We know Jack, do you?
Nathan Drake thought he was out of the thieving game, much like how I thought I was out of the Uncharted series. For both of us, only one thing could bring us back, and that was Sam Drake, Nathan’s older brother. The character throws a monkey wrench into Uncharted’s structure that refocuses past events and humanizes Nathan Drake in ways I never expected. Uncharted 4 is a great character study of a semi-scummy treasure hunter.
When Sam Drake shows up in Nathan’s life after thirteen years, our hero is “retired” from the treasure hunting scene. Sam tells Nate that he’s in debt to a drug lord, and now the duo have to find a pirate’s booty to pay off the bounty and save Sam from a death most foul. The brothers have a fantastic rapport, and seeing the Drakes as young men in flashback grounds their history. Even though Sam is a new character, he feels like he’s been part of the lore all along. The flashback scenarios do a great job of cementing their relationship and giving a throughline to Nathan Drake’s life. Nate now has a structure to his personality that he didn’t have in the original games, and Sam is the backbone to this.
Nate and Sam’s interactions aren’t the only character highlight, and that’s mostly thanks to the unrivaled facial animation Uncharted 4 uses. Naughty Dog pushes the PS4 to its limits graphically, and these gorgeous visuals add to the character direction in surprising ways. It’s a delight to scan the landscape and soak in the scenery, but there’s more nuance and depth in the character design, which is where the graphics shine. The facial animation is second to none (eat it, LA Noire!), helping the more intimate scenes be more believable. Nate and Elena interacting feels like watching an actual couple flirt, argue, and reconcile. Sam and Nate reuniting has emotional weight. The main villain, Rafe, is a complete scumbag, and seeing his weaselly face twist and sneer makes my blood boil.
The core gameplay of Uncharted hasn’t changed one bit, and that’s a blessing and a curse. It’s fun to hop right back into the driver’s seat and climb on some crumbling walls, but when the game is over ten hours long, things can grow a bit stale. I feel like a few hours could have easily been shaved off. Maybe some of those puzzles where you’re just dragging a box from one end of the map to another could be left on the cutting room floor? Lifting an elevator with your jeep winch is cool the first time you do it, but after three times, there’s no wow factor, it all feels like padding. There are some excellent setpiece moments in Uncharted 4, which I will not spoil here, but fans of Sonic Adventure 2‘s City Escape should be glad that someone at Naughty Dog thought it’d be a good idea to mesh it with Crash Bandicoot‘s boulder levels.
Combat is mostly the same, but more options have been added for those of us who enjoy stealth. Uncharted 4 takes a lot of cues from The Last of Us’ stealth gameplay, but since there’s more climbable areas and you’re not up against nigh-blind zombies, Naughty Dog’s meandering, slow paced stealth mechanics don’t mesh with Uncharted’s action movie gameplay flow. I always ended up shooting my way out of encounters, since the stealth was less of a challenge and more an annoyance. Gunplay hasn’t changed at all, so why fix what isn’t broken? More options are always welcome, but stealth in Uncharted feels more like a cut-and-paste from TLoU than a useful mechanic.
Thankfully, these gripes don’t detract from the game entirely. Yes, things haven’t changed much, but Uncharted was built upon a steady foundation already. What little is wrong with the gameplay is outshined by the character work, which the previous games lacked in heavily. The Naughty Dog of today knew what to focus on, and used that foundation to craft a story that nobody else could. It feels like Nathan Drake always had this backstory, and now was just the right time to present it.
Uncharted 4 feels like the next logical step from The Last of Us’ groundwork of more respectable AAA game storytelling. Nathan Drake’s last ride is a bittersweet one, but his influence will be felt throughout the years as blockbuster games shift to a more mature mindset. Hopefully Naughty Dog continues to build upon their stage design and combat, because their storytelling needs a better pedestal to shine upon. Uncharted 4‘s unparalleled character design and setpiece action should inspire a new era of large scale video games to not skimp out on writing in favor of gameplay hooks.