Franchise Festival #74: Uncharted

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.

This week we’ll be charting the course of Uncharted. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.

Though I will be citing my research throughout the article, I’d like to draw particular attention to a few major sources:

Background

Friends Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin founded JAM Software, Inc. (“Jason and Andy’s Magic”) in McLean, Virginia in 1984 as a means to fund their own gaming hobby. The studio’s first piece of software was intended to be a barely concealed copy of Nintendo’s Punch-Out, but a programming error deleted the entire project and forced JAM to start again from scratch. Their second title was a humble self-published Apple II educational program called Math Jam (1985).

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The cover of Math Jam. Clearly the coolest way to learn math. Source: Naughty Dog

JAM’s first pure entertainment release was Ski Crazed (1986), which Andy and Gavin successfully pitched to publisher Baudville. The studio signed with publisher Electronic Arts (EA) following their next project, an adventure game called Dream Zone (1987), and rebranded as Naughty Dog during the development of PC RPG Keef the Thief (1989). Naughty Dog moved into console development with Rings of Power (1991) on the SEGA Genesis and Way of the Warrior (1994) on the 3DO. After a decade of qualified successes, Naughty Dog finally achieved widespread critical and commercial acclaim with the Sony PlayStation’s Crash Bandicoot (1996) and its immediate sequels.

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Swinging pendulums would remain a part of Naughty Dog’s obstacle toolset from Crash Bandicoot (pictured) to the Uncharted series. Source: MobyGames

Unfortunately, Universal Interactive Entertainment owned the rights to the Crash Bandicoot intellectual property (IP). Naughty Dog was forced to explore the development of new software without its successful mascot character when the studio was acquired by Sony in 2001. It quickly moved on to a new 3D platformer series called Jak and Daxter (2001-2009) designed from the ground up for Sony’s PlayStation 2 console. In the mid-2000s, though, the studio underwent several significant staff transitions.

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The second entry in the Jak and Daxter series, Jak II (2003), was Naughty Dog’s first title to heavily feature gunplay. Source: MobyGames

Founders Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin left Naughty Dog in 2004 as Evan Wells and Steven White took the reins as co-presidents. Steven White was soon replaced by Christophe Balestra and the studio began to explore what kind of content it might produce for Sony’s upcoming PlayStation 3 console. Around the same time, Crystal Dynamics’ Amy Hennig – the celebrated writer and director of The Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (1999), Soul Reaver 2 (2001), and Legacy of Kain: Defiance (2002) – was hired by Naughty Dog and assigned to direct the new project.

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Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007)

Under Hennig, conceptual development on Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune began in 2004 and moved into full production in 2005. Up to 70 full-time employees and six contractors were part of the process. An impressively candid post-mortem by Naughty Dog’s Richard Lemarchand and Neil Druckmann, published by Gamasutra in 2008, offers a blow-by-blow account of the challenges associated with designing a game for an entirely new and untested home console. The PlayStation 3’s proprietary Cell Processor was notoriously idiosyncratic and Naughty Dog was undoubtedly under pressure to deliver strong results, given its status as a Sony subsidiary.

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Elena and Nathan establish instant chemistry thanks to strong art direction and actors Emily Rose and Nolan North. Source: Joseph Anderson

Surprisingly, one of the biggest hurdles during development was simply getting approval for the team’s basic concept. Early designs had focused on a grim aesthetic, as that was the way the wider industry was moving in the mid-2000s, but Hennig redirected the project towards a pulpy style inspired by Indiana Jones, Buck Rogers, and Doc Savage. Sony was looking for a mascot character to help push its new console, so selling protagonist Nathan Drake’s everyman look – a “costume” consisting of jeans and a t-shirt – was an uphill battle. Hennig and her team were eventually successful in asserting the need to make the lead character relatable if they were going to create a property as iconic as its cinematic roots.

