Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series is a notable culprit for ludonarrative* dissonance – a pseudo-Indiana Jones/Tomb Raider quintet of games in which players navigate Drake through foreign countries, stealing their historical treasures, and killing five hundred men with a SPAS-12 along the way. Up until the fourth entry, our protagonist treats this quasi-massacre with a cheerful Roger Moore as Bond-esque attitude of an American abroad, making Fonzi-like quips as he dispatches another cloned goon carrying an AK-47, all while preserving his iron-clad hairline. Narrative dissonance and its subsequent trappings aside, what really matters in Uncharted 4 is looking past this and allowing yourself to join the game on the ride that it is. It’s easy to often forget the discrepancy between gameplay and story in Uncharted 4 because the ride along the way is some of the best fun you can have on a PlayStation console yet.
*Ludonarrative dissonance refers to conflicts between a video game’s narrative and its gameplay. The term was coined by Clint Hocking, a former creative director at LucasArts (then at Ubisoft), on his blog in October, 2007.
Uncharted 4 works like the rest of the series in that its story is not wholly novel, nor does it try to subvert the tropes and conventions that its cinematic narrative embodies. But, it nevertheless provides a well-intentioned and engagingly crafted story, one which suffers from some sluggish pacing issues, yet remains enormously absorbing. It’s notably difficult to imagine what the tone and arching story arc of Uncharted 4 would be if it didn’t exist in a post-The Last of Us environment. Naughty Dog has benefited from the more introspective, darker story of The Last of Us, along with the nuanced story-telling devices that their other IP exhibited so well.
As mentioned, there is notable pacing issues towards the beginning of the game. Naughty Dog uses the first few chapters and first couple of hours of the game to introduce Nate’s brother, Sam, into the story. This involves two fairly long flashback sequences which aim to provide necessary exposition and does a pretty good job of it, but it ultimately opens the game in a somewhat clunky way. After its awkward opening, however, the game flows well and its ending, although ostensibly saccharine, is actually a sweetly fitting ending to the series, making it difficult not to garner a smile.
The performance of its actors lend a lot to the success of the narrative. Voice and action performance by series stalwart Nolan North and experienced voice actor, but newcomer to the series Troy Baker, along with the rest of talented cast, is strong throughout the game. The motion capture technology employed by Naughty Dog in the game is potentially the best so far in video games. It allows the developers to express genuine looks of surprise, shock and dismay that strengthen the bond between the characters and the audience. For example, a strength of Uncharted 4’s story is the dynamic of Elena and Drake’s relationship as they prepare for the imminence of middle-age and a more calmly assured life together, and this is complimented to the highest degree by the motion capture of the respective actors.
Graphically, Uncharted 4 makes a very strong claim in displaying the best visuals on a console so far. Lush jungle environments, concrete Catholic schools, secret tropical islands and muddy South African plateaus are rendered overwhelmingly impressive. The game’s environmental physics are also notably tremendous, with rock slides and tropical foliage moving realistically and dynamically. It’s the most enthralled I’ve been by a Rock since Wrestlemania 17, so kudos to Naughty Dog. The game also performs alongside the visuals very well, maintaining 30fps throughout, with only a few slowdowns encountered during its busiest set pieces.
Uncharted 4’s gameplay largely compromises the same cover-based shooting and climbing mechanics from the previous games, albeit slightly refined. The shooting particularly feels more robust than before, although enemies are still seemingly made of Kevlar rather than flesh and bone due to the amount of rounds they absorb. Its stealth sections are also more welcoming, with an environmental cover system and expanded hand-to-hand combat animations.
The game will still have you moving more crates than a Walmart warehouse employee, but it breaks up the pace of the shooting and climbing gameplay well. A new addition to the gameplay is the grappling hook mechanic. Although it is hard to believe that a) we’ve encountered Drake through three adventures so far without a single mention of the hook and b) who in the world would ever carry such a thing around with them, explorer or not, it makes a welcome addition to the games levels.
Although it is clear that Uncharted 4’s main draw is the singer-player campaign, it does boast a few multiplayer modes as well. Drawing from the multiplayer experience of The Last of Us, Uncharted 4 contains the standard multiplayer modes many would expect from a third-person cover shooter. Each mode has a passably adequate power-up system – earn in-game currency and XP by eliminating the opposing team and the player can choose from a limited choice of power-ups inspired by Uncharted lore, such as a mini-gun wielding guard or an artefact which attacks the opposing team with mystic missiles. Overall, it is a fine yet forgettable experience. It never feels intuitive or exciting, but it is a decent attempt at providing an alternative experience to that of the singer-player story.
It’s been seen that critical reviews of the Uncharted games have made fans of the series see game reviewers as wretched, fun-sponges, and they have elicited quite the vociferous response to anything remotely negative. But opinion not in complete uniform praise of every single aspect of Uncharted 4 does not mean that it’s not a completely absorbing experience and truly a fantastic game. Because it is. Uncharted 4 often makes very little sense at all, but we love it. It’s easy to remain unconditionally participatory in Uncharted’s adventures, even when they appear nonsensical. It does, indeed, have many things wrong with its mechanics and its narrative, but its also difficult to concede them and easy to look past them when Naughty Dog provides what is essential to what we look for in video games: escapism, immersion and entertainment.