Nathan Drake is out of the game. In an attempt at a “normal” life after too many brushes with death, the man has finally settled down with longtime flame Elena. A small number of pilfered relics and McGuffins from previous games now litter his dusty loft, mere mementos of adventures past. But when Nate’s long-lost brother Sam turns up in debt to a dangerous criminal, he’s dragged again into old, illegal ways. Make no mistake, though: while this game carries all the hallmarks of the One Last Hurrah, Naughty Dog presents an experience that leverages the series’ past to weave a tale worth telling.
This time, Drake’s chasing down Captain Henry Avery’s long-lost treasure in a quest that once again whisks him and his companions across the globe. Uncharted 4 doesn’t reinvent the series’ trademark bombastic action-adventure formula, instead introducing gentle yet meaningful tweaks to the game’s mechanics and design to improve the whole experience.
The levels you’ll clamber and swashbuckle your way through are designed to facilitate the series’ characteristic merger of traversal and combat. Graspable ledges on both natural and manmade surfaces are gently highlighted with a telltale dusting of colour, and Drake reaches out to ledges that you can climb to which makes monkeying about cliff faces feel intuitive. You can take cover behind flat objects and waist-high walls and easily mantle the latter. You know the drill, it’s par for the Uncharted course.
What’s new is the grappling hook, which integrates itself into Uncharted’s established platforming admirably while affording an easy verticality in level design. You can use it to swing across chasms, safely rappel down steep drops, and to pull objects towards you from afar.
The platforming mechanics are as solid as ever, and enable you to fling yourself around the varied environments in an engaging and kinetic fashion whether you’re climbing up a Scottish cliff face with relative leisure or frantically attempting to outrun a hail of gunfire in Italy. Levels are less straightforward this time, though- while there’s a set path for progression through levels, there are often areas and arenas with multiple routes of advancement which does reduce that on-rails feeling.
You’ll also employ these skills in combat situations, during which you’re usually dropped into an arena patrolled by enemies unaware of your presence- although there’s a fair share of firefights that start hot. Combat this time feels more frantic and improvisational than ever before, with an emphasis on dropping in and out of stealth to eliminate your foes. You’ll sneak through high grass and leap between ledges in the vertical environments to get the (sometimes literal) drop on enemies with stealth takedowns.
If you’re spotted, you’ve a multitude of options to spring into action with. You can hunker down behind cover to trade fire and grenades with your attackers, rapidly switching safe spots as enemy fire swiftly degrades your cover while attempting to flank you from all sides. Alternatively, you can go on the run- this is what the game really wants you to do. There’s a special thrill afforded by the chaotic firefights that ensue when you’re swinging from point to point, guns ablaze while bullets fill the air around you.
Crucially, Uncharted 4’s goons don’t know where you are if you manage to break their line of sight for a few seconds- and while they’ll still search for you, you can use the upper hand to take out a few more men without drawing fire. This not only makes stealthy gameplay achievable if you mess up and get spotted, but also really lends the feeling that you’re thinking on your feet to gain the advantage against all odds.
Combat sections aren’t actually all that prevalent in Uncharted 4; I’d estimate that probably less than a third of your time is spent engaging your adversaries. You’ll spend most of your time carefully navigating environments, solving simple yet stimulating navigational puzzles to chase down that treasure.
That’s not to say that this game doesn’t offer its fair share of explosive action. Uncharted 4 might be the most varied AAA game released yet this year, and you’re constantly shifting between different modes of play. Ponderous exploration scenes seasoned with dialogue are interspersed with high-flying action, sudden spikes of danger yank the carpet out from under you (the all-but-patented “precarious handholds occasionally crumble under your fingers” trick is less prevalent but still very present), and you’re constantly facing new challenges and situations. Now you’re driving, now you’re shooting, now you’re solving a puzzle, now you’re in a quietly emotional scene, now you’re hanging by a thread over a 1,000-foot drop. Uncharted 4 buckles you in for one hell of a ride, and plastered a grin across my face for most of my time with it.
Despite its commitment to the series’ gameplay, Uncharted 4 offers us a different take on an Uncharted narrative. This game was led by The Last of Us directors Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, and while the story features similar beats of twists, turns and reveals to the established Uncharted formula, Uncharted 4 shows an altogether more mature, grounded emotional core.
The game’s somber reflection on Nathan Drake, a man torn between obsession with adventure and the hope of a normal life, feels like a fitting focus for the narrative. Drake continues to be a revelation with his script, voice work from Nolan North, and incredible animation contributing to make him one of the most likeable and relatable playable characters out there. That’s despite the ludonarrative dissonance that comes from a person able to kill so many people without needing therapy, although I’m not sure why people hone in on Drake so much when this issue is so widespread in games. For what it’s worth, this treasure hunt is set up as an endeavour that Drake absolutely must pursue and the foes in his way demand violent action.
The entire cast of the game is enthralling to watch, too- stellar vocal performances all round, especially the game’s core cast of Sully, Elena, and Nate’s brother Sam, played by Troy Baker. Uncharted games always have superb scripts, and this is one of the few games that I played through without a podcast on in the background because of the constant, excellent dialogue presence. Uncharted 4 features some of the best character work out there, and I was thoroughly invested in the personal stories of these people.
Special mention must go to Uncharted 4’s facial animation; you can see the history between these characters written across their faces when they’re interacting, with every expression and eye movement immaculately represented. Character models are painstakingly rendered; if you position Nate in just the right light, you can see the cartilage in his ears.
This flair for visual polish extends to the rest of the game too, in a presentation with a frankly astounding level of detail. There’s a reason that the game has a photo mode that allows you to pause the action at any time to take screenshots, although screenshots just don’t do justice to what this game looks like in motion. Locales from around the globe are lovingly designed and rendered, often feeling like real places rather than a constructed playground. Uncharted 4 might well be the best looking game I’ve seen that’s shooting for “realism” in its graphics, and you’re sure to revel in its visual delights. This isn’t just in the wild outdoors, either; I was amazed walking through Nate’s house early on, so realistic was the depiction of a home. The way that light glanced off windows, picture frames, and tiled surfaces differently alone was eerily lifelike in itself.
Pair this with the multitude of incidental details of animation and script like the way that Nate checks his hair when you look in the mirror, or appropriately grunts and careens a bit if you swing into a wall, and you’ve got a game that’s full to the brim with details that draw you into its world.
There are plenty of extras to chase after the credits roll, too. Completionists may want to hunt down every artifact scattered throughout the game, or play the story through again on a different difficulty level. The variety and swashbuckling glee of this game certainly lends itself to repeated play for a lark. If you’re somehow held back from replays by the notion of walking familiar ground, there are even filters that overhaul the game’s graphics, rendering the world in cel-shaded, negative, 8-bit, and rainbow-coloured variants. There’s also a multiplayer, if you fancy pitting your skills against others’.
Uncharted 4 is a beautiful, pulse-pounding, pensive, sublime experience that is, dare I say it, absolutely essential whether you played previous games in the series or not. Naughty Dog’s talent and love for this game shine through in brilliant fashion from the first moment to when the credits roll around hour 16. Uncharted 4 is a triumph in narrative, character work, and gameplay, and a great example of what polished AAA design can achieve.