GSY Review Uncharted 4
After a few frustrating delays for owners of the PS4, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End finally made its way to our console. The holy grail of PS4 exclusives lands in gamers’ hands today and we have finished translating our review. Playing the game was an emotional journey and it is amidst these emotions that we picked up our pen in order to let you know if Drake’s last adventure offers a fitting conclusion to a series that started 9 years ago on PS3.
Note: There are no spoilers in this review.
Whatever the narrative form pirate stories have taken throughout the ages, they have always captured our imagination like no other. It is therefore not surprising to see how Nathan Drake and his brother Sam have long sought to discover what happened to the famous pirate and explorer captain Henry Avery. Captain Avery was a renowned Englishman from Plymouth and a pirate with a surprisingly short career lasting only between 1694 to 1696. A career which eventually ended with his disappearance without a trace in 1696. This is the mystery that Naughty Dog, in its own way, sheds some light on in this fourth instalment of the Uncharted series, by taking us into a globe-trotting treasure hunt.
The mysteries and unknowns surrounding the disappearance of Captain Avery enabled the Californian studio to build a credible and intriguing historical and romantic setting which kept us hooked until the end. As we learned more about Captain Avery throughout the game, we quickly took interest in the enigmatic fate of this pirate of the 17th century. However, to discover whether what the legends say about him is true, you will have to wait until the very last few moments of the adventure. In addition, captain Avery’s character, which inspired so many other famous pirates, provides a fitting narrative which ties nicely with Drake’s personal story. The core of the story will however be centrered on the reunion of two brothers separated for 15 years because of one specific event you will be able to play in a flashback scene.
As you all certainly know, from the very first game released in 2007, one of the strengths of the series has always been its carefully crafted, endearing and charismatic characters. From the relationship between Nathan and Elena in the first game to the reassuring Sully, Nathan’s father-figure since their first meeting in Colombia in the 80s, the Uncharted universe quickly became a world we always wanted to explore and watch as it grows. This world’s lighter tone, humour and the relationship between its various characters are undoubtedly owed to no one other than Amy Hennig whose departure from Naughty Dog in April 2014 understandably angered many of the series’ fans. Even before coming into the Uncharted series, Amy had already shown the full extent of her talent by being the woman behind the Legacy of Kain series, another franchise repeatedly praised for its rich universe and storylines.
For its final instalment, however, the world and characters she helped craft were handed to Neil Druckmann (game director and screenwriter of The Last of Us) whose presence at the helm did not so much raise any quality concerns, but worried the fan base that Drake's latest adventure might take a potentially darker tone. Having played the game, we can confirm that there are indeed some darker and more serious-toned moments but they do not take anything away from the Uncharted world that we know and love. And so we welcomed back the famous adventurer who, this time around has a few new tricks up his sleeve, like the ability to select between several choices of dialogue which flesh out the story a bit more - but don’t affect it or its outcome in any way. Drake, this time around, is also showing signs of getting older but obviously not enough to lose any of his spontaneity in the face of danger.
The North face
What this fourth episode manages to evolve, however, is the structure of its game design, with some considerably calmer key moments during the adventure. Indeed, where the previous episodes were often conducted briskly from beginning to end, making them feel like rollercoaster rides, Uncharted 4 does not hesitate to take its time and goes as far as to encourage players to do the same. The game is of course still filled with those grandiose moments that make the franchise what it is, but Naughty Dog plays with the pace beautifully by linking those adrenaline-fuelled sequences to much calmer ones without a hitch. This is greatly facilitated by the length of the game too which is very impressive for the genre. In previous episodes, we were accustomed to rather intense experiences lasting around about eight hours but this time around we clocked around 20 hours and 45 minutes in hard mode. Twenty-two chapters during which you will not notice the time pass and where excitement, admiration, contemplation and suspense are all present in a way rarely seen in a video game. The playtime is almost three times the length of Uncharted 3, a remarkable feat especially since we did not get bored for one single second.
As mentioned in our preview, A Thief's End does not hesitate to open its world regularly, enough for the player to unleash his exploration needs by looking for treasures in optional areas, and allowing him to enjoy the stunning surroundings traversed by foot or vehicle. It will also be difficult to resist the temptation of the game’s photo mode, which should allow aspiring artists to unleash their creativity. When we saw what we have been able to do without much effort, we cannot imagine what the most skilled photographers will be able to achieve in a few days.
