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By Mike Williams 5
Uncharted 4 is a fitting end for Nathan Drake. For its first full outing on PlayStation 4, Naughty Dog brings together all of its technical and storytelling mastery to create an amazing adventure. The game absolutely stands alongside previous entries in the series and Uncharted fans won't be disappointed.
Uncharted 4 kicks off with a chase in the midst of a horrible storm. The story then jumps around a bit to establish Sam Drake, the long-lost brother of Nathan. Sam was a big question mark in my early previews, because up until now, Nathan never mentioned he had a brother. Was this a fake out or twist? It turns out that Sam fits very well into the existing timeline of Nathan Drake and the flashbacks to their childhood answer some pertinent questions about Nate's past. (Like who was the prior adventurer in the family.)
Where has Sam been all this time? The game explains Sam's absence in a plausible way and I didn't have any issues whatsoever. If you think of past Uncharted games as really bad weeks in Nate's life, you can see why the status of his brother never came up; he was focused on not getting shot at and finding treasure, not relating his life story.
Following these time-hopping prologue chapters, Uncharted 4 drops us into the life of Nathan Drake a few years after the end of Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. Nate and his wife Elena have settled down into what they perceive as a "normal life". Nate works for a salvage company, while Elena writes and shoots travelogue. It's a safe and boring life; no guns, no lost cities, no mystical, ancient things that should stay buried. Nathan Drake is on the straight and narrow.
Sam enters the picture and turns everything upside down. Uncharted 4 presents a Nathan Drake that wants to leave behind that life of adventure, but can't. He goes up to his attic and relives those adventures every now and then. Sam's plight and the lure of the lost treasure of pirate Henry Avery draws Nate back into the game. And after some time, the gang is back together again, with Nate, Elena, Sully, and Sam trying to stay one step ahead of the bad guys.
I'm focusing on the story here because I honestly think it has always been one of the stronger parts of the series. I absolutely love Nathan Drake and his surrogate family. They're fun people to be around, they have great chemistry with each other, and even when they make poor decisions, I understand and empathize with them.
Uncharted 4 is all about the concepts of family and sacrifice. Sam and Nathan spring from the same core, but while Nathan has four grand adventures behind him, Sam has been yearning for adventure, but unable grasp it. Sam is Nathan's desire for action and exploration given flesh; Sam pulls him towards the myth of the lost pirate city Libertalia, while Elena and Sully try to pull him away. The question at the heart of the game is: what would you give up to go on these grand expeditions and is the cost worth it?
Amy Hennig may have moved on, but writers Neil Druckmann (who also directed the game) and Josh Scherr craft an excellent story. Every character is pitch perfect, Sam is a great addition to the team, and the final conflict is probably the most thematically-strong boss fight in the franchise's history. When the epilogue rolled around, I was getting a little misty. I'm going to miss these folks, but Naughty Dog is sending them out in style.
Uncharted 4 for all its new additions, is still Uncharted. You'll still climb over mountains, cliffs, and shattered forests. You'll dodge ancient traps and solve elaborate puzzles left behind by history's greatest legends. You will shoot a ton of dudes from behind cover. What worked before in Uncharted still works here.
The entire game looks amazing; there's a built-in Photo Mode that can be activated at any time and by the end of the game, I had taken over 200 screenshots. (None of which I can show you. Blame Sony.) The sheer technical artistry at work is simply astounding, especially at 1080p with a locked 30 frames per second. (It may have broken occasionally, but I could've tell.) From Italy, to Scotland, to the deserts and islands of Madagascar, every section of Uncharted 4 looks amazing. Jungle foliage sways and moves in the breeze, real footprints trail in the snow, and debris falls from ruins and explosions rock Drake on his heels.
There's no "thing" is time around: Uncharted showed Naughty Dog could do jungles, UC2 was about snow, and UC3 covered fire and sand. Instead, the studio dove deep this time and crafted every environment with real care. The ruins feel like nature has really reclaimed them. You can dive into the rivers and underground lakes to see seaweed and bright coral. Fog rolls in the distance, snow alights on Drake's hair and clothing, and the rain pours on him from above. This is stunning game in the visual department; Naughty Dog's technical and environmental artists are worth every goddamn penny.
The ever-present new addition to the basic Uncharted flow is the grappling hook. This tool is added to Nate's arsenal early on and after that it becomes very useful in traversing the environment, solving puzzles, and even combat. The grappling hook and the enhanced power of the PlayStation 4 over its predecessor allow Naughty Dog to build more expansive set pieces with far more happening on the vertical plane.
