The PlayStation 3 was widely mocked upon its release, but after many critically acclaimed games found their home in its library, Sony regained much of the market share they had lost to their competitors. One of the developers that helped draw newcomers to Sony’s console was Naughty Dog. With their trilogy of Uncharted games, they received a level of critical praise few other artists could claim to match. In 2013, they followed up this success with The Last of Us, which in many circles, managed to surpass their previous efforts in terms of artistic merits. These four games were widely believed to possess the best of both words; not only did they boast the cutting edge of 3D technology, the voice actors brought their characters to life when their peers in the AAA industry struggled to do the same.
The Last of Us is popularly considered to have been the seventh console generation’s swansong, and the within same year of its release, the gaming world saw the debut of the PlayStation 4 in North America and PAL regions. Much like the PlayStation 3 before it, the PlayStation 4 faced something of a backlash when it launched. Though gaming fans marveled at the superior processing power of this machine, there was a major point of contention regarding its lack of backwards compatibility with any previous PlayStation console. Naturally, fans weren’t enthralled with the idea of purchasing a console incapable playing the games they had amassed, so the savvy ones saved their money. It was clear like any successful console before it that the PlayStation 4 would need a sizable selection of exclusive games in order for the average consumer to consider it a good return on investment.
In November of 2013, Naughty Dog announced their newest project: the fourth installment of their Uncharted series. Series writer Amy Hennig was to make a return and serve as its creative director working alongside Justin Richmond. However, Ms. Hennig and Mr. Richmond left the company during the game’s development in March of 2014. These sudden departures led to some speculation within the gaming community, spurred by an IGN article suggesting that Ms. Hennig was forced out by Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, the directors of The Last of Us. Naughty Dog’s co-presidents, Evan Wells and Christophe Balestra, released an official statement, clarifying that neither of them were involved in Ms. Hennig’s departure while proscribing the article as “unprofessional” and “hurtful”.
In June of 2014, the co-presidents requested Mr. Druckmann and Mr. Straley to lead the game’s development. It was during the E3 conference of the same year that Naughty Dog formally unveiled the project under the name Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Examining the promotional materials caused some fans to suspect the series was to take a darker turn, though in a 2014 interview, Mr. Druckmann assured them that the story would be different while still retaining its charm. The sudden change in personnel caused no shortage of problems. Plot ideas and eight months of shooting were left on the proverbial cutting room floor and the voice actor for a central character had to be recast. Consequently, the project was plagued with numerous delays. It was slated to for a late-2015 release before getting pushed back multiple times within 2016. Uncharted 4 at last saw its debut in May of 2016. Like their previous four console efforts, it became a critical and commercial success, and it was considered one of the finest titles for the PlayStation 4. The subtitle this game bears does not belie its status as the series’ grand finale. Was Naughty Dog able help make the PlayStation 4 a viable platform while also giving their most lauded franchise a proper sendoff?
Playing the Game
Uncharted 4 is a third-person shooter that encourages players to take cover whenever necessary. This is because capable in a gunfight though the protagonist may be, it’s unsound to assume he has the same level of survivability as the Doom marine or any of his contemporaries. Indeed, applying the strategy you would use for Doom will result in your character’s quick demise.
In the event that you make a mistake and expose him to enemy gunfire, a red tinge will adorn the screen. As he continues to take damage, the colors will lose their vibrancy, becoming progressively more desaturated. Eventually, the world will appear entirely monochrome. It’s best to make a retreat in this state, as a single well-aimed shot will be enough to vanquish your character. If you elude the enemy’s line of sight for long enough, the colors will return, allowing you to resume the game as normal.
Keeping some degree of realism in their game, Naughty Dog limits the protagonist’s carrying capacity to two firearms: a sidearm and a larger, two-handed weapon. Enemies will drop ammunition for their own weapons upon defeat. If you have a matching gun, you can press the action button to obtain the bullets for yourself. Otherwise, this action will switch your weapon for the one on the ground. Similarly, your character cannot hold too much ammunition at once, so if you fire recklessly, you’ll quickly run out. Knowing when to use ranged or hand-to-hand combat is key to managing your resources in the long term.
