For a worrisome amount of time, Uncharted 4 feels like little more than a familiar, obligatory sequel, existing the way Mario Karts and Halos do to continue bolstering one faction in the ongoing console wars. Excellent, fresh ideas for these kinds of automatic sequels are not a prerequisite.
Thankfully, after nine chapters, Uncharted 4 dramatically improves and hits a great stride for much longer. By the end, it justifies the creation of a sequel in this nearly decade-old series beyond the need to check off the box between Ratchet & Clank and Wipeout on the PlayStation platform franchise list.
The early levels on Uncharted 4 have what we’d expect. We play as Nathan Drake in a third-person, world-spanning quest to find treasure. We explore ruins and fight thugs. We climb walls, shoot guns, and take cover from streams of enemies. We solve some puzzles and banter with a buddy character who sometimes helps us boost up to higher ledges. We do this in beautiful locations. The levels are linear, the action dramatic.
The opening hours are mostly familiar, though the series looks a lot better than it ever did before. Plus, there are now a few rare moments when you can choose Drake’s lines.
High-quality game series generate high expectations. Simply serving a prettier dish of comfort food would have been a waste of a studio that most recently made 2013's emotionally wrenching survival adventure The Last of Us. Naughty Dog could have moved on and arguably should have, having been so successful with something new the last time out. But they’re back, Drake is back, and we’re back, for what they swear is their last treasure-hunting score.
Uncharted 4's slow start is initially worrying, a sign that the franchise’s well may have dried. An opening speedboat chase is a weak intro in the wake of Uncharted 2's climb through a dangling train car or even Uncharted 3's bar brawl. A couple of levels later, we’re in familiar shootouts in new, gorgeous locales. The enemies absorb fewer shots, it seems, so that’s been improved, but the first quarter of the game largely feels routine and safe, like a top actor coasting through a role they’ve done so many times before. In previous games, Naughty Dog had already pushed things in the first act. They did the love triangles and major fake-out deaths. They had us climb in every climate and discover multiple lost cities.
Enter Sam Drake, long lost elder brother to Nathan. Since the events of Uncharted 3, the younger Drake retired from the life of illegal treasure hunting. He settled into a routine of menial salvage work and dinners with his longtime romantic partner Elena, who seems glad to be finally living like a normal person. Sam shows up, a new character who left Nathan’s life before the series began. He explains that his life is in danger from an angry drug lord and that he’ll survive only if Nathan helps him find some great pirate treasure. Nathan is drawn back in, and Sam becomes the newest buddy to accompany Nathan through levels of climbing, shooting and treasure hunting.
Sam is not the injection of new blood the series needed. He’s bland and more of a plot device for others to react to than a compelling character on his own. His return into Nathan’s life is well expressed in cutscenes, but as a companion in many of the game’s levels, Sam mostly mutters forgettable lines from the background. The best new things about the game, it turns out, come not from a new character (the new villains aren’t so hot either) but from new gameplay.
The top designers in gaming all perform a specific, great magic trick. As you start their games, they sneakily teach you new things and seed their long-form stories until you’re past what was really just a prologue. Only then can you handle the real game. In this case, Uncharted 4's designers hang back for nine chapters, past several major multi-level set-pieces, teasing tiny bits of new or improved gameplay. They’re training you to be ready when the game finally opens up, which it does when Nathan Drake and friends get to Madagascar and begin driving around in a fully controllable jeep.
By the game’s 10th chapter, officially called The Twelve Towers and the start of the Madagascar section, you’ve been sufficiently prepped. In earlier levels, Drake got a rope that the player could sporadically use to swing across gaps. The game also introduced the concept of hiding in tall grass and springing forth to stealthily disable enemy guards, though enemies were seldom so abundant that this was more efficient than starting a gun fight.
As the levels expand, you’re getting into big, roomy outdoor fights in areas filled with beams from which you can grapple. You can spot a distant enemy, swing to them and tackle them (or shoot them while in mid-swing). You’re getting into fights set on both sides of a chasm. You can swing back and forth as the bullets fly.
At other times, you’re in a jungle thick with enemies and tall grass. Your most viable bet is to creep and climb and jump guards from the weeds. Even the game’s roomier levels are still largely linear, but they are wider. They have more paths, more ways to flank bad guys, more ways to attack them from below, behind or above. This alleviates some of the tedium that made the previous games’ shootouts melt into monotony. You’ll still fight a lot of enemies, but you can mix up your methods for taking the bad guys out. And as scripted as these games tend to be, the tweaks to combat in Uncharted 4 allow you to be more expressive, to feel like you’re playing in your own style.
The climbing becomes more complex, too, another area where the series has greatly improved. There are now more red-herring edges that lead you to dead ends. You gain a new climbing tool, a piton, that lets you stab any part of porous wall that is within arm’s reach and then pull yourself to it and up or over to another developer-placed ledge. As with combat, the player is being given more agency, more of a stake in how things will play. In small but appreciable ways, the game feels less scripted.
The added control doesn’t undermine one of Uncharted’s most beloved features. The game still feels like a thrill ride when it funnels into linear, more scripted sequences involving collapsing buildings, vehicle chases, and more. The ones in Uncharted 4 are the caliber of the best levels of any Uncharted. Take, for example, the chase with the crane, which is even more exciting to play than it was to see when Sony demoed it last year.
