This should go without saying, but just in case: this article contains spoilers for all main-series Uncharted games, including Uncharted 4: A Thief's End.
Has it really been almost ten years since Nathan Drake first set off to claim the spoils of Sir Francis? Revisiting that debut, 2007's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune for the PlayStation 3, today reveals a few creaking hinges and control niggles that would later be ironed out throughout the series, but it's still a thoroughly enjoyable thrill ride. And ultimately, it gave birth to one of the best action franchises of modern gaming.
In the original, developers Naughty Dog successfully captured the indelible spirit of high adventure that was popularised by the Indiana Jones trilogy, delivering charm, wonder and action in spades. In Drake's shoes you would brush with long-forgotten supernatural forces, witness moments of real pathos and discover character development that made you care about Uncharted's cast of misfits and thieves.
Between all the wanton gunplay Uncharted is ultimately a series of moments; high stakes, pulse-pounding set pieces and scenes filled with heart wrenching character development. Here are the highlights of the last (nearly) ten years.
Once again: spoilers follow.
Accidentally destroying long-forgotten tombs and relics is one thing, but in recent years the wrecking ball that is Nathan Drake has swung dangerously close to civilisation, like in Uncharted 4: A Thief's End when he smashes through half of Madagascar during a car chase and almost mows down several innocent citizens.
Our first big moment comes from Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, when Drake and fellow treasure hunter Chloe Frazer are in Nepal, climbing to the top of a huge hotel to get their bearings. While fighting the main villain's goons on the way back down an enemy helicopter opens fire with rockets, causing the whole building to collapse with you still inside it.
Where most games would wrest control away from the player and show such elaborate action through cutscenes, here the player can still shoot enemies and leap around as the environment splinters and shifts perspective around them. That fluidity between gunplay and set-piece is what cements Naughty Dog's place as masters of action, and it's a trick that's been employed many times with good effect.
That hotel-coming-down-around-you gameplay from 'Uncharted 2: Among Thieves', from the PS4's 'The Nathan Drake Collection'
The hotel scene is heart-in-the-throat awesome, and the concept of shifting perspectives returned in Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, where we find Nate trapped in an abandoned cruise ship that's being tossed around by a tsunami. As the vessel fills with water, you find yourself climbing through a grand ballroom on its side, running away from torrents and narrowly escaping death several times. It's simultaneously creepy, tense and exciting.
Of course, you can't discuss perspective without highlighting the opening tutorial in Uncharted 2, which sees Drake climbing up a derailed train car as it hangs perilously over a cliff. It's a real trial by fire, where every sudden movement feels as if it will send the carriage tumbling into the abyss below. When you reach out to shimmy along a pipe and you see it seamlessly bend and break beneath your weight, you get those little spikes of adrenaline that keep your interest piqued; a trick this series portions out wonderfully. Watch it play out in the video below.
Planes, Trains and Jet Skis
Many of Uncharted's best bits come from vehicular combat and again there is a fluidity here that several games simply can't match. Uncharted 3 nails this in two super action sequences, and few will need introduced to the stand-out plane scene, in which Drake and enemy mercs scrap in a cargo plane as it hurtles over the Rub 'al Khali desert.
As the plane catches fire and starts to go down, Drake clings onto the ejected cargo nets for dear life as explosions, gunfire and noise erupts around him and, most incredibly, you're still in full control. Before you know it the deafening chaos has ended and you're falling towards the desert in dead silence. It's an incredible change of pace and atmosphere that has rarely been bested throughout the series.
That aeroplane scene, from 'Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception'
The desert chapters also feature a thrilling chase scene where Drake and his buddy Salim are riding horseback to Ubar while fending off Katherine Marlowe's goons riding trucks and motorbikes. You can steer your steed while shooting back at foes, or leap onto their vehicles and engage in some cover shooting or melee combat. Again, the fluidity here makes for a truly exciting experience.
