In my previous reviews of Tomb Raider, I spoke about the adventure genre and how it relies – admirably – on genre tropes to impart entertainment through story and action.It’s the excessiveness of imagined adventure that excites us as players. Uncharted presents a world that seems so like our own; one so realistic that we imagine ourselves capable of such an adventure.As a 30+ year old, I don’t mind saying that I have repressed ambition to travel and explore the world; to see the world through an adventurer’s eyes. Imagine how the world must have seemed to Marco Polo or Amelia Earheart or the countless adventurers that have come before us.
Though I don’t have the means, Uncharted reignites those ambitions. It’s as though the developers don’t want me to forget about my dreams. Uncharted takes me to a place that reminds me of childhood daydreaming and reinforces my adult longing – whatever that is.
The Story Of A Thief
I don’t want to spoil the tale for anyone reading this review, so I’ll gloss over the plot and restrict myself to a cursory summary that seeks to hint at the success of the Uncharted narrative. The main thrust of Uncharted 4 revolves around Nathan and his brother Sam. We learn about their childhood at the orphanage and why the Drakes become adventurers. We learn about the adventure prior to the events in the original instalments, how they wind up in a Panamanian jail and why they are separated from one another. Sam isn’t mentioned in the previous games. Over the course of three games, I thought I knew everything there was to know about Nathan. He comes across as the kind of guy who doesn’t think much. Uncharted 4 revealed the depths of a character that hadn’t been explored already, showing that a character can always be developed.
The story brings together our favourite characters from the prequels, it tells the story of Nathan’s lost brother Sam and dwells on their relationship with adventure, and how it affects their lives. Nathan lies to himself to continue selfishly chasing his dragon, and Sullivan joins the chase to keep one eye on proceedings. In many ways, Nathan and Sam are similar, and – as the cliché goes – so different. It’s this juxtaposition between their characters and their lives that makes the story so enjoyable to follow. Throw in the usual megalomaniac antagonists and the sharp-edged deputy – one of which goes on to feature in the follow up game, The Lost Legacy – and you’re left with a very traditional adventure story, blended with a human tale. One that excites as well as making you think.
The story is enthralling and uses genre tropes creatively to propel you on an urgent journey to find Avery’s treasure. Your nemesis is Nathan’s one-time ‘friend’ Rafe, who is the story’s incredibly wealthy megalomaniac and desperate to find what he’s sought for years. It’s the balance that the writers have struck between entertainment and powerful storytelling that make Uncharted unmissable if you appreciate linear, story-driven games.
Refining And Redefining Adventure
What would an adventure game be without adventurising and imparting the feeling of exploration? It wouldn’t be an adventure game is what.
The gameplay trajectory is familiar and comfortable. It’s what you’ve become used to: a linear story strewn with set pieces and interspersed with downtime and smatterings of combat. Uncharted 4 doesn’t do anything spectacular, but there are plenty of nifty theatrics and curated moments that ramp up the tension. Regardless of its perceived conservatism, the ambiguous terrain gives the impression of real exploration, and hasty movement compels you to charge forward. Instead of having one path to follow, there are multiple routes you can take to the same destination. Choice within the confines of the linear space.
The grappling and swinging are set up in such a way to make you fear falling. Every slip and stumble set the heart racing, especially when you’re surrounded by open spaces. The guiding cracks and edges are a tired old tradition in adventure games, and it was good to see Uncharted adjust its course away from obvious hints. Even lauded games such as Horizon Zero Dawn use excessively marked edges that indicate where you can and can’t climb.
Going forward, I’d like to see a more intuitive approach to linearity. This minor quibble barely detracts from the qualities of Uncharted and I appreciate some players don’t do well without a guide.
Running The Gauntlet
The game feels tight and improves on its predecessors by adding much needed weight to the gunplay. The previous games can feel rather loose, especially when you return to them now. Uncharted 4 is still just a cover shooter, but the variety of weapon types, responsiveness and tactility that is transferred through the controller, highlight how far the franchise has come. During combat, dynamic actions are preferable and it’s wise to stay on the move to prevent being overwhelmed. On harder difficulty settings this happens frequently. There is also an intuitive tagging system to aid you during combat, which helps you navigate whilst under fire and reinforces my previous advice. Most cover shooters see you shifting from cover to cover. In Uncharted 4 there are multiple ways to hide from enemies even after combat has started. You can hide in tall grass and even use water to disappear from view. There are multiple ways to tackle combat and I wasn’t bored by the end of the game.
The simplicity of the stealth system is plain to see, but I rarely encounter one so encouraging. The extent of the stealth is a simple assortment of attacks from below, behind and above. They are triggered with a single button press, and can be chained in quick succession if the circumstance arises. What impressed me most is how forgiving the stealth is. You don’t have to walk slower behind an enemy or crouch, you simply follow them, and you know the rest. The weightiness I spoke about with regards to the guns is also apparent in character movement. There’s no run or crouch. Those are done automatically depending on what you’re doing: if you move into tall grass, Nathan will crouch.
The lack of running slows the game down to a pace that suits its linearity. The sluggish, heavy movement of Drake is the feeling of a tired adventurer. I wouldn’t want to be able to L3 everywhere, darting here there and everywhere, rushing about trying to finish the game. The restricted movement affords a casual, movielike experience. Adventuring is fun and compulsive in Uncharted 4. It just shows that you don’t need an open world to play adventurer. Uncharted is a linear treat and as adventurous as eating a new flavour of Ben and Jerry’s; I don’t need a factory tour to satisfy my cravings for a wholesome adventure.
End of an Era
As Nadine Ross says in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, “How are we still alive?” A short succinct question that captures the action, the drama and occasional ridiculousness of the franchise. The hallmarks of Uncharted are what make the game a blockbuster. The words ‘it’s like a movie’ usually crop up when describing Uncharted. As a player, you take on the role of Nathan Drake, and for a short while you become the protagonist of the adventure. It’s not often that I experience the symbiosis of character and player in a video game; there’s usually a modicum of detachment between the two, regardless of how great the game is.
Whether or not this is Nathana Drake’s last adventure – I don’t imagine it is – Uncharted 4 has elevated the franchise without straying too far from what made it so popular. Boundaries can free up creativity and it seems Naughty Dog thrived within the limits of their own pen.