Uncharted 4 holds back its glorification of the hunt for long lost treasure in favor of a deeper look at its characters and the toll a life of adventure has taken on them. While the PlayStation 3 Uncharted trilogy follows a young Nathan Drake’s thirst for adventure, Uncharted 4 explores an older Nathan Drake’s retirement from that life as he struggles to adapt to a more normal existence. More importantly, Nathan Drake’s farewell is more a character study than a pulp adventure, leaving Uncharted 4 better as a result.
Two years ago, when it was first rumored that Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann (creative leads of The Last of Us) were taking over development of Uncharted 4, one of the biggest concerns was that the game would take a darker turn. While it’s safe to say that didn’t happen, Uncharted 4 does take a deeper look at some more mature themes that the franchise has flirted with in the past.
The game picks up with Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher now out of the treasure hunting game and settled into a normal life. Nate works for a marine salvage company and Elena has gone back to her journalistic roots. They eat dinner on the couch, playfully arguing over who’s turn it is to do the dishes. They even play video games together.
Before too long, Nate’s brother Sam, believed to be dead for the last 15 years, shows up with trouble in tow, dragging Nate into the search for Henry Avery’s lost treasure. Uncharted 4 is paced beautifully from that moment on, often interjecting calm platforming sequences packed with character development in between the high action set pieces and puzzles the series has become known for. The slow moments become integral to the game’s narrative, building a relationship with Sam while strengthening the relationships that have been around since the franchise’s early days.
When the action does heat up, you’re given a much wider range of options for tackling any given encounter. Rather than place you in an arena and funnel waves of omnipotent enemies at you, Uncharted 4 typically gives you the drop on a group of enemies. With a greater emphasis on stealth, you have the option to quietly pick off enemies one by one before reinforcements can be called in. Of course, you’re also able to approach an encounter guns blazing if it suits your play style better.
Weapon handling has been similarly refined. Each weapon has a specific recoil pattern it accurately follows with every pull of the trigger. The more you stick with a weapon, the location of its first and second bullets in the aiming reticle becomes second nature, making it easier to pull off headshots consistently. Smart hit feedback also lets you see when shots connect with or finish off an enemy, helping you easily identify when an enemy has ducked back into cover or when the threat has subsided.
Mechanically, Uncharted 4‘s platforming also feels more refined than its predecessors. A new climbing system has been implemented for this go-around, letting you reach from ledge to ledge without jumping just by controlling Nate’s hands with the left analog stick. The addition of the rope and the piton also add a level of excitement to the platforming that wasn’t there before. Unfortunately, the piton is introduced late in the game and not utilized to its full potential. Overall, the refinements and additional mechanics make the platforming feel tighter, causing errant falls and other mishaps to happen less frequently.
All of these tweaks to the formula come together and tie in the gameplay perfectly with a more mature and grounded narrative. Combat encounters have fewer enemies than the over-the-top examples of prior Uncharted games and the new stealth mechanics allow you to better weave in and out of the enemy’s sight, causing confusion and bringing a greater sense of tension into the gameplay. Likewise, as you come out of an encounter, the game’s cinematics continue to build the tension, portraying its characters struggling through an adventure a younger Nathan Drake would have breezed through ten years earlier.
Our heroes are constantly at odds with whether this adventure is worth the physical and emotional toll it takes on them. Meanwhile, the environmental storytelling you encounter along the journey expertly crafts juxtaposing narratives about the seventeenth century pirates and nineteenth century explorers who came before you on exhibitions of their own. While the game’s cinematics weave a strong narrative in their own right, there’s significant context to be added by seeking out and reading these hidden notes in the environment and I highly suggest dedicating some time to it during an initial play-through.
One of the biggest reasons that a more subtle, character-driven narrative works so well here is just how incredible Uncharted 4 looks. Its stunning vistas often resemble real-world photography and an incredible attention to detail brings those same results into the foreground as well. Likewise, the character animations on display are among the best we’ve seen in the industry. Facial animations look lifelike without stepping into the uncanny valley, while full-body animations feel fluid and true-to-life. By combining the two, Uncharted 4‘s animators and actors are able to portray subtle emotions in a way that games rarely achieve. This allows for body language and subtle glances to take the place of heavy handed dialogue between characters. The level of graphical excellence achieved here is truly something to behold.
Uncharted 4 also includes a multiplayer suite with four game modes and eight maps at the time of release. Game modes include Ranked and Unranked Team Deathmatch as well as two objective based modes; Command (Zone Control) and Plunder (Twist on Capture-the-Flag). These modes are all enjoyable and utilize the campaign’s new mechanics well in a much more frantic setting. Uncharted 2 and 3 both benefited from active multiplayer communities and I expect that to be the case for Uncharted 4 as well. Naughty Dog has also promised free DLC including new maps and game modes, keeping the community unified rather than separating it between those with just the base game and those who purchased DLC add-ons. It’s a good strategy that more developers have been employing in recent years and one that’s sure to please the community.
Overall, Uncharted 4 is a masterpiece. With its gorgeously nuanced facial animations, beautiful environments, and an incredible flair for storytelling, capping off Nathan Drake’s story with an adventure that anyone will enjoy, but that longtime fans of the series should savor. Nate, Elena, and Sully consistently come to life on screen with a sense of brilliance that prior games fell just short of achieving. Meanwhile, Sam is brought into the franchise with incredible thoughtfulness, easing fears that he would feel out of place among an established cast of beloved characters. Naughty Dog has once again raised the bar for storytelling in games.
Score: 10 / 10