Few gaming series are as iconic and consistent as the PlayStation darling, Uncharted. It boasts some of the most ambitious and exciting set pieces and action in the adventure genre. Since this series is close to my heart, along with the fact that Uncharted 4 was implied to be the conclusion of the series, I will be ranking Uncharted’s 4 main games (Lost Legacy and Golden Abyss will not be included).
The following article will include spoilers for the story to Uncharted 4.
#4 – Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
Overall, Drake’s Fortune feels like an Uncharted ‘template’ of sorts. It has the general elements of what makes Uncharted great: the characters are likeable, the action is fun, the narrative serves its purpose, and the setting is interesting. The game is a serviceable introduction to Uncharted’s gameplay loops and characters. Drake’s Fortune is a humble, small scale adventure as compared to the huge global conquests of the other games.
The game feels very dated compared to its successors. The gunplay and controls are very stiff by modern standards. In a series centered around fast paced shootouts and platforming, poor controls will worsen the experience to a huge extent. Additionally, it stands as by far the shortest in the series, featuring the least variety in location and level design. Most of the gameplay is mowing down waves of enemies in linear jungle arenas. Virtually every aspect of Drake’s Fortune would be greatly refined in future installments.
Drake’s Fortune definitely deserves respect, by virtue of being the first in the series. It introduced many ideas that the franchise is built on. However, every single component of the Uncharted formula is noticeably better in the later games. By modern standards, most of this title never rises above mediocre. Therefore, its last place ranking is a no-brainer.
#3 – Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception
Drake’s Deception is action-adventure excellence from beginning to end. Yes, the game rapidly throws an excessive amount of set pieces at you, but they are among the series’ best. Electrifying moments chase each other like heartbeats: Drake goes from ship graveyard parkour, to hanging out of a cargo plane, to a desert caravan firefight, in a constant cycle of buildup to thrilling release and then back to buildup.
The game’s location variety allows for an incredible set of levels. Each one is a playground, perfectly crafted around the four core Uncharted gameplay loops: climbing, stealth, firefights, and set pieces. Within these playgrounds, you can often get creative with how you dispatch enemies. Also, despite its narrative shortcomings, the protagonists and their dialogue is fantastic.
The story is arguably the worst of the whole bunch. Talbot, the main antagonist, is a flat attempt at a stoic, unkillable bad guy. The game’s many plotholes mostly stem from his unexplained superhuman capabilities. The other antagonist, Katherine Marlowe, has decent banter with Drake, yet has zero chemistry with Talbot. Uncharted’s narratives have never been very deep or engrossing on their own.
They assume the role of a simple adventure plot; their sole purpose is to create dazzling action. Drake’s Deception takes this to the extreme, though. It careens from location to location, set piece to set piece, with somewhat flimsy connection between it all. It almost feels as though the plot builds around the set pieces instead of the other way around.
Uncharted 2, 3, and 4 are all near the pinnacle of action-adventure gaming. Drake’s Deception‘s incredible set pieces and level design make it arguably the series’ most enjoyable installment. It also took more risks with its narrative than the previous games did. However, the abundance of plot holes and lack of cohesion really take away from the game. Overall, it falls below 2 and 4.
#2 – Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Being the newest and most next-gen game in the series, Uncharted 4‘s visuals blow the other games out of the water. The series’ dazzling locations and environments are fully realized with the power of the PS4. The environments include frigid Scottish cliff sides, quaint Italian vistas, and stunningly beautiful tropical islands. It features the grappling hook, which adds a new layer of freedom and verticality to Uncharted’s combat and climbing.
Also, remember how Uncharted’s plots are usually little more than a vehicle for adventure? Well, A Thief’s End changed that. It sports a narrative that adds great depth to the characters and world of Uncharted, wrapping up Nathan Drake’s story in an emotionally satisfying way. The dialogue and character moments are great throughout.
Although A Thief’s End is superior to the other installments in many facets, I find it to be less than the sum of its parts. My biggest issue is its pacing. Uncharted is at its best when it strikes a balance between its various gameplay loops. Ideally, these gameplay loops should coalesce during much of the adventure. Uncharted 4 feels staccato: it has long stretches of tedious climbing and exploration, with sparse action. This gets interrupted when you run into some enemy platoon and experience a relatively short and straightforward gunfight.
The previous loops then abruptly resume, maybe with a set piece or two thrown into the mix. The adventure just doesn’t feel as natural. It does boast the best exploration of the series, and much of its action is still great. However, the pacing and structure is still off.
