Modern Classic – Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

 

Factfile
Developed by: Naughty Dog
Released: 2016
Format played: PS4

Ruminations

In truth I had been rather putting off writing this review.

Uncharted 4 is a game of such awesomeness I never felt like I could do it justice with my words. But dammit I’m a professional unpaid amateur, it’s my job! And besides, a game of such breath taking majesty deserves its place in the pantheon of game reviews. In fact this will not be so much a review as an ode to one of the greatest videogame experiences of all time.

I won’t waste your time with the usual format. There is little point attempting to dissect Uncharted 4 on a graphical or aural level. That this is a visual powerhouse should be taken as a given, resetting your expectations of what you thought possible with jaw dropping scenic views, flawless character facial animations, the most realistic in-game water ever seen and incidental detail aplenty. And there is no point picking over the sound, the voice acting continuing to operate at a level far and away beyond anything else on the market, drawing you into the characters, whilst goons chatter among themselves as they hunt for you in the underbrush or while away the hours discussing their boss’ nefarious schemes.

I don’t really need to tell you about the plot, with its movie-like ebb and flow that touches on numerous emotional heartstrings from episodes past whilst delivering new content and storylines as you fly from one corner of the globe to the other. And I certainly don’t need to tell you about the cast of characters, honed to perfection and every inch the match of Indiana Jones, Star Wars et al.

Instead, let us focus on what separates Uncharted 4 from all that has come before.

Evolution

The basic gameplay concepts have remained relatively unchanged from the first instalment. Nathan Drake – treasure hunter, scoundrel – runs, fights, shoots, swims and climbs (and climbs, and climbs..) his way across the globe whilst gun-toting armies and power hungry mad men vie for the fabled MacGuffin.

And in this respect Uncharted 4 provides no great revolution to its formula. Indeed its fair to say that if you didn’t enjoy any of the previous outings then this is as likely to leave you cold.

In fact it’s worth us stopping for a moment to consider the faults in the game, for despite its achievements it does have them. The story is, on the whole, delightfully paced with moments of high impact counter-balanced with moments of reflection, including some surprisingly emotional revelations and touchstones from Drake’s past. The scenes from Nate’s childhood, that see you take control of a young drake, are a clever and inventive twist to the formula but for those looking for gun play and action, they can be seen to slow the pace, the action almost dumbed down during these scenes. In truth they are only as appealing as you find the central characters; if Nate’s backstory is of little interest to you, these scenes may simply be a drag.

Elsewhere the body of the game still includes a prodigous amount of climbing, so much so that the characters themselves even joke about it whilst halfway up a cliff face. It makes for some truly stunning spectacles, showing off the power of the PS4 to its full, but at the same time the cynics amongst us may point to their contrived nature, the way ahead always clearly sign posted and with a hint prod barely giving you time to look around before it bashes you over the head.

Also puzzles remain fairly limited in execution. This is not Tomb Raider with its multi-layered, level spanning puzzles; a quick flick through Nate’s trusty diary usually provides the answer and if not, one of the other characters or an on-screen hint will usually fill in the blanks.

Of course all of these should be seen in context. The scenes in Nate’s past, slowing the pace as they do, provide a level of backstory and personal attachment that videogames so often lack compared to feature films. In combination with the superb voice cast and motion capture, the principle characters are fully drawn and these scenes deepen the connection you feel to Nate. Climbing is contrived but it is also exhilirating, the addition of a pick axe and rope, allowing you to reach and swing respectively to previously out of reach areas providing for a twist on a reliable formula. And no-one ever pretended that Uncharted was about puzzles; they form a pleasant diversion from the main fare of guns and climbing but are never meant to be anything more.

Steak And Sizzle

In common with the other games in the series the plot is simply a means to an end to create scenarios for Drake to climb stuff, shoot stuff and discover stuff but for all that, it displays a maturity and depth so often lacking in the medium.

But lets start with the bombast. As a series, Uncharted has always prided itself on a big set piece. The first game threw underground zombies at you, the second a spectacular train crash, the third a stunning sequence on board a wrecked ship.

A lot to live up to then, but Uncharted 4 blows them all out of the water in ways both subtle and spectacular. Midway through, Drake and Sully find themselves in a jeep being pursued by a gun-toting armoured truck. It’s pedal to the metal as you weave through the streets of some poor unfortunate village, taking seemingly impossible turns, barrelling down hills and nipping through side streets as your relentless pursuer refuses to give up the chase. Then, just when you think you have seen it all, the chase moves from jeep to bike, taking the train sequence from Among Thieves and cranking it all the way to 11 as you jump from vehicle to vehicle, shooting bad guys whilst being dragged along by a rope before finally it’s back onto the bike as the bloody truck comes bursting back on to the scene before it ends in a spectacular explosion.

It is one of the most exhilarating gaming set pieces I have ever experienced, up there with any famous movie chase scene you care to name, an unrelenting adrenaline rush that builds and builds until that final, ‘I’ve got to share this on social media’ photo op as your bike slides to a halt in front of the burnt out wreck.

In juxtaposition to this visceral thrill ride, it is followed by a scene of calm and yet emotional weight, perfectly capturing the essence and the two distinct sides of Uncharted. For whilst it reaches such incredible peaks of spectacle, it is not afraid to indulge in a period of reflection, drawing on your history with the characters to lend these scenes weight.

The plot of Uncharted 4 reunites the three principle cast members from prior instalments with Drake, Elena and Sully all having a part to play. This instalment however introduces a fourth protagonist in the form of Nate’s hitherto unmentioned brother, Sam, his previous omission explained via a just about passable contrivance. Setting out to track down a legendary pirate treasure, Nate battles old foes, treachery and good old fashioned greed in true Uncharted fashion.

Much of it is guff of course. On my first playthrough I barely had the first idea of what I was doing or why. But there abound moments of genuine affection, wrought from your shared journey with this cast of misfits. We have seen Nate grow from lovable scoundrel to a man with the responsibilities of marriage. We have seen Elena grow from feisty sidekick to inseparable partner. And we have seen Sully grow from God Damn to, well, God Damn. The opening scenes in Nate’s house are a literal walk through his gaming past, echoes that continue to be heard throughout the story and which in their own way are the most memorable parts of the game. Indeed without offering up any spoilers, we explore the depth of Nate’s relationship with those closest to him and share in his struggle to adapt to normal life, a struggle many of us will nod along with in recognition. The scene referenced above, the come down from the truck chase, is simply a fine piece of dramatic story telling that feels an essential part of the experience. The epilogue meanwhile is as fitting a send off to this most iconic of Playstation characters as could have been wished for.

 

Bottom Line

In some ways there is nothing new to see here but then that is also kinda the point. This is the Uncharted formula honed, polished and buffed to perfection.

Nathan Drake’s swansong turns out to be one of gaming’s all time great adventures.

Still To Come

Oh yes, there’s more. The campaign only covers half the fun. Coming up in part 2 we’ll take a look at the multiplayer offering, including DLC Horde mode.

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