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There are a lot of waist-high walls and columns on this island, let me tell you. Source: Joseph Anderson

Early builds of the game were relatively similar to its released version, though a few major changes were made along the way. Gun combat and cover systems were always going to serve as the core gameplay loop, eschewing the variety that had defined Naughty Dog’s Jak and Daxter, but shooting enemies was originally handled using an automated lock-on system which integrated mini-games to execute special kills. A lack of impact led the team to abandon this mechanic in favor of manual over-the-shoulder aiming in the style of Resident Evil 4 (2005) or Gears of War (2006).

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Nathan’s pal Sully, as portrayed by Richard McGonagle, is a highlight. Source: Joseph Anderson

Emphasizing narrative and the interpersonal relationships of the game’s characters required Naughty Dog to engage in heavy motion-capture for the first time. Rather than producing sequences abstractly by recording discrete motions and then linking them together through a computer animation program, Hennig’s team blocked out and recorded scripted scenes like they were creating a live-action film. Uncharacteristically for the medium, all motion capture was carried out by the characters’ voice actors; this allowed the developers to offer unprecedented layers of nuance in the interplay between characters’ physical actions and their spoken lines. The audio for these sessions was captured but not used in the game, being replaced during post-production with voiceovers by the same actors.

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Motion capture session featuring Emily Rose and Nolan North. Source: NeoGamer – The Video Game Archive

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was published by Sony on the PlayStation 3 in North America in November 2007. Players take on the role of Nathan Drake, adventurous descendant of Sir Francis Drake, as he uncovers a mystery concerning the lost treasure of El Dorado. Nathan is joined by two non-playable character (NPC) allies, journalist Elena Fisher and cantankerous middle-aged treasure hunter Victor Sullivan (“Sully”). The latter is an old friend of Nathan, while the former is the financial backer behind Nathan’s latest expedition. A gang of charismatic enemies, including criminal ringleader Gabriel Roman, Gabriel’s lieutenant Atoq Navarro, and pirate Eddy Raja, round out the cast.

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Puzzles are less complex than the journal illustrations that serve as clues. Source: Joseph Anderson

Gameplay articulates as a cover-based third-person shooter. Nathan explores linear environments, solves fairly rudimentary puzzles using a journal featuring notes by his ancestor, and engages in gun combat with waves of enemies. Aside from a late-game swerve into the supernatural, virtually all foes are firearm-wielding humans. Battles are typically set in enclosed arenas featuring a plethora of waist-high walls behind which Nathan can temporarily seek shelter from bullets. Grenades and melee combat round out the player’s arsenal, though neither are as precise or flexible as gunfire; both are instead used in specific scenarios, as Nathan respectively flushes enemies out from cover or engages an antagonist at close range.

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There are almost as many hand-holds on otherwise sheer surfaces as there are columns and waist-high walls. Source: Joseph Anderson

While gameplay variety is noticeably toned down from the assorted minigames of Jak and Daxter, a handful of alternate modes exist outside of the central puzzle-solving/shooting dynamic. Much of the game is set on an island full of jungles and crumbling colonial structures, presenting a host of opportunities for platforming and context-sensitive climbing sequences. Two different types of vehicle combat are also included: Nathan memorably fires at approaching enemies using a mounted turret on the back of a jeep driven by Elena during one setpiece, while two other portions of the game feature Nathan and Elena battling foes and evading explosive barrels as they navigate waterways on a jetski.

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This sequence may look nice, but it never even hints at being fun. Source: Joseph Anderson

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was received well by the video games press. It was praised for its narrative and shockingly high production values, though its gameplay came under criticism by outlets like 1UP.com. The repetition of its combat encounters and clumsy vehicle sequences have been highlighted by video essayists like Joseph Anderson as its reputation diminished over time. Whatever its problems, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was a huge commercial success and laid the foundation for one of the seventh console generation’s most popular new IPs. A re-release on the PlayStation 4 as part of the Nathan Drake Collection in 2015 ensured that the game remains playable even outside of the PlayStation 3’s distinctive Cell Processor environment.

