Uncharted is having a big year. Not only is there a major film adaption of the swashbuckling adventure coming to the big screen, starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg no less, but the game also just released the Uncharted Legacy of Thieves Collection on PS5 and PC. So, it’s safe to say people have Uncharted on the mind. But what exactly made the Uncharted games a big deal? Let’s dive into the history of this iconic franchise.
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune wowed critics and fans alike when it first debuted back on the PlayStation 3 in 2007. Developed by Naughty Dog, who at the time was best known for the Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter games, the game was a more realistic and adventure-heavy offering than their cartoony predecessors. Keeping in line with the company’s tradition of platform-heavy games, Uncharted: Drakes Fortune was definitely a platformer, but it was also a third-person shooter. Most importantly though, it was a narrative-heavy story, featuring complex human characters we could empathize with and root for. Enter Nathan Drake.
Following in the footsteps of the iconic Indiana Jones, Nathan Drake is a treasure hunter, traveling the world for lost pirate gold, mythical cities, and legendary artifacts. Unlike Indy though, Nathan is a total thief, in it for the riches. His personality was modeled heavily on the personality of Nathan Fillion, who would go on to play Nathan in his own fan film. Drake is a loveable rogue, effortlessly quipping one-liners and zingers in the heat of combat, always ready for a comeback. But he’s also very intelligent and knows his history, making him much more than a dumb mercenary.
Joining him on his quest is his mentor, the cigar-chomping and mustache sporting Sully (so you know, perfect casting with Mark Wahlberg). Sully is “getting too old” for this kind of adventure, but accompanies Nathan Drake around the world, helping him on his quests while offering sound logic and reasoning. Sully may also be a rogue, but he’s also Nathan’s compass in a way, the man who raised the young orphan and molded him into a thief with something resembling an honorable code.
This game also introduces us to Elena Fischer, a reporter who ends up joining Nathan Drake while searching for the coffin of Nathan’s apparent ancestor, Sir Francis Drake. She’s just as tenacious as Nathan, which causes some rivalry between them, but she’s just as much his equal and naturally, becomes his love interest during the adventure.
The first game, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, wowed everyone by allowing Nathan to be more than an avatar running through the world. He would brush his hand against rocks as the player would walk by them, something unseen back in 2007. Tiny attention to detail moments like this made Nathan feel much more human than most heroes, who would unflinchingly bang against the environmental walls.
The game was also quite fun, combining tight third-person shooting with some major action set pieces and lots of traversing and platforming. The game features Nathan Drake climbing on a lot of buildings and while the environment isn’t terribly difficult to navigate, it was still tons of fun thanks to great action or great character moments along the way. While exploring, you’ll stumble across puzzles that offer clues to your next destination. Frustratingly, the solutions to these puzzles (or at least obvious clues), are given to you by means of Nathan’s journal. Meanwhile, pirates and mercenaries hunt you down, keeping you on your toes as you engage in cover-based combat (for the most part). Following in the footsteps of The Mummy and Indiana Jones, the series also has a supernatural element to it.
If people were impressed by Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, then they had no idea just how far and beyond Naughty Dog would go for the second outing, Uncharted: Among Thieves. Considered by many to be the peak of the franchise by most fans (I might disagree with that), the second Uncharted game was, indeed, bigger and better in every possible category.
The action was bigger, the characters more complex and the locales far more exotic and detailed than the jungles of the first game. Nathan Drake finds himself in search of the lost city Shangri-la, along with Sully and newcomer Chloe. The game opens with a literal cliffhanger near the end of the game and sees Nate scaling a derailed train that’s hanging off the side of a snowy mountain, all while being shot at. The train is slowly falling down and Nate must climb his way to safety. Again, it’s not a difficult climb, but the sense of awe, scale, and entertainment are paramount. That’s something the Uncharted series has always succeeded at too, delivering big cinematic moments that wouldn’t be out of place in a summer blockbuster, but with the added bonus of having characters that we actually care about.
