Uncharted 4: The Kotaku Review

Uncharted 4: The Kotaku Review
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We captured this moment of Uncharted 4 action using the game’s photo mode.

For a worrisome amount of time, Uncharted 4 feels like little more than a familiar, obligatory sequel, existing the way Mario Karts and Halos do to continue bolstering one faction in the ongoing console wars. Excellent, fresh ideas for these kinds of automatic sequels are not a prerequisite.

Thankfully, after nine chapters, Uncharted 4 dramatically improves. It justifies the creation of a sequel in this nearly decade-old series beyond the need to check off the box between Ratchet & Clank and Wipeout on the PlayStation platform franchise list.

The early levels on Uncharted 4 have what we’d expect. We play as Nathan Drake in a third-person, world-spanning quest to find treasure. We explore ruins and fight thugs. We climb walls, shoot guns, and take cover from streams of enemies. We solve some puzzles and banter with a buddy character who sometimes helps us boost up to higher ledges. We do this in beautiful locations. The levels are linear, the action dramatic.

The opening hours are mostly familiar, though the series looks a lot better than it ever did before. Plus, there are now a few rare moments when you can choose Drake’s lines.

Introducing Nadine Ross, one of the series' newest nemeses.

Introducing Nadine Ross, one of the series’ newest nemeses.

High-quality game series generate high expectations. Simply serving a prettier dish of comfort food would have been a waste of a studio that most recently made 2013’s emotionally wrenching survival adventure The Last of Us. Naughty Dog could have moved on and arguably should have, having been so successful with something new the last time out. But they’re back, Drake is back, and we’re back, for what they swear is their last treasure-hunting score.

Uncharted 4‘s slow start is initially worrying, a sign that the franchise’s well may have dried. An opening speedboat chase is a weak intro in the wake of Uncharted 2‘s climb through a dangling train car or even Uncharted 3‘s bar brawl. A couple of levels later, we’re in familiar shootouts in new, gorgeous locales. The enemies absorb fewer shots, it seems, so that’s been improved, but the first quarter of the game largely feels routine and safe, like a top actor coasting through a role they have done so many times before. In previous games, Naughty Dog had already pushed things in the first act. They did the love triangles and major fake-out deaths. They had us climb in every climate and discover multiple lost cities.

Sam Drake with younger brother, Nathan. image via Sony.

Sam Drake with younger brother, Nathan. image via Sony.

Enter Sam Drake, long lost elder brother to Nathan. Since the events of Uncharted 3, the younger Drake retired from the life of illegal treasure hunting. He settled into a routine of menial salvage work and dinners with his longtime romantic partner Elena, who seems glad to be finally living like a normal person. Sam shows up, a new character who left Nathan’s life before the series began. He explains that his life is in danger from an angry drug lord and that he’ll survive only if Nathan helps him find some great pirate treasure. Nathan is drawn back in, and Sam becomes the newest buddy to accompany Nathan through levels of climbing, shooting and treasure hunting.

Sam is not the injection of new blood the series needed. He’s bland and more of a plot device for others to react to than a compelling character on his own. His return into Nathan’s life is well expressed in cutscenes, but as a companion in many of the game’s levels, Sam mostly mutters forgettable lines from the background. The best new things about the game, it turns out, come not from a new character (the new villains aren’t so hot either) but from new gameplay.

The top designers in gaming all perform a specific, great magic trick. As you start their games, they sneakily teach you new things and seed their long-form stories until you’re past what was really just a prologue. Only then can you handle the real game. In this case, Uncharted 4‘s designers hang back for nine chapters, past several major multi-level set-pieces, teasing tiny bits of new or improved gameplay. They’re training you to be ready when the game finally opens up, which it does when Nathan Drake and friends get to Madagascar and begin driving around in a fully controllable jeep.

By the game’s 10th chapter, officially called The Twelve Towers, you’ve been sufficiently prepped. In earlier levels, Drake got a rope that the player could sporadically use to swing across gaps. The game also introduced the concept of hiding in tall grass and springing forth to stealthily disable enemy guards, though enemies were seldom so abundant that this was more efficient than starting a gun fight.

A stealth lesson early in the game. Hide in the tall grass, and you can take out an enemy without making a ruckus, though the yellow outline on the other guard indicates rising suspicion.

A stealth lesson early in the game. Hide in the tall grass, and you can take out an enemy without making a ruckus, though the yellow outline on the other guard indicates rising suspicion.

In The Twelve Towers, those ideas blossom. You’re not just driving around in a jeep and hopping out to explore ruins. You’re getting into big, roomy outdoor fights in areas filled with beams from which you can grapple so that you can spot a distant enemy, swing to them and tackle them (or shoot them while in mid-swing). You’re getting into fights set on both sides of chasm. You can swing back and forth as the bullets fly.

