This week on the show we talk about early impressions of Overwatch and an otherwise slow period in games that we’ve been playing. Luckily there’s a fair bit of interesting news to discuss in the meantime.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review (PS4)
When the Uncharted 4 announcement was made, I remember a feeling of disappointment washing over me. I was hoping that Naughty Dog would try something new and had felt underwhelmed by the third, and at the time, final installment. Then Amy Hennig left and the team that worked on The Last of Us, led by Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, took over the project and my interest was revitalized. Late in the development cycle, a series of delays doused a lot of my enthusiasm and I ended up unsure if I would even want to play it. After all the twists and turns in development, Naughty Dog has put forth one of their best efforts to date and an Uncharted game worthy of being called the final chapter in the Nathan Drake saga.
Uncharted 4 takes place a decent chunk of time after 3 wraps up. By this point Nathan is living a normal life with his wife Elena, but still finds himself yearning for adventure. Luckily enough his long lost brother, Sam Drake, reappears with an appeal for Nathan’s help and he decides to set out on one last adventure. What follows is a story that ends up being relatively predictable, but is executed at a very high level. Previous installments failed to leave much of an impression on me, but this game sucked me in and held me ransom until the credits rolled. It’s a fun ride that tells a successful story, but more importantly creates a great backdrop for the wonderful cast of characters.
Neil Druckmann has shown that he understands character development with his work on The Last of Us and that level of polish and care is evident here as well. Every major character is incredibly well-written with emotional weight and depth that is brought to life through the incredible performance capture I’ve come to expect from Naughty Dog. The narrative is paced beautifully around character development as well, knowing exactly when to break from the action and allow character interactions to have their moment. Pacing and structure were part of what blew me away in Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 4 takes it to another level once again.
Many of my favorite moments came during the quieter parts of the game when we learn more about Nathan, Sam, Elena, and Sully. Watching Nathan and Elena interact in their new life sticks out in particular because slice of life moments like that are easy to bungle or gloss over. In this game, however, they stand out for their excellence and believability. It’s hard to find much wrong from a narrative standpoint and if you crave good stories in games, Uncharted 4 stands near the top of the list.
Helping to support the character work and performance are the incredible visuals. Uncharted 4 might be the best looking game I’ve ever played (The Witcher 3 maxed out on PC probably gives it a run for it’s money) and is without a doubt the best looking console game I’ve ever seen. The insane level of detail isn’t just for show either as it allows for the subtleties of facial expressions, posture, and body language to become a meaningful part of narrative delivery. Throughout the game you’ll notice visual ticks and habits of each character and it helps to further humanize them and develop their personalities. It’s fantastic to see this level of detail used to enhance visual storytelling and not just to show off technical prowess.
Unfortunately when things are generally so polished, any rough edges will be magnified that much more because they are far more noticeable. There are times when animations can get a little funky, AI pathing can get a little mixed up, or frame drops occur. While they aren’t the norm, these instances snap you out of the moment and aggressively remind you that this is still a video game that has some of the weird quirks that come with that territory. The frame drops are most disappointing because the coveted 60 fps benchmark was sacrificed for consistency at 30 fps, but that means when dips occur they’re very obvious. For the most part the game runs smoothly though, and the technical hiccups are very minor and won’t ruin the fun.
Interestingly, Naughty Dog decided not to call Greg Edmonson back to write the score for the fourth installment of Uncharted and instead turned to Henry Jackman. The result is a much more subdued, almost introspective, soundtrack that lends itself well to the game’s subject matter. I wanted to mention the soundtrack specifically because it’s the first of the Uncharted scores that I find myself wanting to listen to on it’s own. The music is successful on its own merit, but is also used to create really great moments, both quiet and intense, throughout the game.
With all that it does so well, it’s a shame that Uncharted 4’s gameplay doesn’t reach the same heights. By no means does it play poorly, but the gameplay pillars of Uncharted (puzzles, climbing, & combat) have not advanced nearly as much as I had hoped they would. The game controls relatively well, but everything is a bit floaty and it can take some getting used to. It feels like good-looking, fluid animations got prioritized over snappy, responsive controls and that may rub some people the wrong way.
Of course you’ll still be solving Indiana Jones-esque puzzles on your treasure hunt through history. I very much enjoy this aspect of Uncharted and this game is no exception. As the game starts to reach the story’s climax, the puzzles fall away and aren’t present in the game’s final third. I love the ancient contraptions Naughty Dog creates and would have loved to see one or two more sprinkled into the later stages of the game. There are a great deal of environmental “puzzles” throughout all of the game, but these generally equate to “find a box to climb on” or “boost your partner up to find another route”. While not terrible, they start to become a bit monotonous by the end of the game and break the game’s momentum in a few spots.
It wouldn’t be an Uncharted game without a lot of climbing and jumping to ledges that no real human could grab and A Thief’s End has a lot of it. There are a couple of new additions to Drake’s equipment in the form of a grappling hook and a spike to help climb more difficult walls. During traversal sections the floatiness and lack of precision in the controls will be most evident and you might mess up some jumps that probably should’ve worked and made some you shouldn’t have. All in all it feels like Uncharted climbing and, while not my favorite, it’s not actively bad and I had a decent time with most of it.
I would argue that combat is the gameplay element that has received the most tweaking in Uncharted 4. Funny enough, I might also argue that these changes are the most futile. Everything feels a lot better than I remember from Uncharted 3, but aiming is still a little too floaty and enemies are still a bit too spongy for the game to feel drastically different. With that said I think the stealth combat is quite fun this time around. I had a decent amount of success with it and generally had a good time trying to pick my way through encounters, unnoticed. When I was able to choose between sneaking or fighting, the combat encounters really come into their own. Unfortunately, there are a lot of combat sections where stealth is not an option and it can be pretty frustrating even on normal difficulty, which is the difficulty you should be playing on. Easier modes will have you barely playing at all while harder modes will emphasize some of the flaws in combat mechanics and encounter design even more.
I wanted to briefly mention a couple of the more ancillary features from the game as well. First up, I’ve played a bit of the multiplayer and it seems serviceable. I don’t know that it will have legs or that I’ll spend a ton of time with it, but I’d like to engage with it further. Second, I spent a ton of time experimenting with photo mode on my second playthrough and it’s a real treat. If you’d like to see the screen grabs I was able to capture you can click on this link (potential minor spoilers) to head over to a flickr gallery that I put together. Lastly, some of the quirky render modes and unlockable galleries are very cool and are worth taking a look at once you’ve completed the game and can unlock some of them.
At the end of the day the whole of the Uncharted 4 experience outweighs its few flaws. It’s a video game page turner and hours slipped away from me because I couldn’t put it down. After I finished it, I immediately started it again. For narrative junkies this game will scratch every itch and then some and if you can put up with some imperfections, this game is well worth your time. It’s an example of nearly every part of a video game being executed at the highest level and coming together in an engaging and fun package. Naughty Dog has created an excellent send-off for, arguably, PlayStation’s most recognizable modern character and now I can’t wait to see what’s next.
If you’re into spoilers, Justin and I recorded a podcast dedicated to all things Uncharted 4 spoilers and some discussion about our favorite parts of the game. We hope to continue chats like this as a series called “A Chat by the Fire” and you can catch the Uncharted episode here: