‘Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection’ review: still spectacular, still flawed

Treasure hunting at 60fps

It was only with The Last of Us Part 2 that I began to see the light with Naughty Dog’s games. I’d never really got their stuff before, including Uncharted. So with my eyes newly opened, this PS5 remastered Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection seemed like the perfect opportunity to try again. Would my recently-found appreciation for Naughty Dog’s mega-budget cinematic shine put a more positive light on a replay of Uncharted 4 and my first foray into the Lost Legacy? Well, yes. A bit.

The thing is, I’ve always found Uncharted impressive – who wouldn’t? – but only sporadically satisfying. Yes, they’re as close to an interactive Hollywood action movie as you’ll get in games, but in two contrasting ways. Half the time, playing an Uncharted game is like being Indiana Jones, getting into crazy scrapes and heroically finding a way out against the odds. The other half is more like being Harrison Ford’s concussed stunt double, trying to remember your cues, and that’s much less thrilling. Every time I jump off a cliff because I wasn’t sure where to go in the heat of a chase, or find myself accidentally sticking to a wall or hanging off a ledge while an enemy soldier guns me down, I can almost hear the director yelling “Cut!” as the last checkpoint reloads. “Take two. And this time get it right.”

In some ways, this is the inevitable flipside of these games being so well written and directed and so visually splendid and extraordinarily well animated – all of which they absolutely are. The illusion that you’re really in an action film is heightened, but because of that also incredibly fragile. And when it breaks, it breaks hard, as predictably as a crumbling ledge under Nathan Drake’s weight.

Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection. Credit: Naughty Dog.
Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection. Credit: Naughty Dog.

In other ways, though, these games simply don’t pull me into their world as well as they might. There are occasions, for instance, where I feel almost surplus to requirements, as the game seems happy to play itself. In many of the climbing sequences, I merely move the analogue stick towards the next bolded and underlined grab point, waiting for Nate or Chloe (the protagonist of Lost Legacy) to signal it’s safe to jump, or for the grappling hook icon to appear so I can obediently latch on. Even in some of the more complex environments, geography becomes irrelevant as I follow a breadcrumb trail, rushing blinkered towards anything I can interact with. Is this exploration?

It’s telling how often Naughty Dog injects false peril into those climbing sections with that old breaking ledge routine, where your character loses their grip and falls, only to seize a lower ledge and pull themselves back up. None of this has anything to do with your performance; it’s filler. And because there are so many autopilot moments to fill, it becomes overused. By the third time it happens, you’re likely already in eyeroll territory. By the 10th, 20th, it’s like a short circuit in the game’s imagination.

The same goes for those other worn-out navigational tropes – boosting your partner and pushing crates to reach higher ground. At least Lost Legacy ditches the latter early on with a knowing quip, but that’s a rare moment of self-parody that serves to highlight how tedious these things get in Uncharted 4 when they’re served up with a straight face.
There’s a lot in these games that’s now dryly formulaic – the mechanical puzzles, the behind cover shootouts, the climbing, the plots – revealing an ironic absence of uncharted territory. “It’s not every day you get to see a totally hidden city that nobody’s seen for centuries,” Chloe says at one point. Except in Uncharted, it is – when every historical figure builds a hidden city to keep their valuables secure, it stops being a surprise.

Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection. Credit: Naughty Dog.
Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection. Credit: Naughty Dog.

One more thing – the forced combat sequences are generally messy and unpleasant. Fighting is quite fun when stealth is an option (although it’s a little basic – a few distraction items wouldn’t go amiss), but when I’m thrown headfirst into a big rumble, the results tend to sap my enthusiasm. My aforementioned penchant for getting stuck on ledges or bits of cover doesn’t help, but I blame a lot of that on overly helpful control systems trying to predict my intentions, and getting it badly wrong.

While I’ve got used to these foibles a little, I still never feel sufficiently nimble or precise to be adventurous in these shootouts. I know that if I try to be clever, something will go wrong, and that’s no outlook for an action hero. Instead, I tend to hide out of the way, behind a wall, where I note that my AI partner is doing just fine on their own, and we’re back to the game playing itself again.