In subsequent levels, you’re in a jungle thick with enemies and tall grass. Your most viable bet is to creep and climb and jump guards from the weeds. The levels are still largely linear, but they are wider. They have more paths, more ways to flank bad guys, more ways to attack them from below, behind or above. This alleviates some of the tedium that made the previous games’ shootouts melt into monotony. You’ll still fight a lot of enemies, but you can mix up your methods for taking the bad guys out. And as scripted as these games tend to be, the tweaks to combat in Uncharted 4 allow you to be more expressive, to feel like you’re playing in your own style.

As the levels expand, the climbing becomes more complex, too. There are more red-herring edges that lead you to dead ends. You gain a new climbing tool, a piton, that lets you stab any part of porous wall that is within arm’s reach and then pull yourself to it and up or over to another developer-placed ledge. As with combat, the player is being given more agency, more of a stake in how things will play. In small but appreciable ways, the game feels less scripted.

The added control doesn’t undermine one of Uncharted‘s most beloved features. The game still feels like a thrill ride when it funnels into linear, more scripted sequences involving collapsing buildings, vehicle chases, and more. The ones in Uncharted 4 are the calibre of the best levels of any Uncharted.

Oh, the clock tower. Oh, the chase with the crane.

Deeper and deeper into the game, the subtle design improvements steadily accumulate. The designers explore the gameplay potential of driving through mud and climbing cliff-sides in the rain. These feel like the right advances for a series that always explored new gameplay on the back of improved technology and an attempt to recreate mundane real-world matters rarely seen in games. The earlier Uncharteds, for example, used better in-game physics and scene-staging tricks to present playable fights on top of unsteady trains or inside wave-tossed boats. That ethos is apparent throughout this game, with every death-defying swing of Drake’s rope.

Sony’s public demos of the game have shown some of Uncharted 4‘s excellent middle. Gawking at the game, as stunningly beautiful as it is, is no replacement for playing it. The game feels terrific, especially during its scenes of breathless spectacle. Its visuals, though, have undeniable allure. Artistically unconventional games such as Journey and Wind Waker HD may have their partisans who say one of them is the medium’s best-looking game, but in the category of photorealistic graphics, Uncharted 4 is now the champ.

The game’s impressively deep photo mode, which can be accessed at any time, will doubtless result in some of the best real gaming screenshots ever seen. It became one of my favourite diversions as I played.

Photo mode activated, camera pulled back.

Photo mode activated, camera pulled back.
Filter and white frame added.

Filter and white frame added.
Among the photo mode's many features, a simple but useful option to hide the characters. You can choose to hide buddy characters or civilians, too.

Among the photo mode’s many features, a simple but useful option to hide the characters. You can choose to hide buddy characters or civilians, too.

Even more impressive are the faces of Uncharted 4‘s characters, especially the scene-stealing expressions of series regular Elena Fisher, who has her own struggles with supposed retirement bliss. Their marriage is compellingly imperfect. Elena’s smirks, sighs, incredulous stares, playful grins, and bitten lower lip support that and improve a script that superbly presents the undulations of a restless union.

Image via Sony.

Image via Sony.

Games mark technical progress at a weird pace. The phenomenal facial expressions in Uncharted 4 are a landmark achievement. So are the game’s winch and rope technology, which produce the (no snark) incredible ability for us, as Nathan Drake, to manually wind a cord around a metal bar or tree trunk by moving him around said bar or trunk. This is an action as simple as wrapping a thread around a pencil, and yet it has rarely, if ever, been presented in a major game before, presumably because the physics of it are so complex.

See how the cord wraps around? That happened manually by swimming around the axle.

All of the game’s technical improvements do not blot out some faults. The more conventionally-designed stealth system, for example, might be an improvement in combat vocabulary for this series, but feels under-developed. It begs for Drake to be able to attract or distract guards with a whistle, a tap or a tossed rock. Such options are standard in the better Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell and Metal Gear games (as well as Naughty Dog’s very own The Last of Us) and are key for guiding patrolling guards into a stealth death. It makes no gameplay sense for Drake to have to squat silently in the grass hoping a guard will come near him. That our expert survivalist never makes a noise to trick an enemy breaks the illusion of reality the graphics are engineered to create.

The game has several puzzles and numerous optional opportunities for Nathan Drake to find extra things to jot in his journal.

The game has several puzzles and numerous optional opportunities for Nathan Drake to find extra things to jot in his journal.

