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Uncharted: the Nathan Drake Collection is more than just a remaster

Digital Foundry on the extensive PS4 upgrades found in all three games.

At what point does a remaster become a remake? Remastering involves improving video or audio quality, but fundamentally it is still derived from an existing source. The definition of a remaster in the gaming space is a little vague, but it rarely involves much in the way of new, creative work - it's about enhancing what's already there via higher resolutions and frame-rate boosts. But the release of the latest Uncharted: the Nathan Drake Collection story trailer demonstrates that developer Bluepoint Games is indeed improving and remaking swathes of Naughty Dog's existing assets, respectfully enhancing even incidental detail. The evidence suggests that this isn't just a simple port we're dealing with here - new art or geometry is commonplace in virtually every shot in this latest trailer. Bluepoint Games is well known for its accomplished work in converting classic games to new platforms but with this new collection, we could well be looking at its best work yet.

In order to better understand what has changed, we took the time to go back and re-create the entire trailer using the original PS3 software. It's important to remember here that the vast majority of footage in this trailer is comprised of scenes that were originally pre-rendered on PlayStation 3 - which begs the question: are they still pre-rendered on PS4? 1080p60 video eats up a lot of disc space - perhaps more than a standard Blu-ray disc can provide. Are we looking at a multi-disc collection here? Have these scenes instead been re-tooled to operate in real-time? It's not clear yet, but we're looking forward to finding out.

Regardless of whether they are pre-rendered or not, a lot of work has gone into to every one of these scenes. As noted above, many assets are improved, sometimes surprisingly so, resulting in richer, more cohesive storytelling across all three games. For instance, the original character models used in Drake's Fortune look rather dated next to those used in Uncharted 3. It makes sense to create a more coherent look across all three games by upgrading the models, and based on what we've seen in the trailer, that's exactly what has happened.

Cover image for YouTube videoUncharted Trilogy: PS4 vs PS3 Graphics Comparison [Work In Progress]
Our detailed analysis of the trailer highlights many of the changes and improvements evident in the Nathan Drake Collection.

In addition to main character models, supporting detail also receives a boost. A significant number of textures are replaced with higher quality versions while special effects work, such as explosions and fire, are improved as well. Models with minimal screen-time receive a healthy increase in detail as do many of the backgrounds. Meshes used for terrain are modified significantly in a number of situations. The changes may not immediately leap out, but taken as a whole, the improvement is impressive.

As expected, all three games benefit from an increase in resolution to full 1080p with post-process anti-aliasing. Anisotropic filtering, contact shadows, and improved shading are all present as well, creating a cleaner, more pleasing overall image. Simply eliminating the noticeable texture blurring that plagued the original games along with various other rendering issues makes a world of difference here.

However, there is a notable omission based on every Nathan Drake Collection asset we've seen so far: motion blur. Starting with Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog implemented an accomplished velocity based per-object motion blur. This gave animations significantly more weight and momentum than the previous game and really helped sell the whole cinematic presentation. This effect was especially noticeable during fast-paced sections such as the train sequence, where the scenery blurs realistically as the train speeds by.

Cover image for YouTube videoUncharted: Nathan Drake Collection - PS4 vs PS3 Story Trailer Graphics Comparison
A re-creation of the story trailer presented in a side-by-side comparison format.

While motion blur was mostly absent from the pre-rendered cut-scenes in the original games, the real-time sequences in this new trailer are lacking the effect too. Motion blur shutter speed was modified for The Last of Us Remastered, resulting in a more subtle effect, but it seems to be completely absent in everything we've seen so far in the Nathan Drake Collection. Hopefully it will make a return as it is an important visual effect, even at 60 frames per second.

Of course, that is one of the most important features of this collection - full 60 frames per second gameplay. As we can see here, the entire story trailer operates at a near perfect 60 frames per second while the previous Uncharted 2 gameplay trailer turns in solid performance as well. While this benefits all three titles from a gameplay perspective, we're most excited by the prospects of playing the original game with a decent frame-rate. After all, Drake's Fortune was notorious for severe screen-tear and performance dips - two things that were corrected in the sequels.

We also took the time to look more closely at last month's Uncharted 2 footage. The source video suffers from pretty serious compression artefacts, but it still gives us an idea of how it compares to the original version. It's difficult to get a clear picture of the finer details, but it's still obvious that many of the textures have been reworked. In addition, we also note an increase in alpha effects and their density. As the chopper takes out the bridge early in the demo, there is a noticeable increase in smoke and dust that isn't there on PS3.

Cover image for YouTube videoUncharted 2 'Warzone' PS4 vs PS3 Graphics Comparison [Work In Progress]
A gameplay comparison between the PS3 and PS4 versions of Uncharted 2's Warzone level.

When Nate reaches the top of the tower at the start of the demo we also note an increase in distant detail. Buildings are more complex further out into the scene while entire chunks that were previously absent have been added into the mix. Even the mountain range has been updated in this new version and there are also noticeable changes to lighting and scene colorisation.

Keeping in mind the complexity of this project, the results so far are highly encouraging. All three games were designed specifically with the PS3's unique architecture in mind - with the wrong developer on the job, this project could have been a disaster or at least, just plain unremarkable; another in a long line of basic ports with few improvements over higher resolution and frame-rates. The evidence suggests that bringing in the experts at Bluepoint seems to be paying off in spades: over and above the accomplished performance level and new effects, what impresses us the most is the care and attention in improving even the most incidental of background detail.

Of course, we'll have to wait until the Nathan Drake Collection is complete before passing judgement but initial impressions are positive and clearly there's a lot here to be excited about. The number of changes made to the original assets suggests an overhaul exceeding that of The Last of Us Remastered, with many of the improvements reminding us of the level of effort that went into elements of the current-gen versions of Grand Theft Auto 5. Bluepoint is clearly one of the best in the business when it comes to remastering projects and all the evidence to date suggests that a highly talented developer is at work here, giving all due care and attention in porting over and enhancing three of PS3's most beloved games.