I also had gripes with some narrative moments. Near the end, it is revealed that Sam was reluctantly working with Rafe the whole time. Later, Nate and company save Sam. Rafe continues to pursue the treasure alone – only for Sam to ditch the crew and chase the treasure himself, forcing Nate to come along.
The twist wasn’t bad, but this felt like a disappointing final race for the treasure. Instead of actually chasing the treasure, Nate is chasing his knuckleheaded brother. Then, everyone seems to just forget about Sam’s dangerous actions at the end. The original narrative of the brothers chasing the treasure to repay Sam’s debt to Alcazar would’ve been perfectly fine. Another reason for this is that Alcazar seemed like an incredibly compelling villain. Finding out that he was never even alive really took the wind out of my sails.
The series’ fourth installment is one of the PS4 generation’s defining titles. It also seems to be the Uncharted fanbase’s favorite of the series according to polls. Considering the quality of each individual component here, it’s very hard to argue with that assessment. Being next gen, its visuals and combat are far superior to the rest. Also, no other Uncharted game has the emotional depth of A Thief’s End. Despite all this, my personal issues with the game’s pacing and structure leave me unable to grant it the top spot. I simply did not enjoy my time with this game as much as I wanted to.
#1 – Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
In a sense, Uncharted 2 can be viewed as the true beginning of the series. Drake’s Fortune introduced us to the characters, themes, and gameplay formula. However, Among Thieves dramatically ramped up the series’ quality and scale. It set the precedent for the blockbuster action-adventure behemoth that the series has become.
A Thief’s End had by far the most cohesive and meaningful story, but its pacing and combat flow was off. Drake’s Deception had a contrived and disjointed story, but its action and set pieces were fantastic. Among Thieves reaches a happy medium; firstly, its set pieces and level design are possibly the best of the series. The opening set piece, the train level, the mountaintop village level, caravan chase, and Nepali street shootouts stand as some of the most enthralling action in gaming.
Uncharted 2’s story is nowhere near A Thief’s End, but doesn’t have the same issues as Drake’s Deception. It serves the purpose of creating action without being solely centered around the action. Furthermore, the plot holes are much less numerous and glaring. It contains the best villains in the series: Flynn, the conniving Brit, and Lazarevic, the brutal Russian warlord. The cast is lovable and witty as ever and the locations are brilliantly designed, making for one hell of an adventure. Among Thieves operates at a breakneck blockbuster pace. It walks the line between the brilliantly choreographed, unrelenting action of a Mad Max: Fury Road and the lighthearted, over-the-top spectacle of a Mission Impossible.
The game is not without its flaws, though. Uncharted 2’s plot has its fair share of contrivances, much like 1 and 3. Plot holes are prevalent, although not as much as in Drake’s Deception. Additionally, the series experienced a distinct tone shift between 2 and 3. Drake’s Deception took a more serious and personal approach, which A Thief’s End expanded on. This makes Among Thieves much more of a lighthearted action romp relative to its successors. It doesn’t have any serious themes grounding its story, and doesn’t take itself very seriously. This could be good or bad, depending on what you’re in the mood to play.
I believe that Uncharted’s iconic and groundbreaking 2nd installment, Among Thieves, is the best the series has to offer. Despite falling slightly short of 3 and 4 in certain facets, Among Thieves is the most consistently excellent and well rounded experience of the bunch. There are no noticeable flaws here, making the game greater than the sum of its parts. Uncharted 2 stands as one of the most legendary games in history, and for good reason.
Uncharted is quite a polarizing franchise. It may seem like its climbing is simple and dull, that its gunplay is average, or that its set pieces are overly scripted. To be honest, all of these points are salient. In many ways, Uncharted games are all style and no substance. In that case, why does everyone remember these games so fondly? Why do I still sing their praises? Well, Uncharted is meant to be cinematic. It isn’t giving you the most substantive gameplay experience, it is giving you the chance to control the protagonist of a blockbuster action film. The climbing is easy and mindless, but is visually stunning. The set pieces are on-rails, but are some of the most pulse-pounding and creative action sequences one can experience.
The cinematic action of these games is why gamers remember them so fondly. Uncharted 3 was one of the first PlayStation games I ever experienced, and the scale of the game blew my 10 year old mind. I was enamored with the game’s spectacular set pieces. The parkour and climbing was equally awesome. Nathan Drake was easily my favorite action hero; I thought he was cooler than any Hollywood character. When I replayed the games last year, the magic was still there, despite my more mature and critical disposition. The excitement and fun of the Uncharted franchise is truly timeless.