Your character can also hold a limited amount of explosive weapons. In a display of geniality, the arc in which the grenade will fly once he pitches it is displayed as you’re deciding where it should go. As you don’t need to switch weapons in order to hold them, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have as many as you can at any given time. They can dispatch individual enemies in a single blast, but they’re best to use in emergencies such as when you find yourself face-to-face with a heavily armored foe. When the enemy throws a grenade in your direction, a graphic will be displayed onscreen, allowing you to either move out of its radius or, if you’re feeling particularly brave, throw it back before it explodes.
Even the most hardcore action games need to space their scenes out; too many in a row would make for a monotonous, bland experience. Fortunately, the designers know this, as they broke up these sequences using adventure game elements. Your character will often find himself in places untouched by civilization. As a natural consequence, many of these areas have succumbed to the elements, so don’t be surprised if ledges crumble, passages cave in, or devices no longer work. Occasionally, the main characters will have to navigate the sides of buildings or caverns by jumping from ledge to ledge. He’s markedly more athletic than your typical action-game protagonist, so he can easily reach these otherwise inaccessible areas – provided your reflexes are up to par.
Many of these ancient ruins feature puzzles that must be solved to open the next passageway. The protagonist will dutifully write notes in his journal or converse with a friend to hint at the solution to the player. Careful observation of the gorgeously rendered set pieces and backdrops can also play a role in discovering the answer. To encourage exploration, Naughty Dog also included treasures that play no role in the story, but can be used to unlock bonus features such as outfits, weapons, and alternate design schemes.
For those of you getting a sense of déjà vu from reading my summation of the gameplay mechanics, I can assure you that those feelings are far from ill-founded. This is because anyone who has followed the series up until this point will know exactly what to expect. It’s to the point where some may have a mental checklist of what constitutes a Naughty Dog console release after 2007 and cross the boxes as they play. By Uncharted 3, whatever people were questioning that the development team was relying on a formula were answered with an unambiguous “yes”. Considering how token sequels like Uncharted 3 often have the insurmountable task of being similar to and distinct from their universally beloved predecessors, this may be construed as a bad sign for the series’ fourth installment. Fortunately, Naughty Dog decided to experiment with their formula in a few ways.
To begin with, the protagonist can use a collapsible grappling hook to swing from branches, rocks, and other obstacles high above his head. There are several times in which you’ll have to swing off of the rope and on to a ledge so he can start climbing. Whenever he is facing a direction of anything he is capable of grabbing, he will reach out as he nears his destination, saving the player a lot of frustration when it’s not immediately obvious. He can also climb or lower himself on the rope whenever the situation requires it, and he can even run along a wall if he’s close enough.
Furthermore, the stealth mechanics have been revamped and greatly expanded upon. Uncharted 4 still features unavoidable conflicts, but for certain encounters, you can opt to sneak past the enemy and have them be none the wiser. If the protagonist stumbles upon an enemy encampment guarding the next area, they will usually be unaware of his presence. Hiding in tall grass will conceal him, and from here or any other cover, he can launch sneak attacks that can typically fell them in a single blow.
If they catch a glimpse of your character, a white, kite-shaped meter will appear onscreen in the direction of the soldier. Should it completely fill, the meter will turn yellow, and the soldier will investigate the area. If it turns orange, it means they know he’s there, and the other guards in the area will be alerted. In this state, enemies will respawn a finite number of times until you have defeated them all.
After a certain point, the protagonist obtains a piton. When you find a craggy rock face, you can jump towards it with the piton, and drive it into the wall. From there, you can leap to another ledge or return to the original one if it’s a dead end. Later on, you’ll have to jump onto these surfaces from afar, but the game will give you a split second to react accordingly, so you don’t have to worry about falling as long as you’re attentive.
