It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down with a story-driven game and spent most of my time for the next few days only focused on beating it. There’s something about the charm of exploration and mystique around Nathan Drake’s adventures that makes it hard for me to stop playing them until I see them all through. If Naughty Dog wanted to, they could have made a new one of these games every few years with a new adventure based on mythical lost cities and I’d eat it up without a second thought. (Still waiting for them to find Atlantis, Pacifica, Mu, or Lemuria.)
What’s surprising about that sentiment is just how negatively I’ve treated the franchise outside of the time I’ve spent playing them. Starting upon Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End’s first gameplay reveal and through even the day I finished it, I kept making the same statement: “Whelp, Uncharted looks and plays like an Uncharted game!”
Yes, that statement, no matter how I could spin it, feels true. Uncharted 4 looks, feels, and plays like an evolved version of any other Uncharted game. You have your usual band of characters in Nate, Elena, and Sully. You have climbing up walls and cliffs. You have a lot of killing mercenaries with semi-passable shooting mechanics. You have sweeping vistas and cool locations. You have a nice film cutting up the gameplay. And you have walls and bridges collapsing beneath you.
The last of these is troublesome as a writer, since they happen so early and often that they become far too predictable to really earn the emotional response they’re supposed to– rarely pushing my adrenaline that might otherwise affect my ability to calmly grab a nearby ledge instead, and sometimes being scripted in a way that makes them feel pointless. Often something collapsing merely forces the player to take a longer time to climb over something without adding any real challenges or puzzles. These moments often take away from the few times throughout the story where the collapse actually felt fun and exciting, like falling onto a steep incline that you need to slide down, throw out a grappling hook and swing to “safety” on a nearby cliff.
Speaking of that grappling hook, while new mechanics don’t do nearly enough to change how the game is played, inclusions like the Grappling Hook and Piton help mix up how you traverse the environment. While their use may be only pressing square or R1 to use them, it felt good to do either instead of simply pressing X constantly to climb up a mountain. Especially the grappling hook. Using it to traverse a firefight and landing a knockout hit on an enemy made me wonder why it took 4 games for a developer at Naughty Dog to come up with it.
Other mechanics didn’t catch my attention as well. The winch, while shown off by Sony at a press briefing before launch, started off being a little interesting before quickly becoming a real chore to use. Getting out of a car and going to a nearby place to check something using Nathan’s own abilities is one thing, but going into a cave, finding that you need the winch inside, then going back and forth from the car to the object to use it was busy work that I just had no patience for.
Speaking of the car, though, driving around a more open world was one of the smartest changes the series has seen. It added much more to the sense of exploration that these games are supposed to impose, often having me go a little out of my way to find something cool than I ever would have had to do in a past Uncharted game. Even just the sense that I could go explore more made traversing the world more interesting. Late in the game, I had gotten so engrossed in the story that I decided not to stop along the way and head straight to the next destination. That kind of feeling made the world seem more alive than I thought a game could.
What else I found so interesting about the design of these more open areas was how directed they all felt. While yes, there were times where I could go in any sort of direction I chose, there was little doubt what the correct path to take was to get to the next part of the story. Past Uncharted games might have felt limited by the linearity that the story requires the game design to take, but the design of these open areas gave me hope that more open-ended, open-world games could do immensely better in directing players in exploring the world until they become more acquainted with it.
As for the story, Uncharted 4 may have the best one yet. Despite being slowed down a bit by the length and complexity of its treasure hunt later in the game, the narrative itself was well tied together and did an excellent job developing almost all of its characters. In fact, almost every area of Uncharted 4 that would have been a major focus of past games– the fantastical and mythical nature of the places they visit, what they find there, and the breathtaking set pieces along the way– all take a backseat to the development of characters and relationships in the game.
The story is much less about finding mutated Conquistador and Nazi Descendants on a South American island or the Tree of Life and its superpower blue guardians than it is about Nathan’s relationship with his brother Sam and their childhood dream of finding the pirate Avery’s treasure together, or how his sudden return out of retirement to adventuring and treasure hunting affects his relationship with his wife, Elena. The end result of these relationships might be easy to predict, but they were handled with such genuine care that when the end credits finally roll, it’s hard not to look back on how they progressed with unrestrained satisfaction.
There’s so much to like about this game, and at the same time it is still a clear-cut sequel– an evolved version of past Uncharted games. Most facets intact, but certain, sensible things added. Better in some areas than past games, and others, not as much. What annoys me the most, though, is just how much more a future Uncharted game could do.
So maybe one day we’ll see another developer try to tackle the series– further progressing the new traversal mechanics and more open-world environments– next time without Nathan Drake. But if Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End has done anything for any future entry besides taking out its classic protagonist, it sure as hell set the bar high.