Right, full disclosure up front – I’ve never played an Uncharted game. As a recent inductee into the console owner’s club, I was coming into this with a fresh perspective and without nostalgic attachment.
Still, I know Naughty Dog’s pedigree (huehue) and I know this is one of Sony’s flagship franchises. So could this latest entry help me hop aboard the hype train, or would it leave me wondering what all the fuss is about?
Having no prior knowledge of the story covered in the previous three games didn’t seem to hinder me at all in the fourth instalment. The game starts with an out-of-context action set piece before taking you back to Nathan Drake’s childhood to flesh out his relationship with his brother. It’s a jarring juxtaposition of pace – something that I found continues throughout the game. One moment you’ll be serenely swinging from trees and climbing up cliff faces taking in the view just long enough to forget why you’re there, before stumbling into a heavily fortified outpost full of baddies trying to ventilate you with machine guns.
The prologue is done very well, however, emotionally destroying me before flashing “Naughty Dog Presents” on the screen and reminding me that this is only the beginning of an epic adventure. As a fan of story-driven gameplay, I was intrigued by the narrative and settled in for a compelling, emotional plot.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get it. The bulk of the story revolves around finding an infamous pirate’s treasure, but that treasure quickly feels like an overlong MacGuffin designed to move you from one gorgeous environment to the next. It starts to boil down to a repeating cycle of “nope, no treasure here, but look, another clue!”
In spite of the tepid story, Naughty Dog have gone to great lengths to make the characters feel real, and to some extent they succeed. Characters tease each other, have conversations in car rides and laugh at inside jokes. Over time, I felt the story became more focused on the relationship between them than the actual plot.
Unfortunately, they also feel insincere, overly cheerful and superficial – their reactions often don’t fit with the context. It seems Naughty Dog was trying to get away from the more sombre feel of The Last of Us by turning the experience into a swashbuckling adventure instead, but they sacrifice emotional depth as a consequence.
There’s an issue of consistency here, too. On one hand the developers want me to feel that epic adventure, but on the other hand they make me sit through a torturous thirty minutes of gameplay where I discuss the weather with my wife and shoot Nerf guns in the attic. The narrative seems caught between trying to convey an emotional story and serve up a suspension-of-disbelief, carefree adventure, and ends up doing both poorly.
Nevertheless, as far as MacGuffins go, buried treasure is a compelling one, and there was enough there to keep me interested until the end. This is helped by the fact that things get significantly more exciting in the final act as the story draws closer to its conclusion. There’s also a layer of history added which I found engaging, particularly towards the end as you begin to uncover the grim fate of the wealthy pirate you’ve been tracking.
Gameplay is similarly samey – swing on things, climb on things and slide down things, with puzzles and gunfights strewn in between. It helps that while you’re doing all this swinging around you’ll be goggling at what are probably the most impressive visuals I’ve seen in a console game. The environments are gorgeous, and Uncharted 4 lets you enjoy them.
Unfortunately, in spite of the vast, seemingly open areas, the game is incredibly linear. You’re funnelled from one place to the next with zero room for exploration or side quests of any kind. As pretty as it all looks, you can only interact with very specific parts of it.
There are various puzzles along the way, but they’re mostly too easy to make them all that engaging. This isn’t a brag, but more an observation – it seems that the developers were so scared of anyone getting frustrated that they made sure you’d never get stuck. It feels like my hand was being held the entire time, often when I really didn’t want it to be. I got more and more frustrated with this as the game wore on, and by the end I wanted to scream every time one of the characters offered up some unsolicited advice.
You’ll reach a ledge that’s too high, and Nathan will helpfully chirp, “This is too high, we’ll need to find something to stand on”. After a minute of looking around another character will chime in with, “This box over here should work.” The game never really gives you a chance to solve anything for yourself, even with puzzles that are actual puzzles. After a minute or two of trying someone will helpfully offer their two cents.
One thing I did like was the “hint” option that popped up now and then if things were moving a little slowly – because it was an option that I could control, and I wish they’d stuck with this system throughout. Having someone ruin a puzzle, or even worse tell you something you were already going to do anyway, really takes the fun and sense of achievement out of the whole experience.
The same holds true for simple exploration. Everything that can be climbed is clearly marked, everything that can utilise one of your items (like your grappling hook) has an icon hovering over it. This, combined with the overly linear setup, makes the simple joy of navigating the environments feel like autopilot most of the time. Hell, Nathan even holds out his hand when you’re swinging to let you know you’ll reach a ledge if you let go. This isn’t to say going through the motions isn’t fun, I just would have appreciated the opportunity to do things for myself.
Combat, however, is surprisingly tough. This is of course provided you don’t use the lock-on aim feature, which is enabled by default and makes the game terrible. You have the option in most of the combat scenarios to utilise stealth or go in all guns blazing. The stealth is pretty poorly implemented, however – it mostly consists of crawling through long grass and trying not to get spotted. Even if you do get seen, enemies will first become alarmed but then calm down if you get to cover fast enough. As if they just imagined you snapping Johan’s neck in front of them.
You’re unlikely to be successful if you don’t use stealth at all, as usually the sheer number of enemies will overwhelm you if you don’t thin the herd first. The game utilises the cover-shooting mechanic, but your cover will get blown away, you’ll get flushed out with grenades and enemies will advance on your position – all of which makes it impossible to stay in one spot.
I found the controls in combat a little awkward, as frequently there would be too much space to cover while tucked up against a wall or crawling through the grass and invariably I’d be shot or spotted from an angle outside of my vision. Doing a barrel roll and taking cover behind the nearest thing is also the same button, so often I’d be trying to get the hell out of dodge and crouch uselessly behind a box instead. I played on a pretty low difficulty level and it was still reasonably challenging; I imagine at the highest difficulty the combat is brutal.
The bad guys are South African, which is as awesome as it’s always been. I love that we’re the villains in games now, and hearing such chestnuts as “lekker” and “boet” is always good for a chuckle. As the game progresses there are a few action set pieces which are quite fun, but some of them lost their lustre somewhat when I would make a horrible error by doing something like crashing into a tree, only to I still have time to reverse and keep going in what I thought was a life-or-death chase.
While this is first and foremost a campaign-centric game, I did try my hand at the multiplayer. I struggled to find games that weren’t sporting a high ping, but the experience was nevertheless fun enough for me to squeeze a little extra enjoyment out of the game. There’s nothing ground-breaking here, but a handful of maps, a class-based loadout system and a few unlockables should keep you interested for a while after finishing up the story mode.
Overall, it’s a fun, beautiful game. For me, it’s let down somewhat by a shallow story, less-than-optimal controls, linear exploration and combat, and excessive handholding. If you like this sort of game, you’re going to like this one too. It’ll be a fun 10-14 hour experience, but ultimately a forgettable one.