Since Amy Hennig’s departure from Naughty Dog, I’d been wondering how Neil Druckmann, Creative Director of The Last of Us, would apply his merits to Uncharted. After all, the former is a dark tale of conflict between love and moral obligation, and the latter is a feel-good cavalier treasure hunt adventure. Whilst Druckmann has done well to add some depth to the game’s story without overruling the feel-good factor, his formula comes with a serious cost indeed. In this installment, Nate & the gang are hunting down the precious booty of fabled pirate Henry Avery. Unfortunately for them, an army of endless bloodthirsty mercenaries and inconsistently paced chapters are on the loose in this overrated adventure.
For the uninitiated, Uncharted is an action-adventure game that orients around stealth, combat and parkour. Whilst raw refinements have been made to both shooting and climbing mechanics, I’m not quite convinced they fit in. The gunplay feels more realistic & weighted than previous games, with recoil being massively increased. This would be a welcome adjustment to games like Battlefield which pride themselves on creating a realistic and authentic experience, but this is Uncharted, a series renowned for its outlandish action. Enemy health doesn’t seem to have decreased either, so the added recoil can make some for some tediously long encounters. The term ‘bullet sponge’ comes to mind.
As for climbing, it functions perfectly for the most part. Parkour is brisk and responsive, with the grapple segments breaking up the monotony of frequent climbing. The mechanics themselves offer very little room for improvement, but the application could use some work. Uncharted 4 offers a far more open level design than previous games, and this often presents incompatibilities with Drake’s versatile climbing skills. I encountered many instances wherein Nathan Drake – who frequently shrugs off 50ft landings into solid rock – was killed by a 10ft drop into shrubbery, or refused to latch on to handholds because the game decided he wasn’t allowed to go there. I personally felt that whilst the open areas made for more varied combat scenarios, they more often than not caused me to lose my sense of direction, frequently wandering into dead ends and killing the game’s momentum. It compromises the streamlined linearity that a game like this really needs.
Keeping a consistent pace was Uncharted 4’s biggest problem in my experience. Many of the levels feel like padding, ham-fistedly adding obstacles or gimmicky mechanics just for the sake of length. One particular level has you scouring the landscapes of Madagascar in a car, making constant stops to attach winches for structural support. It’s not challenging, it doesn’t require any thought; it’s just slow and monotonous. It left me pondering whether or not Uncharted really needed vehicle segments, and by the end of the mission, that answer was a resounding no. Uncharted 4 is full of these annoyingly frequent obstacles that kill the pace, like having to boost your partner up a tall jump every five minutes, or summon them to lift a shelf that could easily be climbed over. Worse yet, many of these obstacles come with obnoxious quicktime events.
There’s one specific part of the game that aggravated me so much that it’s getting its own paragraph. Picture this: I’m in a room with my AI companion, and must find a way to trigger a secret entrance into opening. Around the room are various objects that you can interact with. I saw a globe. This has to be it, I thought. But there was no prompt. Alright then. I tried the suit of armour. “Nope”, says Nathan Drake. I tried a vase. “Nada,” says Nathan Drake. I try four more objects around the room. Nothing. But then I hear my AI companion yelling something. “Nate, check this out!” I turn around. My AI companion is next to the god damn GLOBE. I’m not the kind of person to get angry at games, but I was absolutely livid. Why on earth would you block the player from interacting with the right solution, and only unlock it once you’ve discovered all the wrong ones? Is this what passes for good game design?? Is this the part where I say ‘WOW, NAUGHTY DOG HAVE DONE IT AGAIN???’ Can you imagine an episode of Columbo where the detective rigorously picks up every single irrelevant object at the crime scene, only to gasp in awe at the sight of a giant bloodied dagger in the middle of the room?!?!?
The narrative suffers from the game’s padded-out content as well. Engaging conversations that evolve the plot are frequently interrupted by clichéd baddies coming out of nowhere. Nate will get close to an objective, only for a foothold to shockingly give way and drop him into a cavern that takes ages to climb out of. All of this is happening because Uncharted 4 is a video game with a 90 minute movie script, and to fulfil the standard expectation of a 12 hour campaign that comes with a £45 pricetag, it bloats itself with boring, pointless sections to break up the narrative.
It’s a shame too, because the story itself is really enjoyable. Every single cast member delivers an exceptional performance. The game’s campaign covers past, present and future in the life of Nathan Drake, so naturally his backstory and relationship with other characters is fleshed out and made more meaningful. Not only do we see the journey of Drake and co., but through documents and exploration we also see the tale of Henry Avery’s pirate legacy unfold. Not only are both of these tales individually fascinating, but both stories share the wider theme of thieves, avarice and a love for the liberal pirate’s life. They mirror one another in a thoughtful and well-articulated fashion.
