There’s a lot to be said for playing a game when it comes out. Even some of the most revered classics pale and wither with such a violence that it can be difficult to see how they ever came to be so popular.
While being pioneers of their day; having their breakthrough innovations repeated and revised and polished and perpetuated and generally rogered until they become the norm is a formula bound to make revisiting them a lacklustre experience for those not drowning in a vat of euphoric nostalgia. The aching commute that so rapturously sets the scene at the beginning of Half Life, something that sends me flailing back to my childhood at break-neck speed, might seem comparatively tame to those that grew up on the Michael Bay esque explosion-fest intro-sequences of Call of Duty or Battlefield. Silent Hill’s hauntingly misty, empty suburb, that terrifying sequence in the school, would likely be met with indifference by those who’ve ruined a pair of trousers or two to Outlast or Amnesia. I can’t really remember whether the first three Uncharteds innovated or broke any boundaries when they came out, but they sure haven’t aged well if they did.
That isn’t to say I didn’t have an excellent time finally sitting down with Drake and playing Simon Cowell Does Indiana Jones x 3 at long last. In fact, it’s been one of the most satisfying and complete gaming marathons I’ve had in AGES. Uncharted is one of those I never got round to at all, in spite of half the gaming world harping on about it unrelentingly every time one came out, and every time someone tried to convince me to buy a PS3 (I caved on the latter, of course). Bloke-Tomb Raider held little appeal with me at the time, but with 4 on the horizon and the handy Nathan Drake Collection released right before it, I thought I better roll my sleeves up and get elbow-deep into The Adventures of Obvious Nathan Fillion Cover Band quick sharpish. Ahem.
And so I began playing a nine year old game. The first Uncharted, HD redux and all, still looks impressive, so long as you can don your 9-years-younger glasses. They all do. There’s long been a little pin badge in Drake’s shirt that says ‘Prettiest Exclusive’, so I’m not breaking any ground here, but through all three games, the visuals are as you’d expect for cutting edge releases of their respective times. The art team at Naughty Dog are so frustratingly talented, and if you’ve played The Last of Us, you’ll notice cues of what was to come seeping through, from the urban dilapidation and overgrown ruins, to all the little environmental storytelling nudges. Even when the visuals show their age, it’s these elements that earn the game its badge as something truly beautiful.
Of course, graphical accomplishments are a first flag for those obvious signs of aging, and in games like this it’s always going to stand out somewhere. Cutting edge only lasts until the edge moves, which in this industry, is frequently. Two and Three deal with this by incorporating an even greater sense of sensationalism in the settings and the scripted moments, playing off visual dexterity with awe-inspiring moments of immense scale.
The engine whirrs away, holding up those strong, gratifying core mechanics, coping even with my tendency to just twiddle characters round in circles for hours, ensuring anybody who might be watching is instantly infuriated and leaves the room. It’s fun to climb. It’s quite fun to jump and swing too. It’s sort of fun to shoot, but that ramps up considerably with each iteration – the difference in the gunplay between one and two is really poignant, especially if you go straight from one to the other.
Uncharted is, however, pretty superficial. There’s not much below that made-up exterior and the reasonably able and malleable mechanics. On all three occasions I found myself egging on the ending; ‘I must be near now?’. The games all devolve into go there, shoot that, climb this, solve the puzzle, repeat. Which normally I’m okay with. I expect that. I don’t require my games to dazzle me with constantly new and frightening experiences; a game is a succession of repeated events piped through a narrative, a vehicle to get you from start to finish. But even with these beliefs, even with enjoyable core mechanics and strong visuals, I sort of just wanted each of them to end after so long. And they are not long games. Bored is a harsh word, and perhaps constantly having the next game lined up and waiting exacerbated this a little.
Eventually the storyline would run a little stale, the next herd of dead guards would seem more like a chore, and on a rare occasion Nate would take a strange Ezio Auditore-esque leap to his death for no apparent reason. While most of the gameplay runs smoothly, its limitations are sometimes a little obtuse. You can make death-defying leaps one moment, but not the next. It’s nice not having the game hand-hold you through each individual bit of climbable wall, but occasionally figuring out what it wants from you, what you can and can’t do in each set piece, can get a little tiresome.
All that being said, I maintain that this is one of the most solid experiences I’ve had in ages, and something I felt compelled to come back to frequently, to get finished. Like with Firewatch, the end felt just around the corner in a compelling way, one that inspired constant progression. The story and the mechanics combine in their accessibility to make something that is so easy to play, I had no qualms sticking this on with the volume down low and blasting through a few levels on an evening; and while typically I want much more of my games, this ease made it a real enduring joy, and a change of pace. Once you’re done with it, you’re done with it, and I have zero desire to return to 1, 2 or 3, but with 4 now on the table, can I recommend Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection? If you’ve never experienced the series and are after something easy-going, then entirely.