Uncharted 4: A Thief's End ($59.99) is a story-heavy, third-person shooter/platformer, and the newest game in the acclaimed Uncharted series. PlayStation 4 fans have been clamoring for a worthwhile exclusive, and Uncharted 4 is poised to deliver exactly what fans of the series are hoping for in an AAA title. Unfortunately, Uncharted 4 plays it safe, and focuses on a cinematic experience rather than innovative gameplay. The game dazzles the senses with brilliant direction, excellent voice work, and amazing visual fidelity, but it's held together by fairly generic third-person shooting and platforming.
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Weaving a Narrative
Uncharted 4 is composed of three major elements: gunplay, platforming, and story scenes. You'll spend nearly the same amount of time in each of these three elements, but it is clear that the story takes precedence over the other two.
The story is told through event scenes, as well as dialogue between characters during gameplay. Occasionally, a speech bubble appears over an NPC that lets you engage the character in further conversation. Uncharted 4 is a very cutscene-heavy game, and I estimate that a third of its 15-hour-long adventure is dedicated to story scenes alone. This isn't a bad thing your first time through, however, as Uncharted 4 smoothly and naturally transitions between action and exposition. Rarely do the scenes overstay their welcome; developer Naughty Dog sandwiched just enough interaction in between its storytelling to keep you engaged.
It's obvious that a painstaking amount of work went into making Uncharted 4 look as good, and sound as good, as it does. Character models, voice acting, environments, and graphical fidelity are all meticulously detailed. There is a tremendous amount of banter between protagonist Nathan Drake and his cohorts, so much so that it's easy to get lost in the conversation and lose track of what you were doing in-game. My favorite detail by far is how characters pick up their interrupted stories. It blew my mind to hear Sully talk about his dealings with the drug lord Alcazar, only to be interrupted by a skirmish, and resume the conversation when prompted by Drake once the fight was over.
As someone who played the game with no prior series experience, I was pleased to learn that Uncharted 4's story is completely self-contained. There are references to past games made at certain points, but everything you need to know about Uncharted 4 is in the game, so you won't feel intimidated if you're new to the series. For example, late in the game Drake exclaims that they're at the second biggest cistern he's ever seen, to which his brother Sam asks, "what's the biggest?" Fans will recognize Drake's statement as a nod to Uncharted 3, but since the cistern isn't particularly important to the plot of Uncharted 4, newcomers aren't missing much by not catching the reference.
The voice acting and emoting are all spot-on. Uncharted 4's story scenes are on par with what you would expect from a CG movie from Dreamworks or Pixar; it's that good looking. Unfortunately, the amazing production values are what carry Uncharted 4, because the single-player gameplay isn't nearly as impressive as its story.
Game Feel vs. Visual Fidelity
The sticky camera is what immediately caught my attention while playing Uncharted 4's campaign. Manipulating the camera with the right analog stick has a very noticeable delay, so you need to firmly press the stick to get the camera to move where you want it. Naturally, this makes aiming very awkward.
I turned off aiming assists when I started the game, and auto-targeting mechanic, too, because I wanted to aim under my own power. This made lining up a shot a chore. This sticky camera issue persists regardless of any aiming sensitivity and camera adjustments you make. Turning on the aiming assists and lock-on option alleviates the issue tremendously, but has the adverse effect of making shooting far too easy. There is no real middle ground here: you can either play without the assists and struggle, or play with them and breeze through the game.
It's clear that Naughty Dog optimized the movement and camera system in the story campaign to be as smooth and cinematic as possible, favoring aesthetic and grounded animations whenever possible. Unfortunately, you exchange responsiveness for smoothness. I found myself groaning in frustration whenever I was forced into a gunfight.
Playing Among Thieves
What makes these camera woes even more irritating is the fact that the camera in Uncharted 4's online multiplayer modes is great! Multiplayer doesn't have any of the single-player mode's camera issues, and the aiming reticle is always on-screen, so you can line up a shot much more easily, even from behind cover.
Online multiplayer is fun, because the few interesting gameplay mechanics used sparingly during single-player campaign are used very liberally. The ease of aiming, the vertical level design, and the silly attacks, all make for wonderfully addicting gameplay. Summoning a magic-spewing totem to wreak havoc on the opposing team is a great gag, even if it is a touch over the top. But something as simple as walloping someone in the back of the head with a charged grappling hook attack feels great in multiplayer. It's a shame that Naughty Dog segregated the fun gameplay from the cinematic story elements.
Uncharted 4's gunplay doesn't do much to separate it from other third-person shooters, but Naughty Dog tries its best to spice it up. Sometimes an area will have a grappling point, so you can drop onto enemies from above. There are light stealth elements, too, so you can sneak around to ambush enemies and make encounters easier for yourself. I found myself doing that whenever it was possible, because I wanted to avoid the tedium of a gunfight.
Note: I played the multiplayer mode during a media-exclusive pre-launch event. I'll test the multiplayer mode again once the servers are live to the public to see how they handle the stress of thousands of players. It's then that I'll give Uncharted 4 a score.
Jumping Between Cinematic Fluff
The last part of the Uncharted 4 gameplay trinity is the platforming. As you explore dungeons and tombs, you'll do a lot of climbing, grappling, sliding, and jumping. Uncharted 4's platforming is passable, but nothing spectacular. The amazing visual set pieces make some platforming sections seem more thrilling than they actually are, but on the whole, this is the same style of platforming that has been done in games like Assassin's Creed: Unity and Rise of the Tomb Raider.
In fact, some of the platforming puzzles are incredibly contrived and silly. Many chapters have Sam accompany Drake on the excursion. Both are equipped with a grappling hook and rope. Yet time and time again, you are forced to solve some block puzzle to reach an elevated area that Sam has gotten to, when the problem could easily be remedied by Sam tossing you his rope. Sure, we'd miss out on riveting box-pushing action, but I think video games can survive without such gameplay in 2016.
Replay Your Favorite Movie
Once you finish the story mode, you can unlock character costumes, weapons for level-replays, and neat visual filters to spice-up the game's visual aesthetic. I dug the cel-shaded filter quite a bit. Most levels in the campaign have hidden artifacts scattered throughout, giving you incentive to replay each mission. Of course, the energetic multiplayer modes give Uncharted 4 plenty of longevity, as well.
Uncharted 4's story campaign runs at about 30 frames per second, with the occasional dip here and there. Uncharted 4 makes heavy use of motion blur to hide this fact, and the excellent visual fidelity also helps to make the game seem surprisingly smooth. Multiplayer modes play at a noticeably higher frame, but the game displays at 900p rather than the story mode's 1080p, so it looks a touch less polished.
Uncharted 4 pushes the envelope when it comes to cinematography and visual detail in video games. It is easily the best-looking game of the year. If you've followed the series, you will no doubt want to see the conclusion to Nathan Drake's treasure hunting adventures. The self-contained story is also a plus for gamers looking to add a new title to their PS4 library. Just keep in mind that the story mode focuses heavily on story, with some fairly generic (and flawed) gameplay holding it all together.
I'll give Uncharted 4 a final score after I thoroughly test its public servers.