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The Uncharted series and I have such a weird relationship. Let’s call it, tenuous, but not necessarily in a bad way. I’ve just never been super attached to it. Or at least, that’s what I thought. In fact, I think that’s just what I’ve always considered my feelings on the franchise, until I finally sit down and play whatever the next iteration is, and then it sucks me back in. That has never been more true than the feelings and emotions I’ve felt as I finished Uncharted 4. As a fair warning, this critique will be full of spoilers, be probably too long, and deeply personal, as relating it back to what this series means to me, and how it’s been a part of my life. Thus the reason I’m not calling it a review. I’d suggest reading this only after you’ve finished Uncharted 4, and preferably all the games in the Uncharted series.
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was the first time I was ever aware of a developer, really. Fourteen year old me thought it’d be a perfect companion to the PS3 Christmas present the whole family received in 2007, and the game jumped out to me because I recognized Naughty Dog as the makers of a series I loved: Jak & Daxter. Past that, they made a series me and my brothers traded controllers on for hours into the night, Crash Bandicoot, but I wouldn’t realize that until months after finishing Drake’s Fortune. My mom was just excited to play it with me because it seemed like a fun, swashbuckling adventure, and it was that, plus so much more. There was wit, love, care, and something else that you just can’t put into words, all wrapped up in a Nathan Drake-shaped package.
Naughty Dog in a lot of ways was the developer that brought me into the games writing world as being aware of developers. Aware of teams that stuck together, evolved, worked together, and made an art that evolved. They’re a team that clearly challenges themselves to do better, to change, and to face new challenges and new hardware head on, always throwing themselves into the deep end. It would have been easy to make a Jak 4 after the PS3 came out, where it wouldn’t have been easy to continue Crash with the rights in Activision’s hands. But they chose a different route. Maybe that impressed me, but even if I considered Uncharted 2 the best in the series and Uncharted 3 a general disappointment (going off only one experience I had with it that I don’t remember fondly), Naughty Dog really won me over with The Last of Us. That daring conversation it must have taken to make a completely new game where they had a very successful, hard-hitting exclusive franchise; that was big, to say the least.
But three years later Uncharted 4 releases, and I’ve all but no excitement for it. Diving back into that world, I honestly didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t what I got. I definitely didn’t expect such a masterfully crafted game, both mechanically and narratively, that sucks me so far back into the franchise that I had forgot I loved, that reminds me at every turn why I fell in love with these characters, and leaving me so satisfied with their final conclusion that I have tears welling up in my eyes.
It’s easy to look back on the flaws, mechanically, instilled in the Uncharted series. They were of a different time, and really a different era of third person shooter. Things like Tomb Raider, the modern iteration, have come and released as direct responses to it. Naughty Dog’s own Last of Us, which finally introduced actual stealth mechanics to their gameplay loop, one-upped the foundation of run and shoot and have fun that is the core to Uncharted.
Part of the improvement is the significant down-size in combat. There is just a lot less of it, which is a good thing. Arenas of dudes to shoot and murder, furthering the funny background joke that Nathan Drake is a homicidal maniac, makes that awkward conversation a little difficult to put off. But when combat is something more unique, even if it’s just a little less common, it makes each encounter a tad bit more worthwhile. It helps that each big set-piece arena is so unique and vast that you’re left with near limitless options to explore while you fight, instead of the more narrow set you had before. There was always a good place to whole-up and bunker down in Uncharted 2 and 3, but now, I found a lot more success moving through combat. The constant motion made every moment of action so much more exciting, and this is reinforced in the “combat set pieces,” the moments that just so happen to also be combat as crazy and bombastic events follow you onto the next area.
The biggest change that kind of helps this improvement is the grappling hook. Sure, the levels are wider, and almost every “climbing puzzle” has more than one solution now, as opposed to the funneled feeling you’d see a ton of in Uncharted 2, but none of that matters if it isn’t utilized. Now you can get across these massive maps of combat in an instant because you can throw your rope, drop down on an enemy, and just smash your way forward. It’s that feeling of momentum: that you’re climbing, you’re shooting, and now you’re swinging, and now you’re falling on an enemy, and you’re back to climbing/shooting again. It’s seamless, in a way that’s even more difficult to explain. Whether it’s the massive display of sheer area to move around, the destructible cover that always has you pushing forward, or the satisfying feeling you get from running out of ammo, dropping on a dude, and in doing so taking his gun to refill your ammo supply. They’ve made that action-movie dream where every bit of gunplay is in itself a set piece because of the bountiful and beautiful mechanics laid out by the very act of playing the game.
Oh and stealth mechanics? Yeah, they’re finally here, and for real this time. No half-measures like Uncharted 3. No, this is real stealth, with a mark and awareness system that even one-ups The Last of Us. On a mechanical level, it’s where Uncharted really takes from Naughty Dog’s other PS3-gen shooter.
All these little sets and additions play into a game that I actual remember as fun to play. Most of my discouraging memories from Uncharted 3 come from combat that was far too drawn out and not fun to play after the first half. I wanted each section of fighting to end faster than it could start, because I was done murdering half of a small country by the end of it all. Uncharted 4 never faced that problem. The sandboxes of brawling were just too fun to swing through and there isn’t nearly enough shooting for you to get sick of it.
