Uncharted 4 Review: Greatness Awaits
Ben Sheene / Jun 2nd, 2016 No Comments
One of gaming’s singular joys are the moments. Those astounding, special moments when the images and action on the screens in front of us trigger fantastical responses in our brains. That moment when we let out a happy sigh of relief at finally besting a behemoth boss in Dark Souls. That moment when a group of friends across the world shouts with glee after downing a raid boss. That moment when your beloved party member meets the tragic end of the sword of a realm-conquering fiend, sending a twinge of pain into your heart.
Whether it’s through subtle storytelling or spectacular explosions, videogames can provide us with heartbreak, fear, excitement, and countless hours of fun, all delivered through thousands of moments spread across genres.
Naughty Dog has spent nearly a decade fostering the type of experience few developers in the industry have been able to match. Uncharted not only became a cornerstone of the PlayStation brand, but of how stories were told in games. As the series continued, it was impossible not to mention those breathtaking moments — the train sequence; the collapsing building; the plane. Uncharted marked an evolution in gaming. Now, here we are with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, the final sequence in one of the best videogame sagas is also one of the most eloquent statements in the medium.
Uncharted 4 introduces players to Sam Drake, the brother of lovable treasure hunter Nathan Drake. Across four previous games, very little has been spoken of Nate’s past, minus a few key revelations at the end of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. Yet, the revelation of Sam’s existence isn’t meant to be a complete surprise. Even if by some miracle you’ve been on media blackout for the past few years, Sam is introduced in both Nate’s present and past.
The game opens in media res with the duo in trouble and living up to the Drake legacy we’ve become accustomed to. Moments later, players are whisked away to a tumultuous section of Nate’s past, one before Sully’s bushy mustache and cigar smoke. More of his childhood is explored and we see Sam for what he truly is: Nate’s big brother, the spitting image of wisdom, idolization, and reverence.
The next chapter cuts forward a number of years. Nate has very few lines in his face, and likely fewer callouses on his hands, but is still on some kind of adventure. Sam is here as well, another moment between a brother that we’ve only just begun to know.
In the opening hours of Uncharted 4, there are very few bullets fired. A few thrilling moments punctuate a hefty amount of exposition, character building and general calm. These jumps in time are never jarring, instead allowing players to grow accustomed to Sam. One of the initial hurdles Naughty Dog had to climb was selling players on a long-lost brother. The opening chapters make progress towards servicing that goal. There’s a reason we’ve heard nothing about Sam and the reason is believable and emotional.
Between the Lines
Fast forward again. Nate’s days of mythical cities and close calls are behind him. He’s now working for a deep sea salvaging crew, a job which includes more desk work than a treasure hunter should ever have to deal with. Nathan Drake, the gun-toting, wise-cracking hero is now settled down with Elena Fisher and living what most people would probably embrace as a normal life. But cracks are starting to show.
Nate ignores the suggestion to refill his oxygen supplies before finishing up his underwater job. He takes small risks that many of us would never consider. But he’s an adventurer at heart and has faced the impossible; what should we expect? I noticed a certain significance behind this chapter being called “The Malaysia Job.” Was it a play on the malaise Nate was feeling? These are the kind of reflective moments that begin to burrow into the mind of thoughtful players.
Throughout the story, it becomes apparent that Naughty Dog isn’t crafting a one-note narrative. There are details to infer, comparisons to draw and a lot of subtext. Those expecting the brash, Indiana Jones-like romp across the world will be mostly disappointed for the first few chapters of the game. Instead, we are given a chance to see Nate and Elena bond, showing off the game’s impeccable motion capture and character animations. The smiles the two characters give each other and the looks they exchange are shockingly realistic and true to life.
Not only is this scene and the others like it acted and performed admirably, it is believable because this is how real life is. Nate’s lingering gaze upon a portrait of a faraway place mirrors how any of us would stare at someone or something and reminisce. The moment where Elena twists her wedding band around her finger after a fight with her husband feels emotionally wrenching and brutal because anyone who has had a rocky moment in a relationship knows those types of actions. Details like that never go unnoticed and further make every character and every moment of storytelling that much more powerful.
When Sam returns, Nate’s life is turned upside down and he is plunged back into a version of himself he had all but left. A Thief’s End then kicks into the Uncharted experience most of us are familiar with. The adventuring, globetrotting and gunfights return.
Sam and Nate go on the hunt for Henry Avery’s treasure, a Super Pirate who gathered other Super Pirates and pooled all their treasures from years of pillaging. One of my biggest surprises when playing Uncharted 4 was how the secondary “past” story was handled. In previous games, players have been given cities stocked with untold riches and secrets to discover. Aside from a few convenient journal entries or “aha!” moments of figuring out what’s going on, these parts of Uncharted have always felt like a thrilling means to a spectacular end. The long road to finding Avery’s treasure is ripe with intrigue. Not only does the drama in the past mimic what is taking place now, it keeps the player permanently hooked.
Also on script are the series’ best villains. While Marlowe was especially sinister, Rafe and Nadine play off of each other and our heroes with their own motivations. The duo’s threat doesn’t always loom over Sam and Nate but any scene using them is further enhanced by their presence.
Nadine provides a simple explanation behind the horde of mercenaries the brothers will fight, but rather than teetering towards maniacal Bond villain like Rafe (who is “sympathetic” in his own right), she exudes power and confidence. Whenever she enters the scene, she steals it, which is in part due to Laura Bailey’s incredible voice acting.
