Hitbox Review: Uncharted 4 — A grand adventure story trapped in a mediocre video game

Uncharted 4 is an excellent example of cinematic storytelling in games. While Telltale’s choose your own adventure-style games arguably have more in common with movies, Naughty Dog has proven that they can make a movie within the framework of a game. However, all that narrative prestige also comes with a few gameplay pitfalls.

Developer: Naughty Dog

Release date: May 10, 2016

Platforms: PlayStation 4

Price: $19.99

This is the first in a mini-series of Hitbox reviews and impressions covering the best games of the PlayStation 4. Look forward to my thoughts on a few PlayStation 4 exclusive games in the coming weeks before we enter a new console generation with the nearing release of the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.

Uncharted games follow a simple formula of watching cutscenes, solving puzzles, climbing and shooting bad guys. It’s simple and mostly effective.

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Uncharted 4 continues the story of Nathan Drake, a treasure hunter who really likes Sir Francis Drake, a 16th century English pirate and his motto “Sic Parvis Magna,” which means “greatness from small beginnings.”

Uncharted 4 comes alive when the player is set loose in a large explorable area with a Jeep and a lovable cast of characters. Screenshot courtesy of IGDB.com.

The adventure in this installment of Uncharted is a search for the ultimate pirate treasure of Captain Henry Avery after Nathan’s brother Sam, who was thought to be dead, showed up after 15 years. Along with the aged black market merchant, Victor Sullivan, the brothers set off to find the treasure and pay off a ruthless cartel boss who became fascinated with the tales of treasure Sam would tell him while the two shared a prison cell and helped break Sam out.

Along the journey, the group are hounded by rich-kid-with-ego-issues Rafe Adler and Nadine Ross, who lead the mercenary group Shoreline. Adler is perfectly fine as an antagonist, but it’s Ross who really shines. She’s very capable in a fight and doesn’t take nonsense from anyone, including Nathan and his witty quips.

Where the story really shines though, is when Nathan and Elena Fisher, a journalist who has accompanied Nathan during several of his adventures, are on screen together. It seems that between Uncharted 3 and 4 the two decided to get married and try to live a normal life free from illegal treasure hunts. Elena probably has the least screen time out of all the main cast, which is a shame because I was enthralled watching the couple’s relationship dynamic throughout the game.

The incredibly realistic facial animations of characters like Elena help sell that these could be real people. Screenshot courtesy of unchartedthegame.com.

I’m not kidding when I say that the best moment of Uncharted 4 was watching them argue over who has to do the dishes and then settling it by seeing who could get the highest score in Crash Bandicoot (an old Naughty Dog game from 1996 for the original PlayStation). The player even gets to play the game in the game.

What makes Uncharted 4 cinematic besides how amazing the characters and levels look, are the little details. For example, Nathan will hold his hand out and brush it along walls when running past, clothes will get dirty if a character falls down a steep muddy hill and there is minimal User Interface cluttering the screen during gameplay. There is no health bar looming over the character, just an ammo count tucked away in the corner of the screen when gunfights break out.

Combat is a significant chunk of the Uncharted experience, but it’s changed surprisingly little since the first game. Nathan can still take cover and blind fire over it. He can also engage in fisticuffs should Shoreline goons get too close. Thanks to the addition of a grappling hook, he can now also swing around and has the option to get a little more aggressive with a very impactful swinging punch.

The most enjoyable sections of the traversal sections involve swinging around with the grapple hook. Screenshot courtesy of unchartedthegame.com.

That may be the intended outcome of the grappling hook for combat, but that wasn’t my experience actually playing. I mostly tried to stick to a safe, far away piece of cover. It was only when enemies would throw grenades or destroy my cover that I had to move to a different location. Even playing on the normal difficulty mode, I never felt safe going for those sick swinging punches or moving from cover to cover after the half-way point in the game.

At a certain point. Uncharted 4 just kicks up the difficulty by throwing way more enemies at the player, with more powerful weapons like grenade launchers and sniper rifles. Combined with the increased firepower, it felt like every five seconds, there was a new grenade to dodge. It was after this increase in difficulty that I really started to sour on the gunfights. Partially because I started to see the same guns over and over, there just wasn’t enough variety in how they felt to shoot.

Outside of the story mode, there’s a competitive multiplayer mode and a cooperative wave-based survival mode. I didn’t play any of the other modes myself, but from the gameplay I have watched, they seem fairly standard. Although there does seem to be some supernatural artifact-based power-ups in the survival mode, which look pretty cool.

What kept me going through the 15 hours it took me to complete the story was the fantastic cutscenes. Even having seen all of them all on YouTube previously, I was still engaged consistently. The quality of the animations, believable writing and talented voice acting are what propel Uncharted 4 to the top of my best stories in video games list. Even if the plot is fairly predictable, Uncharted 4 is a monumental achievement, or should I say trophy?