What should happen in a fourth major instalment, especially in an entertainment culture that fetishizes trilogies? By his fourth major appearance, Han Solo was killed off. Die Hard‘s John McClane was a parody of himself by movie number three and still continued to a fourth. Wry, beleaguered Nathan Drake is more or less an amalgamation of those two action heroes and seemed largely tapped of potential going into this game. His marriage difficulties in this game make him more interesting, more so than a lost brother does, though the game’s creators find some good friction in colliding those plot developments.

Nathan Drake is mostly in his sunset as he chases this final treasure. We’ve all been here before, and the story is regularly reminding us that it’s time to move on. It’s even in the title. Perhaps it fits and even works as meta-commentary, then, that Uncharted 4 stumbles near the end. Final gameplay sequences feel rushed or at least less cleverly laid out than the hours of action that preceded them. Characters make odd exits, some perhaps being saved for an expansion or some non-Naughty Dog sequel or spin-off. The game’s very last playable sequence and cutscene help clarify what Uncharted 4‘s real themes were and will provoke some lively discussion. Some of the dissatisfaction the game’s oddly-paced final quarter presents may be a product of deadlines. Some is hopefully intentional. No spoilers about what becomes of Nathan and Sam’s quest, but us real-life treasure hunters don’t always get everything we want.

Thankfully, Uncharted games are more than their beginnings or endings or multiplayer options, the last of which will provide its own odd coda to Naughty Dog’s saga. Like a full-cast dance number at the end of a Bollywood movie, Uncharted 4‘s competitive multiplayer is an affair for every major (and many minor) member of the series’ cast. Nathan, Sam, Elena, Sully, Chloe, and many more will adventure on in competitive modes designed to be expanded for a year for free (read: please keep playing and don’t trade in the game!). The multiplayer is stuffed with optional, unlockable cosmetic items that the developers say can all be won in-game if you don’t feel like purchasing them with real money. The game’s PvP modes have been largely unavailable to play prior to the game’s release, so an assessment of its quality will have to wait.

The original Uncharted emerged in late 2007 as an alternate, Sony-exclusive Tomb Raider that starred a man and as a thematic maturation from the studio that brought us Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter. It was born at a time when it was aspirational for games to feel like interactive movies. It was designed initially as a solo experience and an homage to pulp adventures. It arrives now as something of an anachronism, in a gaming scene filled with more punishing, unscripted sandbox survival adventures and amid a rising tide of games designed to borrow storytelling styles not from movies but from TV.

What Uncharted proved most effectively to be for nearly a decade was a showcase for an ambitious game studio that was determined to push the possibilities of graphics, virtual acting and thrill-ride gameplay. The series reliably delivered that three times on the PlayStation 3 under former creative director Amy Hennig and does so again with studio veterans Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, who helmed this newest one on PS4. Uncharted 4 may have problems at its edges, but its middle is phenomenal. It is a sufficiently wonderful finale for a studio that has made its own case that its next great step should be somewhere new.


  • Spoilers: Drake time travels back 1500s and in a paradoxian twist becomes Francis Drake.

  • These games have always been little more than a string of cinematic set pieces cobbled together with extremely restricted gameplay. IE, you have one linear path to follow and almost no interaction with the environment beyond QTE and very little actual gameplay. Fuse that with a cast of ‘hilariously colourful’ characters and you basically have a licence to print money. What a time to be alive. Off to play resident evil 6 now. Taa taa.

    • You are 100% right, with Last of Us being the most hyped (hence, the most overrated). I’ll not be playing this while there are other ACTUAL good games to play.

          • I thought Halo/CoD fans were the same people who drink the NaughtyDog kool-aid. Hmm. Surprised.

            Actual good games? Just went through Bloodborne. That was good. Far Cry 4 was not bad either. Doing Arkham Knight at the moment. Wasn’t on rails like this tripe.

        • Games that have gameplay and are not interactive movies with annoying bro characters.

          • Poor baby. It must be difficult living in a world where people like things that you don’t.

            You’ll learn to cope one day.

          • Cult? Nah. I just enjoy third person shooters and games with a heavy story telling element. Add to that my love of Indiana Jones style action/adventure and you see why I love the Uncharted series.

            I just think banging on about something you hate in an article about it is pointless and, let’s be honest, a little pathetic.

          • Pretty much. But people will be people. Doesn’t bother the rest of us any. I tuned out when he tried to convince us that there was ‘almost no interaction with the environment’, and decided to go play the #1 resident evil game, which is open-world, non-linear and contains many interactions with many environments, and not a single QTE. Y’know, that uncharted killer we play all the time. The one you can’t all enjoy lest enjoying it become less special 😛

          • What an infantile response. Well done.
            At no point did I imply people must like what I like. I stated why I don’t like the games and gave reasons. Grow up.

          • If you like games like this then more power to you. But this has been done and done better. Tomb raider 1 and 2. Non linear exploration, and hours of unpredictable gameplay. You know, GAMEPLAY. Not one action sequence after another with dialogue written by chuck lorre.

