The Playstation 3 owes a lot to Naughty Dog. They’ve proven themselves before with the PS1’s Crash Bandicoot and the PS2’s Jak and Daxter, but the third round for Sony got a shot of adrenaline throughout the system’s entire lifetime. The Last of Us remains a gem to fans and critics alike, but Naughty Dog’s legend status on the PS3 was easily Uncharted. The adventurous nature of Nathan Drake and crew became synonymous with AAA games on Playstation hardware, with the North-led character becoming one of the biggest new stars in the gaming world. With Sony pushing the Playstation 4 into gamers’ homes, it’s easy to expect a new series from Naughty Dog, but no, Uncharted 4 (name pending) is most likely in the works. While it’s exciting to hear that the series is still going strong, even on new hardware, what isn’t exciting is a rumor that severely limits the expansive nature of the series’ development on a next-gen system: Nathan Drake might still be the protagonist.
Uncharted’s debut was a sketchy one at best. After the enormous success of the Jak and Daxter series on Playstation 2, Naughty Dog followed suit with their Playstation brethren Sucker Punch and Insomniac for a brand new franchise for the Playstation 3. Abandoning the lighthearted animation of Jak and Daxter, the studio’s next franchise would become an adventure game in the vein of Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune dropped as Naughty Dog’s launch weapon, as Sucker Punch revealed inFAMOUS and Insomniac revealed Resistance: Fall of Man. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was an interesting game, but the graphical fidelity of the PS3 had not yet been mastered, causing some technical issues to appear. But the introduction of the laid-back treasure hunter Nathan Drake (portrayed by the now legendary Nolan North) was exciting. A charismatic, but rarely ever serious protagonist, Drake brought the game to life with his snarky sidekick/mentor Sully always on board.
The sequel to Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is widely regarded as the defining moment for the series. By amping up the tension and the setpieces, Among Thieves was a visceral, dynamic sequel that also showed the PS3’s horsepower on all cylinders. Earning numerous Game of the Year awards, Uncharted 2 showed Naughty Dog’s skill as developers at every point, solidifying the series’ place in the history books. But with Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, the wheels started to stop turning. In a nutshell, Drake’s Deception was the Jak 3 of the series, one that kept the appeal and quality high, but was stuck in the shadow of its clearly superior predecessor. The setpieces were certainly epic and Drake’s personality was still driving the series forward, but the imagination and spectacle were nowhere near Uncharted 2’s. As a closing chapter for Nathan Drake’s debut series, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception did its job, albeit fulfilling its ambitions without every chamber loaded.
After the Uncharted trilogy closed, the series has been in disarray, with very few releases. Aside from the main trilogy, only two games have been released in the Uncharted series: the Vita exclusive Uncharted: Golden Abyss and the card-based strategy game Uncharted: Fight for Fortune. Neither of these two games were developed by Naughty Dog, who left the series behind to focus on The Last of Us. The series itself has been rather neglected, at least until Uncharted 4 was rumored to appear at E3 2014. This news was exciting, but was also met with skepticism regarding a number of prolific figures at Naughty Dog leaving the company. Creative director Amy Hennig moved to Visceral Games and Uncharted 3 director (and original Uncharted 4 director) Justin Richmond moved to Riot Games. With all of this restructuring and loss of major talent, Uncharted 4 isn’t likely to be of the same lab as the original trilogy was. This will be a very different game.
Thinking about the future of Uncharted, I recall the announcement of Halo 4, the big shift from Bungie to 343 Industries. It was a new trilogy, sure, but I still have a big problem with Master Chief being the main protagonist. After all that closure and all that tightly-wound setup to end the original Halo trilogy, seeing Master Chief again felt manipulative and untrustworthy. 343’s efforts were also quite different than Bungie’s; the original Halo trilogy and Halo 4 play very differently, almost as if it’s a brand-new game that just happens to sit in the same universe. Halo: Reach did this idea right, being able to change the formula without having it clash with the prior’s character and lore. The differences in Reach made sense because it wasn’t Master Chief doing it.
And that’s why I think this same idea could work for Uncharted: make a new protagonist. Keep this new development environment fluid and let this revised talent and management not be bound by this sense of canonical tradition. Bring a new guy or girl in, perhaps one with a similar, but new personality that makes the different adventures feel fresh and the time gap between them worthwhile. You can make a mountain climb completely different simply by switching out who is doing the climbing.
And I’m saying this as someone who likes Nathan Drake a lot. He’s earned his place as a gaming icon and a sly dog of a treasure hunter. He’s also been an everyman. The way he climbs ladders, catches his balance on narrow beams, and nervously says “whoa whoa whoa” on colossal cliff faces adds that idea of anti-superheroism. He’s not egotistically showing his muscles; he’s just as much concerned for his own human safety as he is for others. That’s very good…but that was 2011. Three years ago and with nary a console spin-off to associate us with Nathan Drake all over again. It’s similar to the feeling seen with inFAMOUS, which was able to keep its series going with new protagonists and worlds. By confining Uncharted to Nathan Drake, there are far too few opportunities to venture outside the box and make a story that doesn’t sound like something that’s been seen before. I even felt this way with Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, where this exciting adventure constantly felt like the endgame for a series that’s wowed and awed since Day 1, but feels complete by the end credits.
If Uncharted 4 follows Nathan Drake again as it’s rumored to be, I don’t see it earning the same level of spectacle of the original trilogy. It’ll be reintroducing a character that we all know and love, but still keeping the story and presentation within that character’s walls, even when there’s ample opportunity to change and give the series life again. It’ll be Naughty Dog’s Halo 4. And with all of the iconic Naughty Dog talent steadily moving toward the exit, getting a brand new vibe seems like a no-brainer. Sure, you can keep the core elements like climbing, shooting and treasure hunting, but with a team that’s constantly being restructured and re-evaluated, being able to give the game’s story and presentation that level of fluidity is a smart idea. Why not get someone else in on the exploring?