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Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009)

Hennig’s team began experimenting with a follow-up to their PlayStation 3 debut shortly before the 2007 holiday season. They based the new project, initially, on a massive stage in which Nathan Drake battles enemies aboard a moving train. The complexity of this environment was an ideal testing ground, facilitating Naughty Dog’s development of an entirely new set of proprietary physics and graphics tools purpose-built for their current IP. Lessons learned from their first experience programming for the PlayStation 3 would inform a significantly more polished reprise.

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Uncharted 2‘s in medias res introduction is among the franchise’s most memorable moments. Source: Joseph Anderson

Roughly 20 to 30 new team members were hired, as Naughty Dog sought to enhance the scale of Nathan Drake’s second outing, though some were contractors who would not be retained following the title’s completion. A contemporary Gamasutra interview with Naughty Dog’s Neil Druckmann reveals one of the studio’s most enduringly peculiar  staffing practices: a relatively flat corporate hierarchy which necessitates an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to each new project. Virtually every one of Naughty Dog’s employees, from artists to programmers to producers, was directly involved in the development of Uncharted 2 from late 2007 to 2009.

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A running gun battle along a moving train roughly halfway through the game remains virtually unparalleled a decade after the game’s release. Source: Joseph Anderson

Much of the latter half of that two year process was spent iterating upon two core concepts. The story of Nathan, Elena, and Sully was to be complicated by the introduction of new characters and locations yet remain relatively lighthearted, while play was anchored around interactive large-scale environmental transformations. Where other games might feature their most bombastic moments in cutscenes, where scripted movements ensure that the scene comes together exactly as its creators intended with no room for players to muck it up, Hennig and her staff sought to make players feel like they were controlling a blockbuster action movie themselves.

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Uncharted 2 is more lighthearted than its war-torn setting might reasonably suggest. Source: Joseph Anderson

The result is one of the PlayStation 3’s greatest artistic triumphs. Uncharted 2 launched in North America to near-universal acclaim on October 13, 2009, with its storytelling and breathtaking action serving as the centers of attention. The work that Naughty Dog had put into graphical improvements had not escaped notice, though, as even the footprints in a snowy area were called out by critics as praiseworthy. Full performance capture allowed actors to have their voices and actions captured in sync for the first time, enhancing the verisimilitude of the game’s characters over its already-impressive predecessor. Paradoxically, Uncharted 2 had somehow improved upon its predecessor in both scale and specificity.

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Chloe (center, Claudia Black) outlasts Sully on Nathan’s second Uncharted quest. Source: Joseph Anderson

Players take on the role of Nathan Drake once again as he is joined by series newcomer Chloe Frazer. Nathan and Chloe are bound together in a plot to recover the Cintamani Stone, a relic from the lost city of Shambala which was briefly in the possession of Marco Polo during the thirteenth century. They are opposed by a variety of forces as the adventure expands in scope, from fellow treasure-hunter Harry Flynn to the terrifying war criminal Zoran Lazarević and his goons. Sully reappears briefly to bail Nathan out of a Turkish prison and accompany him on a mission to Borneo, while Elena joins the game in a more substantive capacity as a reporter investigating Zoran’s activity in war-torn Nepal.

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Chase sequences in which Nathan runs toward the player perspective and away from an approaching enemy, bear a striking resemblance to Crash Bandicoot. Source: Joseph Anderson

While the core third-person shooter gameplay is remarkably similar to its implementation in Uncharted, refinements are noticeable. Gunplay is tighter, while stealth melee attacks reduce the number of enemies pouring into any given area. Combat is primarily enhanced through more inventive level design and pacing, as increased verticality makes battles play out more thoughtfully than the relatively flat cover-based encounters of Uncharted. While Nathan’s weaponry remains constrained to two guns at any given time, which can be swapped out for new guns as they are recovered from fallen foes, varied architecture ensures that stages do not grow overly repetitious. Nathan must solve puzzles, escape crumbling structures, battle helicopters, sneak past or silently disable patrolling guards, and even peacefully explore a Nepalese village. The intensity of Uncharted 2‘s gameplay has simultaneously been heightened and reduced at appropriate moments, solving its predecessor’s key shortcoming. 

