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'Uncharted' for beginners: My first romp with Nathan Drake

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I am the 80 percent. Let me explain: Sony recently released a remastered collection of the Uncharted series for the PlayStation 4. The games were all critically acclaimed, with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves ranking among the best games of the last decade, but developer Naughty Dog says that 80 percent of PS4 owners have never played them. I'm part of that group, and I figured it was high time to catch up with one of the most lauded trilogies of the last decade. Now that I'm in the thick of Nathan Drake's adventures, I'm going to answer one question: If you've never played Uncharted, are these games worth your time?

After working my way through the entire first game and a good chunk of the second, I can say the answer is yes, but that doesn't mean there aren't a few caveats worth knowing about before you dive in for the first time. As I was getting started, I wondered how well Uncharted: Drake's Fortune would hold up and whether it was worth playing at all. The game is about to have its eighth birthday, and with Uncharted 2 considered such a classic, I considered that newbies like me might want to just start there.

The remastered Uncharted: Drake's Fortune features improved environmental textures.

Even though the first game shows its age a bit, I'm glad I didn't skip it. Graphically, the whole collection look great, if not quite as good as brand-new games coming out for the PS4. By and large, Nathan Drake's search for El Dorado in the opening game feels perhaps a bit more cartoonish than Naughty Dog's later games, with what sometimes feels like an overly bright color palate. But it's an obvious step up over the original -- Bluepoint Games, the developer responsible for the port, did a fabulous job bringing such an old game into the modern era.

Textures are more detailed and character expressions are much more lifelike, particularly in cutscenes. Water and fire have been greatly improved, and everything from the crumbling walls of ruins and the lush island vegetation to the aged notebooks and maps Drake carries with him are brimming with minute, real-life detail. Faces have a lot more depth and are far less wooden than in the PS3 version, something that's immediately apparent in the game's first encounter. The game on PS3 has some serious uncanny valley moments, with emotional facial expressions looking particularly odd, but the remastered humans look good enough to make Naughty Dog's sweeping cinematic style work quite well. The fact that the game runs at 60fps now also makes the whole affair much smoother (and makes aiming a bit more precise, as well).

Like a fine wine, Nathan Drake gets better with age. (PS4 remaster at left; PS3 at right)

While the graphics may not be a problem, the first Uncharted shows a bit of weakness in the gameplay variety department. Your character isn't really upgradeable in any sense: You find better guns as you go, but there's no way of tricking out Drake's skills to fit your play style. And while the frequent shoot-em-up battles you find yourself in start out thrilling, they feel pretty repetitive once you're about halfway through the game. There's also not much of a reward for exploring the wonderfully-rendered island you find yourself on. There are some treasure items scattered about to collect, but they don't reveal anything about the world nor do they really reward you beyond adding a trophy to your PlayStation collection.

From a story perspective, the game takes a little while to get going. After a solid first hour or so, there's a long stretch where it just felt like I was mowing my way through the jungle taking out bad guys as they came with not a whole lot of movement or story advances. And once the gameplay started to get a little stale -- there's A LOT of "hide from gunfire behind this object, lean out and pop some guys, slowly advance" action going on here -- I started to think about just skipping ahead to Uncharted 2.

If you're part of the 80 percent, this collection is easy to recommend.

Fortunately, things picked up significantly in the game's latter half. The story picked up, some new enemies provided a much-needed change of pace, and I found myself really wanting to see how everything came together in the end. That's not to say that there weren't a few frustrating, hair-pulling platforming sections, because there were -- but they were fortunately few and far between.

The game is overall pretty short, with my playthrough clocking in around eight hours total, making it a nice appetizer into the world of Uncharted. You'll get to know the game's play style and controls and enjoy a pulpy adventure story that has some solid moments of humor and drama mixed in.

Drake holds on for his life in the series' classic Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

And then, when you start Uncharted 2, you'll have the benefit of story background as well as familiarity with how the game works at a high level, which helped me enjoy the game's gripping opening sequence even more. The first Uncharted started out with an almost comically easy, low-stakes confrontation, but Uncharted 2 throws you right into one of Drake's most desperate scenarios before using the good, old flashback trick to unwind how he got into such a jam. It sucked me right in and the game only gets better from there. It doesn't hurt that the sequel is an obvious step up graphics-wise, either -- Naughty Dog continually got more and more out of the PS3 as the series progressed, and the improved graphics gave the Bluepoint Games team more to work with as it updated these games.

If you're part of the 80 percent, this collection is easy to recommend. The first game may show its age compared with more contemporary adventures like the Tomb Raider reboot or Naughty Dog's own The Last of Us, but it's still a fun romp before jumping into Uncharted 2 -- the real meat of the collection. And even though I haven't gotten to Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception yet, I'm eagerly going to jump right in, and be ready to move right on to Uncharted 4: A Thief's End when it comes out next spring. With three highly-regarded games included in a package that's selling for less than $45 on Amazon right now, it's a smart holiday buy.

Image credits: Naughty Dog; Digital Foundry (side-by-side comparison)

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