I can’t claim to being a long term Uncharted fan, having only first played the trilogy in the Nathan Drake Collection last year. The second game, Among Thieves, was the only one that really stood out to me, but nothing which particularly blew me away. Uncharted 4 was different though; I think it is comfortably the best game of the series, building on strengths whilst showing a remarkable willingness to leap out of its mechanical and narrative comfort zones.
Nathan Drake has settled into a normal existence, retired from his life of swashbuckling adventure. Married to the love of his life Elena, Nathan nonetheless clearly feels bored and constrained in domestic harmony. The arrival of Sam, Nathan’s long lost brother, thought dead in a heist on a Panamanian prison 15 years before, brings him back into the fold. Sam was bust out of jail by a terrifying, psychopathic drug lord who has threatened to torture him to death if he does not bring him the treasure of the legendary pirate Captain Henry Avery. Nathan and Sam had been searching for the treasure for years, although Nathan abandoned the search after Sam’s ‘death.’ Nathan, lying to Elena, sets out with Sam to track down Avery’s treasure and rescue his brother.
I enjoyed the plot of the previous three Uncharted games, but all of them felt like popcorn; tasty in the short term but ultimately not particularly filling. It’s a cliché to call a sequel more ‘personal’, but Uncharted 4 genuinely is. There’s been a bit of a backlash lately against the idea of ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ (the contrast between the way a protagonist is presented in the story and how they behave under the control of the player) and it’s true that the idea is often abused by those who don’t really understand it, but I think the idea still holds some water. It’s always been difficult to reconcile the breezy and easy going Nathan Drake with the shocking violence of his day to day life and although Uncharted 4 shies away from acknowledging the brutality in Nathan’s line of work, it does begin to look at the people hurt by his lifestyle. The swashbuckling pirate adventure to find Avery’s gold is great (and thankfully lacking in the out of place supernatural elements of the previous games) but it’s the relationships which are the best part. Nathan’s rebuilding of his relationship with his lost brother Sam is charming to see, although the best relationship of the bunch is that of Nate and Elena. Uncharted 4 achieves what many movies and TV shows fail to; make the personal as (or more) interesting than the epic. Uncharted 4 is both a celebration and deconstruction of what came before and comes together as the best story of the lot.
Things are basically the same on a mechanical level. Early trailers promised a focus on more melee focused vertical combat which isn’t really the case here. Sure, you can swing from a rope and smash people in an instant knockout, but it’s almost always not practical to do so and leaves you exposed. In practice, you’ll be playing Uncharted 4 much like the in the previous games, which is fine as the mechanics are pretty polished by now. The climbing is still fun and the shooting frantic, if shallow. There was a great article recently which argued that the Uncharted series are essentially elaborate walking simulators. The illusion of control is given to the player but in practice you hold very little sway over what happens and how things play out. This is a deal breaker for some people, but the illusion of control is so beautifully crafted that it never bothered me.
There is a slight shift towards more open environments, with some beautiful scenes set on the plains of Madagascar. You can make some slight detours, but you are still mostly being funnelled down a path. Naughty Dog do a fantastic job of this funnelling, making it feel organic, rather than simply being in a corridor. There are vehicles, which control well, including a stand out chase scene which was shown at E3 last year. Stealth mechanics have also been refined. They’re not particularly deep, but they work well and avoid the curse of terrible stealth mechanics in non-stealth games. In fact, the stealth is better than that in Assassin’s Creed which is either a complement to Uncharted 4 or a damning criticism of Assassin’s Creed; probably both. Uncharted 4 has the best gameplay variety of the series and paces exploration, combat and action set pieces pretty much perfectly.
Probably the most immediate thing which jumps out to you in Uncharted 4 are the visuals. I’m trying to avoid hyperbole, but it’s difficult to do so when talking about Uncharted 4. I genuinely think it has the most perfect ‘graphics’ of any game I’ve ever seen, all whilst maintaining a smooth frame rate. The environments are stunningly beautiful and varied, from the plains of Madagascar, to bustling city streets to Scottish moors, all are pulled off with aplomb. The facial animations are incredible; we’re able to read the complex nuance of their emotions from the looks on their face, the miniscule shifts in the way they stand. Put simply, I responded to the characters of Uncharted 4 as I would a human being. Other games have attempted this and some have done bloody well (Rockstar are good at this) but nothing has done it better than Uncharted 4. Of course, all the wonderful animation in the world wouldn’t count for anything if the voice acting was rubbish. It’s not though; it’s brilliant, with the new characters establishing themselves well and Nolan North and Emily Rose bringing new dimensions to their already excellent performances as Nathan and Elena. Uncharted 4 is an immaculate game, something which is incredibly rare these days.
The word that kept popping into my head about Uncharted 4 is ‘effortless.’ Everything works so well and runs so smoothly that it feels breezy and light and lacks any of the weighty irritations which are so prevalent in the AAA gaming industry. Looking this effortless is something which I imagine took a huge amount of…well, effort. The big budget AAA linear action game is a dying breed and in some ways Uncharted 4 feels like it may be the last of its kind. This is a bit sad, but at the same time it’s difficult to imagine how Uncharted 4 could be topped.