Deeper and deeper into the game, the subtle design improvements steadily accumulate. These feel like the right advances for a series that always explored new gameplay on the back of improved technology and an attempt to recreate mundane real-world matters rarely seen in games. The earlier Uncharteds, for example, used better in-game physics and scene-staging tricks to present playable fights on top of unsteady trains or inside wave-tossed boats. That ethos is apparent throughout this game, with every death-defying swing of Drake’s rope, every well-staged set piece and every tweak to the climbing and combat.
Sony’s public demos of the game have shown some of Uncharted 4's excellent middle. Gawking at the game, as stunningly beautiful as it is, is no replacement for playing it. The game feels terrific, especially during its scenes of breathless spectacle. Its visuals, though, have undeniable allure. Artistically unconventional games such as Journey and Wind Waker HD may have their partisans who say one of them is the medium’s best-looking game, but in the category of photorealistic graphics, Uncharted 4 is now the champ.
The game’s impressively deep photo mode, which can be accessed at any time, will doubtless result in some of the best real gaming screenshots ever seen. It became one of my favorite diversions as I played.
Even more impressive are the faces of Uncharted 4's characters, especially the scene-stealing expressions of series regular Elena Fisher, who has her own struggles with supposed retirement bliss. Their marriage is compellingly imperfect. Elena’s smirks, sighs, incredulous stares, playful grins, and bitten lower lip support that and improve a script that superbly presents the undulations of a restless union.
Games mark technical progress at a weird pace. The phenomenal facial expressions in Uncharted 4 are a landmark achievement. So are the game’s winch and rope technology, which produce the (no snark) incredible ability for us, as Nathan Drake, to manually wind a cord around a metal bar or tree trunk by moving him around said bar or trunk. This is an action as simple as wrapping a thread around a pencil, and yet it has rarely, if ever, been presented in a major game before, presumably because the physics of it are so complex.
See how the cord wraps around? That happened manually by swimming around the axle. Here’s a video of another sequence involving the same physics:
All of the game’s technical improvements do not blot out some faults. The more conventionally-designed stealth system, for example, might be an improvement in combat vocabulary for this series, but feels under-developed. It begs for Drake to be able to attract or distract guards with a whistle, a tap or a tossed rock. Such options are standard in the better Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell and Metal Gear games (as well as Naughty Dog’s very own The Last of Us) and are key for guiding patrolling guards into a stealth death. It makes no gameplay sense for Drake to have to squat silently in the grass hoping a guard will come near him. That our expert survivalist never makes a noise to trick an enemy breaks the illusion of reality the graphics are engineered to create.
What should happen in a fourth major installment, especially in an entertainment culture that fetishizes trilogies? By his fourth major appearance, Han Solo was killed off. Die Hard’s John McClane was a parody of himself by movie number three and still continued to a fourth. Wry, beleaguered Nathan Drake is more or less an amalgamation of those two action heroes and seemed largely tapped of potential going into this game. His marriage difficulties in this game make him more interesting, more so than a lost brother does, though the game’s creators find some good friction in colliding those plot developments.
Nathan Drake is mostly in his sunset as he chases this final treasure. We’ve all been here before, and the story is regularly reminding us that it’s time to move on. It’s even in the title. Perhaps it fits and even works as meta-commentary, then, that Uncharted 4 stumbles near the end. Final gameplay sequences feel rushed or at least less cleverly laid out than the hours of action that preceded them. Characters make odd exits, some perhaps being saved for an expansion or some non-Naughty Dog sequel or spin-off. The game’s very last playable sequence and cutscene help clarify what Uncharted 4's real themes were and will provoke some lively discussion. Some of the dissatisfaction the game’s oddly-paced final quarter presents may be a product of deadlines. Some is hopefully intentional. No spoilers about what becomes of Nathan and Sam’s quest, but us real-life treasure hunters don’t always get everything we want.
Thankfully, Uncharted games are more than their beginnings or endings or multiplayer options, the last of which will provide its own odd coda to Naughty Dog’s saga. Like a full-cast dance number at the end of a Bollywood movie, Uncharted 4's competitive multiplayer is an affair for every major (and many minor) member of the series’ cast. Nathan, Sam, Elena, Sully, Chloe, and many more will adventure on in competitive modes designed to be expanded for a year for free (read: please keep playing and don’t trade in the game!). The multiplayer is stuffed with optional, unlockable cosmetic items that the developers say can all be won in-game if you don’t feel like purchasing them with real money. The game’s PvP modes have been largely unavailable to play prior to the game’s release, so an assessment of its quality will have to wait.
The original Uncharted emerged in late 2007 as an alternate, Sony-exclusive Tomb Raider that starred a man and as a thematic maturation from the studio that brought us Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter. It was born at a time when it was aspirational for games to feel like interactive movies. It was designed initially as a solo experience and an homage to pulp adventures. It arrives now as something of an anachronism, in a gaming scene filled with more punishing, unscripted sandbox survival adventures and amid a rising tide of games designed to borrow storytelling styles not from movies but from TV.
What Uncharted proved most effectively to be for nearly a decade was a showcase for an ambitious game studio that was determined to push the possibilities of graphics, virtual acting and thrill-ride gameplay. The series reliably delivered that three times on the PlayStation 3 under former creative director Amy Hennig and does so again with studio veterans Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, who helmed this newest one on PS4. Uncharted 4 may have problems at its edges, but its middle is phenomenal. It is a sufficiently wonderful finale for a studio that has made its own case that its next great step should be somewhere new.
BONUS: Jason and I discussed the game on Facebook today. No footage, no spoilers... just chatting about the game and answering more questions.