I find Uncharted odd as a series, or more accurately people’s response to it. It’s one of those games that gets tens across the board and inspires a rabid army of dickheads (a minority of its fan base I’m sure) to lash out at anyone that dares criticise it, but the games have a lot of quite serious issues. The shooting is piss, the gunfights are poorly designed, path finding when climbing is often annoying and the series’ sense of fun, Indiana Jones-esque adventure is undermined by its protagonist being a mass murderer stealing artifacts purely for material gain. It’s less, “Hey Nazis, this belongs in a museum” and more “Hey people with as much claim to this as me, I need more money.” To be fair though the games are enjoyable (well, two and three at least) and have a good sense of spectacle and enjoyable set pieces. I heard the fourth and final game in the series was more measured and mature compared to the others; the phrase “post Last of Us” was used, and that piqued my interest far more than any of the game’s promotional materials. So do they pull it all together for the finale? Or is it business as usual just with more staring into the middle-distance?
Several years after Uncharted 3 globe-trotting murderer and Johnny Knoxville impersonator Nathan Drake has settled down with a salvage job, married series mainstay Elena and is generally bored of no longer going to foreign countries to nick everything shiny and not nailed down. Fortunately for him his older brother Sam suddenly shows up out of the blue- having never been mentioned in a previous game- with talk of the ultimate scheme apparently very important to the two, again not mentioned in a previous game. The game attempts to get around this by having Nate understandably (given the situation) believe Sam to have died in prison, but he literally never mentions him to anyone, including his wife. Anyway Sam owes his life to a Panamanian drug lord who broke him out of jail, so the two set off to find a massive treasure connected to pirate Henry Avery and a bunch of his pirate mates. The story is easily the strongest of the four games: it has a consistent through-line with consistent country-hopping and no superfluous interludes like the boat in Uncharted 3, the characters are all solid, with Sam being a stand-out both on his own and when interacting with Nate, and the reveal of what happened to the treasure and the Pirates stashing it is excellent, where instead of eleventh-hour supernatural bollocks it all comes down to the greed and violence inherent in Human nature. Frankly it all gets wrapped up a lot more than I’d have liked given some of its plot points, but that’s par for the course with the series really, and you can tell Neil Druckmann was given a bit more room to breathe and explore character motivations and reactions to different situations. Also I like how the game sheds more light on Nate’s past and the world he inhabits, showing them to be unmistakably criminal in nature, particularly his mentor and father figure Sully, who has extensive contacts in the underworld.
Gameplay has always been the series’ biggest stumbling point, and while things have improved here, it isn’t by much. Shooting now has more weight and impact to it, the stealth has improved somewhat with detection markers and marking enemies a la Far Cry and MGSV and the limited vehicle sections are no longer utter shite, but the key problems remain. Gunfights are still poorly designed- hordes of enemies who can take more damage than you swarm in from all directions to keep you planted behind cover while snipers and/or armoured shotgunners with the health of an endgame Dark Souls boss turn up to finish you off. It feels like it’s trying for a “switch up tactics on the fly” approach similar to what The Last of Us did so well, but it ends up as a frustrating mess when dealing with more than a handful of enemies armed with anything tastier than bullet-based weaponry. Pathfinding when climbing is irritating when the game doesn’t paint handholds a conspicuous “use these, dickhead” colour (though the previous games’ penchant for yellow has been left behind with the PS3) while the two new features of a grappling hook and stabbing a climbing hook into porous rock are selectively fun and intuitive and an annoying waste of time handled much more poorly than the game it was taken from. Speaking of elements taken from other games, it has its own version of TLOU’s planks in the form of boxes being dropped to stand on and climb. Whereas planks worked well in TLOU’s world the boxes just feel like filler, and it is always boxes, usually on wheels- sometimes they drop drown, sometimes you roll them, sometimes you lasso them with the grappling hook; methods change, boxes remain the same.
Uncharted 4 is by far the best game in the series, but it still has problems. Its plot is consistent, its characters solid and it has a few genuinely good moments of emotion and introspection. Gameplay wise only slight improvements have been made, but it’s enough to elevate A Thief’s End above the other three games. For this reason and its new plot points inexplicably not mentioned in previous games I recommend newcomers to the series only play this one. It’s confident and has more room to breathe while maintaining and improving upon the previous instalments’ good bits.
By James Lambert