Occasionally, you will be made to commandeer vehicles such as jeeps and motorboats. Coupled with the grappling hook, they allow for a degree of exploration not feasible in any previous installment. Granted, the areas are still linear, and there are multiple one-way paths to dissuade backtracking, but it is nice that the designers decided to deviate from their standby of making players travel down what amounted to glorified corridors, if only a little. It also helps avoid the problem the series had up until this point where these lost cities decayed in such a way that they serendipitously became ideal video game levels. The issue is still present, but it’s a bit easier to accept thanks to the level variety.
As always, the action sequences are exhilarating to play through, and I feel that the puzzles are far more elaborate than those of any previous entry wherein they tended to be fairly easy. This was because the protagonist would flip to the appropriate page in his journal whenever confronted with one. Inscribed on the page was a hint that would give savvy players everything they needed to proceed. A less subtle clue would be provided if they struggled with it for too long. In Uncharted 4, this remains the same, but you will need to pay close attention to the clues to have any sort of success. This is because several of the puzzles in this game punish incorrect answers with death, so brute forcing them will waste more time than drumming up the solution properly.
All in all, Naughty Dog didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel when they created Uncharted 4, as the gameplay is instantly recognizable for returning players. However, these small touches go a long way in making it a more varied experience than its direct predecessor, which was essentially Uncharted 2 set in different locales. In regards to its gameplay, they managed to improve on nearly every essential component, making the experience markedly less frustrating to get through.
Then again, as the people at Naughty Dog were clearly proud of their writing, this review wouldn’t be complete without discussing the game’s story. It’s time to see if they could conclude their heralded series in a way that rewarded their longtime followers.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: This section will contain unmarked spoilers for the entire Uncharted series.
A young orphan by the name of Nathan was living in the Saint Francis Boy’s Home following the suicide of his mother. He frequently got into fistfights with the other kids residing at the orphanage whenever they insulted him or his family. One day, he was visited by his older brother, Sam, who had kicked out for his numerous criminal activities. He told Nathan about a job which would keep him away for a few years, but cheered him up by informing him that he had discovered to whom their mother’s effects were sold. The subsequent events would cause them to abandon their previous lives, adopting the surname, Drake.
Years later, the brothers Drake decided to follow the trial of Henry Avery, the infamous pirate who enacted the largest heist in the seventeenth century with a plunder estimated to be worth over four-hundred million dollars. To this end, they teamed up with a wealthy treasure hunter named Rafe Adler. The brothers infiltrated the Panamanian prison where Avery’s first mate was executed centuries ago with the assistance of a corrupt guard named Vargas. After exploring the first mate’s tower cell, Nathan found a crucifix that pointed to the treasure’s supposed location in the Saint Dismas Cathedral in Scotland. Upon trying to leave, he, Sam, and Rafe were stopped by Vargas, for he wished to have a cut of the treasure. Rafe responded to this proposition by stabbing the guard to death, but in the struggle, he was able to fire a single bullet, alerting his comrades. Sam was shot during their flight, and a distraught Nathan soon parted ways with Rafe, leaving the latter to his own devices.
Fifteen years have passed since that day. Nathan Drake had a successful career as a treasure hunter, solving the mysteries behind three mythical cities: El Dorado, Shangri-La, and Iram of the Pillars. He has since retired from treasure hunting, instead working for a salvage company while trying to lead a normal life with his wife, Elena Fisher. One day, to his astonishment, he is visited by a very much alive Sam Drake. He had survived his seemingly fatal wound, but was given a life sentence for Vargas’s death. He tells Nathan that his cellmate, drug lord Hector Alcázar and his associates, helped him escape prison. However, after Sam informed him of the lead they had procured regarding the whereabouts of Henry Avery’s bounty, Alcázar issued an ultimatum. In exchange for his generosity, Sam must find the treasure within three months or suffer the hardened criminal’s wrath.
Initially reluctant, Nathan agrees to aid his brother, telling Elena that he has taken a salvage job in Malaysia. They learn that a crucifix similar to the one found in Panama is being sold in the Rossi estate in Italy. After contacting Nathan’s mentor, Victor “Sully” Sullivan, they arrive at the auction with the intent to steal the artifact. Upon arrival, they learn that Rafe intends to purchase it for himself, enlisting the help of Nadine Ross, the leader of a South African paramilitary organization known as Shoreline. Nathan must once again defy the odds in order to atone for his previous failure.
