Weelllll, here we go. I finally played Uncharted 4. It was a bit like GTA V, which I knew I wanted to play for a while but took a long time to get round to, and then when I did, was blown away. Well actually Uncharted 4 didn’t blow me away quite like GTA V did, but it was still pretty darn impressive.
Uncharted 4 is, funnily enough, the fourth instalment of one of the most high-profile games on the Playstation platform, published by Sony themselves, and developed by Naughty Dog, of The Last of Us fame. The game has been maturing release-by-release and by this time round, it really does feel like you’re playing a finely executed piece of art, from a creator who has spent years refining their craft.
The game takes you from childhood cityscapes, to African islands, Italian cathedrals, Scottish highlands and much more. The locations are absolutely incredible in every way. To describe how they look, words like stunning, incredible, awe-inspiring, don’t even do it justice. This game is visually unlike anything I’ve ever played before. No doubt made possible by the strictly linear path you must take through each environment, the areas you visit and interact with are meticulously detailed. Each and every leaf on every piece of rock sways in the wind completely naturally, birds fly in the distance without a sense of scripting, clouds drift by overhead, atmospheric sounds accompany your every move, and mist rises from waterfalls and distant mountaintops. It is just a sight to behold.
The game even comes with a screenshot mode that allows you to freeze the moment and adjust camera zoom, tilt etc to your liking. I stuck to the (awful) PS4 screenshot button though as to frame screenshots throughout the whole game would have killed the pace.
Visual prowess is perhaps one of the key attributes of an Uncharted game. The others being big set pieces, exploration/climbing and puzzles. Uncharted 4 adds another: storytelling. Naughty Dog have clearly borrowed from their experience with The Last Of Us (an incredible, moving and immaculately paced adventure game) to apply an additional level of depth to the story of Uncharted 4. Through various mechanics like playable flashbacks, the game explores the history of the protagonist Nate, his brother Sam, partner Elena and fellow buccaneer Scully. We see their loves, losses, passions and weaknesses, all bounce around off each other throughout the game as their relationships evolve and unfold before our very eyes. Strict pacing is employed to build upon this, with long periods of fighting-free exploration used to trigger conversations and build atmosphere. The voice acting and script were spot-on, with some real stand-out performances by Elena (Emily Rose) and Rafe Adler (Warren Kole), and the motion capture was brilliant – facial expressions engaging, accurate and believable.
The pacing is probably one of my few niggles. The pattern of exploration, puzzle, fighting became very repetitive. The predictability removed any sense of urgency or surprise. I would never be startled by an enemy as I could always tell when the scene was transitioning from explore to fight. The game itself actively encouraged this mindset by playing calming music after a battle, signalling you’re no longer under threat, and even showing your weapon in the hud just before enemies appeared. If found this strict adherence to routine a bit boring after a while and I longed for some variety and surprise.
The set pieces weren’t quite as memorable as, say, those in Uncharted 2 (think the train chase and the carriage cliff climb), but they were undoubtedly fun. The puzzles were average, relatively few in number, and not particularly taxing. In fact, I played the game on “normal” difficulty and considered it really easy. The fights were fun but quite limited in scope (they always took place in small, controlled environments), and lacked much variety (almost all enemies were identical throughout the game, with only two encounters with vehicles you could actually destroy yourself). This meant you weren’t forced to adapt your combat style, so it became really easy just to treat each encounter the same.
My absolutely biggest gripe is with the physical abilities of the characters. For a game that prides itself on the realism of its environments and world, its characters treat death-defying leaps and falls as if they were walking to work. The falls that they can take make my knees creak in reaction – theirs must be made of steel. The jumping, climbing, swinging and falling is just so over the top that the balance between fun and realism is swung too far the opposite direction. It just breaks the continuity of the overall experience. It became a running joke – in advance of what was clearly going to be a superman-powered jump, I’d say to my wife “watch this”, make the jump, and we’d both giggle about how stupid it looked.
So in reflection, Uncharted 4 feels less like a game and more like an interactive movie. You control the characters, but the story is so strictly delivered, the progression so intently linear, and the action lacking any real sense of urgency or tension, that somehow it doesn’t feel as engrossing as the visuals imply it should be. The visuals really do carry the game in my opinion, while everything is so unquestionably slick, but lacking that feeling of risk and uncertainty that makes games so exciting.
I’d highly recommend it, but I feel Naughty Dog have perfected some sort of art here while sacrificing some core energy in the process.