It’s official; developer Naughty Dog has crafted another masterpiece. A few days ago I wrapped up my playthrough of Uncharted 4 and I can say that one of 2016’s most anticipated games lives up to the hype. Normally I don’t get around to playing games until some time after their release, but in the case of Uncharted 4 I made a point to play the game as soon as I could. Hence why this game is not part of my Late to the Party series of posts, as this time I showed up to the party within a reasonable timeframe.
Because Uncharted 4 only came out just over two weeks ago, I will avoid major spoilers for the story and there will also be no screenshots or video clips from the last few hours of the game. I know there are still many people who haven’t played Uncharted 4 yet, so you don’t have to worry about me ruining the game if you haven’t played it. The downside to this is that I’ll have to skip over few story elements that would otherwise be well worth discussing.
Uncharted 4 is the conclusion of Nathan Drake’s story, which began with the first Uncharted game back in 2007. In Uncharted 4, Drake is finally out of the treasure hunting business, has settled down with his wife Elena, and is living a “normal” life. This stable but mundane existence is interrupted when Drake’s brother, Sam, who Drake believed had died fifteen years earlier in a Panamanian prison, shows up and asks for his assistance in acquiring the treasure of famous pirate Henry Avery. Drake is unwilling at first, saying that he no longer does that sort of work, but Sam is in desperate need and Drake reluctantly agrees. Enlisting the help of Drake’s old mentor Victor “Sully” Sullivan, Drake sets out on one last adventure.
To put it plainly, Uncharted 4 has the best overall story out of all the Uncharted games, along with the best character moments and character development. The center of the story is the relationship between Sam and Drake, and everything that happens in the game is tied to their history and interactions. They grew up together, but at a certain point they drifted apart and became very different people. One of the things that becomes apparent in the game is that although Sam is the older brother in the purely chronological sense, Drake is the older brother mentally. Drake has “grown up,” so to speak, having moved on and settled down, while Sam is still stuck in the past. As the relationship between Sam and Drake is developed, we also get a deeper dive into Drake himself. In previous games, especially Uncharted 3, we got some glimpses into Drake’s past and his motivations, but with Uncharted 4 we finally get a fuller understanding of who he is and why he pushes himself beyond the point of reason to do the things he does. It’s rare in video games to get a character with this much development, and Uncharted 4 is all the better for it.
As a game, Uncharted 4 feels similar to the previous games in the series, but has it’s own distinct vibe. There are some very clear influences from Naughty Dog’s last game, The Last of Us, such as the optional dialogue you can participate in and how characters like Sam will move about and explore the environment on their own while you look around. The jaw-dropping set piece moments that Uncharted games are known for have been scaled back in Uncharted 4, so you never get anything on the scale of the train sequence from Uncharted 2. I could be wrong, but it also feels like Uncharted 4 has less combat than previous Uncharted games. This may be partly due to the increased stealth options that give you more opportunities to clear areas without firing a shot, and partly because there are longer gaps between combat than in previous Uncharted games. When looking at the arc of the game, I think Uncharted 4 can be divided into two distinct sections – before the shipwreck and after the shipwreck. The part of the game leading up to the shipwreck feels the most different from previous Uncharted games, while after the shipwreck feels much more familiar. This division, and to some extent the longer gaps between combat, are part of the cause of one of Uncharted 4’s very few weak spots, namely its uneven pacing. Whereas Uncharted 2 and 3 had a strong sense of pacing between traversal, combat, puzzles, and character moments, Uncharted 4 sometimes stretches out individual sections longer than it should. While this wasn’t a big deal for me, I imagine other people may have wanted a pacing closer to what we had in the last two Uncharted games.
