On paper Naughty Dog's Uncharted series is as generic as it gets. It's about a good looking white, heterosexual man going on exciting globe-trotting adventures, killing bad guys and wooing a spunky blonde reporter. On this level, it's functional at best and banal at worst. But dig deeper and it becomes clear that Naughty Dog's bombastic blockbuster series quietly had a profound effect on the medium's development over the past several years.
Sony's big first party game for the holiday season is a remaster - but not just any remaster. Uncharted: the Nathan Drake Collection is a beautiful recreation of three of PlayStation 3's finest games, upgraded not just with higher resolutions and smoother frame-rates, but with top-to-bottom improvements of the original artwork, with enhancements made across the board. This works in combination with new gameplay modes along with a comprehensive re-evaluation core gameplay systems. We've previously dissected Drake's Fortune, Among Thieves and Drake's Deception in depth, but we still wanted to learn more about how this exceptional project was put together.
Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, released today for PlayStation 4, has a few purposes. It makes Naughty Dog's trio of populist action spectaculars available to play on current consoles. It introduces them to what Sony estimates are the 50 per cent of PS4 owners who didn't have a PS3. And it presents these already exceedingly handsome games in a pristine, buttery smooth remaster by Bluepoint Games which, for its sheer polish and attention to detail, must go down as one of the finest game reissues ever.
Digital Foundry on The Nathan Drake Collection
Bluepoint Games' reissue of the three Uncharted games sadly doesn't include multiplayer modes, while it adds a new photo mode and a timed continuous speed option. But its principal point of interest is as a remaster that boosts the fidelity of the original games - notably to 60 frames per second - whilst being painstakingly faithful to the source and maintaining a consistent, unified interface. It's superb work, as Digital Foundry's John Linneman explains in detail:
The waiting is almost over. In just over a week, Uncharted: the Nathan Drake Collection hits stores, and we're fortunate enough to be in possession of retail code right now, and we're in a position where we can share some initial findings. Developer Bluepoint Games is well known for deftly translating games across hardware platforms, so expectations could not be higher - especially in light of the wealth of enhancements we spotted in the story trailer alone. Well, the good news is that first impressions suggest a product that delivers everything we were hoping for.
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.
While there are legitimate concerns that the sheer volume of remasters hitting the current-gen consoles is starting to verge on the ridiculous, we've still got a lot of time for Sony's continuing efforts in bringing PlayStation 3 glory days to its latest console platform. The Last of Us Remastered worked beautifully overall, God of War 3's 1080p60 presentation is excellent, and our first look - more of a glimpse really - of the Uncharted Nathan Drake Collection is also heavy with promise. Right now, from our perspective, all that's missing from the line-up is a Killzone 2/3 release.
On the face of it, the notion of bringing the entire Uncharted trilogy from PS3 to PS4 - with 1080p60 upgrades to boot - should be relatively simple. After all, PlayStation 4 represents a generational leap in system capabilities, particularly in terms of raw GPU power. However, Naughty Dog's recent GDC talk - "Parallelising the Naughty Dog engine using fibres" - reveals in stark detail how difficult it was to bring The Last of Us across to the new Sony console. Indeed, the initial porting work for the game resulted in a sub-optimal experience operating at less than 10fps.
In many ways, the scale of the challenge with the upcoming Nathan Drake Collection is even more daunting. Three games are in development, not just one, and the original developer itself isn't carrying out the conversion work - instead, Austin-based studio Bluepoint Games is taking the conn. Adding to the difficulty factor, Sony has dropped hints that the three remasters will actually see tangible improvements over the original versions in the form of "better lighting, textures and models", along with a photo mode, plus other enhancements suggested by the community. Just about the only concession is the somewhat disappointing news that the multiplayer components of Uncharted 2 and its sequel will be removed.
Regardless, The Nathan Drake Collection is a highly ambitious project - and the evidence suggests that the efforts Naughty Dog made into bringing The Last of Us onto PlayStation 4 form the technological foundation on which the remasters are based. So how did the studio turn that initial 10fps port into the slick, 60fps release we enjoyed last year? Based on Naughty Dog's GDC presentation, it seems that the developer was more limited by the CPU, rather than the GPU. The studio leveraged the PS3's Cell chip extensively, in particular the six available SPU satellite processors. The original engine targeted a 30fps update, based on a single processing thread consisting of game logic followed by a command buffer set-up (basically generating the instructions for the GPU). Most of the engine systems were hived off to the SPUs, with the main processor - Cell's PPU - running the majority of the actual gameplay code.