However, alongside Druckmann’s trademark story depth come a few narrative gaffes. For the record, we’ll be delving into SPOILER TERRITORY UNTIL THE NEXT BOLD SENTENCE. Consider yourself warned. Uncharted 4 has some strange moral precedents. Previous games could get away with this because they didn’t approach mature topics like morality, but because Uncharted 4 does exactly that, I feel such criticism is now very much applicable. There are points in this game where it tries to paint characters like Rafe in an immoral light, but conveniently forgets everything Nathan Drake has ever done and continues to do. At one point, Rafe kills a member of his crew for threatening him into offering a higher cut, at which point our wondrous hero Nathan Drake interjects with a judgemental condemnation. He takes the moral high ground in various encounters with the villains by negotiating to avoid confrontation, but when he has the upper hand against nameless adversaries, he complements his routine neck-snapping with a witty quip! In one conversation with his brother Sam, they criticise Avery’s moral standards in that he thought it was right to kill the non-British. Nathan remarks, “guess that’s what passed for good back then, huh?” before murdering innumerable guards for doing their job. What on earth passes for good now?
Hell, the game’s main villain is the only person who accurately summarises the situation. In a grave encounter with Nathan and Sam, Rafe states “we’re all a bunch of thieves poking around where we shouldn’t be.” He’s exactly right, not to mention that he tried to buy the cross at an auction fairly. Sam’s only justification for killing these people is that his mum was interested in Avery’s treasure, and he wanted to finish her work. Well done Sam, I’m sure she’s very proud of you and your mass murder. The villains in this game are barely even that bad in comparison. The only real basis on which Rafe is that much of a villain is that he’s a rich boy with an insufferably smug personality. Then there’s the game’s other villain, Nadine, who serves no purpose whatsoever to the plot. She provides soldiers to Rafe, beats the tar out of you every five chapters and then leaves at the end. Rafe could have bought his own soldiers, and the beatings didn’t really contribute to the story at all.
Lastly, one thing that did grind my gears is that the theme and moral of the story was the inevitable demise of a thief. It’s the crux of Avery’s story, and it mirrors other characters too, particularly Sam. It’s such an unfitting and, in my personal opinion, cowardly ending for Sam not to face the consequences for his avarice and obsession, especially when Rafe met that very end. It just seems like the good characters get a free pass because… well, they’re the ‘good guys’.
That said, there are some really nice moments. The banter between characters is strong, and despite their moral incongruity they’re still very charming. The narrative itself begins on an incredibly high note, with Nate playing around in the attic amongst the spoils from his former glories, only to walk downstairs into the monotony of adult life. It’s beautifully done and a wonderful preface for his arc, it’s just a shame the rest of the game is so bloody inconsistent.
NO SPOILERS FROM HERE
On the bright side, Uncharted 4 has amazing graphics and brilliant animation. Whilst these things do contribute massively to the experience (after all, what good is discovering an ancient vista if it’s not pretty?), I found it wasn’t enough to mitigate the excruciating snail’s pace and incredibly repetitive gameplay.
However, there is one incredible sequence wherein you ascend a clock tower and must ring four bells in the right order to solve the puzzle. All the while, you’re climbing on mechanisms that respond to your movement. You can feel the weight and the meticulousness of everything. Better yet, you can repeatedly climb on some of these cog-mechanisms to wind round the hands of the clock, allowing you to manipulate the terrain. It was amazing and innovative. I was truly awe-struck at this part of the game. Even when the clock tower came crashing down, it was exhilarating, new and totally visceral. It’s the perfect mesh of platforming, action and creative thinking that Uncharted 4 should have been for more than about 5% of the game.
There’s a scene in Uncharted 4 where Drake and Elena play Crash Bandicoot downstairs, only to pan back to their glorious 1080p character models. I presume it’s supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek ‘look at how far we’ve come’ moment, but I beg to differ. Let me know when Crash starts pondering the moral ramifications of spinning into boxes and jumping over pitfalls whilst doing exactly that, or makes you wait two minutes for Coco to carry a bookshelf before you can continue on every third jump. Maybe then we’ll talk about how emblematic Uncharted 4 is of Naughty Dog’s evolution as a studio. This game is like a failed marriage; beautiful, charming and initially quite promising, but once the honeymoon period subsides, and the illusory polish of the person you once loved washes off, what you’re left with is an annoying, self-contradictory tick sucking away what little time remains, nagging at you to give them a boost all the while.
The graphics are good though. I guess that’s what matters, right?