Shootout in the auction house
Though Uncharted 4 plays much the same as its predecessors, there are a number of new mechanics that make its gameplay clearly distinguishable from other Uncharted games. Among the most noticeable are the previously mentioned optional dialogue opportunities, which are triggered at various points in the game and allow Drake to stop and have a short, but often meaningful chat with another character. Supplementing the optional dialogue are a few instances in the game where you can choose one of three replies Drake can make to the person talking to him. Neither the optional dialogue, nor the dialogue choices change the outcome of the game’s story, but they do give you a chance to put a personal spin on a few sections of it. With regards to traversal, the three new things Drake will be doing are sliding down certain surfaces, stabbing a metal pick into porous rocks while climbing, and using his grappling hook and rope to swing across gaps. The sliding and metal pick are very straightforward and normally are just another part of getting from one place to another, but the rope swinging can play an important role in both traversal and combat. In addition to getting Drake across gaps, he can also use his rope to aggressively charge enemies as well as flee from them, and that nicely leads to a mentioning of the new combat mechanics. Compared to previous games, Uncharted 4 has significantly more encounters where you have the option of using stealth, and now there are patches of tall grass that Drake can sneak through to get behind and/or ambush enemies. Enemies also have detection meters, so you can tell if you are in their cone of vision. Unlike previous Uncharted games, if you are spotted by enemies you frequently have an opportunity to elude them and reestablish stealth, though they will spend a minute looking for you before returning to their usual patrol routines. One thing that is strangely missing from Uncharted 4’s stealth mechanics is the ability to distract enemies by throwing a random object nearby them. This is an odd omission, considering it was in The Last of Us. When it’s time to go loud, the gun mechanics are nigh identical to previous Uncharted games. What’s changed is that you can no longer throw back grenades like you could in Uncharted 3, and there’s more destructible cover, meaning you’ll sometimes need to stay mobile to stay alive. One final game mechanic that I want to mention is the only one I got tired of, namely the crates used for puzzle solving. The crates are not bad in and of themselves – they just get used a few times too often. It’s also rather strange that Drake and Sam are often dependent on the crates to get to higher levels, seeing as how they are carrying grappling hooks and rope for most of the game.
On the visual front, Uncharted 4 has secured the title of the best-looking console game I’ve played to date. Even other console graphics heavyweights like Halo 5 and The Order: 1886 are outshone it. Whether in-game or in the cutscenes, Uncharted 4 is a sight to behold. Every location is masterfully realized – from the frigid shores of Scotland to the open wilds of Madagascar. This high level of quality extends to the characters, meaning Drake and his friends both look great and have outstanding character animations. With how good Uncharted 4 looks, I was pleased to see the inclusion of a Photo Mode that lets you pause the action and capture images from unique perspectives. By adjusting the filters, camera angles, and other settings, you can create some truly stunning images. If you want to change up Uncharted 4’s appearance during normal gameplay, there are multiple Render Modes to choose from in the Bonus menu. These allow you to do things like give the game a cel shaded or 8-bit aesthetic. I appreciate that Naughty Dog took the time to include these bonus features in Uncharted 4, though I would have been content if all I had was the visual excellence of its default appearance. Considering the jump that Naughty Dog made over the course of their career on PlayStation 3, starting with Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and ending with The Last of Us, it boggles my mind to think of what they might achieve by the time they put out their last PlayStation 4 game.
Sampling the render modes
Though Uncharted 4 is first and foremost centered on its singleplayer campaign, it does have a suite of multiplayer modes. I’m generally not one for multiplayer, but I played a few rounds and I can say that Uncharted 4’s multiplayer works well and seems smoother and slightly faster than the multiplayer I remember from Uncharted 2 or 3. There are fewer modes than previous games, but the ones that are there are deeper with the addition of new game mechanics. One notable new feature is the ability to summon support characters that can do things like heal teammates, run around and restrain other players, and provide sniper support. To learn these and other multiplayer mechanics, there are training missions that let you hone your skills against bots. Seeing as how I don’t have a natural instinct for multiplayer, the inclusion of training missions was greatly appreciated on my part. I am disappointed, though, that Uncharted 4 removed the online cooperative missions that I thoroughly enjoyed in Uncharted 2 and 3. In previous games, I put in quite a few hours online playing those missions and trying to beat them on the hardest difficulty. With their absence, I’ll probably only play Uncharted 4 multiplayer for another week or so before stopping altogether.
If you’ve never played any of the preceding Uncharted games, you might be wondering whether or not you can jump in with Uncharted 4. In my personal opinion, it’s not necessary to have played the previous Uncharted games to enjoy Uncharted 4, but if you can I would suggest playing the other games first. While Uncharted 4 is a great game in and of itself, you’ll appreciate the story and characters a lot more if you’ve experienced what came before it. Chapter 4, the ending, and the epilogue, in particular, will feel so much more significant if you’ve gone through the entire journey leading up to it.
Four wheeling in Madagascar
As Uncharted 4 is the fourth (actually fifth) game in the series, it’s a fair question to ask how it compares to the other Uncharted games. Personally, I’m not ready to render a verdict on this, as I feel it’s still too close to the game’s release and I’m still high off the experience from my first playthrough. I want to gain some time and distance, and do a second playthrough, before I grade Uncharted 4 against the other games. While I could try to rank the games now, I don’t think I yet have enough perspective to do so in a fair and respectful way.
As I said at the beginning of this post, Uncharted 4 is a masterpiece. It is probably the best exclusive game on PlayStation 4 at the moment, and it’s the sort of game I would show to other people as an example of what video games can be as an entertainment medium. Uncharted 4 is a fantastic conclusion to Uncharted storyline, and I couldn’t help but smile when the final credits started to roll. Other game developers take note; this is how you end a series well.