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An enemy helicopter. I wonder if it’s a Hind D. Source: Joseph Anderson

Naughty Dog also introduces online multiplayer to the series for the first time. This portion of the game was developed by an entirely separate team, though the core single-player designers offered regular feedback along the way. Multiplayer is separated into two cooperative modes, in which up to three players collaborate to steal treasure or survive a siege, as well as six competitive modes. Up to ten players can take part in the latter, which include online shooter standards like Deathmatch and Capture the Flag (here identified as “Plunder”). Chain Reaction is the most unique concept on offer, as teams of players compete against one another to capture a series of locations in a set order. In the tradition of Call of Duty (2003-2019), points accrued from victories can be used to acquire new character skins and abilities. Though the PlayStation 3 multiplayer servers were shut down in 2019, fans can still take part in Uncharted 2‘s online gameplay through the PlayStation 4’s Nathan Drake Collection (2015). 

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Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011)

The critical and commercial success of Uncharted 2 made a sequel inevitable, but also set a level of expectation that the development team would struggle to fulfill. They would attempt to identify fans’ favorite aspects of the series and emphasize those while yet again expanding the adventure’s scope. While bold, this ambition would be challenged by two major issues during development: the need to produce entirely new settings due to the series’ globetrotting identity and a poorly timed diversion of staff resources.

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Amy Hennig wisely decided to take a step back from the franchise’s forward momentum, though there’s still plenty of that, to focus on Nathan and Sully’s history. Source: Joseph Anderson

For the first time in its history, Naughty Dog would be simultaneously developing two large-scale games. Staff was pulled between Uncharted 3 and a new IP, The Last of Us, a post-apocalyptic survival story which represented a radical thematic departure from the studio’s characteristically breezy style. Coupled with burnout sustained by long hours spent on Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog’s staff found itself at an unprecedented level of tension from 2009 to 2011. The introduction of a new co-director, Justin Richmond, could not fully overcome the deleterious consequences of this tough work environment.

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Though much of the game is set in medieval castles and sandy expanses, its cityscapes are equally evocative. Source: Joseph Anderson

Uncharted 3 was published by Sony for the PlayStation 3 in North America on November 1, 2011. It features a new story and new multiplayer elements, though it is a more or less iterative update to what Hennig and Naughty Dog had accomplished in Uncharted 2. Changes represent a combination of positive and negative alterations. With regard to the former, the series’ visual design has reached a new peak in its third entry. Setting much of the game in the Arabian Peninsula emphasizes Naughty Dog’s distinctive fusion of art and programming, as sand animates and coats surfaces dynamically. Character designs are likewise stronger than ever; a portion of the game is set in the past, demonstrating the actors’, writers’, and artists’ abilities to convey a sense of history and consistency in their increasingly deep protagonists.

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The sinister Katherine Marlowe is more genteel than Uncharted 2‘s war criminal antagonist, but no less dangerous. Source: Joseph Anderson

The plot is largely successful. A series of flashbacks interspersed within the modern plot, a race to the lost city of Ubar, flesh out the Nathan Drake’s youth and his history with Sully. Though Nathan and Elena are estranged at the start of the adventure, she eventually makes a triumphant return. Chloe too aids Nathan on his quest. These returning elements, along with charismatic new adversary Katherine Marlowe and her Hermetic Order, echo the success of Uncharted 2 while also deepening each character’s history and emotional palette.