Going back to the open areas, it is important to note that they are open only in appearance, and it will be impossible to get lost even for the less careful. Still, you can easily explore these spaces, sometimes stumbling on a hidden area containing an old document, which is then added to Nathan’s journal. The area seen during the preview of the game for example turned out to be quite linear in the end, but still remains fun to explore. However, a little further into the adventure, Drake will be left alone in what sems to be a less restricted space where it will be necessary to find clues (more or less hidden) which are needed to lead him into his goal. Suffice to say there was a big sigh of relief as this freedom does not fall into the usual trap of open world games, and never detracts the player too long from the main quest.
Another major change is the freedom given to the player to approach combat using stealth, which is much more present this time around. Although this was possible in previous games, it was often very difficult to stay hidden for long periods of time, particularly in enemy infested areas. The experience gained from The Last of Us has however enabled Naughty Dog to refine this aspect to make it more accessible. Helped by the display of alert level on guards’ heads (this setting can be disabled in the options and it is what we suggest you do), the player can move more easily within the enemy territory. This is helped even further by the cleverly placed high grass to ensure Nathan and his companions remain invisible. Having said that however, your companions can never be spotted by enemies, even if passing under their nose. This is a decision that is understandable to a certain extent, as it would have been frustrating to mess up someone’s stealthy approach because of a poorly programmed AI, but when this does happen, immersion does indeed suffer a bit. Despite these few complaints, infiltration works well, and it is not always as easy as one might think. For instance, the areas are often large and full of enemies, and therefore require a lot of observation and a little patience to cross them like a perfect ghost. The ability to mark any patrolling guards is practical, but also remains completely optional and can be disabled.
During the adventure, walking and climbing are not the only activities that Nathan and his companions will be doing. Seeing as we want to reveal as little as possible in this review we will only talk about the Jeep vehicle, unveiled for the first time during our preview last month. As mentioned in that preview, in addition to making travelling in larger areas faster, these vehicle driving segments are an opportunity to get to grips with the topography of the game’s environment. For instance, the presence of many muddy and slippery surfaces gives the Jeep a predominant role in the chapters that take place on the island of Madagascar. The principle is simple however in that, to ensure a smooth driving, one needs to identify the surface areas where the vehicle's grip can be maintained. Identifying these surfaces is easy but this still provides a welcome gameplay variety.
The use of one of the new toys, the vehicle’s winch, obeys the same rules of accessibility, since it is limited to specific locations. Whether you are bringing down a structure maintained by some beams or climbing to the top of a slope, the principle remains simple and quick. The jeep will also be the star of the now famous scripted chase sequence that takes place in the streets of Madagascar. A sequence which clearly demonstrates Naughty Dog’s talent in creating and staging dramatic and cinematic set pieces. After all, it’s hard not to think of such classics as the train crash segment in Uncharted 2, or that horse ride in Uncharted 3.
The platforming has also not been neglected as you still spend much of your time jumping from right to left grabbing those ledges at the very last second to cheat death. The addition of two new tools expands the range of platforming possibilities. Everyone who tried the multiplayer beta will recognise the grappling hook but the climbing piton Drake recovers in the last third of the adventure will be something new to look forward to. This is a tool very much reminiscent of Lara Croft’s axe. After all, for two series that influenced each other, it is simply courteous and polite that one returns the favour!
Generally, the level design of the areas dedicated to platforming remains similar to previous episodes, but Uncharted 4 permits greater flexibility, more height and some short alternative paths. There is nothing that fundamentally changes the experience here, but it feels a little less stuck on the rails than in the past - though again, everything here is but an illusion. What is certain however is that, despite a very lengthy game, a Thief's End offers the most diverse scenery and atmosphere in any Uncharted game. Whether indoor, outdoor, underground or even underwater (because, yes, Drake finally swims and explores underwater areas freely - let there be an example to you New Lara Croft!), Drake will make you see all sorts of colours. It is literally impossible to mention everything here without giving too much away about the environments you will explore. Suffice to say, expect a very frequent change of scenery.
Call of Booty
There are two other constants which are part of the Uncharted experience. We find the usual predictable sequences of "reflection" which ask you to understand the mechanisms on display before they can be activated. As always, Drake’s trusty notebook will be of great help here, and the encountered puzzles will not delay your progress for long periods as they are easier and even more obvious than the ones present in a game like Rise of the Tomb Raider. These puzzles are nevertheless very fun to solve and fit perfectly into the pace of the adventure. These passages which are sometimes based on observation and other times on Drake’s out-of-norm physical skills fit into what is normally expected of the series, and that is after all what we have expected too.
