Archaeological power fantasies, pirate treasure, paradise islands and a lack of player agency: Uncharted 4 is pretty, albeit shallow.
Naughty Dog’s farewell to the franchise has Nathan Drake going on one last globetrotting adventure before his retirement, and he sure does go out with a bang, taking a couple of priceless archaeological sites with him. After the first few chapters slowly acclimate players to the controls and flesh out character backgrounds via flashback sequences, the story then swiftly kicks into high gear as Nathan gets dragged into his (allegedly) final treasure hunt after meeting up with a long-lost relative. What follows is 10+ hours of bombastic setpiece moments that try their hardest to one up the preceeding one.
As you serendipitously stumble from one ancient artefact to another through increasingly outlandish scenarios, the design ethos of the series becomes apparent: the gameplay acts as a vessel for the “cinematic” experience, the player has very little meaningful input beyond moving the story forward as preordained by the designers. The game momentarily removes certain interactions (such as jumping) from the player during certain scenes, while in others it offers the illusion of control via vapid context sensitive button prompts, like tapping square multiple times to open a door. Even beyond that, that kind of contemptuous attitude towards player agency permeates just about every facet of the design. Ludonarrative dissonance rears its head when you aren’t able to land a single punch (or roll) in one of the boss fights despite Nathan’s combat prowess, and the numerous death defying leaps you make throughout the journey seem very inconsistent from normal jumping physics as Nathan isn’t able to clear small humps that weren’t meant to be climbed. Likewise the minimalist HUD makes the health system very opaque.
While refined from a technical perspective, neither of the two core gameplay mechanics (combat and platforming) offer meaningful challenge or have any depth to them. The cover based third person shooting feels like meaningless padding most of the time, like something the developers halfheartedly crammed in out of some misguided sense of obligation. The flaccid gunplay feels utterly unsatisfying during the early chapters. And while the firefights become more interesting as the levels open up later on, they still suffer from the regenerating health system that incentivizes players to sit behind cover, reducing the possibility space of the combat arena into a sedentary game of whack-a-mole. The melee system is dirt simple, again preferring contextual single button actions over a consistent rule set, and the stealth option, while appreciated, is a joke. The platforming is more enjoyable, but it feels underdeveloped as well. For all the climbing you do, there’s no grip meter like in Shadow of the Colossus, which would’ve been a much more efficient way to increase tension than the numerous scripted near falls that you quickly become desensitized to are. The constant banter between characters also undermines the drama of many situations.
The level design is where the game shines, despite the linearity. Navigating through the quasi-naturalistic environments feels smooth and intuitive, and the camera angles do a good job of inducing vertigo as they showcase the lush and grand scenery. It’s a shame that the designers spread themselves too thin instead of expanding upon this strong point (exploration & platforming). While not a great game, Uncharted 4 is nigh unparalleled as a virtual rollercoaster ride.
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony interactive entertainment
Release date: May 10, 2016 (WW)
PEGI rating: 16