We get a similar chase scene in Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, where Drake is being dragged along by his grappling line from the back of a speeding truck. This whole sequence mixes up play styles wonderfully, flicking between gunplay while still being pulled by your tether, to leaping between trucks to battle mercs as you inch closer to your brother Sam.
Uncharted 2's train battle and the jet ski chapter in Drake's Fortune are also worthy of note. The latter is reminiscent of Tomb Raider II's Venice stage, as both Nate and reporter Elena Fisher can speed around a flooded city, stopping every so often to climb around ancient ruins, or character swap with Elena to fire off some grenade or pistol rounds at enemies. It's perhaps a little clunky by today's standards, but it's still a great scene as the pair becomes a formidable team.
Fighting a helicopter, from a moving train, in 'Uncharted 2'
Charting a Path to the Heart
Of course, Uncharted isn't all about big action and the wanton slaughter of hundreds. It's also about telling a great story with characters we bond with and care about. It's a little sad that Uncharted 4 has closed off the series, at least so far as Drake's adventures go, as it's a genuine pleasure to see the cast on screen, cracking jokes and getting up to shenanigans. This is testament to the writing skills of Amy Hennig, Neil Druckmann and Josh Scherr.
One of the series' finest moments features very little dialogue at all, and it takes place in Uncharted 2's final third. Things aren't looking bright for Drake by this point and both he and a Tibetan guide named Tenzin are climbing around ice caves in search of clues. What's interesting here is that your buddy doesn't speak a word of English, so neither of them can communicate.
Yet, the tranquillity of the desolate ice caves coupled with Tenzin's welcome company makes for a touching sequence. Both characters save each other's lives multiple times throughout this chapter, and there's a tangible respect between both men. Sometimes games benefit from not spelling every little thing out, and this is assuredly one of those moments.
Nate and Elena, just hanging out in 'Uncharted 4'
Tenzin also gets a nod in one of the series' best scenes from Uncharted 4, in which Drake is goofing around in his attic, checking out old photos and relics acquired throughout the series. It's a superb scene if not a little sad, as we learn that Drake has put his adventuring days behind him. He sifts through his collection, reading a letter from Chloe, flipping through each of the games' journals and firing a pop gun at targets for fun.
Although we see him hanging with Elena, playing video games and living an idyllic life, there's an underlying sense of sorrow throughout that suggests Drake will never be able to let go of his past. Adventuring is clearly in his blood and two scenes from his childhood make this abundantly clear, the first of which takes place in Uncharted 3, when a 15-year-old Nate first encounters Sully in Columbia.
Both characters are searching for Sir Francis Drake's ring, and we finally understand how the inseparable duo first met. The two hit it off wonderfully from the start as Sully takes Nate in as his protégé, and as origin stories go it hits all the right beats, giving us the emotional connection to really care about the chapters that follow.
In Uncharted 3 we also learn that Drake isn't actually Nate's surname, which is the "Deception" of the title. Uncharted 4 brings everything full circle in a well written and touching flashback scene in which the wayward brothers break into the home of a former relic hunter named Evelyn to retrieve their mother's journal. We get so much narrative heft here; from Nathan's already encyclopaedic knowledge of history to underlining the bond he shares with brother Sam.
Things go wrong when Evelyn dies of a heart attack, the cops show up and both Sam and Nate go on the lam. Wanted for potential murder, they decide to recede into the underground as thieves and carve out a new life under the surname Drake.
The Drake brothers meet Evelyn
This whole scene is an incredible gut-punch that retroactively sets up a decade's worth of adventure and thrills. Uncharted could have quite easily been just another mindless cover shooter with some traversal mechanics, but it's so much more than that.
While Uncharted revels in death defying action, vertigo-inducing stunts and breath-taking vistas, all of it would mean nothing without a strong cast of loveable scoundrels, cackling villains and dear friends brought to life by some of the best writing in gaming history.
Naughty Dog has expertly juggled all of these components to create something truly special, and like the legends Drake has spent his life hunting, Uncharted to date will be celebrated and remembered fondly for many years to come, whatever Naughty Dog's next move for the franchise might be.
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