by Matthew Thompson
This is the game I have been waiting this whole gen for and I’m happy to say Uncharted 4 has lived up to the hype for me, delivering one of my very favorite gaming experiences of all-time. I struggle to be able to put into words my feelings about the game, but I’m going to try to (in a likely very unsuccinct manner) over the course of at least a couple of posts. I hope to talk in more detail about my favorite moments from Nathan Drake’s final adventure sometime in the future, but this first post will focus on five major thoughts that I came away from Uncharted 4 with and I will do so in a spoiler-free fashion. Here it goes!
A Tale of Two Treasure Hunters
One question I had coming into Uncharted 4 was what would bring Nathan Drake back into the treasure-hunting game. The lesson Nate seemed to be learning in Uncharted 3 was the toll his lifestyle was having on himself and those around him. The ending certainly indicated that he’d be hanging it up. And so he did. Early in Uncharted 4, we see him living “the normal life” before his long-lost brother, Sam, comes back into the picture. Sam’s troubles give Nate and the player the proper motivation to jump back into the fray, but more important are the themes and ideas this allows the game’s story to explore. Like what Nathan actually wants his life to be, what his various familial bonds (life-long brother Sam, father-like Sully, and wife Elena) mean and what he is willing to sacrifice for them, and so on. This side of the story allows Uncharted 4 to pack in some emotional punch not seen in the previous entries.
Of course, there is a rollicking adventure yarn to spin here too. This outing finds Nathan and company going after famed pirate Henry Avery’s lost treasure. It is a more grounded tale with greater depth and detail to the history behind it than the treasure hunts in the past. This is partially illuminated through documents and optional conversations with your cohorts which make exploring the world more rewarding. You’ll also discover parallels and connections between what Avery went through in the past and Nathan’s personal struggles now which ends up giving more meaning to the hunt while strengthening our characters’ story in the present.
Uncharted 4 brings this moving, yet exciting human story to life through unrivaled productions values and presentation. The graphics, the cinematic flair, the way they put you in control of key story moments… it is all top-notch stuff. I have to give some special attention to the voice-acting. The core cast of Nolan North, Emily Rose and Richard McGonagle are as good as ever and they are joined by another trio that brings their A-game as well. This includes voiceover all-stars Troy Baker and Laura Bailey (who play Sam and new villain Nadine respectively) along with gaming VA newbie Warren Kole (who really impressed me as Rafe). The narrative isn’t without its minor missteps, but the way all these parts came together created a memorable story that is the series’ best.
A Thief’s End
The final aspect that really made this story hit me the way it did was knowing this was likely the end. It is rare for me to know going into a video game that my time with beloved characters will be over. I deal with it often with TV shows I watch, but in gaming… not so much. And Uncharted features what is probably my favorite cast of video game characters. This made the whole thing a very emotional affair for me personally. Every scene between Nate and Elena hit me like a ton of bricks. Their relationship is just so nuanced and real and I will miss seeing them interact the most. The developers threw in heaps of fan service that made Uncharted 4 feel made precisely for people like me. All the references to past games put a smile on my face. And finally, the ending was absolutely wonderful. It was sad to see the series end, but I couldn’t be happier with how it wrapped up. It stands as one of the most affecting gaming stories I have ever experienced as a result.
Putting the Adventure in Adventurer
I’ve always yearned to explore more in the Uncharted series. One reason is the beautiful locales which simply beg to be explored if for no other reason than to soak in more of that picturesque scenery. It also just feels right for the series given its adventure-based story and treasure-hunting explorer protagonist. But Uncharted’s extremely linear level design has always kept players hemmed in. That changes with this fourth proper entry. Naughty Dog has included some much wider play areas that you can scour to your heart’s content, breathing in all the artistic beauty as well as the developer’s staggering attention to detail. There are more than sights to take in though. Along with the additional story and character moments I mentioned earlier, there are treasures to find, small puzzles to solve and optional enemy encounters to tackle. I even found myself haggling for a treasure in a Madagascan market. And I love all the little details you can add to your journal by veering off the beaten path. By the end of your journey, Nate’s little notebook will be an excellent reminder of your grand adventure together. I especially enjoyed some of the funnier sketches he made in there.
