I always like games that surprise me or that significantly exceed my expectations. I think it would be fair to say that all of my top games have done this to one degree or another — and Uncharted no exception. More than most, I had the benefit of little knowledge and expectations. My PS3 was newly purchased and, when looking around at the console’s library, I started out with titles I was familiar with and happened across while browsing at GameStop. In an odd way, it was to my benefit that I bought the second game first, even though I ended up playing them in the correct order. I was almost serendipitous in the end result, because I don’t view the first Uncharted near the degree I do its successors — and yet, I’m immensely grateful that I played all three and in chronological order.
The experience I would describe when playing Drake’s Fortune was rocky. It’s by no means a bad game, but it is oftentimes an aggravating one. Naughty Dog was a bit rough in entering this new terrain and I even more so, encountering the genre style for the first time on a video game console. I was just new enough to the system to have no experience with dual analogue-controlled shooters. Meaning that for roughly 90% of the game, I was just barely getting by. Uncharted has always been a number of positive things, but one consistent negative is the overabundance of absurd combat sections where Drake is overwhelmed with overpowered foes. Throw in killer mutant zombies and a German bunker and I’m still kind of amazed I ever finished the game.
I continued with Among Thieves; though I had come to enjoy the characters of Nate and Elena, they weren’t yet a motivator for me to continue. Fortunately, the game made it very clear early on that things were going to be different — a more involved story, a bigger cast of characters, deeper explorations of their respective relationships (particularly with Nate), and a wider array of environments. Best of all, the game introduced Very Easy mode that includes auto assist in aiming, something that enabled a newbie like me to get by with a much smoother experience.
It’s to Naughty Dog’s immense credit the enormous amount of quality and improvement there is between the first and second games because, while Among Thieves is fantastic on its own, it also successfully builds on what actually did work in Drake’s Fortune. By the time I reached Nepal, among war-torn buildings and an elegantly designed level progression through the dynamic city environments, and encounter Elena for the first time — well, I was hooked. The writing, as is consistent throughout the series, is clear but always subtle, every aspect of character development handled with such grace that it’s impossible not to be engaged. Somewhere between swimming in a pool atop a roof and shouting out “Marco! Polo!” and admiring the fluid way the game transitions between cutscene and tense gameplay, I started to finally understand why this was a series so many people were talking about.
I imagine, like with many, that it was the train section that really wowed me. The sheer amount of technicality and artfulness and creativity that went into planning and implementing that still boggles the mind. It’s for that reason alone I hold Naughty Dog in high regard. Not just that they accomplished that, but that they made it look so effortless. The environment moves and changes around you and the platforming and cover-based shooting remains at the core of those two chapters. It offers epic, cinematic moments in gaming that really demonstrate the beautiful potential that the medium has both inspired and separated from other forms.
I had a two-week break in between playing the second and third games, due to attending a family function, but I got my hands on Drake’s Deception the moment I could and anticipated it with almost every waking moment. The ending of Among Thieves left me so in love with the characters that I was eager to see what happened next. It’s one of the few times I can say that I picked up a game as much for the characters as for the gameplay experience itself. Even as I fought the urge to read spoilers or watch videos that would ruin all the surprise for me, so impatient was I to get back to my PS3 and give it a go.
Drake’s Deception had the unfortunate position of following what is one of the highest regarded experiences in gaming. A lot of love goes to Among Thieves and while all of it is very well-deserved, I believe Drake’s Deception deserves just as much. It naturally builds on the characters and relationships as established in the first two games, making a gamer’s time spent with them before playing the third a more rewarding experience. Even with just the third go-around in a successfully series, it started to question many of its own fundamentals. Among the most notable include the tendency for everything to be supernatural in the end — because it kind of is and kind of isn’t — and of delving further into examination of Nathan Drake’s character.
The latter in particular makes it even more interesting when held up amidst the genre, compared to similarly intentioned games and films and tv shows. The action-adventure storytelling that seeks out lost treasure has been around for decades now, thanks to Indiana Jones, and there are any number of others who have taken inspiration from such a deep and enticing well. However, Uncharted is one of the only ones I’ve seen which establishes that such situations are rare and dangerous and then questions why the story’s main protagonist would continue to seek this very thing out.
I would point to the series as the primary reason why I have such a high opinion of Naughty Dog and why they’re one of my favorite developers. (With plenty of similarities to be found in The Last of Us as well, even though I didn’t like that game as much as others.) The writing is consistently great in ways that are never heavy-handed or explicit, but that still develop some of the most solid narratives in the industry. They find new ways to pioneer character development and their graphic work is commendable across every level, but my favorite still remains how intimately it’s utilized body language to enrich characters. The level design in exciting adventure worlds is also utterly fantastic.
I am very eager for the next Uncharted to come out, even as I hope it’s the last in the series to feature Nathan Drake. The character (and everyone else around him) is too good to be driven into the ground with repetition. At the same time, I can’t imagine that the franchise won’t find some measure of longevity. As The Last of Us demonstrates, the studio knows how to create new and compelling characters. Nathan Drake will always remain one of my favorites and my time spent with Among Thieves and Drake’s Deception is the greatest I’ve spent on my PS3.