I could barely hear my partner as the wind and thunder drowned out his voice. The sea was angry, lapping huge waves at our boat, threatening to capsize us at any moment. Ahead, jagged rocks jutted out of the ocean depths, but the fog was so thick that we could only see them when the lightning struck. Enemy boats roared behind us, firing hailstorms of bullets across our bow. As we finally pulled away, a giant ship emerged from the fog, reaching towards us like a kraken, ready to devour us whole.
The boat slammed into us and I tumbled overboard. And all that within the first five minutes.
Uncharted 4 has received all the treatment of a big Hollywood blockbuster. The graphics are absolutely stunning, from the vast mountain expanses of Scotland to the majestic landscapes and baobab trees of Madagascar. Tropical birds scatter from the treetops as you run towards them, and lemurs scurry up the rocks as you drive by. The grass grows in natural patterns, punctuated by flowers and ferns. Ivies and mosses creep up the trees and buildings. Even the flow of muddy water shimmers with the red coloration of the soil, following the natural contours of the ground as it rolls downhill. In Uncharted 4, even the mud is beautiful.
As brilliant as the visuals are, the sound design is equally impressive. The pop of gunshots and the roar of explosions brought me seamlessly into the world, and when the characters spoke, they did so with emotion that matched the stresses and triumphs of the story. The entire voice cast put in phenomenal performances, bringing the best out of an already excellent script. Nolan North does his usual awesome job as protagonist Nathan Drake, but the entire cast brings such depth and personality to their characters that this review would devolve into a list were I to name all the standouts.
The actors benefit from a story and script that sets a high standard for writing in video games. The game explores the themes of trust and betrayal, and more poignantly, Nathan’s coming to terms with a more ordinary life. There’s a great contradiction in the man that he is and the man that he wants to be, and this is explored in his relationship with his wife, Elena.
Of course, Uncharted 4 is an action narrative first and foremost, and it provides some thrilling set pieces for genre fans. Early in the game, Nathan and his comrades set out to rob an auction of a valuable artifact. This mission is paced so well, and is probably my favorite part of the game due to the intrigue and tension that ramps up during the heist. So many things go wrong, but unlike passively watching a movie, you have to adapt as a player, adjusting to a script that constantly rewrites itself.
The thrills keep coming by way of boat and motorcycle chases, collapsing buildings, fires, explosions and of course, literal cliffhangers. These tense action set pieces are a staple of the Uncharted franchise, and from a mechanical standpoint, they’re varied and a lot of fun to play. Such moments help to pace the game, and serve to motivate players. I was always curious about what crazy event would happen next, wondering how Naughty Dog would up the ante during the next chapter.
In between the big moments, players spend most of their time climbing and shooting with occasional exploration and puzzle solving. Because the game is narratively driven, it’s mostly linear and does not offer an open world like many of today’s bigger games. Certain missions have alternative routes and large optional areas to explore, but they only offer bonus treasures that have no effect on the core gameplay. There’s no leveling up. No side quests. No base building. This decision works in the game’s favor, as it allows the developers to create a greater wealth of environments and to have tighter control over the pacing.
But between the incredible action scenes, there are in fact some moments of tedium. Climbing around buildings and cliff sides is fun at first, but it takes up a huge chunk of Uncharted’s running time. It doesn’t vary much or provide a significant challenge, so aside from sightseeing it’s a limited experience and it frankly feels like padding. There are a couple chapters about two-thirds through the game that offer nothing but climbing around and looking for the next place to climb around. It’s actually quite a slog, and I’d prefer never to play those chapters again.
The cover-shooting mechanics work well, and often allow a stealthy approach if players would prefer to avoid gunfire. Uncharted 4 does a fine job of presenting different shooting scenarios with varied enemies and competent gunplay, sometimes introducing snipers, rocket launchers, and heavily armed trucks. The shooting carries over to the game’s multiplayer modes, where players can compete with other teams using guns and mystical powers created specifically for online play. Nevertheless, the combat mechanics don’t break new ground, and provide a pretty typical experience to a marketplace that is saturated with shooters.
Of course, if the worst thing you can say about a mechanic is that it’s “typical,” then the game must be doing a lot right, and Uncharted 4 does a lot right. If the climbing and shooting are merely average, then the driving and puzzle solving make up for it. Puzzles are fairly uncommon, but they’re consistently inventive, and tend to happen in big beautiful locations with cool designs and architecture. Driving is fun because it really allows you to let loose in the game’s larger environments, and often enables you to find hidden areas to uncover and explore.
People like to say that graphics don’t matter, or that gameplay trumps all. These sentiments are true, but they’re also dismissive of the amazing work that goes into games like Uncharted 4. There is value in experiencing worlds like those presented by Naughty Dog, and the craftsmanship of the men and woman who made this game should be applauded. Uncharted 4 is impressive as a video game, but it’s important to the technological evolution of video games. It tells a thrilling story that overflows with phenomenal performances by one of the best voice acting teams ever assembled. If you enjoy action adventure games with bold moments of tension, play Uncharted 4. If story is important to you and technical design matters, play Uncharted 4. And most importantly, if you are a student of video games as a medium and want to know how the industry is evolving, play Uncharted 4.