To help traverse Uncharted 4’s larger environments, a new vehicle system has been implemented and I really love how it came together. Vehicle segments in non-racing games tend to be a bit of a crapshoot. One-off bits of this variety just as often piss me off as they do anything else. But I tend to like when a game can fully integrate them into the core gameplay like Jak 3, Halo or Batman: Arkham Knight, and Uncharted 4 succeeds similarly in this regard. Along with aiding in your exploratory endeavors, vehicles like the jeep are put to use in other areas like puzzle-solving, combat and set pieces. Throw in puzzles that rank among the series’ best and further improved platforming mechanics and you end up with the most robust adventure elements in this typically action-slanted action/adventure franchise.
Not Enough of a Good Thing
This is the best Uncharted combat mechanics have ever been. The controls have been tightened up. They have improved the weapon feedback. Stealth is more viable with additions like tall grass to hide in and the ability to regain your stealth status after a fight breaks out by moving about the level. That segues right into what I love most about Uncharted combat: how it ties into traversal. And that too has been brought to the next level in Uncharted 4. The arenas are masterfully crafted with multiple tiers and lots of verticality. Then there is the new grapple which you can use to move across the battlefield quickly and to swing onto foes for wondrous takedowns. The jump kills, whether off a rope swing or just from higher ground, are seriously like my new favorite thing. I never tire of these.
Despite all the steps forward the combat has taken, it feels underutilized in Uncharted 4. It is by far the longest game in the series, yet has the least amount of action. As much as I like the expanded exploration and more in-depth storytelling, I feel the combat is definitely the most replayable aspect of the game. That is the part you can take different approaches to on successive passes. That is the part that is affected by upping the difficulty. The same goes for the set pieces. Uncharted 4 has what might be gaming’s most insane set piece-style action sequence of all-time. It is certainly on the short list. But looking at the collection of setpieces, I can’t say it competes with what Uncharted 2 had on offer. Ultimately, because I enjoy the combat and action sequences so much, I guess I just wanted a bit more of them especially since this is likely Naughty Dog and Nathan Drake’s last go with the series. I think a few more put into specific spots would have also helped improve some of the game’s slight pacing issues, making some of the slower moments feel more like an earned breather. It isn’t a huge negative for me, but it is my biggest gripe with the Story Mode.
Slim Multiplayer Pickings
I feel pretty similarly about the multiplayer as I did when I wrote up my impressions about the Beta (you can read that here and here). Things I love include the core combat mechanics, the upped framerate, rope kills and all the little water cooler moments that you can produce while playing. Things I don’t love include the lackluster map design, the inclusion of mines and the AI buddies you can spawn. What I couldn’t have predicted back in the beta was just how few modes would be present at launch. There is a meager three at the moment: Team Deathmatch, Plunder (Uncharted’s version of Capture the Flag) and Command (a zone capture mode) plus a ranked version of TDM. No Three Team Deathmatch stings badly. No Team Objective hurts my heart. And no co-op of any kind is a total bummer. I guess new modes are coming – including co-op in the Fall – and I have been playing the multi nightly for the past couple weeks and having a lot of fun, but I can’t help but feel disappointed with how lacking in content the multiplayer offerings are here compared to the last two games.
For Nathan Drake’s final adventure, it is clear that developer Naughty Dog charted a different course than the rest of the series. The essence of Uncharted remains. A treasure-hunting adventure. Superb characters and dialogue. Extremely mobile combat complimented by light traversal and puzzle-solving elements. But it comes in a reshaped package with some substantial new additions and I think that is part of why it succeeded so much in my eyes. Uncharted 3 tried to beat the series’ seminal second outing at its own game by upping the spectacle. The result treaded too closely to what Uncharted 2 gave us while delivering an inferior overall package. By doing more of its own thing and doing it so damn well, Uncharted 4 became an adventure worthy of sitting alongside the 2009 classic as one of my all-time favorite games. It also managed to put a cap on the series in a way that left me completely satisfied with how things came to a close – not an easy feat for any long-running series regardless of medium. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a gaming experience I will never forget and one I see myself going back to for years to come.