Republished on Wednesday 1st January, 2020: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of January 2020's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves changed everything. The critically acclaimed adventure not only went on to win copious awards following its October 2009 launch, but it also kickstarted a chain of PlayStation 3 exclusives, which – alongside a much needed hardware revision – steered Sony's flagging brand back towards commercial relevance. Nathan Drake's search for Shambhala was a game changer in every sense of the word – and it's still pretty darn impressive over half a decade later.
Other franchises have tried to mirror the sequel's set-pieces, but few can pull off playable spectacle quite like developer Naughty Dog. The introductory sequence is evidence of that: our wisecracking protagonist finds himself wounded, seated in a freight train overhanging a Nepalese mountain range. You must navigate the decrepit carriage, dancing from ledge to ledge in order to cheat sudden death. It's a sign of things to come, as Drake is dragged from one dazzling encounter to the next.
If you haven't played it for a few years, then returning to Among Thieves will feel like a fever dream of the previous generation's most memorable moments: the heist, the train ride, the tank chase, the bridge, the boss fight – alright, maybe that last one's etched into your brain for all of the wrong reasons. But that's perhaps the point: the game's not perfect and it never was, but it succeeds in areas where contemporary blockbusters still struggle today. And in that regard, Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection holds up remarkably well.
Part of this is due to the outrageous restoration work by Bluepoint Games – a company that's quickly making a name for itself courtesy of its ridiculously good remasters. All three titles here – Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception complement the standout second game – run at 60 frames-per-second in crystal clear 1080p, with the textures buffed and the audio remixed and the lighting improved. We could go on, but there's Digital Foundry for that – just know that this is about as stellar a conversion as you're likely to see.
The improvements aren't restricted to its presentation, though: the swimmy aiming of Drake's Deception has been replaced by an amalgamation of the best input algorithms from the previous two games, while the silly SIXAXIS aspects have been ripped out of Drake's Fortune. The developer's even gone back to the first game to incorporate mechanics that were added later in the series – the way that grenades are employed, for instance – which results in a more consistent experience across the board.
And that's a good thing because existing fans of the franchise will likely find themselves hopping between the different titles at will. The melee mechanics still go through three rounds of iteration over the course of the collection, and the combat encounters certainly grow in complexity if you compare the rudimentary jungle arenas of the first game to, say, the ship graveyard of the third instalment – but as a collection spanning escapades released across four or so years, it's extraordinary how cohesive it all feels.
That's not to say that Drake's Fortune has magically become modern: the 2007 title feels like its evolved immediately out of the PlayStation 2 era, as its simplistic mix of platforming and gunplay makes for quite an old-school experience by today's standards. And yet, its characters – groundbreaking at the time – are still thoroughly inviting, while its action sequences are generally well designed. A shootout in a church, for example, will find you using pews as makeshift cover, as enemies approach from above and flank from the sides.
It's an aspect that's mastered in the second game, as combat bowls give you the freedom to move around and use the environment to your advantage. Uncharted rarely gets much credit for its core action, but there's a frenetic nature to the way that encounters are designed that's easy to appreciate. Unlike other stop-and-pop shooters of the era, Naughty Dog uses destructible cover and incredibly aggressive enemy types to force you to move, while limited ammunition resources ensure that you never stick with the same weapon for too long.
And when it clicks, all three games are up there with Resident Evil 4 and Vanquish as some of the best third-person shooters ever made – it's just a shame that difficulty spikes are so prevalent across the entire trilogy. There are moments in Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection where you'll feel like you're up against impossible odds, and while this will coax you into upping your game, it can be unfair when a shotgunner shrugs off a fifth bullet to the head, only to pick you off with a single round of shotgun fire.
It's not the end of the world: the checkpointing is great and the load times are lightning fast, but the frustration can get in the way of the storytelling – and it can lead to exasperation as you enter yet another room filled with knee-high objects. The same irritation can extend to the platforming at times, too, as the level design occasionally fails to telegraph where you should be heading – and you leap to your death unwittingly time and time again. But these are pet peeves in the general scheme of things, as the trilogy will entertain more than it irks.
Of course, there is now an option to dial down the difficulty dramatically if you're mainly here for the plot. Explorer Mode is a new addition to this compilation, and potentially recognition of the fact that the games – even when set to their easiest tiers – were a bit too challenging for the average player in their original guises. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Brutal Mode can be unlocked after completing Crushing – which is available from the offset – and offers a punishing alternative. Frankly, this new addition seems outright unfair to us, but it can be easily ignored.
Much more welcome is the addition of the now obligatory Photo Mode, allowing you to manipulate in-game scenes in realtime in order to snap some truly stunning screenshots. There's also a Speed Run option – allowing you to compare your performance against friends – while virtually every statistic in each title has been awarded a scoreboard, too. Drake's Deception comes with all of the extras that its original PS3 release was missing as well, including a never-ending list of costumes if you're into that sort of thing.
So, this is a remaster that goes the extra mile, but the absence of multiplayer is worth acknowledging – even if it doesn't devalue the package too much in our opinion. Naughty Dog's suggested that exclusive access to the Uncharted 4: A Thief's End beta will make up for this oversight, but we're not convinced that a weeklong sampler will adequately plug the gap for everyone. This package could have been more complete with the series' two existing competitive suites included, then – but the single player is obviously the property's primary draw, and that's unlikely to ever change.
Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection is probably the best PS4 remaster thus far – and the system's had more than enough of them to give that statement weight. While there are small elements of all three bundled titles that have failed to stand the test of time, this is still a stellar trilogy, with stories and set-pieces that generally tend to better most modern games. Of course, existing fans will already know what wonders await them – but newcomers should brace themselves for 30 or so hours of solid gold.