, it's mostly at the antagonists in the first couple of games - who are largely forgettable with one notable exception. The relationships ebb and flow through conversation and argument, the cut and thrust of verbal sparring matches that manage to feel very real and relatable - and all of it feeds into how the games are paced out.

Like many Naughty Dog games, the pacing of the narrative makes the series stand out. The more I look back on the PS4's exclusive games, the more this becomes a theme. Sony and their studios have absolutely nailed the formula of pacing a game in a similar way that you would a TV mini-series - complete with peaks, troughs, and cliffhangers along the way. The chapters feel like their own little self-contained episodes, and they combine together in a way that makes time fly by.

The games all fall into a rhythm of exploration, traversal, combat, and environmental puzzle solving - with them all being mixed in with character development moments and dizzying set pieces. The mix of these elements is where the black magic of the game really sits - nothing outstays its welcome at any point. While the first game plays out in a largely linear fashion, the second and third games introduce flashback sequences - and they do it to such effect that they've become more commonly used in games (off the top of my head, both the recent Tomb Raider games and Days Gone immediately spring to mind as examples; there are probably plenty of others that I'll think of once I've published this piece).

Narrative and storytelling is all well and good - fortunately though, the Uncharted games are... well, damn good games too. They feel good from the very first moment, but each game layers on another mechanic that helps to lend it a unique feel. The second game improves some of the traversal mechanics and tightens up the shooting - throwing new weapons into the fray. Stealth begins to come into play. The emphasis on improving the hand-to-hand combat in the third game is a definite highlight of this gradual evolution - we see that Nathan Drake fights exactly as dirty as you'd expect him to, with any enemy foolish enough to stand in front of him with their legs apart suffering a predictable (and incredibly painful) kick to the groin.

As cinematic narrative games go, the best argument for Uncharted being one of the best of them all is in the way it's influenced so many games that have come since. The 'nature reclaiming' visual that won so many accolades in The Last of Us shows its origins here, in the ruined temples and remains of the first and second games, and in the glorious shattered chateau that hosts a chunk of the second act of the third game. That area, wandering through it now, felt like it could have been part of the concept design phase for The Last of Us - all shattered grandeur, rotten woodwork, and co-operative traversal. The formula that drives the pacing of the games is one that was picked up by the more recent Tomb Raider games; which all worked to 'out-Uncharted Uncharted' in the same way that the first Uncharted game strived to 'out-Tomb Raider Tomb Raider.' You can see nods to the environmental design in everything from God of War to Days Gone.

It's not often that you can revisit games years later - even after a remastering - and still find so many facets of them that not only continue to work but also stand up to modern scrutiny. The original Uncharted trilogy does so, and proves beyond doubt that it's one of the greatest series of games ever made. Any one of these games, taken separately, is a wonderful experience. Played back to back, they're a masterpiece.


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