Even if Uncharted 4 encourages stealth and infiltration to overcome the excessive number of enemies (in some areas, the enemy count can exceed 15 or so), it does not abandon its shooter DNA. In fact, some sequences do not leave you with the choice at all, and will force you to resort to your weapons. As in previous games, taking cover remains essential for survival, but beware of hiding behind destructible elements. For instance, all wooden cover elements provide you with only a temporary shelter forcing you to stay on the move and to take advantage of the environment’s verticality. Add to that the tendency of enemies to come behind you to take you out of cover or to shoot you from behind without warning, and you will soon understand that these ambushes can quickly turn to your disadvantage. These are in fact the only moments of potential frustration that can be felt when playing in hard mode, especially since the enemies do not hesitate to flank you, and their grenades still seem to come with a homing device of some sort. In addition, you should not rely too much on your companions’ AI to cover your back. They will sometimes grab enemies, giving you time to beat/shoot them down, or even take down a few of them, but it too often feels more like an accident than real efficiency. We are exaggerating a little bit of course. After all, the hero is you, and you should be doing most of the hard work anyway.
Fortunately, the shooting is excellent. Devoid of the chronic aim problems that plagued the original Uncharted games on PS3 - and to a relatively lesser extent, the remastered compilation on PS4 -, Uncharted 4 gives you a remarkable aim accuracy even with all aim-assists disabled. This is a joy to be had especially thanks to the excellent weapons’ feedback regardless of their class. From the simple pistol to the assault rifle, the shooting fun is intact. Nothing beats killing an enemy with a well-aimed rifle shot, then jumping into the air, launching your grapple and then falling onto a second enemy before taking down a third with your handgun - something that feels like living inside a real life adventure film. However, care must be taken when encountering heavy armed and armoured enemies, as they are more than ever a pain to kill.
Throughout the previous generation, many developers of this genre have tried to keep players engaged with their games by offering a multiplayer mode along the game’s main quest. A trend that has not always been crowned with real success as proven by titles like Dark Sector, BioShock 2, or even the reboot of Tomb Raider.
Naughty Dog has been doing this since Uncharted 2, and although they have very clearly not attained the longevity and success of competitive multiplayer titles like Call of Duty or Battlefield, they nevertheless managed to unite a part of their community around multiplayer gaming. Unfortunately for us, we were so busy with Drake’s main story that, by the time we completed it, we couldn't find any available online review session to try it ourselves. Not to worry however, we will try to do so in the coming days, after the release of the game to get a clear idea of how the game performs in real conditions. Let’s take advantage of this review however to remind you of the multiplayer content promised at launch. There will be four competitive modes: Team Deathmatch (5v5), Plunder (4v4): a mode very similar to capture the flag, Command (5v5) which sees two teams battling over territory control, and Ranked Team Deathmatch. Eight multiplayer maps will be available, taking up the themes of the single player environments. Teams will battle it out in Island, Madagascar City, Rooftops, Pirate Colony, Scotland Ruins, Auction House, Remnants (a collection of ruins) and the Sunken Ruins multiplayer maps.
New game mechanics have been added to bring some novelty and these are mainly based around teamwork. For instance, the possibility of reviving teammates, combined with intelligent use of Mystical powers and Sidekicks should encourage cooperation. The mystical powers bring back some supernatural elements close to the hearts of the series fans (games, novels, etc.) and can have various uses. They can be used to attack (“El Dorado’s Anger” releases souls which chase your opponents), but also to support your teammates (“Cintamani’s Stone” revives the wounded and the “Staff of Ayar Manco” reveals the position of your enemies). Another power grants you a speed boost (“The spirit of the Djinn” from Uncharted 3 gives you a teleportation power over a short distance, but prevents you from taking cover in return), and another inflicts a penalty on the opposing team (“Indra’s Eternity” slows enemies down in its area of effect).
Finally, the Sidekicks will be controlled by the game and can be called to support your needs. There are four acolytes, each accessible via the in-game store where you can also get mystical powers and heavy weapons, with virtual money earned during gameplay. “The Sniper” acolyte defends the area and shoots all opponents not careful enough to appear in his scope sight. “The Saviour” revives downed teammates. “The Hunter” will take care of immobilizing an opponent, giving you time to knock him out. Finally, “The Brute”, as the name suggests, will make use of his heavy weapons and enhanced armour to take down opponents, but will move very slowly. In addition to all of this, all multiplayer maps offer some focus on verticality where the grapple hook, which is part of your basic equipment, can be put to good use.
