Traditionally, Naughty Dog have moved on from a franchise once a generational leap has happened – PSOne saw Crash Bandicoot, PS2 had Jak & Daxter, and PS3 was Uncharted and The Last Of Us. Because of this it’s quite surprising that Uncharted 4 is popping up on PS4, I’d expect them to be putting their efforts into a new IP that harnesses the new tool set; but on the other hand it’s likely to be one of the biggest first party sellers of the year, so shouldn’t be a huge surprise that they want to give Nathan Drake and friends another outing. The main question is whether the current gen horsepower and the constraints of the established Uncharted universe allow the dev team to really flex its creative muscle, or simply make an already good looking series a little bit prettier.
Time has passed since Uncharted 3, we’re not told how much, but it must be a reasonable amount because Nate’s looking older, he’s married Elena and settled down in Non-descriptville, USA working for a small salvage firm and pining for his old life of action and adventure. It doesn’t stay quiet for long though; Drake’s brother Sam, presumed dead 15 years earlier, arrives on the scene to say “Hey, I’m still alive! Sorry I didn’t tell you, but you know… plot device reasons that are only vaguely plausible got in the way”. In the fastest recovery from shock and surprise ever, the two agree to go searching for the missing treasure of legendary pirate Henry Avery, who reportedly had $400 million worth of booty stashed somewhere in the world. It’s got to be done mainly because Sam is only back in the US at the behest of a South American drug lord who wants half the loot, but also in part because it was something dear old mum was investigating before she died. Cue globe trotting hijinks sponsored by Sony, with a wise-cracking duo, as well as some conveniently timed flashbacks, that have you running, gunning, puzzling and QTE’ing your way after a 400 year old pirate genius.
It’s fair to say that this isn’t the strongest story from the Uncharted series, and that could be attributed to what the Naughty Dog team learnt from the success of The Last Of Us – you can have an emotionally engaging action game. The tale this time isn’t really about Drake’s dogged determination to solve a mysterious legend, it’s trying to tell a tale about the importance of family and how they’ll always be there for you, regardless of what the cost to them might be. It works to a degree, and with particular effect in the epilogue when maybe it’s a bit late, but the use of the same flashback mechanism as Drake’s Deception that built Nate and Sully’s relationship didn’t have the weighty impact needed to make you care about Sam in the same way. It’s a problem inherent with dropping new characters into a well established clique, then removing the ones you’re most familiar with, it’s hard to appreciate the newcomer. Consequently it’s difficult to really care what happens to them, no matter how good the narrative and production values. Joel and Ellie worked brilliantly in The Last Of Us because there was no preconceived notion of what to expect and you saw the characters grow with each other over time. Nathan Drake is already well established and doesn’t really change through the core part of the game, and Sam isn’t sufficiently different from his brother to give the depth you might want.
It isn’t to say that the main players aren’t superbly acted and voiced, even if the villains are a little forgettable. One of the defining features of Uncharted 4 (and the other games) is the interplay between characters whilst in game, rather than leaving everything to cutscenes. It keeps the game in motion and links the action set pieces nicely, as well as making the situations a little more believable. Nolan North and Troy Baker are a great pairing as Nate and Sam, and it looks to me as if they subtly shifted Drake’s facial features to resemble Nolan more, which would make sense given the level of motion capture and audio/visual syncing needed to pull off some of the blockbuster moments. Naughty Dog have gone all out to make this the biggest and most explosive instalment, and it doesn’t disappoint with the action or environments; or even the self referential nods. Levels are huge and sprawling with multiple routes through even the most corridor-like areas, and vehicles have been added to help you navigate some of the larger expanses. South America, the UK and Madagascar are all visited before landing on the truly impressive island that serves as Avery’s pirate stronghold, and there are a couple of slower paced homelife sections that whilst don’t really feel 100% necessary, are excellent depictions of houses and occupants.
With the extra routes to traverse there are a couple of additional ways to tackle them too. A grappling hook (gadget du jour) and sliding both make an appearance. As expected, they’re available at set points with grappling being particularly useful for finding new paths and dodging enemies, whilst sliding down shale and mud surfaces is not really optional, but you’re able to guide yourself around whilst trying not to drop off cliffs. Uncharted 4 also places a heavier emphasis on stealth than the other games with the ability to conceal Drake in the grasses and undergrowth of the levels. With this it’s entirely possible to bypass certain combat sections making it less risky moving around, if not necessarily easier. For Uncharted veterans, combat is pretty much identical to the other games with snapping to cover, blindfire and brawling still playing a huge part. It’s a shame there’s been no innovation in this side of gameplay given the expansion of the locomotive areas because it almost makes the combat seem secondary up to near enough the final part of the game where waves of armoured bad guys are chucked at you. If anything, there’s less focus on shooting this time round than there is in navigating and solving the not-difficult-at-all puzzles. I haven’t added up the combat encounters so I could be wrong, but it felt a lot less than the previous games.
However, shooting is the main feature of multiplayer, so it’s easy to get your fill there. Team based matches are the stalwart here, with deathmatch, capture and hold, and capture the flag being the ones available at the moment, and ranked games opening up when you hit a certain level. The premise of the multiplayer is fairness and the recognition that not everyone wants to put 50 hours in before being able to unlock a decent weapon, and it’s admirable for it. Uncharted 4 gives all players the same opportunity to use bonus items and unlocks within the current game you’re playing through the use of cash and an easily accessed store. Special abilities like grenade cooldowns, mystical powers and sidekicks can be bought whenever you’ve earned enough cash and used immediately, or saved for later. The movement and shooting mechanics are identical to the main game, and the map layouts nicely put together so that they feel filled with opportunity but not daunting. With the promise of all future multiplayer content being free, and the addition of a co-op mode coming in the summer, this will keep the community going for a long time. It’s not often there’s such an open and balanced approach to the online components, it’s refreshing. As is the plethora of skill based challenges to attempt whilst fighting against AI – a nice way to practice before tackling humans, or even practising for a crushing difficulty playthrough of the story.
What the main game hasn’t got away from though are the niggles with the same old movement system that catches on the edges of cover and freezes your character, and the half second pause needed before pressing buttons to jump or drop that break up the fluidity of the combat. However, there is no doubt at all that Uncharted 4 is a beautiful, highly polished game, and the delay in release has served it well. Without reservation I recommend this to fans of the series and newcomers alike, and most other developers I’m sure will be taking note of what’s been achieved in terms of cinematic presentation, audio design and graphical fidelity. Plus, I’ve not even mentioned the huge amount of in game options that may well make this the most accessible console game yet. It’s a fitting tribute to the end of a franchise, even if it does leave several threads hanging that could see their way woven into spin offs or additional adventures – which I hope isn’t the case given the way the tale wrapped up and how it’s been promoted. Unfortunately, Uncharted 4 doesn’t quite pull off full marks on the basis that it feels like it borrows from The Last Of Us a little too much which strikes me as not quite having the confidence in its own right to be the blockbuster expected, despite three hugely successful and acclaimed previous games. That, and the end could have been straight out of The Goonies… if only they’d included Sloth and Chunk.