Uncharted is always an exciting adventure. There’s nothing like playing through an Uncharted game for the first time. And there was no doubt in my mind that the fourth in the series would not disappoint. I chose not to watch any gameplay footage before my time with it so that the locations would take me completely by surprise. With Uncharted, it’s all about the locations. Sure the combat is improved a little with each installment and the characters receive their dashes of depth along the new adventure… but the real appeal of Uncharted, much like James Bond films or Indiana Jones films, is the exotic locations to which we take the action. Without that, it’d just be a shooter. But with that, it’s an adventure! And Uncharted 4 is definitely an adventure. I expected absolutely zero less than an exciting, memorizing, picturesque adventure from this game. And it’s okay to have high expectations, because from a studio as reliable as Naughty Dog, you know it will deliver.
This Uncharted game does deliver the expected goods, however not always in the most expected way. There a surprising number of moments where I was suddenly aware of the game as a progressive twist on classic Uncharted and was almost put off by it. But without much consideration, it quickly grows on you and suddenly feels right. Uncharted 4 doesn’t fit the cookie-cutter of 2 and 3, but is every bit as great.
I will try not to spoil anything about the plot or locations but still give examples of what I mean… Every Uncharted game has grand climax settings. In 2, it was the mythical Buddhist temple in the mountains; in 3, it was the lost desert city made of gold… When you arrive there, you have the sense that the story has reached its finale and the credits are only a hop, skip, a jump, and a big explosion away. But Uncharted 4 doesn’t follow this pattern: you reach the climax setting at what seems like the due time, but little do you realize the other half of the story is still in store. In 4, we spend about half of the campaign on in one location, which sounds uninteresting before you realize just what kind of diversity that location ends up offering, not to mention the wide range of twists and turns the story will undergo in that time. That was definitely a surprise. I personally love when it seems like something is just going on and on forever, constantly denying your premonition that the end is near — as long as its a good something.
It’s no spoiler to admit that Drake’s brother, Sam, is involved. He’s present during the opening moments of the game and officially introduced in the very next scene with a flashback. While I think the idea of Sam’s character is a good one, I’m not super pleased with how it translated to the experience, mainly for two reasons: One, Sam needs a different face. Upon first moments seeing his adult form, I assumed he was a background character or henchmen of some kind, because he looks completely forgettable, or at best like a half-important villain. The young version of Sam looks perfect. But the adult version, whom we spend much more time with, I found it hard find an attachment to. Whether it’s Sam’s hair or facial structure that does it, I don’t know, but Nathan’s appearance, in contrast, speaks volumes of attachment. So I wish Sam could have been as personable as Nathan has always been — or at least putting up a good competition for my affection.
The second reason I was put off by the brother is he is present throughout so much of the gameplay. I think Uncharted’s adventures are at their best when Nathan is alone. Like during the ship graveyard scene in 3, or the train derailment in 2, or the Bedouin town in the desert in 3… But in 4, Nathan is almost never alone. His brother is accompanying at least half the time doing the jumps and climbs with him. The story was written in a way where Sam is never far. And that takes away some of the isolation that I like to feel in adventure games.
Speaking of NPCs that join Nate in his quests, Elena is there, too. But if I’m going to have to entertain a buddy during a section of my adventure, I’d prefer it be Elena. The dialogue between she and Nate is not surpassed by any other dialogue in the game. Maybe that’s because they have so much history. It is kind of a tradition that Uncharted games feature a few scenes where Elena joins the fight, so I was happy to see her there, especially since it was starting to look like this would be the only game where she didn’t join in. It takes the story a loooong time to reach that point. Which is a good thing, actually.
But Elena looks different now. And unfortunately I was a little bothered by that. I have always liked Elena as a character. And her character work in Uncharted 4 is nothing but satisfying. I just don’t get why she doesn’t have the same face. Maybe the difference is too subtle for most people to care, but if it honestly bothered me, then there has to be something to it right?
There are new mechanics in the game that turned out delightfully. At first, the thought of a free-roam driving experience in an Uncharted game seems a bit excessive and unnecessary. But the rugged-terrain jeeplike thing the player gets to romp around in is pretty fun, and makes appearances in the game that make use of its unique capabilities. I especially enjoyed the grappling hook Nate carries around with him. That has been the missing link all this time, dare I say… As much as we’ve been climbing around on rock ledges, it feels so good to jump straight off a cliff and swing out over a giant drop like its a breeze.
Almost every little thing in Uncharted has been improved upon, as one would expect from the next installment of a series — especially one moving up a system. Animations are smoother, sounds are better, faces are more genuine than ever… But something that really impressed me is the lighting. I have studied conceptual art, so I tend to notice lighting in ways that most people wouldn’t, because that’s something concept artists have to be brilliant at. And you probably wouldn’t realize it, but the lighting in this game is extraordinary! I kept noticing these reflected light moments where the Nathan would be a different color on his non-directly-lit side because of what intensely colored objects were near him. That’s something I’ve never seen a game do before; they mostly kept to direct lighting, shadows, and highlights. The hair also impressed me. The way the light forms halos around the receding edges of the hair was very realistic.
Of course the action moments are exciting and even have the moments of ridiculousness we expect, like Nathan swinging out of an explosion by rope, dodging flying rock debris, and landing on a henchmen with a superman-punch-pose. And of course the locations deliver (I won’t get into the details). But the game also delivered something I wasn’t expecting — the storytelling. With The Last of Us and Uncharted 4, Naughty Dog is now officially one of my favorite storytellers. Uncharted 4 reaches a Last of Us quality craftsmanship with its characters and direction. 4 has pretty impressive direction and writing completely blowing that aspect of earlier Uncharted games out of the water.
As if people who like the Uncharted games have any need to be talked into wanting to play this… but I do want to spoil one little thing that might make someone more excited to play who hasn’t yet: Uncharted 4 is not just “another one of Drake’s adventures”. It’s his last adventure. The game takes place years after the events of the prior games, and Drake has essentially settled down to live a normal life. He’s older, he has a wife and does the dishes. But now he’s been forced out of retirement to save someone he loves and must summon the adventurer within himself once more. That is such a perfect premise for this “final” Uncharted installment.
But my favorite thing about the whole game ended up being something I can’t talk about. Too spoilable. Let’s just say it leaves a warm blanket of a satisfied feeling once its all over…
This is my first rating for 2016. My rating for 2016’s Uncharted 4 for PS4 is…