Uncharted 4 preview: the necessity of narrative, the bonus of beauty

I’m not a huge fan of Nathan Drake (that’s right, let’s start this piece on a bombshell). In fact, I think he’s among the most annoying, arrogant and apathetic characters in gaming, at least judging by the previous instalments of the Uncharted series.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End goes on sale this week, and we can only imagine how excited the host of PlayStation aficionados are. Naughty Dog and Sony are probably fairly giddy too, because this is easily the biggest PlayStation launch of the year (sorry Bloodborne).

But the real question is, is the game worth picking up at launch? And, more importantly, could I possibly learn to love Nathan Drake given this latest introduction?

For the record, I’ve been at Uncharted 4 for about four hours before writing this article, so I’m nowhere near completion just yet, however, I would like to point out that this also means sitting through about two and a half hours of cutscenes.

Uncharted 4 screen 10

Granted, Uncharted has always been a narrative adventure, rather than lending from the hop, skip, jump school of processional gameplay. In Uncharted 4, Naughty Dog is clearly hellbent on telling a story — Drake’s story, to be exact — a beautiful, textured and multi-layered story.

So let’s take a look at that first point: beauty.

Easily Uncharted 4 is the PlayStation’s crowning graphical achievement thus far. Yes, The Order: 1886 is still up there, along with the all-platform visual stunner Star Wars: Battlefront, but there’s a certain charm about Uncharted 4′s scapes and character models.

Related: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End looks simply stunning on the PlayStation 4

The environments are skillfully crafted, with detailed textures on practically all surfaces, from roof tiles to destructable cinderblocks to the Drakes’ current and extremely homely residence. Cutscenes are given specific detailing though. In the prologue, Young Nathan looks like a real boy, and trinkets toted by Drake boast sheen and dirt, while it’s also clear that we live in the age of abundant god rays and astounding hair physics.

There’s a particular scene with Nate and his now wife Elena that strikes me as more an actual animated movie than game cutscene, something that only Ratchet and Clank can really claim (because, well, it’s a game of a movie of a game movie of…).

Uncharted 4 screen 4

In terms of gameplay, there’s plenty of hopping and skipping and jumping though, but in that particular Uncharted style. Of course, the rope-swinging and mountain-goating comes into play quite often, especially since Nathan enjoys ruining his fingernails (and what we imagine metatarsals as well). In this regard, the first four hours of gameplay feels a lot like the previous titles, and that’s not exactly a bad thing either.

While Uncharted purists will thrive on this, I can’t exactly call it engaging either. The story does well to inform the gameplay, but take that away and there’s not much else there. I do compliment Naughty Dog for the stunning prologue, which does just enough to teach first-timers the ropes, while dragging fans of the series down a storied and absorbing past.

Perhaps that tells of Naughty Dog’s strength in narrative mastery or its weaknesses in refreshing the now nine-year-old Uncharted formula — that’s up to you, gamer, to decide.

Nevertheless the first four hours of gameplay isn’t what I’d call absorbing. It’s passable. But does that ring true for Nathan Drake as well?

Taking story into account, I quite like this portrayal Nathan Drake. He’s a much less self-assured character who shows distinct flaws and inner conflicts without seeming like a pantomime good-guy protagonist.

Uncharted 4 screen 11

He’s more human than ever before, even if he has the physical abilities of a spider monkey. This insecurity also resonates within the gamer, especially during key cutscenes and post-gameplay scenes. It’s not often that you don’t mind watching a 10 minute cutscene. We also get to see Drake’s progression as a character from the very beginning (at least in his chronology). I won’t quite call it an arc just yet, but it’s definitely not a straight line.

But look. Drake still annoys the shit out of me. He might be a changed man, a man resorting to the honest life (or so we are led to believe), but his laurels are weak at best, in a screw-humanity-big-ups-family-but-only-nucleic-family kind of way. They always have been. But isn’t that why people enjoy him?

Final thoughts: I can’t honestly make a sound judgment on Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End just yet. I ought to give the game its full due, and complete it before mentioning any hints of a final impression or a score, but one thing’s certain: this game will likely be one, if not the, biggest seller on PlayStation 4 this year.

Look forward to a full review on Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End coming this later week.

Andy Walker, former editor


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