          • Yeah. I love the people that downplay the actual playing of the game to justify their perspective. Gameplay in a game? What??!

            Also, isn’t that War and Peace book a great movie? Sure, its light on the cinematics, but the story-telling!!!!!

        • Uncharted has always been overraited by the sony fanboys, had to claim to have some good games back when the 360 was demolishing the ps3. There is no need to pretend anymore though with the current sales reversal.

          • So the reason people, myself included, have been looking forward to this game is because I’m a sony fanboy and I’m upset about another console I own demolishing another console I own 10 years ago. Right.

          • So almost every professional game critic in the world was/is a Sony fanboy?

            Or, could it be that taste is subjective and this is an instance where you fail to enjoy something the majority of the rest of the world enjoys?

          • Well I’d say a lot of them are, Also they are game critics, unsure why ur holding them in some kind of holy regard.

            Also I doubt even the majority of ps3/4 owners have played uncharted, let alone liked it.

          • Well, as I said, taste is subjective, if you don’t like the game that’s fine. But to assign the overwhelmingly positive reviews of this series to fanboy-ism is simply juvenile.

          • Fanboys are narrow minded fuckwits and the fanboy argument is redundant.
            I don’t care what platform games are on. I just don’t like uncharted or last of us or any game which uses this format. They are exceedingly linear and boring.. Explosions and set pieces don’t equal interesting.

          • Are we not dealing with an integrity in game journalism problem as we speak? I thought it was overt that “reviewers” take money from publishers. This site stating it proudly.

          • As a franchise, yeah, it’s a bit overrated. But what AAA franchise isn’t a bit?

            Uncharted 2 though? That was easily one of the iconic games of the generation. It did everything super well, and the only real flaw it has is some slightly repetitive gameplay and a swing toward the silly toward the end. It’s also one of the most technically impressive games of the generation too – the incredible smoke and mirrors involved with that train ride sequence is something a lot of people don’t appreciate, the way you feel like it’s gone on a long trek through the valleys up into the mountains and everything is all achieved with dozens of carefully hidden loads, where you’re going inside an enclosed carriage or through a tunnel or something and while it’s doing that it loads in a new part of the train and a new area for it to be going through. It’s a technical masterpiece.

            The other two games are honestly poor shadows of 2. Especially the third, which has constant issues where the game scripting is obvious, the seams show right through and you can see the man behind the curtain. Chases where you miss a turn and die & start over, terrible combat bits with respawning enemies in places they could not possibly be, bullet sponge enemies, broken targeting, AI that likes to bum rush, throw grenades at you the instant you go behind cover and then focus-fires you when you leave it…

    • “One linear path to follow and almost no interaction with the environment beyond QTE and very little actual gameplay”

      You say that then say you are “off to play Resident Evil 6”? That’s a little ironic, just out of curiosity have you actually played Uncharted games? Because there isn’t many quicktime events at all. In fact alot of the set peices that could be quicktime are not.

    • Respect your opinion, and do love my fair share of open world time sink multi branch story games, but the Uncharted series is awesome also. Sometimes I just want to enjoy the ride of these set pieces. I always found the third person shooter game play as solid, on the same levels as Gears of War to me, but the character-driven story telling is what really draws me to these games.

      • Only played the first, but the 3rd person shooting is really clunky compared to Gears.

    • I actually like the linear. Going everywhere possible doesn`t always means that it is something fun. On a side note, i would actually chose to play Catherine instead of this any day of the week.

  • Mario Karts are not ‘obligatory sequels’ in the way you’re trying to make out. How many Mario Karts are there per system, and how many Uncharteds are there per system?

    • If anything, Mario Karts tend to provide innovative gameplay each iteration. Certainly recently anyway with the Bikes and the Dual character karts and the 200cc mode in the new one.

      • Yes, and each system gets ONE, not several. This is the minimum for core first-party titles, not any sort of saturation.

  • Watching the Gamespot review on YouTube has me sufficiently hyped.

    Can’t wait for Tuesday!!!

  • I hope its more like uc2 than uc3. People will disagree but i felt uc3 was too linear and had the same ai/mechanics annoyances that plagued tlou.

  • I have been avoiding any video footage like crazy! I am so hyped for this game!!! Naughty Dog make me engage with the story like no other games company.

  • Want so bad, but I barely have enough time to play my Xbox and Wii-U as it is, so buying a PS will never happen 🙁

  • 2.5 yrs after PS4 release, those graphics don’t look great. They look very similar to launch titles. They look very similar to med-high settings on PC in 2013. Where’s all that ‘innovation’ and platform improvement over 2.5yrs?

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