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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Review: Uncharted 4: A Thieves End (PS4)

I never buy games on pre-order. I'm the kind of person who can wait for months, buy it on discount, and then resell it for a profit. But Naughty Dog has won my trust over the years, with the Uncharted titles being for me the best blend of action, adventure, story, and exquisite art direction. They just don't make movies like these any more, and I couldn't help myself. (It also doesn't hurt that Amazon gives you a 20% pre-order discount, making the price easier to swallow)

Uncharted 4 is the last of the Nathan Drake stories. The graphics are nothing short of amazing. Bear in mind that the PS4 is weaker than my 7 year old PC from the point of view of compute power, and has a GPU that's weaker than the one I bought in 2013. That's pretty weak stuff, but I never saw anything on the PC that even comes close to how pretty Uncharted 4 looks. Heck, if you compare Uncharted 4 to the latest Pixar movie, you'll see that in many ways, the Pixar movie cuts corners and goes for an art direction that favors computer animation, and requires gobs of rendering power while the game goes for a realistic (albeit gorgeously beautiful) look and yet is rendered in real time by the PS4. Just thinking about it makes me want to pick up my jaw from the floor when I think about the experience.

The thing with these "movies as game" video game experiences is that it's all about pacing. Uncharted 4 has a very different pacing than Uncharted 2, the (previous) best of the series. While only 2 chapters in Uncharted 2 had a "walking simulator" feel to the game, that sort of pacing and free roam exploring with no threats occupies huge sections of Uncharted 4. This gives the player plenty of room to breathe, but unfortunately also adds to the game as far as being sort of a "one shot". A lot of the value of the game goes away on a repeated play through.

The music, art direction and action sequences are all very well done (though the boss fight at the end is a bit of a let down). But what makes the game work is the consistent attention to story: the characters are treated with respect, and at every reveal, we're drawn further into the story. At this point, let me provide a spoiler warning so you read no further if you haven't played it and the story matters to you.

The story takes place years after Uncharted 3, when Nathan Drake has settled down to a boring job as a technical diver. Then his long lost brother Sam shows up and we go into a flash back as we finally learn how the Drake brothers got their names, and how that quest led to the current state of affairs. Note that Sam's never been mentioned in any of the previous games, so this bit of ret-conning strains any suspension of disbelief you might have had, but it's done decently such that you don't feel like it's too wrong. Sam, of course, is lying through and through, but again, it's a reflection of what's been driving Nathan Drake through the previous games. The quest takes you from Italy to Madagascar, and the flashbacks get you a view of Panama. It's all very pretty. And, it's a chase after pirates. This made this a particularly good game for me after reading Pirate Hunters.

There are lots of references to the previous games throughout the story. If you've played through all the other stories, I think you'll get a lot more out of Uncharted 4 than someone who just started with this latest (and supposedly last) installment. I think above all, Uncharted 4 sells you on the character relationships and what they do for each other. And it doesn't do it just in dialogue and cut scenes, but also in the way the characters act. In one of the early scenes, I had Nathan Drake to a stealth take down of an enemy, and I fully expected to have to immediately turn and take out the enemy next to him. To my surprise, I saw that Sam Drake had already taken down the other enemy. I was stunned. To my mind, this is why the Uncharted series does better than even the rebooted Tomb Raider. When playing as Lara Croft, you feel as though the world is full of idiots who can't even find something that's right in front of them without you having to "quest" for it. As Nathan Drake, you're part of a team --- your wife might take out the enemy who's shooting at you, your brother might be trying to distract another one, while your old buddy Sully's scrambling to catch up to you. You're rarely alone in this game and as a result you feel much better about its milieu.

This is not to say that Uncharted 4 is perfect: it's not. As a game, the Tomb Raider series does a better job: the cover system's better, and the collectibles and upgradeable weapons all provide crunchy mechanics that force you to make full use of your skill. But none of the characters in Tomb Raider ever make you feel like you should care about them (not even Lara Croft), while that's not true in Uncharted 4.

Needless to say, Uncharted 4 comes highly recommended. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that you should buy a PS4 just for the game, I'd say that if you own a PS4, you owe it to yourself to play it. After you're done picking your jaw up from the floor, you might consider that it's not very replayable and sell it, but while you're playing it there's no question that this is a unique and satisfying experience.

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