Gameplay-wise the game is just on a whole other level. There’s a far greater sense of verticality that’s introduced in Uncharted: Among Thieves, which means that combat isn’t just you shooting at baddies on the same playing field. Likewise, the stealth mechanics were heavily improved upon, making it a viable option to thin the herd in advance. The game also isn’t limited to a singular location like its predecessor. We bounce around the world, seeing everything from the traditional jungle environments to small cities and mountainous settlements. It makes the game feel that much bigger.
The Uncharted series definitely wouldn’t be the game it is today if the characters weren’t properly realized. Iconic voice actor Nolan North does a wonderful job making Nathan Drake likable, human, relatable and empathetic. In fact, all the voicing acting from all major characters across the board is excellent and that attention to character and story would no doubt help pave the way for Naughty Dog’s next original IP, the critically acclaimed series The Last of Us.
A Decepting Conclusion
Of course, the series wasn’t going to just stop after Uncharted 2. Two years later brought us Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, which is the game that features the plane sequence from the upcoming movie. I actually think I prefer Uncharted 3 more to Uncharted: Among Thieves, as it feels more personal for Nathan this time around, and all the tiny details makes him feel more like a person than an avatar.
This game actually pulls the veil back on Nate, showing us him as an orphaned youth in South America and his inevitable meet-up with his mentor, Sully. From there, it’s a wild ride into Nate’s head as he grapples with his identity and his purpose. The hand-to-hand combat is vastly improved in this one and of all the games, I found the locales and environments to be the most interesting in this one, apart from maybe the Nepal level in the second game.
Farewell Amy, Hello Neil
Uncharted ventured into the PS Vita for a small stint with a standalone game titled Uncharted: Golden Abyss. The game was developed by Bend, who would later go on to work on the divisive yet popular game Days Gone. Unfortunately, the game never made its way to PS3 or PS4 and was likewise left out of the Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves collection, meaning that unless you had a Vita, you likely never played this title, which served as a prequel to the original game. But the game was noted for bringing the Uncharted experience on the go without too many compromises. But Golden Abyss was merely an appetizer for Uncharted 4.
Uncharted 2 is probably the game in the franchise that’s the fan favourite, but for me, it’s Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. I feel a bit bad saying that, as it’s the mainline game that was made after longtime Uncharted director left the company, Amy Hennig. For years, it was rumoured she was forced out thanks largely to a piece written by IGN, but that fact seems to be largely based on gossip and hearsay. She would be replaced by Neil Druckmann, who was fresh off the success of The Last of Us and is currently the co-president of the studio.
I found Uncharted 4‘s story to be the most human and cinematic of the bunch. Nate is now retired, working a day job as a salvager. But the past comes back to him when his presumed dead brother Sam knocks on his door, asking for help. The game takes you from the coast of Scotland to Italy to the Indian Ocean in search of the treasure of pirate legend Henry Avery. I also quite liked how this entry ditched the supernatural angle completely, offering a much more realistic and human story all around. The end game is a hidden pirate utopia and gold, no magic artifacts to be found.
Farewell, Nathan Drake
But Uncharted 4 wasn’t the end of the franchise. A year later, Naughty Dog would prove that the franchise didn’t need Nathan Drake by delivering the standalone expansion Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. This time though, the player controls Chloe Frazer, first introduced in Uncharted 2. The game expands heavily upon the open-world Madagascar level from A Thief’s End by featuring a large chunk of land, accessible by means of a handy Jeep. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get more Uncharted games without Nate going forward and that the move to full open-world is coming.
Mr. Sully, I Don’t Feel So Good
Uncharted is now finally making its way to the big screen after being in development hell since it was announced back in 2008 with Avi Arad was hoping to break the video game curse. First impressions based on the trailer indicate it will likely be great fun for those completely uninitiated with the franchise but may alienate those who have spent many hours with the video game. Time will tell though if Tom Holland’s version of Nathan Drake will stick the landing.
So that’s our brief, not so brief, look at the Uncharted franchise. What’s your favourite game in the series and are you looking forward to the movie? Let us know!