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Face-Off: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves on PS4

How the Nathan Drake Collection modernises and improves a genuine last-gen classic.

When it comes to pushing hardware to its limits, Naughty Dog is one of the best in the business. Yet, more than any of its previous games, it was Uncharted 2 that really demonstrated just how much of a technical powerhouse the studio really had become. The PS3 original was a technical marvel in its time and a huge improvement over the first Uncharted, with sweeping changes made to lighting, animation, materials, and frame-rate.

So when approaching the remastered Uncharted, we weren't entirely sure what to expect. Unlike Drake's Fortune, returning to the original PS3 release of Among Thieves isn't difficult - it remains a beautiful, highly playable game that continues to impress to this day. Improving upon an already polished experience is not a simple task by any means. So how has Bluepoint tackled this already stunning looking game in bringing it to PlayStation 4?

To begin with, we see the expected improvements right up front. That means a full 1080p resolution coupled with an excellent post-process anti-aliasing solution that manages to dodge in-surface aliasing while minimising flicker and blur. In addition, anisotropic filtering is utilised across the game with a variable level of quality. We see some surfaces operating with what looks similar to 16x AF while other, less important details seem to go as low as 4x. Even at its lowest level, it's still a substantial improvement over the trilinear filtering used on PlayStation 3. Image quality is simply excellent all around here.

Then we have the matter of frame-rate and as with the rest of the collection, we're looking at 60 frames per second with v-sync engaged. At the time of writing, the 1.01 patch is only just becoming available and we plan to put it through its paces shortly. The version of Uncharted 2 that appears on disc, however, is already very solid for the most part. This is one game worth owning on disc for those building their collection.

In general, performance issues in version 1.00 are limited to scenes with lots of water or alpha effects. In such instances, we see dips into the mid-50s. We see similar dips in performance during the memorable train sequence as well. It should be noted that slowdown on PS4 occurs in many of the same areas on PS3 as well. On PS4 where dips to 55fps are encountered, instead we see drops to 25fps on PS3. We're hopeful that the 1.01 patch cleans up these issues but even without the patch, performance is still solid.

Our detailed analysis covers the many ways in which Uncharted 2 improves on PS4. While the changes are not as significant as those in Drake's Fortune, Bluepoint has still done a truly remarkable job.

With Drake's Fortune it's clear that the core gameplay mechanics received a lot of adjustment in transitioning to PS4. However, with the sequel, tweaks to gameplay feel less significant this time around. Uncharted 2 is considered by many to offer the tightest gameplay experience in the series so it should come as no surprise to see that the other two games were modified to play more in line with its set-up. But even then, the higher frame-rate and reduction in input latency help create a more responsive overall experience.

Then we come to the nitty gritty details - Bluepoint's bread and butter. Initial impressions suggest that little has changed but in reality, this couldn't be further from the truth. Throughout the entirety of the experience, we uncovered countless re-made textures, models, and effects that - though subtle - have a significant impact on the presentation as a whole. Much of this attention is spent on improvements to scenery - even bits with very little screen time are overhauled to create a more consistent experience. Window arches are smoothed over, pieces of machinery are renewed, and trees are more gnarled than before. It really feels as if each and every asset was carefully analysed by the art team here, with even the most incidental of artwork remade.

Texture maps also receive a similar bump in quality, with many surfaces receiving new textures and normal maps at a much higher fidelity. The PS3 was limited to a split memory configuration with just 512MB of total RAM available so it's easy to imagine that even with streaming, there were strict limitations in place as to how large textures could be. With this limitation effectively removed, Bluepoint is free to go in and add detail to every scene, and that's exactly what we see here.

We feel that these higher resolution textures are an improvement overall but, in select instances, it could be argued that the original artistic intent is compromised. Beyond that, textures are further enhanced by improvements made to the specular component of the renderer. Shiny material now exhibits more realistic properties with an attractive sheen appearing where appropriate.

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This basic scene demonstrates a number of key improvements including improved textures, specular highlights, and projected shadows.
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Huge improvements to surrounding foliage help flesh out the scene while subtler details, such as the added support structures on the tent in the background, bring extra nuance.
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Motion blur does appear to operate at a higher precision, eliminating certain artefacts in the process. Note the stair-stepping along the top of the moving bus on PS3.
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This sequence from a pre-rendered cut-scene boasts improved detail on the jeep but more importantly, we see a massive reduction in macro-blocking visible around Elena's head.

Further changes come with modifications made to lighting and shadows. In general, the PS4 version of Uncharted 2 features slightly more subdued colours in comparison to the PS3 original. Of course, there are exceptions to this where we see the opposite, but we're looking at a slightly modified palette across the board. This is most evident in pre-rendered cut-scenes where the subsurface scattering used on characters appears more noticeable than it does on PS3.

Materials rendering actually seems to have been an important point in the development of the game on PS3. The reflection of light is taken into account and materials actually seem to exhibit somewhat more realistic properties despite the game's age. Diffuse materials, such as stone and cloth, can sometimes look remarkably realistic in very specific situations. Of course, we've come a long way in terms of rendering materials since 2009, but we were still surprised at how much progress Naughty Dog had already made in this department.

