It’s a good end to Nathan Drake’s adventuring life, if not a great one, as Uncharted 4 brings the series to a close. Mechanically it’s the most confident Uncharted yet, with fantastic rope swinging traversals and satisfying fights, but there’s also clutter. Levels that would only improve the flow with their removal and an occasional overuse of interactions that only really get in the way
The revitalised gameplay is largely excellent. Where before the game was a linear theme park ride, there are now hub-like areas that are open to player exploration and interpretation. There’s more freedom as a result mixing in tightly scripted action with the chance to just sort of take it all in. Which is a plus as it’s also spectacularly pretty - jaw-droppingly so - from vistas and locations, to character animations where the slightest facial tic or muscle shifting under the skin brings Nate and company to life in an alarmingly eerie way.
Drake’s obsession this time is the treasure of a mysterious 17th century pirate said to have escaped with over £50 million in today's money and disappeared somewhere around Madagascar. Cue travel, exploration and punching masked men from behind walls. We’ll start there because the combat gets the most love in among the overhauled mechanics, replacing linear shoot outs with more open areas you’re free to approach in different ways.
To help manage these larger hubs you can now tag enemies, making pure stealth one of the most satisfying ways to deal with bad guys as you dash between patches of tall grass and prowl for necks to snap. That’s just my preference though. There’s still plenty of exploding barrels, high ground and other choices, making the experience far more interpretive. Levels are far less set in stone, and how they play out is shaped more by preference and luck than a fixed design.
Exploration is similarly enhanced thanks to these larger spaces. There are slopes to slide down, a rope you can use to swing across expanses, a piton that must be forcably smacked into surfaces to gain purchase and occasional access to a jeep in bigger areas. All of which combine to create a feeling of actual exploration with multiple routes and paths.
A pirate’s life
The big haul the gang are after this time is the treasure of the Pirate Every, who lived somewhere between 1659 and 1696. There’s some uncertainty there because no one really knows what happens to him, but what is known is that he was one of the most successful pirates the world has ever seen, uniting several other captains into a raiding squad that ultimately netted £52.4 million in today's money. A 1709 pamphlet called ‘The Life and Adventures of Capt. John Avery; the Famous English Pirate’ has him escaping to Madagascar to set up a pirate utopia (and, by the way, while ‘Every is the accepted spelling, both history and the game occasionally throws in the alternate ‘A’ spelling). However, Libertalia, the pirate city named in Uncharted 4, was actually the creation of another book called ‘A General History of the Pyrates', another popular book at the time but potentially more a work of fiction than factual account.
It can create exhilarating moments: when everything hits its mark the expanded repertoire gives the game a wonderful breadth, providing the player far more agency to engineer their own mini-adventures from encounters - 100% stealthing an area, fudging it with grenades and running, or sliding uncontrollably towards an abyss before leaping into the void with a last minute rope swing largely built on hope. The fantastic looks, improved mechanics and extra freedom make for some really impressive moments.
Which brings me onto that earlier mention of clutter. And Sam - Nathan's newly discovered and never before mentioned brother. His forceful retconning means the game has to tell two stories - Nathan’s search for the Pirate Every’s treasure and the brother’s previously unmentioned existence. All the flashback/backstory levels and anything relating to Sam, including Sam himself, could simply be cut to create a shorter, better game - just Nate and Sully hunting for treasure. That’s where the game really starts and it’s about five hours in, except Sam replaces Sully most of the time.
The Sam-related levels aren’t bad, they just get in the way. The game has to work so hard to establish this interloper that much of the opening is ‘Expositional Climbing: The Game’. (A few later levels could also easily disappear without harm.) My playthrough lasted about 16 hours - cut the preamble and Sam-building and you’d get a 10 hour game that started with treasure hunting adventure from the off. The indulgence on Sam would be easier to forgive if he was likable, but he’s not. He’s consistently shifty and untrustworthy - an unusual misfire for Naughty Dog which has such a good track record for great characters, and even the unnaturally charismatic actor Troy Baker can’t make him likable.
The rest of the clutter comes from a mild overabundance of little moments and extras. Naughty Dog has previously talked about how fans liked little interactions like patting a yak in Uncharted 2, or trying on masks in The Last of Us’ Left Behind DLC, and the studio seems to have taken that to heart because it’s everywhere. There’s an entire level in Nathan’s house, and one where all you do is pick things up in exchange for dialogue. NPCs also occasionally stop talking now unless you prod the conversation back to life via a prompt floating over their heads.
All nice ideas, but overused here, missing the point of what made them special before. Previously they were sparse, optional little moments that changed pace and added a lovely depth to the world if you found them. In 4 it’s all just a little overcooked. Like no one knew where to stop.
However, the opening gets a pass to some extent because it’s all new to start with and you don’t know quite where things are going. And, fortunately, just about the time all the jumping about passes from novelty to fatigue, the game begins in earnest. I’m keeping this all spoiler free so I won’t say where, but at a certain point you reach a location and Uncharted 4 starts. From then on in it’s adventure and puzzles and shooting, and it’s great.
Once things kick off properly it’s the treasure hunting adventure you know and love. It’s beautiful and vast, with astonishing locations and things to see. Unfettered from the need to flesh out characters and the past, the game finds a consistent momentum. Our heroes clash repeatedly and more frequently with the bad guys as they get closer to where X marks the spot and, generally, the last half of the game is the romp you’ve been hoping for.
The multiplayer also benefits from the new mechanics, creating a hugely mobile online fight as you swing and climb to get the upper hand on opponents. It also adds in new supernatural elements culled from previous games. Things like El Dorado, a huge gold statue that can be summoned to spit out lethal homing spirits. Or the power of the Djinn, a teleporting speed and melee boosting power up. Then there are the friendly combat NPCs like snipers and medics that can fight alongside you. All of which can be bought, using in-game cash earned as you play and adding a tactical edge as you save/spend your gains. It’s fast and chaotic fun, adding welcome extra life the package (but let’s be honest, who buys Uncharted for the multiplayer?).
And that’s as much as I’ll say because I can’t address the actual ending in any way without spoiling it or flavouring expectations. As a game, though, it’s a good conclusion for the series overall. Sure, it’s a little loose at the start, and tonally it tries hard to be so serious and grown up, but once it gets all that out of its system the Uncharted-ness comes through and we get to take Nate for one last spin, ‘Oh Craps’ and all.