Nearly a decade has come and gone since we were first introduced to Nathan Drake—a character heavily inspired by Eidos Interactive’s Lara Croft of Tomb Raider who, in turn, helped inspire the reboot of the very character by which he was inspired. In that time we have discovered the treasures of El Dorado, the lost cities of Shambhala, and even the Iram of the Pillars. Now, in Nathan Drake’s fourth and final adventure, we see our hero on the hunt for the lost pirate treasure from Captain Avery in Libertalia, and we are introduced to a character who has been absent throughout the previous games, with nary a mention of his existence: his brother, Samuel Drake.
As the series has now come to its close, the Latin phrase often used throughout the final game rings especially true given where the game developer, Naughty Dog, started from 30 years ago.
Sic parvis magna. Greatness from small beginnings.
Despite players never having been informed, or even given hints, of the existence of such an important character in the nine years we’ve come to know and love Nathan Drake, the inclusion of his absentee brother doesn’t feel particularly shoehorned as if to try and force an emotional narrative. Instead, we are given several effectively written, plot-driven flashbacks that focus on the story at hand, bringing the player to the moment when Nathan and Samuel brother became separated, without retconning any of the previous titles in the franchise.
To expect great things from the fourth and final game in the series should be a given, as the average Metacritic score among the previous three titles sits at a resounding 92.6 percent. Though there were some signs early on in development that the game may be in trouble, none of those concerns came to fruition, as the title was left in the hands of Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley after the abrupt departure of longtime series director Amy Hennig over creative differences. For those not in the know, both Druckmann and Straley are known for their work on what is widely considered the best title in the Uncharted series, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, as well as The Last of Us, arguably the best game of the PlayStation 3 generation.
So how does Uncharted 4 stack up to the other titles in the franchise? Quite nicely, actually.
Look and Feel
First, it is easily the most beautiful game ever released for the PlayStation 4, or any console for that matter. That’s not hyperbole. This game is gorgeous and offers some of the most breathtaking backdrops I have ever seen in any video game ever. I often found myself stopping throughout the campaign to just take in my surroundings. And that’s to say nothing of how the game runs in motion: running at a solid locked 30 frames per second, the game rarely, if ever, ran into any judder or screen tearing. Hell, I can’t recall any point during my entire playthrough when I could noticeably witness the frame rate dip, and that is a feat in its own right.
Uncharted 4 offers some of the series’ more memorable action set pieces as well. Most memorable is the scene where Nathan and his brother attempt to outrun an armored mercenary truck while on a motorcycle.
Story and Tone
The story of Uncharted 4 revolves around an older and more mature Nathan Drake, one who has left the treasure-hunting business once and for all to attempt an honest life as a salvage worker. However, when his long-lost brother, Sam, returns, Nate is forced back into the fray in order to locate the lost city of Libertalia to find the lost treasure of pirate captain Henry Avery. Without going into any spoiler territory, this game attempts to take a bit more somber of an approach to the characters than previous entries have. The usual cast of characters has returned, with Nathan’s love interest (now wife), Elena Fisher, and his longtime accomplice, Victor Sullivan. There appears to be a sense of finality to it, tying together loose ends and having a clear endgame in mind.
With that sense of finality and more somber tone, Uncharted 4 left me longing for the days of the carefree treasure hunting when the stakes seemed to increase into the culmination of some sort of supernatural element towards the latter part of the game. Sadly, this game lacks any sort of supernaturalism in favor of more a more character-driven arc. Thankfully, however, voice actors Nolan North (Nathan), Richard McGonagle (Victor), and Emily Rose (Elena) are able to deliver some of the most memorable of the one-liners the franchise is known for. Newcomer Troy Baker (Samuel Drake) does well in the more dramatic aspects of playing Nate’s brother—which should come as no surprise, seeing as Baker has played such legendary game characters as Joel from the Last of Us and Booker DeWitt from Bioshock: Infinite—yet he comes up short when it comes to the comedic banter with his brother.
One of the things holding back Uncharted 4 is its pacing, particularly in the game’s third act, as levels become drawn out and often an exercise in tedium as you continually repeat the pattern of climb, shoot, repeat. While things do pick up again in the latter portion of the game, it certainly seems as though some of the chapters could have been either omitted or scaled back drastically.
The developers of Naughty Dog are something of a phenomenon when it comes to their games. Their storytelling is second to none in the gaming industry, forcing some of the most emotional narratives the media has ever seen. Somehow, however, they are often given a pass when it comes to the gameplay itself. The Last of Us is a prime example of how a story in a game can outweigh the actual gameplay, with critics questioning whether or not the game itself was actually fun to play. It’s an argument that I often have with myself, as the Last of Us is one of my favorite games of all time.
Uncharted 4, however, is not the Last of Us; this title feels like playing a top-tier action blockbuster. It plays similarly to the previous titles in the series, yet improves upon most of the mechanics we’ve grown accustomed to over the past decade. One prime example of Uncharted’s improved mechanics comes in the form of its reformed combat.
Where previous titles would just inundate the player with swaths of enemies, Uncharted 4 uses a different approach. With an improved AI, enemies are able to adapt during each encounter, as they attempt to flank you and draw you out of your hiding, making each fight feel more rewarding, particularly at higher difficulties. The gunplay feels as tight as ever, while the “sticky cover” system works most of the time. I’ve died several times due to the sticky cover failing, or attempting to roll under the gunfire to only get stuck to a crate. While the game hasn’t quite mastered the combat that some other third-person shooters have, it’s a massive improvement over the previous entries in the series.
Platforming is another aspect of the game that sees a vast improvement over the previous titles. As Nathan scales some of the massive mountains and buildings throughout his adventure, you’re required to act as his arms, reaching out for anything he can grab on to, as opposed to just spamming the X button and hoping that he will climb his way up.
Sadly, however, the puzzles didn’t get the same kind of attention to detail that they had in the past. Most of them revolve around fetching a crate to climb on to get over an obstacle. The absolute redundancy to this kind of puzzle work creates a level of tedium and bland puzzle play that feels out of place.
Despite its minor flaws, Uncharted 4 is a monumental feat, both in its narrative and in creating a new benchmark for what the PlayStation 4 can do graphically. While the gameplay is as tight as it has ever been, the often lazy puzzle design and a drawn-out third act keep this game from being the masterpiece that it could have been.
Final Score: 9.4 out of 10