Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week’s entry covers an action-packed series with an incredible amount of emotional depth—and one that shares a writer with last week’s entry in Amy Hennig.
#30. UNCHARTED series, by Rhain Radford-Burns
“There is no such thing as [Uncharted] 1,” Nolan North told me at Supanova earlier this year. When he was cast as Nathan Drake in an upcoming video game from Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter developer Naughty Dog, North did not know what he was getting himself into.
When Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was released for the PlayStation 4 in November 2007, it was well-received, selling over one million copies in less than three months. The story follows Nathan Drake, a treasure hunter who claims to be a descendant of explorer Sir Francis Drake. As he searches for the lost treasure of El Dorado, Nathan is joined by his mentor Victor Sullivan as well as journalist Elena Fisher.
The game’s narrative is engaging, keeping players on their toes as they search for the treasure and encounter some creepy creatures and interesting characters along the way. Above all else, though, the dialogue is a winner in Drake’s Fortune. The conversations between Nathan and Sullivan are a standout of the entire series, and they all started in the first game.
When Drake’s Fortune received critical acclaim and several award nominations—but no wins—Naughty Dog knew it had to outdo itself in the sequel; and outdo, it did.
“I remember just being excited to do the second one,” North said to me. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves exceeded its predecessor in basically every way. Set two years later, the game sees the return of Drake, Elena, and Sullivan, now joined by the charming Chloe Frazer, as they search for the Cintimani Stone and the lost city of Shangri-La.
The game’s narrative is even more engaging than its predecessor’s, taking Drake across the world as he searches for the treasure. The set pieces throughout the world—usually running, falling, and jumping away from nasty enemies—are stunning and could easily be mistaken for a scene from an Indiana Jones film. The graphical fidelity of Naughty Dog’s engine also clearly saw an improvement from the first game, and players took notice.
After it was released in October 2009, Uncharted 2 became one of the highest-rated games of all times and has since sold over six million copies. Having won the most Game of the Year awards for 2009, Naughty Dog knew the success that it had on its hands—and it knew what it had to do to continue that success.
“When [the second one] really took off, [Naughty Dog] pretty much knew that there’d be a third and a fourth,” North continued. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception continued the trend of Drake looking for historical artefacts: this time, the lost city known as the Iram of the Pillars.
The witty banter between Drake and Sullivan returned, as did the character of Sullivan himself, taking a more leading role here than in Uncharted 2. The cinematic quality of the gameplay and cutscenes hit a new high in Uncharted 3, combining voice acting and motion capture to make the player feel as though the characters were real.
Naughty Dog split into two teams to develop Uncharted 3—with the other half working on The Last of Us—and this split focus shows, with the game never really living up to its predecessor. While the game received critical acclaim and sold well upon its release in November 2011, the second game remained the leader of the series.
For now, at least.
In Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Nathan has retired and settled down with Elena, now his wife. When his estranged older brother Sam returns to his life to look for the lost treasure of Henry Avery, however, Nathan joins him, bringing Sullivan along.
The emotional depth of the narrative truly hit a new high in Uncharted 4. Watching Drake struggle as he lies to his wife about coming out of retirement, and the tension that ensues as a result of his lies, leads to some of the most emotional scenes in any video game and prove that Neil Druckmann perfected his writing craft after his work on The Last of Us. The performances of Nolan North as Drake and Emily Rose as Elena are incredible, building upon the three predecessors to make the player feel truly engaged in their lives.
The graphical quality of the game exceeds most other games that came before it (and many since). The new open world-style gameplay adds a level of replayability not found in the game’s predecessors, and the improvements to several gameplay mechanics—including more stealth options and the addition of a grappling hook—even more so.
Whether or not Uncharted 4 exceeded the quality of Uncharted 2 is an argument that continues long after the former’s release in May 2016. Nonetheless, Uncharted 4 stands as a worthy adversary for the second game, selling more copies and winning more awards. But what about a sequel?
As North said to me, “It wasn’t until the fourth one kinda started that there’s no fifth one, and you’re kinda going, ‘Okay, what’s next?’”
Thankfully, something did come next—but without Nathan Drake. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, released in August 2017, followed Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross (from Uncharted 4) as they search for the Tusk of Ganesh within the mountains of India. The chemistry between Chloe and Nadine mimics that of Drake and Sullivan, though in a different way. The player remains engaged through the narrative, with some incredible moments that will stun them along the way, and the fine-tuning of some of Uncharted 4’s gameplay features such as the swinging and vehicle gameplay make The Lost Legacy a fine addition to the franchise.