Here's another example: during the train sequence, we discovered that a green-ish hue appears on the train cars as they pass through thicker sections of bamboo. The basic idea seems to revolve around emulating the appearance of light bounce from nearby scenery. Full global illumination was obviously impossible for a game like this on PS3, but attempts to mimic some aspects of this remain fascinating today. This effect is retained on PS4 but the effect is less pronounced as a result of changes made to the surface materials.

Shadows also see some changes. As with the previous game, we see shadow quality vary on a per scene basis. While outdoors, a sun shadow-map is deployed and on PS4, the resolution has increased. In version 1.00 included on the disc, visible dithering is present similar to PS3. Yet, looking at the 1.01 patch notes, it seems that shadow improvements are set to be implemented so perhaps this issue has been sorted by now. Indoors, with real-time dynamic lights, we now see much sharper shadows overall.

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The PS4 versions of these pre-rendered sequences lack motion blur on the scenery that was featured in the original. Also note this rare instance where texture quality appears higher in the original version.
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If you look closely on the left side of the image you'll note a correction made to this cut-scene; the ledge running along the train no longer presents a visible gap in the PS4 version of this sequence.
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Here we see detail levels pushed out a bit further on PS4 in addition to some nice scenery touch-up. Look just above the helicopter and you'll see extra bamboo visible on PS4.
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This is one impressive scene, but focus your attention instead on the bottom of the train just at the rear. Note the small metal circles cut into the metal? On PS4, these have been remodelled and now appear much rounder.

Ambient occlusion returns with improvements. The implementation used on PS3 tends to produce obvious 'clouds' around characters and scenery. AO was not yet common on last generation consoles at this point and Naughty Dog's implementation was still a little unrefined. While it's an overall improvement, there are a couple of instances where a halo effect becomes visible around certain objects, that was not present in the original.

Uncharted 2 was also one of the first games to really pull off per-object motion blur well on PlayStation 3. It was applied to characters, objects, the camera, and even scenery in select instances. The effect was offloaded from the GPU to the SPUs and produced remarkable results for the time. On PS4, these effects are intact though the implementation varies ever so slightly - we noticed a few extra rendering glitches on PS4 that were not present on the last-gen console.

During certain pre-rendered cut-scenes, we also see the elimination of scenery motion blur. When chasing the train with Elena or speeding through Nepal in a jeep, the PS3 original uses motion blur in its pre-rendered sequences to accentuate the sense of motion. When these scenes were re-rendered for PS4, the effect was not included. This isn't a technical limitation, of course, since we're talking about a pre-rendered video, but it is fascinating nonetheless.

Last week, a public demo for The Nathan Drake Collection was released featuring a level from Uncharted 2. In this demo, users noted additional loading following the pre-rendered sequence leading some to speculate that loading times had increased on PS4. Well, we can confirm that this is not the case at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. Normally, during a linear play through, the entire game is streamed without loading screens but if you opt to load a specific chapter and play from there, a loading screen occurs even after the pre-rendered sequence completes naturally. In the case of the demo level, the PS3 version actually takes three to four times longer to finish loading when the chapter selection feature is utilised. This means we're looking at a significant improvement to loading times in the Nathan Drake Collection.

An overview of performance advantages found on Uncharted 2 on PS4, including further improvements made with the day one patch.

Speaking of pre-rendered sequences, we can also confirm that these sequences operate at a much higher quality on PS4. As with the rest of the collection they present as 1080p60 video files while the original is limited to 720p30. However, on PS3, macro blocking is a serious issue that somewhat mars the presentation. While still visible on PS4, the overall quality is much improved during faster scenes.

Ultimately, the race is much closer this time thanks to a more polished PS3 experience, but the verdict is the same; Bluepoint has transformed Uncharted 2 into a game that still looks and plays brilliantly in 2015. The entire game simply exudes quality and playing it at 60fps is a dream. Played back-to-back, it's interesting to see the evolution between the first and second game. Uncharted 2 really laid the groundwork for future Naughty Dog releases.

Beyond the visual enhancements, it is also interesting to see how the gameplay has evolved. Here we finally see the groundwork laid for a real stealth system that would ultimately go on to form the basis of The Last of Us. While it's pretty much impossible to lose the enemy once caught, it is actually possible to get through entire sections without being seen in the first place. The mix of stealth, shooting, platforming, 'quieter' moments and set pieces really defines this game.

As tempting as it may be to jump right into this brilliant sequel, we still have to recommend playing the original Uncharted first if you haven't. The impact of Uncharted 2 is much greater once you've experienced Drake's Fortune and the remastered version here is by far and away the best way to play the game. The mix of Naughty Dog's brilliant design and Bluepoint's technical skills in bringing the game to PlayStation 4 results in a definitive edition that should hold up for years to come.

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About the Author
John Linneman avatar

John Linneman

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

An American living in Germany, John has been gaming and collecting games since the late 80s. His keen eye for and obsession with high frame-rates have earned him the nickname "The Human FRAPS" in some circles. He’s also responsible for the creation of DF Retro.