That’s the bad stuff, then, and I don’t think I’ll get over these issues no matter how many times I play these games. Yet I still quite like them. This time round, there were whole chunks of Uncharted 4 that I enjoyed significantly more, while Lost Legacy does a slightly better job at subduing the more frustrating elements, which makes it more pleasurable.
The Madagascar sequence right in the middle of Uncharted 4, for example, remains unmatched in its pacing, spectacle and even variety. That’s the part where you’re touring in a jeep around a pseudo-open world of mud-soaked hills surrounding a volcano, before returning to town to ascend the mechanisms of a huge clocktower – which requires a little observation and planning – solving a half-decent puzzle, then running straight into an extended car chase. It’s an excellent showcase in a couple of hours of everything the series does brilliantly.

Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection. Credit: Naughty Dog.
Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection. Credit: Naughty Dog.

And that final set piece especially is still a gobsmacker nearly six years on. There aren’t many studios, even big ones, that would even attempt such a long cinematic vehicle-based action scene, let alone nail the feel of improvising at speed quite so well (at least until you make a wrong turn and get stuck on a tree). In fact, one of the only competitors it has is the train riding finale of Lost Legacy, choreographed and executed with equal gusto.

But my favourite bit of Lost Legacy, it turns out, is the big bit in the middle – the Western Ghats – which expands on Uncharted 4’s jeep exploration with a properly open-world map to navigate as you see fit. It’s here, when the game finally relinquishes its tight cinematic control, that it feels most like an Indiana Jones adventure, with gunfights, puzzles, banter and ruin raiding cycling organically as you figure out where to go and how to get there. If the big action set pieces provide the flair, this is the substance. Something to get your teeth into.

From there, I ended up preferring Lost Legacy to the main event. I like that it’s considerably shorter, trimming out Uncharted 4’s slow start and dragged ending to swiftly expose the succulent middle, and leaving less room for those old routines to wear themselves out through repetition. Also, Chloe and Nadine are a fresher duo – less laddish, less burdened by family drama, and less gleeful in their destruction of far-off countries. (They also make it easier to swallow the series’ imperialist mindset of trampling all over ‘exotic’ foreign countries to grab their treasures, although it’s still very much there.)

Uncharted. Credit: Naughty Dog
Uncharted. Credit: Naughty Dog

And, of course, in both games, those obscene production values still leave their mark, even if The Last of Us 2 has since one-upped them, especially with the PS5’s slicker performance, and the haptic feedback on the triggers and funky rumble all adding subtle notes of immersion (you can also import PS4 saves if you have them). Plus, when I first played Uncharted 4, it made the fans in my PS4 sound like a jet engine, so it’s nice not to have to deal with that.

In particular, the views in these games are amazing, and it’s clear that Naughty Dog knows that very well – the characters keep saying it – and knows that it matters in adventures like these, which are all about visiting incredible locations and discovering even more incredible locations within them. Whether you’re surveying the sloped streets of that Madagascan town from atop the clocktower, or gawping agog at a giant relief of elephant headed god Ganesh carved into a rock face, it’s strikingly beautiful. Then there’s all the minor details, like the way so many of the antique mechanisms you find have eroded or reclaimed by nature over the centuries. Very special.

While I’m gushing, it’s similarly impossible to ignore that the script and voice acting in these games are still well beyond what most studios are doing, and surely nobody does situational dialogue better, or the incidental chats that break out while you and your partner are between death-defying stunts. Sure, it’s a little grating that almost every key character has ‘cocky’ as a personality trait, but still, the quality is up there with comparable film and TV, and often finds room to be warm and witty.

So there we are. Uncharted 4 and The Lost Legacy are still at times as stunning as gaming gets, and at other times still almost oddly fallible and flimsy. Which overall makes them pretty good. Hopefully, though, if/when there is a true current-gen sequel, it takes the little advances made by Lost Legacy much further, because the series could do with a few new tricks.

Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection launches for PS5 on January 28.

The Verdict

A PS5 performance boost keeps these Uncharted games looking as cutting-edge as ever,  providing a good reason to revisit Nate and Chloe’s spectacular adventures, even though some of the series’ well-worn habits could do with a revamp themselves.

Pros

  • The PS4 visuals are still top class
  • As are the writing and voice acting
  • Stunningly designed locations and cinematic set pieces
  • Lost Legacy takes some interesting steps forward for the formula

Cons

  • Uncharted 4 relies too heavily on tired routines
  • Sometimes it’s more like following a script than playing a game
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