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July 31, 2016

When The Top Ten Never Dies: Uncharted Style

-- Another top-ten ranking, with a splash of Nathan Drake

Ranking your children is an impossible task I’m told. Being a producer of one I can’t opine on the topic, but I feel the same about the Uncharted series, a quad of games I took no part in creating or rearing, yet love as if they were my own offspring. The fourth and final installment of the series debuted to astounding reviews as always – except for the Washington Post, which is now officially blacklisted from my internetings – and guaranteed this note be inscribed on the Uncharted tombstone:


To judge which of these four was best, which was runner-up, and which was caboose would be an exercise in the impossible, much like comparing prime Anniston versus current Lively. Still, it is an exercise I must undergo though sadly not until Christmas break when I have a week or so of freedom to deploy against each game equally and chronologically. Until then I will attempt to satisfy the need to speak of the greatness of Uncharted by ranking the top ten moments from the series. This list may change in December following the great play-through, but for now these are my greatest moments that Uncharted delivered.

10. The Dangle View

The rope swing was a fun mechanic addition to Uncharted 4, but it’s value was seen more in the views it generated than in the gameplay it provided.

Like this:

Like that:

 But mostly this one time:

There are no guns being shot, no words being spoken, but a moment it is, and a fine one at that.

9. The Surprise Zombies

For a handful of hours the action sequences of Uncharted 1 play out in familiar pattern: encounter bad guy, take cover, eliminate bad guy. Then with the deviance of a professor dropping a pop quiz, Naughty Dog tosses everything on its head by introducing monsters from the deep.11. Actually called Descendants, not zombies, but whatever. The combat suddenly changes from patiently-pick-your-moment to run-away-and-shoot-faster-than-they-run chaos. It’s nerve-wracking, it’s unexpected, and in an industry that isn’t known for generating surprises, it’s an awesome change of pace.

8. The Boat

This is more what you had in mind when I threw out the word moments, right? Naughty Dog and their set pieces man. In the olden days a game would take you in a straight line across a given space. The Ocean Liner level in Uncharted 3 shows how much Naughty Dog innovated the route one can take from beginning to end. You start by simply navigating the exterior of the boat, the interior, and then the boat capsizes and everything is literally flipped. You end up traversing a space you previously covered, though this time with everything rotated 90-degrees. It’s fantastic, and is capped off with a daring front-facing-camera water escape.

7. The Desert

Naughty Dog pioneered a number of things over the years, but the biggest risk they took was a willingness to downshift from fifth to first gear whenever the story called for a slowing of the pace. In Uncharted 3 Drake is abandoned in the middle of an endless desert. This concept is fine for storytelling, but how do you make interesting gameplay out of such a scenario? You can't unless you have ND's trio of attributes: industry-leading graphical presentation, industry-leading storytelling, and faith that those two powers will make the simple act of walking hopelessly through a desert resonate with the user. Guess what? It does.

6. The Convoy

The convoy chase from Uncharted 2 was the forerunner to even greater versions seen in 3 and later 4, but as in life so in video gaming: you never forget your first time. Jumping from truck to truck, dangling on the side of a door, a ledge of death a misstep away, blowing up attackers all around you ... yeah there's stuff like this now but back in 2009, an era that pre-dates iPads and Instagram, this was not the norm.22. For my money no game has ever had a greater sequence of levels than Uncharted 2's middle: from chopper, to train, to climb, to tank, to convoy. Wowza. If the '92 Dream Team has a gaming equivalent, this is it.

5. The Explorer 

In Uncharted 4 there is this moment where you just feel like you're Nathan Drake. Most of what Drake does is not relatable; a normal human can't scale walls or absorb 20-foot drops or fight a tank. But a normal person could drive a jeep or a boat around looking for clues with a couple of friends. As with the desert moment mentioned above, this doesn't sound fun on the surface, but Naughty Dog balances it just right. There is enough happening in the conversation and the landscape that a blazing firefight or explosion is completely unnecessary. The atmosphere speaks for itself. Don't believe me? Look at this:

What manner of graphics is this, that even the wind and the waves look perfect?

4. The Chopper

Oh, the chopper… including this is a form of cheating really, as the presence of the chopper spans a trio of key events, but for purposes of length I'll just mention one. From Uncharted 2, the encounter’s finest moment happens when the chopper missiles a building you're currently fighting in. While the building begins collapsing about you there remain bad guys to deal with while also trying to figure out how the %#@ to survive this event. I won't spoil the outcome but I will say you are under control throughout the duration, and it was in this moment -- 'You heard it here first!' -- that Naughty Dog let everyone know that the days of action packed cut scenes were behind us; living them is so much better.

3. The Chase

The prettiest game ever made is on full display in this sequence from Uncharted 4, so much so that you almost don’t even want to play it; you’d rather watch so you can soak every detail in. After beating the game I spent a few hours watching a series of ‘making of’ videos and you won’t be surprised to hear that these designers debated the number of pebbles to be dislodged when stepping on a muddy, gravelly surface. That’s not normal. That’s what masters do.

2. The Plane

By the time you come to the plane in Uncharted 3 you think you’ve seen it all. As a player you’ve experienced jeep shootouts, collapsing buildings, a train wreck, a caravan chase, a tank battle, your own personal Titanic … the list goes on. Just when you think there’s nothing left to be topped, you board a plane, which sounds normal enough, except that you do so by jumping from a jeep to the landing gear. You then wage a fistfight … on an open cargo door just a few thousand feet above the ground. Then a shootout, which leads to the plain exploding, which leads to the above photo. You’re in control the whole time as gravity yanks you towards your sandy death. I can’t express how awesome this is. Let's just move on.

1. The Train

The reason this moment is ranked number one? I didn’t believe video games could do something like this. We’re talking about taking the opening scene from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, multiplying it by ten, and making it completely under user control. We’re talking about mixing all of Uncharted’s finest elements – traversal, combat, chaos, locales, music – into a perfect stew. We’re talking about the most gorgeous backdrops in video games33. At that time. and having that be secondary, overshadowed, by the most awesome gameplay gaming can provide.44. At any time. And we're not the only ones talking about it. J.J. Abrams called its concluding sequence, which doubles as the games foreshadowing introduction, the "best opening of a game, television show or movie (I've) ever seen."

This moment did everything to me: blew my mind, left me cheering, and singlehandedly dragged me from gaming retirement and firmly entrenched me in a hobby that persons of my age should not be dabbling in, let alone blogging about. That’s how good it was. The defining moment of the Uncharted series? Clearly. The defining moment of the industry? It will always have my vote.


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  2. Hmm, an attempt to rank these games does seem futile. But I do applaud the effort and the moments you've noted above. For those who disagree that these are the greatest games AND developers that have existed, those fools need their joysticks taken away and to be swiftly and oft punched rather hard. About the wiener area.