Reviewing something like Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection is a little strange because I know I’m going to recommend it before I’ve even started. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception were two of the best games on the PS3 and they’re still great games on the PS4, each a peerless realization of a particular cinematic tone. If you’ve never played them, The Nathan Drake Collection is worth picking up simply to get your hands on the two best Indiana Jones movies of the past decade.
However, I am nothing if not professional. I played The Nathan Drake Collection and can verify that you already know everything you need to know about the new PS4 compilation, which also includes Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. The extra graphical and mechanical polish makes the games look and feel less dated, but the excellent essentials are exactly what you remember. It’s pure video game popcorn, and Naughty Dog does it better than any other developer on the planet.
Or at least it did two out of the three times it tried, because The Nathan Drake Collection serves as an odd reminder that Drake’s Fortune is pretty average. The original’s shortcomings – and the drastic improvements Naughty Dog made for the sequels – become more evident when Drake’s Fortune is placed next to its successors.
The problem is that Drake’s Fortune feels too much like a capital-V Video Game. Despite the tropical locales, the game is a series of flat, unremarkable shooting galleries positioned at varying levels of unfairness. It’s also ruthlessly difficult. In far too many instances, bad guys rush in and shoot at you while you’re in the middle of an open area, often from places you can’t see or reach even if you were so inclined. They always seem to get a few free shots before you can get to cover, which makes it nearly impossible to clear many of the areas on a first attempt.
Unfortunately, horror is scarier when you’re afraid of dying than it is when you are dying (at that point it just becomes frustrating), and the same is true of action. It’s more exciting when the hero is battered but less fun when he’s broken.
With Drake’s Fortune, you rarely have time to react. You have to know where bad guys are going to appear long before they’ve actually appeared in order to have a chance, and the only way to acquire that information is through painstaking trial and error. To beat the game, you need to die and then die again, and it feels less like a continuous narrative and more like a game-y exercise in mastery and memorization.
Among Thieves, on the other hand, introduced a more forgiving balance and sense of flow, and it’s an essential component of the formula. The later games give you the opportunity to improvise, which means you can get into a firefight, come within an inch of death, and then recover and adapt to overcome long odds. It becomes a series of near-death experiences that spike your adrenaline instead of a crushing grind of repetition.
Drake’s Fortune is similarly missing the more spectacular set pieces that defined the sequels, from the train convoy to the truck convoy to the horse convoy in the desert (the series is uncommonly fond of convoys). Among Thieves and Drake’s Deception have memorable gameplay ‘scenes’ that feel like interactive versions of the best moments in a blockbuster, and while Drake’s Fortune has shades of that, it never achieves the same grandeur or refinement.
The sequels make other improvements, doing a better job of telling you which ledges can be climbed and which ledges can’t and making stealth a viable alternative when going up against better-armed opponents, which helps mitigate the difficulty. If Drake’s Fortune feels like a game engine with a story painted on top, the later games use those systems in service of a more deliberate tone, which helps bring the adventure to the fore.
That’s what makes the franchise so brilliant. It’s generally a mistake when video games try to imitate cinema because they’re almost always fated to be lesser versions of cinema that aspires to be cinema. With Uncharted, the mechanics are so polished that you don’t notice the seams, which makes it feel like Hollywood even though it’s composed almost entirely of interlocking systems. They’re video games, but the mechanics are so well realized that Among Thieves and Drake’s Deception are able to mimic the aesthetic of another medium without sacrificing the interactivity that makes gaming unique.
That speaks to Naughty Dog’s considerable acumen as a developer. The gameplay and the story complement each other perfectly, making Among Thieves (and to a lesser extent Drake’s Deception) one of the best examples of a game that uses mechanics in service of a specific artistic purpose, even if that purpose is frivolous entertainment.
Drake’s Fortune, meanwhile, is still fun and worth playing for the backstory (I forgot how much I like Elena), but the gameplay and the style never really come together. I’d recommend playing at least one difficulty setting lower than you’re used to. It’s just not worth the hassle.
On that front The Nathan Drake Collection introduces a very easy Explorer mode, which is a nice touch for people who just want to make it through to the credits. It’s also worth noting that the disc is single-player only, which is a bit of a bummer if you liked the Uncharted 2 Team Death Match as much as I did. Thankfully, the lack of online multiplayer does not in any way diminish the quality of those solo campaigns. Everything that ships with the disc is excellent so I won’t complain too much about stuff that’s missing.
Other features include a speed run mode that’s nothing more than the regular game with a timer in the corner, as well as access to the Uncharted 4 multiplayer beta that doesn’t go live until December. Both are superfluous additions. If you’re picking up the disc, you’re doing it because you want to play Uncharted, and in that regard The Nathan Drake Collection delivers.
That’s why I won’t hesitate to offer a recommendation. Uncharted lacks the emotional heft of The Last of Us and there are serious conversations to be had about some of the game’s more troublesome aesthetic choices. However, those conversations wouldn’t be possible without reliable access to the source material. Uncharted remains one of the most purely entertaining franchises released for modern consoles, and The Nathan Drake Collection is a laudable attempt to make the history of the medium more accessible for future generations.