Time To Grow Up
Along with the clear demonstration of mastery of simple, third person action that has been a staple of the series since its inception, there is a mastery of the characters and the world building that you’ve genuinely never seen in the series before. If there is one thing I can say that pleasantly surprised me about Uncharted 4 above all else, is how much felt new and fresh for a fourth game in the series.
Part of that is a shift in tone. The idea that this was the “darkest game in the series” seems a bit misleading. Sure, by comparison it is, but it still doesn’t hold a candle to how shady the likes of something like The Last of Us go. There is still that light hearted feel, the jokes and humor cushioning it, and since spoilers are fair game here, the resolution that sees a happy ending for all.
Maybe that’s the bridge that’ll burn it for everyone, or at least for some: there are no consequences for the characters’ actions here. But I think that has always been a part of the series. And the real through line to convey that to the player is Sam Drake’s story. He serves as the Nathan Drake beyond his years. Where Nate clearly has always been the more mature of the two, Sam has been the immature, cooler, older brother that was leading Nate down a dangerous path, but Nate went along with it because appeasing that older sibling was worth it to him. I’ve lived this very experience, and it’s so well portrayed thanks to not only Nolan North and Troy Baker, but also thanks to Chase Austin and Britain Dalton, who absolutely knock it out of the park as young Sam and Nate respectively. The two scenes you share with the young brothers really grounds the story to a dynamic that defines the characters and their relationship.
It’s what makes the late-game inclusion of Sam feel deserved. It’s delivered through a mechanism that works and feels whole, where it could have easily felt ham-fisted. This is the story of Nate, in a lot of ways, and what has made him him. From Nathan Morgan to Nathan Drake, even. It’s important, and his brother is the rock that helps ground and focus in on that tale. Sure, that story resonates with me a lot because I share a similar relationship with my two older brothers, but it’s a genuinely human relationship too, that anyone with family, or surrogate family can relate to. Just like the father-son, mentor-student relationship of Drake and Sully explored in Uncharted 3. Just… better, here.
Ending it All
In a lot of ways, this is a game by Naughty Dog, for Naughty Dog fans. Not just because you get to play Crash Bandicoot, or because there are myriad Last of Us and previous Uncharted references in it, but because it is a culmination of all their parts. Their design, their gameplay, their mechanics, their writing; it’s all here. It all delivers. It all concludes.
Seeing Cassie Drake at the end of this journey, seeing Elena and Nate realize they’re made for this life and can live it, just above board if they find the right way, it all fits. It’s like the pieces of the puzzle that only Naughty Dog could put together. All of it concluding after the best paced, most beautifully realized, and set-piece induced adventure they’ve ever put together.
Maybe there isn’t a train or airplane moment in Uncharted 4, not one shining moment, but I think almost every second of the first two acts of the game serve as non-stop set pieces that are never afraid to introduce something new. Whether it’s a new kind of flashback to Young Drake(s), a prison fight, a heist in a chateau, or going scuba diving, the game moves. The momentum is unmistakable, and that doesn’t let up until you hit the island about two thirds through the game. And from there, you get to revisit the format and adventuring feel of Uncharted Drake’s Fortune, but more realized. The third act of the game, which I’ve seen a lot of criticism lodged against, is the game for me, and the preamble sets up the incredible series of scenes that Nate and Elena get to share. Not to mention the best use of environmental storytelling in the series, when you hit the town of Libertalia. Just exploring this secret pirate city is one of the most breathtaking sequences in a game I’ve seen in the past three years, since the last Naughty Dog game.
The pedigree and delivery here is top notch. This is a love letter from Naughty Dog to their fans. The fans of Uncharted. The fans of The Last of Us. The fans of all their games. Yes, even Jak & Daxter. The combat has never been tighter, the world more appealing, the story more coherent.
When you play Cassie exploring the Drake household, you really get to relish the world they’ve built across the Playstation 3 and now Playstation 4. Adventures and journeys, characters and stories, and when I played that, I realized how much it all mattered to me. How happy I was that Nate and Elena got to live the dream and have Cassie too. That I fought all those frustrating hours of enemies in Uncharted’s 1-3, relished in the amazing and refined combat through 4, and got to this epilogue for that very realization.
Uncharted 4 is a game that Naughty Dog wasn’t even obligated to make. They could have left the series on PS3 and gone on to a newer future, but this was really the series that served as their coming out to the wider industry as the most talented and diversely skilled studio in the industry as a whole. They send off Nate, Elena, Sully, and now Sam, with love and care that can only come from a studio that humbly understands how much the art they’ve created means to the industry, the players they’ve connected with, and the lives they have honestly touched with their stories.
To Naughty Dog, Bruce, Neil, Josh, Amy Hennig, the art, programming, and entire development team: thank you. Honestly, I didn’t deserve a send off this damn good, but you continue to knock it out of the park, and I can walk away from Uncharted with a newfound appreciation for what was once a fun Indiana Jones-styled adventure I played with my mom, and is now so much more.