Once again, Naughty Dog resorted to their preferred method of storytelling by conveying a narrative through cinematic cutscenes. It caused problems in the past by having the gameplay and story occasionally being at odds with each other, and by Uncharted 4, I suspect Naughty Dog themselves began to realize this. The cutscenes are standard fare for the series, but many character interactions now occur during gameplay as well. Early in the game, Nathan has to pickpocket an important item from a man without him knowing. You’re given multiple tries to accomplish this task, and if you mess up, his friends will comment on his performance. There are moments like this throughout the game, and although the plot advances on a predetermined path, they help make the story a bit more dynamic.
During certain cutscenes, you’re also given dialogue options. They don’t have any substantial impact on the gameplay, but it’s a nice touch nonetheless. I remember one especially funny instance when Nathan confronts Nadine for the first time and you can choose to have him make wise cracks, which lent a Monkey Island feeling to the experience.
Different as night and day though the tones of The Last of Us and Uncharted 4 may be, one storytelling element from the former carried over into the latter. In addition to the standard treasures, you may find documents and journal entries written by Avery’s crew, detailing their activities. There are also accounts from the distant past of other adventurers who tried, and ultimately failed, to discover whatever became of Avery. They are added to Nathan’s journal alongside sketches he may draw when solving puzzles or observing the scenery. Many games have used this trope of leaving breadcrumbs players can use to paste together a secondary story, but it’s often effective when trying to build a world. It’s to the point where I’m a little disappointed Naughty Dog didn’t think to include them in any previous entry.
The previous three Uncharted installments involved Nathan and company hunting after mythical cities discovered by famous historical figures. Somewhat ironically, the finale takes a few steps back by having the protagonists follow the tracks of a pirate for a mundane prize. While quite a lot of drama still stems from trying to stay one step ahead of the antagonists as is routine for the series, there is a different source driving the plot as well. Indeed, in contrast to his previous exploits, Nathan’s quest to find Henry Avery’s treasure is almost entirely altruistic, as the only reason he even agreed to find it was for his brother’s sake rather than personal gratification. Though his methods remain unchanged, it’s interesting to see how his character evolved in the span of four games.
Even with all of the good things I can say about the story, it’s still not without its flaws. One of the biggest issues I have with the game concerns the character of Sam Drake. The idea of Nathan having a brother wasn’t even remotely hinted towards up until this installment. The writers try to justify this through the backstory; the reason Nathan never mentioned Sam to Elena or, indeed, the audience, was because he considered it his greatest failure and didn’t want to stir up the terrible memories of having been unable to save him. It’s not a terrible explanation, but it fails to account for why he wasn’t mentioned in the flashback portions of Uncharted 3 when Sully asks Nathan about his parents. It’s a little too convenient that the only times Sam was brought up happened to be when the cameras weren’t rolling, so to speak.
There’s also a development roughly halfway through the plot that casts Sam’s character in an unsympathetic light. When confronting Rafe in the remains of Avery’s secret society, he reveals to Nathan that Hector Alcázar died in a shootout in Argentina six months prior. In reality, Rafe himself had Sam released from jail two years ago once he learned of his former associate’s survival. In the interim, they picked up where they last left off, scouring every inch of the Saint Dismas Cathedral. Once Sam gathered enough clues, he stole Rafe’s work from under him and vanished. It was after learning of the second crucifix being put up for auction via the internet that Sam sought Nathan out. This was meant to be a shocking plot twist, but I think Naughty Dog succeeded a little too well. With this revelation, the implication is that Sam asked his younger brother to risk his life and marriage to Elena for no good reason. It’s true giving up halfway through would make for an anticlimactic experience, but the fact remains that Sam took advantage of Nathan’s good nature and every single causality is directly or indirectly his fault.
Starting with the original Uncharted, Naughty Dog’s console games tended to drop in quality during their respective second halves. Considering Uncharted 4 was intended to be the series’ finale, one might assume that the developers would work on this weakness to thank their fans for their continued support. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite the case, and the endgame sees the return of Naughty Dog’s signature flaw: their inability to realize that some non-interactive storytelling techniques fail when real-time audience feedback becomes a variable.