Given that Uncharted 4 is the last chapter of the series, all characters from the game’s universe are playable in multiplayer. However, unless this has been modified since the beta, we do not particularly like the fact that players can choose the same characters - even though it's possible to customize their appearance. During the beta, we found it both strange and confusing when seeing multiple Nathan Drake(s) in our team while there were enough characters to choose from to avoid the problem. Back to in-game content, daily challenges will also spice up the experience, allowing you to collect relics, which can then be used to unlock upgrades for your character. Of course, your progress also grants you money which you can use in the shop to get mystical powers or upgrade your equipment. One thing to note here is that real money can also be used in the game’s shop to acquire these items and upgrades faster.
To close this review as one should, it would be unreasonable and a disservice not to talk about the technical aspect of Uncharted 4. For years now, the developers of the Californian studio are considered by all as true magicians capable of creating worlds of unrivalled visual richness. For their first outing on PlayStation 4, Naughty Dog clearly lived up to this reputation. Uncharted 4 shows, in fact, an amazing level of detail, often giving the impression of looking at real artworks. The videos and screenshots we posted are surely enough to replace any words we could write about the technical and artistic mastery of the studio.
The lighting does wonders, the textures often show unprecedented detail, but above all, the generosity in the diversity of the details of the environments is what makes this game shine! It’s hard not to admire the lush vegetation that reasserts itself in the middle of the remains of human civilization and one can but marvel at some particularly gloomy caves - reminiscent of those found in the Tomb Raider reboot. We were simply in awe of the mountains and hills which announce their dangerousness as soon as you gaze upon them. There is so much to see, so much detail in the work of Naughty Dog, it is simply impossible not to sing their praises, even if it means making you question our objectivity. Yes, that's how good it truly looks. Uncharted 4 is beautiful and stunning, and the use of an exaggerated amount of superlatives will not even be necessary to convince the game's fiercest detractors.
So does this mean that everything is technically perfect? The optimist would gladly say yes, while the pessimist or observer in bad faith would seek to exacerbate the little faults here and there. Ultimately, if one were to list the things that are a little less than perfect, one would have to be looking at the game very closely. Among the things that could be picked up, we could mention the quality of shadows in some places and the rendering of water from up close. Other things we could pick on include some slightly angled environment edges which could have been smoother, as these can grab your attention for a few seconds. In addition, some slowdowns noticed very rarely during demanding scripted explosions could be observed. Having said that, however, what we mostly want to remember is the welcome absence of the slightest trace of aliasing, those real-time cinematics and impressive character faces, and the avalanche of the most beautiful landscapes we have ever seen in a console video game.
Just as the game is a sight for sore eyes, it is also a pleasure for the ears. Musical themes perfectly suited to every situation are played, up to the very last minute when we are on the edge of our seats waiting to find out how the series will conclude. And what can we say about the voice work other than the fact that Nolan North has now taken Drake to previously unexplored and uncharted (pardon the pun) territories with his performance. The work of the other actors is just as good with Emily Rose (Elena), as emotionally touching as ever in her interactions with Drake, as is the case with Richard McGonagle (Sully). The arrival of the "new kid in town" Troy Baker who plays Sam (Joel in The Last Of Us, Booker in BioShock Infinite) only reinforces the overall quality of voice work. Even the main antagonists ooze a lot of charisma through the work of Laura Bailey (Nadine Ross) and Warren Kole (Rafe Adler).
There are so many things to talk and share about our experience with Uncharted 4, but that will certainly spoil and reveal too many surprises which await you and this is something we simply cannot do. What we can tell you is this: after 5 days spent playing Nathan Drake’s last adventure, we have definitely been given the conclusion the series deserves. This is an end of an era for a hero we have followed in immersive stories, have grown to adore and sadly now have to say goodbye to. The game is clearly a well crafted love letter to fans which, despite small issues inherent in the series in general, will remain a benchmark for future generations. The game is an unforgettable and emotional adventure which will be yours to experience from today, and we can't wait to hear what you think.
On the upside
+ Visually stunning
+ An adventure with a big A
+ Perfect rhythm
+ A worthy heir of Uncharted 2
+ The final boss
+ Naughty Dog's tongue-in- cheek references
+ The length of the game
+ The photo mode
+ Too many other positives to list them all
On the downside
- Homing enemy grenades
- Blind enemies when in stealth, unrealistically sharp shooters in combat
- Companion AI is not very helpful during gunfights
- Saying goodbye to Drake, Elena and the others
About the game
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