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The plane bit is as cool as you’d imagine. Source: Joseph Anderson

An intense sequence set aboard and beneath a plane in flight anchors the game’s action, but other such planned setpieces proved too unwieldy to implement within a reasonable time period. Much of this may be down to the difficulty of iterating on Uncharted 2, which was already a playable Hollywood blockbuster. Complaints of overly linear level design were likewise levied against the game, though this likely reflects changing attitudes in the early 2010s rather than any inherent problem; Uncharted had not been known for non-linearity in the past and, as explicated by Amy Hennig in an interview with GameTrailers, tight level design was a key part of how Naughty Dog delivered highly cinematic setpieces in the series’ first two entries.

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Melee combat improved even as the shooting mechanics lost their je ne sais qois. Source: Joseph Anderson

A more controversial update is the refined set of shooting mechanics. Stealth and melee remain unchanged overall, but aiming firearms is now less precise than it had been in Uncharted 2. Negative player responses and a subsequent meeting between Naughty Dog and fans resulted in a patch which reintroduced the preceding game’s aiming system.

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It’s hard to tell, thanks to an incredible lighting system, but there are hundred of spiders in this image. Spooky, eh? Source: Joseph Anderson

In contrast to its controversial controls, Uncharted 3‘s multiplayer is an unmitigated improvement on the already-strong foundation of Uncharted 2. Competitive and cooperative gameplay modes return, but these are augmented now through the addition of a Buddy System. Players may be assigned a buddy at the start of a match, allowing them to see that player’s location in their heads-up-display and quickly respawn next to their buddy if their avatar is killed. Dynamic setpieces like crumbling structures and planes are another welcome introduction to the palette of online combat. Downloadable content (DLC) also expanded the multiplayer over time, adding new cosmetic elements and stages through 2013.

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Uncharted 3 happily features more sequences in which Nathan and his allies simply explore a setting without shooting anyone. Source: Joseph Anderson

Minor blemishes and a somewhat fraught development cycle would not keep Uncharted 3 from being exceptionally well-received upon its release. Critical outlets praised it highly, while identifying the areas in which it fell short, and it shipped over 3.8 million units on its launch day alone. The multiplayer would retain a steady player base for years after the game’s initial release and, like its direct predecessor, remains accessible at the time of writing through the PlayStation 4’s Nathan Drake Collection following the shuttering of its original servers. Sadly, Uncharted 3 would represent the last title directed by franchise veteran Amy Hennig before her departure from Naughty Dog.

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Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016)

It is telling that, after three series entries released on a challenging biennial schedule, Uncharted 4 took five years to be published. Lest one imagine that this reflects a less punishing work environment, it does not. Uncharted 4 required the same level of employee crunch time as Uncharted 3 had before it as Naughty Dog became increasingly notorious for its seemingly unsustainable development schedules amidst a wider conversation addressing the industry’s poor working conditions during the late 2010s.

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Some critics made the case that Nathan Drake’s internal struggle throughout Uncharted 4 is an intentional nod to the difficulties chasing the often-cruel world of game development at the expense of a comfortable family life. Source: Joseph Anderson

Thanks to Jason Schreier’s investigatory journalism, documented in Blood, Sweat and Pixels (2017), fans know more about the development of Uncharted 4 than they otherwise might. A nondisparagement agreement signed by Amy Hennig upon her departure from Naughty Dog in 2014 ensured that less information from the seemingly fraught process trickled out through post-mortems and interviews. Consequently, much of what is known about internal tensions within Naughty Dog during Uncharted 4‘s development was pieced together by Schreier through conversations with others who worked on the game.

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What’s a modern action hero without a grappling hook? Source: Joseph Anderson

Initial planning began in 2011 under the direction of Hennig and Uncharted 3 co-director Justin Richmond. A handful of bold new ideas were pitched, including a grappling hook mechanic (which would make it into the final game) and the omission of any guns until halfway through the story (this idea would be abandoned). The latter concept seems to have been based on concerns among the wider fan community that the series’ breezy tone and protagonist’s charm was at odds with its high body count.