These environments are some of the biggest in the series. The size and the capabilities of the grappling hook allow Naughty Dog to play with more freeform traversal and combat. There are sections where there's more than one way forward: maybe you want to shimmy up that cliff and swing over, or perhaps you'll climb the whole way. Uncharted 4 also adds the climbing piton later in the game, allowing you to latch onto porous cliff faces that otherwise have no handholds. You do sometimes still run into the issue where everything is natural-looking enough that you can't tell where you're supposed to go, but those issues are few and far-between.
In combat, the grappling hook and new environments really shine. Stealth got another pass this time around; you can hide in tall grass and foliage, lose enemies if you're spotted, and mark enemies to keep track of them. The latter is needed with everything being quite vertical. You can be coming from under or above an enemy if you've played your cards right and without the marking system, you can't see through walls. You are missing basic stealth options like the ability to gain an enemy's attention, but it works well enough.
In a firefight though, the grappling hook is the best thing ever. You can duck behind cover, take a few shots, then leap into the air, hook onto a grapple point and go swinging into or behind enemy lines. The hook gives you new options when you're fighting, something Uncharted's combat probably needed at this point. Swinging around and shooting people is just a ton of fun.
There is an addition that doesn't completely work in Uncharted 4: vehicles. They work on a moment-to-moment basis and one of the best action scenes in the game has you driving a jeep at points, but at two sections their inclusion just robs the game of its pacing. One of the things I enjoy about Uncharted over the open-world games I frequently play is the economical pacing. The game is fairly linear, so the developer has more control over what you're doing.
In Uncharted 4, there are two chapters where you'll be given vehicles and huge semi-open world spaces to move around in. Both of these sequences rob Uncharted 4 of its pacing. You just wander about the landscape, looking for specific points. There's no real reason to explore these environments other than the series' mainstay treasures, so while it all looks great, if feels like meandering. It's an addition which gives Uncharted 4 the feeling of a grander scope, but grinds the game down to a halt. Luckily, both sequences are in the middle chapters of the game.
When Uncharted 4 needs to turn up the heat, it does so quite well. Like previous games, Uncharted 4 has big action set pieces where it pulls out all of the stops. Uncharted 4 has three major chase sequences, all of which are amazing. Part of one was shown at E3 previously and that's the one that stands up to the series' best. Pound for pound though, I'd put the action set pieces here on par with Uncharted 3 and slightly below Uncharted 2. It's damn good, but Uncharted 2 had the train sequence, the helicopter attack, and tank all in a single game. It's hard to stand up to that, even if Uncharted 4 makes a solid grab at the crown.
Luckily, unlike the previous Uncharted games, Uncharted adds an Encounter Select in addition to a Chapter Select. Once you've beaten an encounter, you can jump back to specific fight and action scenes directly. Imagine being able to jump directly to Uncharted 2's train sequence without hassle, and you get what I mean. It's the best option ever, especially for game like Uncharted. Want to try a firefight a bit differently? Go ahead.
Beyond Encounter Select, Naughty Dog has filled the game with a number of other extras. Finding treasure gives you unlock points, which you can then use to purchase character skins from specific points in the game, weapons, and additional game modes. These modes include cel-shaded graphics, infinite ammo, no gravity, mirror modes, and more. The Photo Mode I mentioned before? That's been improved over what was in Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection. You can turn off specific characters to capture scenery and you have new visual changes like shifting the Chromatic Aberration.
Is this the best Uncharted yet? Emotionally, I'm going to say yes. It wraps up this entire world perfectly; there may be more Uncharted, but Nathan Drake's story is done. The world is bigger and more beautiful; every few minutes I had to stop and take a picture in Photo Mode. Getting around the world has been improved immensely with the grappling hook. Yes, the vehicle sections at mid-game mess with the pacing, but once Uncharted 4 gets going again, it's a great ride. It's not perfect, but I'll be damned if it doesn't get close.
Farewell, Nathan Drake. Awesome job, Naughty Dog.
The Nitty Gritty
Uncharted 4 finishes off the story of Nathan Drake in style. It's one of the best-looking games on PlayStation 4, the environments are huge, and the action set pieces are great. The pacing falters in the middle due to new vehicle sections, but once Uncharted 4 gets going, it's a great ride.
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