Review – Uncharted 4
Nathan Drake has had a hell of a ride since his 2007 debut, though it’s one that has had its ups and downs. After a superb 2009 sequel helped Naughty Dog shake off the ‘Dude Raider’ vibes, I was disappointed by the 2011 releases of both Drake’s Deception and Golden Abyss. The franchise rallied in 2015 with Bluepoint Games doing a great job porting the first three games over to PS4 in The Nathan Drake Collection, which leaves us at today and the imminent release of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.
I’m going to try and keep this review free of mid-to-late-game spoilers, but if you want to go into the game without even the slightest hint about locations Nathan heads to or the existence of the franchise’s signature plot twists and big cinematic battles you might want to close the browser tab. Fair warning, when I talk about story I will be talking about the events of the opening – but it’s nothing that hasn’t been spoiled by trailers already. There’s also no coverage of multiplayer, both because I’ve never really liked the multiplayer in past Uncharted games and because the servers aren’t available for play.
Uncharted 4 is a third-person action-adventure game by Naughty Dog, available May 10, 2016 exclusively for the PS4. The game is, according to Naughty Dog, the last outing for series star Nathan Drake – but will it be the end of the franchise?
The game is set a few years after Drake’s last adventure, with him having settled down with Elena and gone legit. Unsurprisingly that doesn’t last and his life is turned upside down by the reappearance of his brother, who everyone had thought dead for years. Before long Nathan has lied to his wife and gone off on one last adventure, but you can bet there are some twists and turns along the way.
Returning characters include Drake and Elena, as well as Nathan’s long-time friend Sully, and they get the bulk of the development time during the story. New characters like the once-suspected-dead brother Sam and the new pair of enemies the Drake brothers will need to overcome are given less time in the oven, and as a result there are a number of questions I’d like to have seen answers for. Why did Nathan never mention Sam at all in past games, for example?
While the overall plot is B-movie fodder there’s great writing behind the relationships built in the course of the game’s 12-13 hour campaign, whether that’s between Nathan and his wife, his long-time friend, or his long-lost brother. When Elena catches on to the deception about what Nathan’s been up to, for example, the reactions rang true…even if the idea that he’d lie and run off didn’t really sit right to begin with. It also helps that the pair of enemies Drake squares off against have real-world motivations, not something supernatural driving them on.
Naughty Dog has always been good at pulling power out of the hardware they’re working with, and Uncharted 4 is no exception. The game is gorgeous from start to finish with an insane amount of detail work put into the interior of buildings, while the exteriors – this game features more open environments than past titles – are similarly spectacular. It’s one thing to have a nice skybox and background you’ll never let the player explore, but Naughty Dog drops the gamer into playable areas that leave you drooling. The variety of environments is impressive, and whether I was on a tropical island, exploring an Italian villa, or stumbling through dark crypts or basements I never felt like I was in an area they gave less attention to than others.
Also impressive is the use of colour. In an age where developers still seem to be limiting themselves to a 16-bit colour palette, most of it brown or tan, Uncharted 4 splashes vibrant colours everywhere. The tropical areas are lush and rich with life, and even exploring darkened areas had moments of visual splendor.
It’s worth noting that while Naughty Dog aimed for 1080p at 60 frames per second (fps) initially, they pulled back on that target and attempted to hit 1080p with a consistently locked 30 fps play, but Uncharted 4 doesn’t stay locked there. The framerate dropped during some of the larger firefights, as well as during a few odd moments that didn’t seem related to on-screen action at all. While that second set of drops didn’t really have an effect on gameplay, the drops during combat occasionally did.
In Uncharted 4, Nathan has put adventuring behind him and gone legit. That should be explanation enough for the lack of meaningful tweaks to the combat or traversal mechanics, though there is one key addition – the ability to swing from a rope. This relatively simple-sounding new feature means previously unreachable locations are now manageable, and also ups the swashbuckling feel immensely. When you spot a group of enemies in a good location you can swing in and blindside one with a ridiculously effective melee attack, although this does then leave you in a somewhat vulnerable position – right in the middle of the rest of them. Fortunately Nathan’s melee attacks have retained their effectiveness and the shooting mechanics don’t have the odd finicky touch that Uncharted 3 did at launch.
There’s still what feels to me like too much of an emphasis placed on killbox-style combat encounters. Nathan enters an area and explores a bit, then he’s trapped in a set area while enemies swarm in and he can’t move a box or topple a tower to create his escape route until they’re all dead. After playing through the previous games while awaiting this release it became a pattern I grew to resent a bit – mostly because every other element is so well done that it feels like inexcusably lazy design.
Fortunately the game does allow for some leeway in your approach to many situations. You can, if you’re patient, stealth past some areas without raising an alarm or murdering a dozen people. I wouldn’t call it an open world game by any means as it’s still a linear path, but it’s a very wide one that allows for some wandering side to side as you move forward.
When I say “move forward” I should probably have said “move up” as Nathan spends much of the game climbing walls, cliffs, and other tall things. While the climbing mechanics are fine, with only a few instances of Nathan grabbing the wrong ledge or refusing to take the path I’d intended, by the time the game was winding down it had started to feel like Naughty Dog used climbing things to pad out the adventure.
In a game that’s relentlessly pushing you forward at times, especially during the big set piece battles where all hell is breaking loose and you need to stay one step ahead of certain death, it’s nice to have some idea what you need to do or where you need to go. Being a cinematic game necessitates taking some control away from the player, but when that’s done well it’s essentially invisible – you look in the right direction because you’ve been alerted to…not because the camera turned that way against your wishes.
That was one area I felt Naughty Dog failed in Uncharted 3, it was often unclear where you needed to go next and failing to go there immediately resulted in death – not so in Uncharted 4. There are still major set piece battles, and you’ll still need to go where you’re supposed to or meet a grisly end, but it’s far easier to understand what’s expected of you thanks to the improved audio clues, whether it’s one of your companions yelling commands or enemies shouting their plans. It seems like a little thing, but it probably did more to enhance my enjoyment of the campaign than any other tweak from past games.
The voice acting is fantastic as always, even with the overuse of Drake’s “no, no, no, no, no” line as he’s sliding, falling, jumping, being attacked, etc… The plot might not be amazing, with fairly blatant twists that probably won’t take many by surprise, but the dialogue is stellar. Nathan and Elena’s relationship is strained over the course of the game, and that bleeds into their lines.