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Don’t worry – Nathan still kills plenty of dudes in the finished game. Source: Joseph Anderson

Whatever the case, few of these plans were conclusively implemented due to staffing issues. The Last of Us, spearheaded by Naughty Dog’s Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, had been given priority and regularly siphoned away employees who had previously been working with Hennig and Richmond on the Uncharted franchise. By 2013, Uncharted 4 was being produced by a skeleton crew. Hennig and Richmond both left the project in 2014 following a pivotal meeting between Hennig and Naughty Dog’s co-presidents. The game’s last two years of development, which evidently received the full support of Naughty Dog, were led instead by Straley and Druckmann after they wrapped up The Last of Us (2013) and its DLC.

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Though it changes things up more than previous entries, Uncharted 4 makes plenty of room for climbing. Source: Joseph Anderson

Impressively, given its developmental vicissitudes, Uncharted 4 was released to widespread acclaim on the PlayStation 4 in May 2016. The game was an instant commercial success and somehow managed to elegantly wrap up the story spun by its predecessors. Happily, five long years away from public view had not dimmed the appeal of Nathan Drake and his friends.

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Nadine (Laura Bailey) is among the fourth entry’s standout newcomers. Source: Joseph Anderson

Its narrative is more concerned with Nathan’s psychology and his relationship with Elena Fisher than any previous title had been; at the game’s start, the two are married and living a seemingly happy domestic life rather than chasing treasure or shadowy cabals. The absence of adventure weighs on Nathan, though, and he is soon pulled into another globe-trotting quest with the surprise appearance of his brother Sam. Formerly thought to have died in prison, Sam introduces Nathan to antagonists Rafe Adler, Nadine Ross and her mercenary group Shoreline, and drug kingpin Henry Alcazar as they race to secure the treasure of English pirate Henry Avery. Sully joins Nathan’s adventure, of course, but Chloe Frazer is absent for the first time since the series’ first title.

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Sam (Nolan North) is less interesting than Nadine, but you have to get Nathan out of retirement somehow, right? Source: Joseph Anderson

Gameplay is a blend of old and new. Gunplay, puzzles, and cover mechanics remain effectively unchanged from their implementation in the series’ PlayStation 3 titles, though a handful of new action elements make Uncharted 4 the most dynamic  entry so far. Evidently taking cues from 2013’s Tomb Raider reboot, which had itself been partially informed by the gameplay systems of Uncharted, Uncharted 4 includes several sequences in which Nathan careens semi-controllably down angled surfaces and must narrowly avoid instant death through the player’s split-second button presses. Hennig’s proposed grappling hook, which made it to the final build of the game, likewise increases the verticality of Uncharted 4‘s level design. The addition of dialogue trees to cutscenes conveys a similar level of flexibility even during peaceful moments.

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Nathan will slide down several slopes and heaven help him if the player doesn’t pay attention to what’s up ahead. Source: Joseph Anderson

The final major overhaul to the Uncharted formula, aside from enhanced visuals produced by the leap from seventh to eighth generation home console hardware, is the introduction of vast open spaces referred to by producer Neil Druckmann as “wide-linear” rather than open-world. In contrast to its predecessors’ corridor/arena/setpiece approach to level design, Uncharted 4 includes several massive hub areas which must be navigated by vehicles. This speaks to the ubiquity of open-world video game design during the mid-2010s, but also offers yet another remedy to pacing concerns baked into Uncharted‘s ultimately simplistic cover-based combat. Players can now solve puzzles, shoot enemies, sneak past guards, engage in melee combat, watch thrilling cutscenes, leap and climb across dangerous terrain, and explore the wide-open fields of Madagascar.

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The boat used to navigate around an open island chain is better than Uncharted‘s aforementioned jetski sequence by an order of magnitude. Source: Joseph Anderson

Multiplayer is not fundamentally dissimilar to the highly popular competitive and cooperative modes of Uncharted 3. The most significant change is the addition of AI-controlled sidekicks, which can be summoned by players during online gameplay. These allies fall into one of several classes and can help less experienced players defend themselves against challenging AI enemies or player-controlled opponents. While its story mode was drawing on deeper and deeper reserves of player familiarity with its characters’ history, Uncharted 4‘s multiplayer was the easiest so far for new players.

