Uncharted territory: Does a new lead character help or harm a beloved video game series?

When video games retool longtime franchises, the results can be complicated, writes Jonathan Ore.

Former supporting character Chloe Frazer takes over starring role from previous lead Nathan Drake

Players take on the role of Chloe Frazer (voiced by Claudia Black) instead of series stalwart Nathan Drake in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. (Naughty Dog/Sony Computer Entertainment America)

How often does a movie or TV show successfully continue after the departure of a headliner?

Whether with a new actor reprising an old role (James Bond, Doctor Who) or an all-new cast and setting (Star Trek), many pop culture franchises have managed to sustain their popularity with reboots or new faces.

But there's a checkered past with as many failures as successes. For every Frasier spun out of Cheers, there's a Joey from Friends.

When video games retool franchises, it can be even more complicated and varied.

With a few exceptions, Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series introduces a new character every game, threading their individual stories into an overarching narrative that spans centuries. On the other hand, you have the Tomb Raider series, which has never existed without Lara Croft at the helm.

Chloe is joined by Nadine Ross (Laura Bailey), a main antagonist from 2015's Uncharted 4: A Thief's End. (Naughty Dog/Sony Computer Entertainment America)

The latest game series to undergo a major change is Uncharted, developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony. Since it debuted in 2007 on the PlayStation 3, players have taken on the role of Nathan Drake (voiced by Nolan North), a thief and treasure hunter with Indiana Jones' charm (but no need to pay royalties to Harrison Ford or Lucasfilm).

By 2015's Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, Drake's story reached a logical and satisfying conclusion. But the series remains one of Sony's most popular flagship franchises.

So what to do? Release a spin-off game that elevates previously minor characters to a starring role, of course.

Minor characters in starring role

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, out Aug. 22 on the PlayStation 4, stars Chloe Frazer (Claudia Black), a thief and ex-partner (both professional and romantic) of Drake's who appeared in Uncharted 2 and 3.

She's joined by Nadine Ross (Laura Bailey), the tough-as-nails mercenary who debuted in A Thief's End by pummeling Drake in a fist fight, then tossing him out a window.

As in all good relic-hunting romps, the pair are on the hunt for a priceless artifact, this one known as the Tusk of Ganesh. It's led them to the ruins of the Hoysola Empire, somewhere in southern India. They're racing to find it before Asav, a vicious rebel leader with a small personal army in his employ, gets there first.

When The Lost Legacy was first announced in 2016, some fans bemoaned Nathan's departure. But according to game director Kurt Margenau, a fifth outing with the character was never on the drawing board.

"To us, there was nothing left to say about Nathan Drake," he says. "We love the entire ensemble of characters ... this was our chance to take some of the side characters and really shine a spotlight on them."

The series has stood out for its convincing character drama, and the trend continues with The Lost Legacy. It turns out the choice for Uncharted's newest hero was the easiest change Naughty Dog could make, as she's basically Drake with a sharper tongue and looser conscience. Chloe is also a great foil to the taciturn Nadine.

But the pair are more than simple archetypes, as their personal histories and motivations reach into a moral grey zone between hero and villain.

Players will traipse around a large expanse in the Western Ghats of southern India with an all-terrain jeep in search of hidden treasures. (Naughty Dog/Sony Computer Entertainment America)

Much to explore

Besides the cast change, players will do more or less the same stuff they've been doing in the last four games. But that's OK, because few do swashbuckling action and digital tourism with the same attention to detail as Naughty Dog.

In The Lost Legacy, you explore lost ruins, drive around an open area in a jeep and engage in shoot-outs with mercenaries and soldiers just like before. The only brand-new addition is Chloe's lock pick, which you can use to break into enemy caches for weapons and ammo.

As was the case before, the third-person shooting is adequate, but doesn't stand out compared to other games in the genre such as The Division or Gears of War. Players more interested in taking in the sumptuous Indian vistas can wind the difficulty down to "Explorer Mode," which turns enemy ambushes into momentary speed bumps.

Nadine and Chloe start out as partners of convenience who can barely get along with each other. (Naughty Dog/Sony Computer Entertainment America)

The emphasis on exploration is best exemplified by a lengthy chapter in the Western Ghats. Driving an all-terrain jeep, players can explore the sprawling map filled with lush forests, rivers and waterfalls. It's impressively wide open, but small enough that you'll become familiar with its nooks and crannies before long.

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy contains a generous amount of twists and turns, but also some quiet moments over its approximately eight-hour running time. That's only about half as long as A Thief's End, but the disparity is partly offset by a lower retail price ($50 Cdn compared to the usual $70) and the inclusion of the full Uncharted competitive multiplayer and survival modes.

Despite a major change in the cast, Naughty Dog's latest outing is a risk-averse one. But Chloe and Nadine's starring debut ultimately pays off, thanks to the developers' skill in crafting an adventure story that pays equal attention to heart and likeable characters as it does to gunfights and explosions.

About the Author

Jonathan Ore

Senior Writer

Jonathan Ore is the Senior Writer for CBC Radio Digital in Toronto. He's also covered arts & entertainment, entertainment and the video game industry for CBC News. You can find him on Twitter @Jon_Ore.