And, for now, that is where the story ends.
“It was bittersweet to end the franchise, but we’re proud of what we’ve made,” North concluded. “If that’s the way that Sony and Naughty Dog decide to leave it, then I’m fine with that.”
Don’t Forget Jak and Daxter
Hi, Mitchell here. At the end of the Hellblade piece, I popped up to say how one should not skip Enslaved, and that fans of Hellblade would find more Ninja Theory greatness therein.
For Jak and Daxter, the story is very different.
These games were Naughty Dog’s series prior to Uncharted, and are different from the latter in almost every way. Where Nathan Drake styles himself after Indiana Jones as a globetrotting adventurer, the Jak games were an American spin on the fantasy cartoon universes of shounen anime—filtered through the chunky aesthetic of Joe Mad’s Battle Chasers comic (just look at how similar the two logos are).
Devotees of the consciously cinematic, endlessly propulsive linear action of Uncharted need not apply. Instead, Jak and Daxter is an almost perfectly balanced midpoint between such cinematic ambitions and the earlier Looney Tunes energy of Crash Bandicoot: a sort of preteen, but slightly edgy action-adventure with weird human-like characters and interesting, magical locales.
For the young or young-at-heart fan of series like Fullmetal Alchemist, Star Wars, or Avatar: The Last Airbender, the three Jak and Daxter titles were the ultimate in fantasy escapism on the PlayStation 2, save maybe Dark Chronicle (a game that hewed even closer to the king of the genre, The Legend of Zelda).
The first title, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy, began proceedings in 2001, with an original fantasy universe featuring lost ancient technology, big ugly beasts and a cornucopia of different level themes. From the aptly named Misty Island, through a forbidding jungle temple, across a mountain pass and into various rainy swamps, sunken cities and spooky caves, The Precursor Legacy was a fascinating implementation of the Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie format on then-next-gen hardware.
Still remarkable today is how the whole game plays without load times, a feature Naughty Dog continued to champion into the present. Aside from its era-appropriate collect-the-things objectives, The Precursor Legacy was highly influential thanks to its Saturday morning cartoon presentation—the game more or less set the standard for dozens of western-developed PlayStation 2 games afterwards.
With 2003’s Jak 2 (dropping the “and Daxter” entirely), Naughty Dog was not content to merely iterate, instead making the controversial and occasionally-mocked decision to transform Jak from voiceless do-gooder into tortured monster, experimented upon by the new villain, Baron Praxis.
Rather than the assumed edgelord reasons for “darkening” the series up, this was actually an attempt by the developers to craft its own version of the Grand Theft Auto III formula. Far from being just another Super Mario 64, the game’s setting was now a futuristic authoritarian city, though the game also has other creative levels that take place in the surrounding landscapes.
Thanks to Praxis’s experiments, Jak gained a little in anger management issues, and a lot more in Jekyll-and-Hyde style Dark Eco powers. With more going on under the surface of his heroic personality, Jak (now a voiced protagonist) participates in a dramatic Star Wars-like tale of rebellion and old wounds, with plenty of plot twists and new characters to meet. At the same time, despite being dropped from the title, Daxter continues to provide comic relief and is even playable at times determined by the story.
After Jak 2‘s epic glow-up of the story and tone, Jak 3 came along one year later as a final episode to tie the series together. The less said at this point the better, as the third game has its own twists that are best not spoiled. The game also suffers somewhat from a lack of challenge and less dramatic story compared with its distinctive predecessor. Yet, even as a lesser sequel, the third game’s story presentation benefited from Amy Hennig’s involvement—she joined the Jak 3 team while the other series that she had been brought on to lead (later titled Uncharted…) was still spinning up.
Although the series could reasonably be characterised as the studio’s adolescent years between mascot platformers and serious, dramatic stories in Uncharted and The Last of Us, the Jak and Daxter games are no half measures or mere historical curios. Their animation and story presentation remained heavily influential on western-developed action-adventure games, and their type of game has only become more rare among triple-A releases.
If nothing else, Sony should remember that despite its current focus on “serious” cinematic presentation and adult-rated open worlds, it once developed a series of cartoony adventures that nevertheless boasted triple-A production values.