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Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (2017)

Though Uncharted 4 wrapped up the story of Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher, Naughty Dog wasn’t yet finished with the series. Kurt Margenau and Shaun Escayg directed work on a planned DLC package focused on Chloe Frazer and Uncharted 4‘s Nadine Ross, but the scope of this project expanded during its startlingly brief fifteen months in development. The team quickly realized that they had enough content and ambition to broaden The Lost Legacy out into a full-fledged fifth series entry.

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Though Naughty Dog confessed that it stumbled into the decision, opting to have one of 2017’s biggest AAA properties led by two women of color was the right call. Source: SlashGear

A short production cycle forced the team to stick to a handful of principles established early in the process. In particular, no new tools would be created for the game. It was instead built entirely on the flexible engine of Uncharted 4. An art team led by Tate Mosesian limited their scope to the creation an impressively-realized, and often embellished, set of Indian Dravidian architecture. Though the engine was repurposed, Mosesian’s team strove to avoid reusing any art assets from The Lost Legacy‘s direct predecessor; in the end, foliage libraries were the only major resource to return from Uncharted 4

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Thank goodness they imported foliage from Uncharted 4 because there’s a lot of it here. Binoculars are used to identify areas of interest in the open setting of the Western Ghat mountains. Source: MobyGames

Players control treasure-hunter Chloe Frazer as she seeks the tusk of Hindu deity Ganesh in the Western Ghat mountain range with the help of Nadine. The two eventually cross paths with Nathan’s brother Sam, who is working with Indian insurgent leader Asav. Asav plans to use the tusk of Ganesh as a rallying cry for his cause, igniting civil war in South Asia.

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Taking its cues from Uncharted 2, The Lost Legacy does indeed feature scenes in which Chloe fights aboard a moving vehicle. Source: MobyGames

Gameplay is more or less unchanged from Uncharted 4. Chloe controls like Nathan, and the player is expected to navigate her through puzzles, combat encounters, and platforming challenges. Stealth is emphasized through the introduction of silenced weapons, while dialogue sequences are more prevalent than ever, but the core mechanical loop is familiar to long-time series fans. The online multiplayer included is likewise just a method of accessing expanded content within the online component of Uncharted 4. This is not surprising, given the game’s origins as DLC.

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Multiplayer is as hectic and fun as ever. Source: MobyGames

The Lost Legacy was published by Sony in August 2017, little more than a year after its direct predecessor. Critical response was overwhelmingly positive, though some noted its lack of innovation over Uncharted 4. Unsurprisingly, it won numerous awards for its elegant storytelling, character performances, and lush visual design. Perhaps more importantly for the series’ future, it proved that Uncharted could survive (and could indeed thrive) without Nathan Drake.

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Spinoffs

Uncharted‘s first spinoff is a portable title developed by SIE Bend Studio, a Sony subsidiary which had previously produced Bubsy 3D (1996) and the Syphon Filter series (1999-2007). Released on the PlayStation Vita in Japan as a console launch title during December 2011 and in North America the following February, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is effectively a shrunken version of the core series’ home console entries. Combat, stealth, and exploration mechanics are intact, though melee battles now necessitate the use of the Vita’s touchscreen; touchscreen controls are also used to move along ledges or execute other navigational maneuvers. A gyroscope-based camera minigame encourages repeat playthroughs of the main story, mitigating concerns over losing replay value with the omission of online multiplayer.

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The PlayStation Vita’s gyroscope is used to balance when stepping across narrow bridges. Source: MobyGames

Golden Abyss‘ narrative is set before the events of Drake’s Deception and concerns Nathan Drake’s relationship with rival treasure-hunter Jason Dante during an adventure in Panama. Nathan is joined by Dante’s erstwhile partner Marisa Chase when Dante goes rogue, allying with local warlord Roberto Guerro. Though the quest is more limited in scope than its home console cousins, its production values and storytelling are characteristically superb.