Of course, Naughty Dog has fostered a bit of a reputation for directing actors in games. Uncharted 4 is no exception. Nolan North gives the performance of his career, retaining the charm that sold Nathan Drake to the world while injecting a weary man who wants the best for the odd, endearing family he has made over the years. Troy Baker takes any edge off of getting used to Sam. Like North, Baker can become the character he is portraying. And this makes all the difference when developing two brothers who are going through an emotional whirlwind.
Players have the opportunity to watch the brothers bond between exchanges during gunfights and while peacefully exploring environments. Nate’s “seen it all before” attitude is contrasted by Sam’s exuberance at a beautiful vista or deadly gunfight.
A Pirate’s Life
As each chapter passes by, a wonderful harmony is created between the writing, pacing, vocals and visuals. Uncharted 4 constantly feels like it is firing on all cylinders. The story takes players on an incredible, meaningful ride that is seen through the lenses of what has to be the best graphics on a console yet, if not some of the best visuals in gaming. Not enough can be said about the realistic facial expressions and character animation, as its technical prowess brings the story to life.
Uncharted has always been a series known for its gorgeous set pieces and wonderful environments. To expect anything less on the PlayStation 4 would be ridiculous. The bar has been raised to an absurdly high standard, and the game even acknowledges this. Characters often comment on the view and the game will linger, allowing players to soak up everything their eyes can take in.
This attention to detail can be noted in Uncharted 4’s level design. The series has always been criticized for its linear gameplay that pushes players towards key points in a story. Each new game made strives to give players breathing room, throwing in options like stealth and multiple heights for combat.
Whether during combat or exploration, players are no longer forced down one obvious path of certainty. Sure, players will still need to get around enemies or reach a new handhold to progress, but multiple routes and opportunities exist to funnel players towards this ultimate goal. Open linearity is an accurate term because players can search out corners for collectibles or different pieces of world building. It may not drastically extend gameplay, but it makes environments more believable while also evolving Uncharted gameplay beyond what players have become accustomed to.
Combat remains about the same, as players always have the option of going in guns blazing. This time around, enemies are more prone to flanking players or flushing them out with grenades. Guns themselves are louder and more impressive, but stealth is a safe option. In many instances, players can use stealth to clear an encounter and avoid firing a gun entirely. Tall grass and the ability to mark enemies allow just enough variety to make a quiet approach a viable option. However, aggressive players will appreciate the large arenas they spend most of the game fighting in. Crumbling buildings, high windows, tall grass and rope points make combat encounters more of a playground than just a box to kill people in.
The rope also provides a silly, insanely fun mechanic that allows players to defy death and explore. Uncharted has never been a particularly difficult series, especially when its puzzles are taken into account. Uncharted 4’s puzzles are more clever and involved than outright head-scratchers. What’s more fun is watching centuries-old mechanisms work into place as Nate uses his journal and small hints from his partners to rotate a lever or push a block the correct way.
The Thrill of Adventure
On the surface, Uncharted 4 hasn’t done much to alter its DNA. Players are searching for treasure, shooting at enemies and getting a great story. There are new animations, more polygons, and production values are through the roof. Even the multiplayer that was introduced in Uncharted 2 is a blast that fans will love. Despite that, a lot has changed since Drake’s Fortune released in 2007. Naughty Dog has matured and so has Uncharted, coming into its own and being more than just a fun third-person action-adventure game.
There’s so much more at work than just the best story in the series. Constant callbacks and nods to previous entries aren’t just meant to invoke nostalgia, they are a love letter to fans and a way for Nate to reflect on his life. Sully constantly refers to Nathan as “kid” because of the magnetic bond the two have developed over the decade. Many will see The Last of Us in Uncharted 4 and that’s OK.
During my playthrough of Uncharted 4, I was worried that writers Druckmann and Straley made Uncharted too dark. It’s a valid fear, and one that made me constantly tense with every new cutscene. But Uncharted hasn’t been stripped of its personality. Instead, the game feels more grounded and truer to its cast than ever. We can relate to this band of heroes, fall in love with them in new ways, and pray for their safe return home. The tone has shifted course in a new, practical direction. Without a doubt, it’s breathtaking.
During most of my time with Uncharted 4, I thought there was a lack of big “moments” that the series has become associated with — no grandiose derailings or impossible escapes. And then I thought back to The Last of Us. One of the most touching moments in that brutal game was after the harsh winter sequence when Joel and Ellie encountered a small herd of giraffes. Without humans, nature had made efforts to take back the world. It felt surreal but also beautiful; it was a moment appropriate to the narrative. Then you realize a game can touch you in many ways. The tiniest of moments in a game can actually be powerful in their meaning and impact. Uncharted 4 defies logic because a series five entries deep shouldn’t be this good, but it is.
Greatness from Small Beginnings
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s end has a sense of finality with the knowledge that it is likely going to be Naughty Dog’s last romp with the series. Years of effort have paid off in a game that may not be “perfect” but is impeccably brilliant in virtually every way.
In the last hour of the game, players will have their emotions tugged in so many ways that when the credits fade, it’s nearly impossible to let go. Naughty Dog has proved itself to be the studio to beat in terms of narrative-driven gaming, and any player who makes it to the stellar ending that pays respect to 10 years worth of work will no doubt be glad they got one last moment with Drake.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End was reviewed on PS4 using a copy of the game provided by the publisher.
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