The final chapter of the game sees Nathan confronting Rafe on board Avery’s ship. Sam is trapped underneath a beam and a trap was triggered, setting the vessel ablaze, but before Nathan can respond, Nadine sneaks up on him and forces him to surrender his weapon at gunpoint. She then orders Rafe to do the same before abandoning the three of them to their fate. This betrayal was foreshadowed earlier when Rafe made his apathy towards her safety all too clear after Sam held her at gunpoint. Considering she and her squadron proved to be nothing but trouble for the protagonists, her getting away with no lasting consequences felt anticlimactic. Every time she is encountered, the game pretends that you’re in control, but any attempts to fight her will end in your defeat. Unwinnable boss fights are nothing unusual, but the unofficial rule is that they must be defeated or redeemed by the end of the game. As it stands, it felt as though Naughty Dog had to cheat even more than usual to ensure her survival. Moreover, she’s never mentioned again, cutting her arc short with no resolution.
Astoundingly, this wasn’t the worst decision they made for this chapter – that would be the encounter with Rafe. Another flaw Naughty Dog hadn’t improved upon in the span of four games was that they couldn’t program a good boss fight if their lives depended on it. This is because they don’t create boss fights as much as they break their own rules whenever the protagonist and antagonist occupy the same space. The duel with Rafe is a swordfight with annoying controls that come across as only slightly better than a montage of quick-time events. You push buttons to dodge attacks in the corresponding directions, and once you have sword of your own, you use them to block his blade. It’s not enough to hit him enough times; instead, you have to watch several cinematics, mash the button that appears onscreen whenever necessary, and then you can cut a rope, causing a large amount of gold to crush him to death. Much like the encounter with Atoq Navarro in Uncharted, this would be perfectly serviceable in a movie, but it’s exceptionally annoying to actually play through.
Sam lives through the ordeal, being considered redeemed by the narrative despite having done little to deserve it. Exacerbating matters is that the writers needing to flesh out Nathan and Sam’s relationship ended up pushing both Elena and Sully, who are far more interesting characters, to the sidelines. A lot of the drama between Nathan and Elena stemmed from the former lying about the Malaysia job, and the writers didn’t really go anywhere with it, deciding to get them back together rather hastily once they were ready to end the proceedings.
I do, however, admit the epilogue was pretty enjoyable. The way it was set up is a genuinely clever antithesis to the opening scene in The Last of Us. Still, I can’t help but wonder if the writers really did everything they could to truly earn that moment.
Drawing a Conclusion
Attempting to recreate what made Uncharted 2 so good seemed to have been Naughty Dog’s modus operandi ever since it left an indelible impact on critics in 2009. I feel this was, for the most part, a lost cause, as a lot of what made Uncharted 2 great isn’t easy to replicate, for there are only so many breathtaking action sequences you can cram into a series before tedium begins to set in. Uncharted 4 does come a bit closer to recapturing that je ne sais quoi, but like Uncharted 3 before it, it still falls somewhat short. To me, Uncharted 4 is more or less on the same level of its direct predecessor because for every good idea the developers had, there was an equally bad one to weigh it down.
What I found to be the most disappointing aspect about the Uncharted series was how biggest improvement resided in the leap between the first and second installments. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, as the original Uncharted also happens to be the least regarded entry. Ever since the release of Uncharted 2, there were still a few issues plaguing their games, and for the most part, Naughty Dog never bothered to address them.
Again, I realize I may have sounded a bit harsh in my assessment, but I must note that Uncharted 4 is a decent game. It may not have been enough of a reason on its own for me to get a PlayStation 4, but I did enjoy it, and the returning characters are as memorable and likable as ever. If you’re looking for a solid action game, it will certainly deliver on that front. I have to give Naughty Dog credit for giving their series a satisfactory sendoff once they realized it had run its course. Now, if only publishers would learn from this…
Final Score: 6/10