Now and then a video game is released that shapes its genre. Uncharted 4 is one of those. It's a major accomplishment but also a natural fourth installment in a series that has promised and mostly over-delivered time and time again.
I’ve been a fan of the Uncharted series of games for Playstation 3 and 4 ever since I first bought a PS3 in 2010. Soon after I had bought the console, I managed to pick up Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune as a bargain. The game wasn’t new then but it was one the “classics.” I’d heard it was good but little did I know I’d find a franchise I’d love.
The Uncharted games were a launch feature of the PS3. Made by the then mid-tier studio Naughty Dog (they did have an office dog, I believe), the first game took three years to complete. It was meant to show off the capabilities of the PS3 that was released in 2007 and basically beat everything else with its weird architecture that took serious skill to develop for.
The basic formula of the Uncharted franchise is: you’re a brazen bold adventurer with a strong chin, Indiana Jones could have been your father and Lara Croft your mother, you shoot, climb and solve puzzles.
Uncharted started out simple enough. But the games were seemingly never content to stay in the simple shooter-adventurer genre. I believe the team and the actors who give life to Nathan Drake and his friends had other ambitions. The first game had some rather impressive motion capture scenes. Here’s a “behind the scenes” look at some of the work that went behind crafting the first game in the series:
The success of the first game spurred the team on and three more games followed. Each more even more impressive. The technology matured, the controls improved and the characters deepened. Us who had followed the adventures of Nate, Elena and Sully were eager to see where they’d go next. And we weren’t disappointed. Uncharted offers these incredible highs of adrenaline action where you shout at the screen… “no… c’mon… you didn’t! Seriously?” as Nate bursts out of a crashing cargo plane trying to grab onto falling cargo as a means to survive the fall. It’s like an action movie, superbly directed, but so much better.
Only to marvel at the level of detail as Nate makes his way across dunes of sand. You see his foot prints move as the loose sand settles. If you have ever had just a cursory interest in computer graphics, you know how hard this stuff us to pull off. Uncharted was never shy to bludgeon us with sheer beauty. From light in trees to waterfalls and rivers meandering through lost and forgotten cities. So expectations were moon high when there were rumors of Uncharted 4.
The plot had been left open at the end of the third game. I’d been hoping for a sequel. But it was also with a sense of dread as I knew it would take a lot for Naughty Dog to pull this one off. They’d have to beat themselves at everything they’d worked towards so far. But in the years since the first game they’ve grown to be one of the most respected game studios. They were in a better position than ever to deliver on their fans’ expectations.
It seemed promising too. The peek previews were sufficiently tantalizing and the graphics looked on the right side of amazing. It was obvious that the PS4 hardware made a huge difference. More detailed textures, better shaders and more realistic lighting. The game looked like something out of 3DS Max or Maya, not something rendered realtime to your flatscreen TV. The fact that it rendered at full HD also helped improve clarity and sense of immersion.
Uncharted 4 was released in May this year. I didn’t buy it immediately. The price tag scared me off and I also knew I wanted enough time to truly enjoy it. These games aren’t played casually. No, you turn off the phone, pull down the curtains, place your gaming chair in the center of the room (so that the 3D surround sound is perfect) and take a deep breath first. I wanted to be able to give this game and experience the attention it needed.
When I finally got around to playing it I was blown away. It was an incredible ride of laughs and adrenaline as well as fear for what might come next. The title “A Thief’s End” was ominous. A well chosen title indeed.
But it delivered. Over and over. The cinematic storytelling we’ve been treated to was back, and better than ever. Motion capture cutscenes merged with interactive segments. The voice-acting has come to a new level. Every environment is a piece of art. I marveled at the sheer number of assets (objects) made just for this game. For the seemingly non-compromising art direction undertaken to bring this vision to life. The game gave me the sense that nothing had been done half-hearted. This was likely the last game and its creators wanted it to count.
And it did. In every glorious detail. There’s a scene where you use a smartphone to crack a puzzle. You take a picture to send by SMS. You, as Nate, can point the camera at Sully at which point he’ll tell you to stop fooling around and Nate just asks him to say cheese. It’s a small but beautiful detail. Like an easter egg. Put in there just for fun. And it comes with its own achievement even:
But despite this, at no point do you get the feeling that the team was tired with the whole endeavor and just decided to shorten a scene or two. At several points you feel the game is about to end, but it goes on. A new plot twist and you’re deliciously treated to even more locations to explore and admire in exquisite detail. This is at the core of the experience. The joy of discovering lost places, finding lost treasure and unravelling ancient mysteries.
If you’re new to the genre I recommend to pick up the Nathan Drake collection first to get the back story. I do envy the journey you have ahead of you. Uncharted has offered some of my best gaming moments.
To conclude: Uncharted 4 is one of the best, if not the best game I’ve ever played. Thank you Naughty Dog for this accomplishment. It has been a pleasure!
How it ends? Several other reviews have already spilled the beans so I’ll let you discover that for yourself. By playing the game or reading about it.