After posting my article about cinematic gaming, I find it kind of funny to be reviewing Uncharted 4, but out of all the games that claimed to be cinematic, I never understood the complaints about Uncharted. The shooting mechanics and multiplayer are usually rock solid, and a lot of the dialogue is given between characters while they walk around, solve puzzles, and explore, making the game feel far more organic than a cutscene-filled exposition dump. Uncharted 4, in this regard, tries to do much of the same, except far more often, to… mixed results. The dialogue and constant banter between Nathan and whoever he’s dragged into the current chapter with him is usually entertaining and great, and provides some great background noise whether you’re in the middle of a firefight, or carrying a bucket through a pirate cave, but unfortunately, it can become a little tedious.
Uncharted 4 has an awful habit of filling long sections with absolutely nothing to do besides just moving forward with little adversity while banter ensues. The often witty chit-chat between Nathan and co. does help make these sections a little more bearable, but as you progress in the game, they genuine do start to grate on you a little. The previous games in the series had many, many segments where Nathan was on his own, requiring Naughty Dog to fill those sections with engaging gameplay and setpieces to keep the player interested (These segments are still arguably the best ones in the fourth one), whereas A Thief’s End relies far too heavily on dialogue and not much else in certain segments, especially the graveyard in Scotland. In this vein, it’s also important to bring up that the first three or so chapters of the game are markedly boring to replay if you plan on repeating the game on a higher difficulty after beating it once. Not much happens at all, and while they’re meant to help the player identify with Nathan’s now-boring normal life (which, from a story standpoint is interesting), the most exciting and engaging part of these chapters is when you play the first level of Crash Bandicoot, which, is admittedly a pretty neat callback to Naughty Dog’s history.
After these segments though, you get the grappling hook, and your first taste of actual combat gameplay, and honestly, it’s a blast. The grappling hook adds a lot of fun and depth to both the platforming and combat, allowing you to do crazy stuff like blowing up an entire combat squadron by swinging by them from a nearby branch and skillfully aiming at a nearby propane tank. This really shines through in the multiplayer too, and you’ll likely grin like an idiot whenever you manage to snag a kill while swinging around like a middle-aged Spider Man. Another new addition to the gameplay is the ability to stealth entire enemy encounters, no longer having every enemy on the map instantly notice you with x-ray vision. The AI can be a little silly sometimes though. You can essentially lob grenades or dynamite from a bush all day, take down a guy when his friend is a foot away and looking at him, have a mile high pile of bodies sitting around, and never get noticed. Unfortunately though, if you fire your gun even once, when no one is looking, the x-ray vision of the previous games returns, and you’ll be filled with holes in a second. While full stealth is somewhat impractical, taking out most of an enemy squad before opening fire is a blessing, especially on higher difficulties.
In addition to those new features, Uncharted 4 borrows a lot from Naughty Dog’s last hit title The Last of Us, for better or worse. The crosshair now changes color to reflect a killing blow or a headshot, which is incredibly useful in a series where previously you had to stare at the enemy’s location for a while to determine if they were actually dead or just ducked behind their cover. Oh, and speaking of cover, almost all the cover in the game now is fully destructible by enemy bullets, almost adding a new form of resource management to the game, which makes fights a lot more dynamic and interesting to play. The worst thing they inexplicably dredged up from The Last of Us though is the goddamn constant crate-moving “puzzles” that filled every nook and cranny of that game. It is almost depressing how many enemy encounters and platforming bits are dedicated to just clearing out an area so that you can move a box from point A to B to hop up a ledge, and it’s completely inexplicable. In the previous games, you didn’t escape a burning building, shoot down a squadron of Russians, or battle zombies just to go back to the start and push a box through, but in Uncharted 4, there are entire unnecessary segments, like destroying an entire centuries-old trap in a pirate cave just to move a box. The first few times are alright, but for a game that tries to be immersive, being faced with the same puzzles over and over, regardless of location really takes you out of it. The original puzzles that don’t involve boxes are great though, being both interesting, sometimes challenging, and funny (like one in particular that references Monkey Island of all things), which just hurts when you compare them to the half assed box puzzles that show up typically at least twice per chapter.
I mentioned earlier that the character dialogue was usually pretty good, and that it is. The characters in the game, with the exception of maybe one, are very well done in general. Nathan’s brother Sam, despite being a newcomer to the series, doesn’t feel like he’s a new addition at all, and his interactions with Nathan and Sully really do make him feel like someone who has known them for a long time. The villain this time around is great too. While he acts like a gigantic smug douchebag most of the time, and seems needlessly antagonistic towards Nathan and crew, he does actually have genuinely believable reasons for it in the end, and as a result, feels like a large departure from the mustache-twirlingly evil villains from the rest of the series. That being said, it does take a lot away from the plot when he’s the only one who ends up facing consequences for his actions, despite being largely justified and hardly the worst offender in terms of things he’s done wrong. It almost feels mean spirited honestly, considering that, unlike previous villains, he has no sort of master plan to take over the world or anything, and largely only interferes with Nathan’s gang because they decide to interfere with him.
Now, graphically, the game looks even beyond some PC games at max settings. This game is absolutely beautiful, something you notice almost immediately with the amazing dynamic water physics and visuals in the prologue chapter. Every blade of grass, every leaf on a tree, every stone in a wall, is beautifully rendered, and the lighting is amazing. There are certain scenes where you could genuinely swear you were looking at a photograph. Outside of one weirdly low-res texture mapped onto a fragment of a shipping crate you find, I couldn’t even notice a single graphical issue with this game. It doesn’t sacrifice performance for visuals either, with the framerate always being amazingly smooth even during intense action. I feel like certain claims of it being the best looking game EVER are perhaps inflated, but it looks really damn good, and whenever Sony releases their upcoming PS4 Neo, this game will look ridiculously good in 4K.
From a sound standpoint though, this game feels lacking. The previous games had the heroic, memorable Uncharted theme kick in immediately at the title screen, preparing you for an epic Indiana Jones-style adventure, but this time, that’s not the case. You get a skeleton in a cage, hanging silently. You’d think this would be leading up to somewhat of a dark departure to the series, but ultimately the foreboding title screen is confusing, as this game feels even more lighthearted usually than the other ones, with constant jokes and companionship. There is a pretty cool remix that plays during the opening credits and at the end, but that’s really the… only audio piece I remember from the game. Nothing else stands out at all, almost every “song” was just ambience, and while that works well in setting tone, looking back on the game, there’s not much to say about the sound design. The voice acting is top notch as usual though, but that’s hardly news in a Naughty Dog title.
So, is Uncharted 4 good? I would definitely say so, despite some problems. It can be boring, and repetitive at times, but when it’s good, it’s awesome. Swinging around like an idiot is great, the dialogue is usually pretty good, there are some really great puzzles in there, and there’s a whole segment where you get to just drive around a huge open area in a jeep and loot random ruins you find like an actual explorer. The graphics are great, the characters are fun, and the improvements to the shooting plus the addition of stealth give you even more ways to play the game and try new things. Unfortunately, it’s not without flaws, and when you’re in one of those segments, it really does feel like a slog to get back to the fun parts, which are scarce for the first chunk of the game. This more harms the replay value than anything though, and I do feel like on a first playthrough, you’ll have a pretty good time.