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Golden Abyss is a strikingly faithful transition from home console to portable device. Source: MobyGames

Strangely, the series’ next portable outing was a digital collectible card game (CCG) published on the PlayStation Vita by Sony in 2012. Uncharted: Fight for Fortune was the second spinoff developed by SIE Bend Studio, cementing their status as a developer capable of producing impressively varied adaptations of source material. In contrast to every Uncharted title which preceded it, there is no real narrative to speak of in Fight for Fortune.

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That’s a collectible card game layout, for sure. Source: MobyGames

The core gameplay is strong, however, wisely cribbing from genre influences like Magic the Gathering while injecting a layer of Uncharted identity through recognizable references to core series entries. 18 single-player stages see the player compete against AI opponents while a multiplayer arena allows players to test their decks against one another online. Cards feature characters, items, or abilities drawn from the franchise’s first three releases, while players who have achieved various milestones in Golden Abyss are able to boost their cards’ strength using the relevant save data. Fight for Fortune reviewed remarkably well, though Destructoid memorably described it as “a card game that happens to feature Uncharted — not the other way around.”

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Winning in Drake’s Fortune unlocks new cards or even card backs. Source: MobyGames

Uncharted‘s final spinoff at the time of writing is a free-to-play mobile title developed by PlayStation Mobile Inc. and published by Sony on Android and iOS devices in 2016. In a humorous symmetry with its home console entries, Uncharted: Fortune Hunter draws influences from Square-Enix Montreal’s Lara Croft Go (2015) in the same way that its source material had been informed by that mobile spinoff’s parent franchise. Like Lara Croft Go, Uncharted: Fortune Hunter is a turn-based puzzle game in which the player must navigate Nathan Drake through or attack various hazards using shrewd decision-making rather than quick reflexes.

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Uncharted: Fortune Hunter plays out like a board game designed for gambling addicts. Source: MobyGames

Points are awarded for moving Nathan from his starting position to the goal without crossing over his own trail. Loot boxes can be acquired using coins gained by playing efficiently or by finding hidden treasures within the game’s 200+ stages, though microtransactions using real-world currency allow the player to access this material more quickly than they would through standard play. Rewards earned in Uncharted: Fortune Hunter can then by synced up with Uncharted 4 to unlock cosmetic upgrades in the latter.

Conclusion

Uncharted is a series which seems as though it could feel shallow in the wrong hands. A globetrotting adventure starring a gun-toting Westerner plundering cultural artifacts might rightly be decried for its imperialist implications, yet Naughty Dog has somehow managed to craft a compelling saga in spite of its use of problematic, outdated tropes. It has done so largely by carving out a distinctive identity through staggering layers of craftsmanship and attention to detail.

The series is an utter paradox. It’s a third-person shooter in which the most exciting moments tend to be those when the player character is not holding a gun; it’s a linear story-driven adventure in which multiplayer was seamlessly integrated without jeopardizing the integrity of the core experience. Under the leadership of Amy Hennig, Justin Richmond, Bruce Straley, Neil Druckmann, Kurt Margenau and Shaun Escayg, Uncharted staked out an ambitious claim for what a cinematic action franchise could achieve in the 2010s.


What do you think? What’s your favorite series entry? How about your favorite character? Do you feel like Hennig was done dirty or was new leadership what the series needed after its third release? Is there a surface too steep for Nathan Drake or Chloe Frazer to climb? Let’s discuss in the comments below!

Please join us next week as we explore the history of Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series. The article goes live at 9:00 AM EST on November 8. Here is a tentative list of other upcoming Franchise Festival articles:

  • #75: Grand Theft Auto – November 8
  • #76: Parasite Eve – November 15
  • #77: Might and Magic – November 22
  • #78: Yoshi – November 29
  • #79: SSX – December 6