I think what I like most about Uncharted 4 were the quiet moments. And there’s a surprising amount of them, for the final chapter in a series that’s made a name for having some of the most fantastic, action-laden set pieces in games.
It’s the first game to actually focus on Nathan Drake as a person and not just an action hero, and tells us more about the modern-day Indiana Jones than all of the previous games combined. He’s more than just an indomitable, affable rogue with a bottomless well of witty one-liner responses to the seemingly endless burdens of his adventures. He’s more than just a balance of charm and sarcasm, of determination and vulnerability.
He’s not just an asshole. Thanks to some pretty good writing, we can finally see Nathan Drake as a human being, one who you can actually care about. We learn that Nathan has an older brother – a fellow history buff with an eye for valuable artefacts and a penchant for sidling up walls – who’s largely responsible for setting Nathan on his questionable career path as a vagabond adventurer.
It’s a career that’s come to an end. Years after the events of the last game, Nathan’s settled down and married his enduring love interest, Elena. These moments we see here, of the two of them in their home – playful bantering over whose turn it is to do the dishes, and a score-chase betwixt the two in wonderfully Meta retro videogame to settle it, are some of the most nuanced and balanced looks at relationships you’ll see in video games.
Working doing salvage from sea wrecks, we see Nathan coming to terms with the mundanity of everyday life, his escapades little more than a series of memory, spurred by the mementos and keepsakes from them he keeps in his home. He yearns for adventure, but he’s a changed man; older and wiser. And then, fifteen years since he was last seen, Nathan’s brother Sam is back, endangered – and of course his returns sets off a chain of events that sees the Brothers Drake set off on one last great big adventure.
This time, they’re off to find their golden goose; the incredible fortune of pirate Henry Avery and the anarchist pirate utopia of Libertalia. It’s an adventure that’s reminiscent in many ways, of The Goonies, telling a similar tale of familial bonds, obsession and hubris. It’s a tale, well told, that takes time in its telling. Like many good stories it starts in the middle before going back and coming around once more to finish up. It’s not as immediately gripping as Uncharted 2’s lauded train-climb, or even Uncharted 3’s opening bar brawl, though it’s graphically impressive, as you’d expect from the technical wizards at Naughty Dog.
For a while, the whole experience – though breath-taking in its beauty, feels as though it could be stilted, not veering especially far from the formula set up in previous adventures. You run, you grab on ledges, you shoot at bad guys, you do the odd puzzle; the typical sort of evolution over revolution we see in sequels. It perhaps feel too familiar.
There’s a wonderful bit where the brothers, joined by stalwart companion Sully, gate-crash an auction in a beautiful Italian Villa. It does, as these things often do, devolve in to a shoot-out. Enemies seem to absorb fewer bullets than they did before, making the shooting feel quite a bit better, less exhausting and far less reliant on the stop-and-pop cover shooting from the past. It’s the first of just a handful of climactic shootouts, which are now less prevalent. Stealth, though a viable avenue for ending encounters, is a little half-baked. Drake is able to hide in tall grass or beds of flowers and choke out any enemies that wonder into that foliage.
The AI is a little silly, and like many games that feature any sort of stealth mechanic, it’s all too easy to amass a pile of corpses without anybody seeming to notice that their colleagues are missing. There’s also no way to lure people; no whistling, no thrown coins or hurled pebbles, so playing stealthy generally means playing very, very patiently.
That adventuring takes the brothers Drake from Italy to mountainous and foggy Scotland, and then off to the sunny, muddy and verdant Madagascar as they follow the cryptic clues offered by maps, relics, artefacts and other secret messages as they track down Avery’s treasure. While you’ll find the same sorts of whole-room puzzles triggered by symbols, the whirrs of cogs and ancient technology and hidden chambers, none of them will require too much chin scratching or deep cogitation. It’s really just classic Uncharted.
But there’s a point where it all opens up, showing how damned clever its designers are. Though the game is still linear, it begins to create the illusion that it’s not. When the band of booty bandits head for a 4X4 ride around Madagascar it really starts to feel, and not just look like a “next generation” Uncharted. Though it’s really just a clever funnel with a predetermined outcome, the game does a remarkable job of having you believe that it’s far more open, far grander in scale than it really is. It’s a little like when your parents took the training wheels off your bike, but still held on to the seat to stop you from falling. And it works.
It’s something that carries through to the adventuring. Mountains paths, after series of hand-holds often lead to dead ends, like devious red-herrings. You’re also given access to new tool – at least, new to Uncharted. A grappling hook makes it possible to swing across chasms, adding a welcome bit of variety to all the climbing. It changes the shooting up later on too. Once the game moves on to more open areas, just about every gunfight takes place in a larger bowl, on which there’s at least one tether point for your hook – allowing you to swing about the battlefield like Errol Flynn at his swashbuckling best. For a game about pirates, it’s pretty apt. Combined with the piton, a little hand-held tool that lets you tab in to porous bits of mountain surfaces, it adds to the player agency in meaningful, if subtle ways.
I try not to harp on graphics too much when I review games, but it’s almost impossible to not at least touch on how beautiful everything is. Naughty Dog put the PlayStation 4’s modest hardware to incredible use here, delivering one of the most visually impressive games you’ll see on any platform. I don’t usually play with games’ built-in photo modes here, but this time around I spent what seemed like hours capturing the perfect still to frame its resplendence.
There are problems of course. There’s something your grappling tends to be preceded by; far too often Drake slides – with limited control – down some shale-covered incline, before jumping to relative safety. It’s fun and exciting the first handful of times, but by the 48th it becomes rather tiresome.
There’s also Naughty Dog’s overreliance on simple gameplay hooks. Replacing The Last of Us’ magical pallets here are conveniently located boxes and trollies on wheels that your companion characters helpfully push to your aid. There are also a few odd pacing issues, particularly in the last few missions, and the game still brushes aside the fact that Nathan Drake is essentially a mass murderer. “These guys don’t kill anyone in cold blood, it’s just not their style,” Uncharted 4’s chief antagonist Rafe Adler says, ignoring that fact that Drake has quite literally murdered hundreds of henchmen and hired goons by that point.
As a South African, it’s also easy to pick apart secondary baddie Nadine Ross’s supposedly South African accent. Laura Bailey’s South African accents frequently wavers between something sounding almost South African, to something that borders on Australian and hits everything else in between. Real South Africans like Gordon Emery and Cokey Falkow provided the voices for some of the hardened South African goons, but others remind me of Lethal Weapon 2’s diplomatic immunity.
I was worried, with the new creative team behind Uncharted 4 that the new, moderately darker tone would somehow lose focus – and the light-heartedness of the series would be lost, becoming another grim unnecessarily sombre game in a sea of them. While it is indeed slightly darker, it’s also more grounded and the touches carried over from The Last of Us make everything just feel that little more real, and strangely relatable. All that, while still maintaining a welcome levity.
There’s multiplayer too – but despite trying for days, I’ve not been able to get in to a game as yet. We’ve played the multiplayer before though, so have a look here for what it’s like. Game played to completion on Moderate difficulty, in 14 hours. I have amassed just 23 of the 120-odd treasures to be found, and taken over 100 pictures in the extensive Photo mode. We’ll update this review with multiplayer musings once the servers are live – but it won’t affect the review’s score.