I'm on chapter 20 of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, having just escaped explosive deathtraps with a good companion by my side. We're ready to take on the bad guys that have taken another friend hostage, and I happen to see him attempting to escape from my vantage point. I'm overlooking a vast cove run dry with marooned pirate ships, and once I drop down the cliffs into this ancient graveyard, I'm sure I'll find plenty of mercenaries to shoot, punch, and blow my way past on Nathan Drake's most arduous adventure yet.
Arduous is a fitting description, because after a dozen attempts to get past the first wave, I'm reminded for the umpteenth time why I've been dreading most of the game's combat encounters. It's an emotion I never expected to have toward any Naughty Dog title, but here I am, nearly throwing my controller several times throughout the most unforgiving campaign with one of my favourite PlayStation properties.
Oh, don't misunderstand me - it's still a phenomenal game. One of the first things I noticed while playing is how the gunplay has received an exceptional do-over, which makes the previous games feel clunky by comparison. Getting up close and personal can result in exciting, seamless brawls that spread across the shootouts like butter, and don't get me started on how thrilling it is to use the grappling hook to traverse the battlefields, which are all perfectly laid out and vertically designed to bring about varied fights that play out like beloved action movie scenes.
There's no doubt that the mechanics and level design of the series have only improved with time. The conclusion to Nathan and Sam's scenic visit to Scotland? The jeep escape followed by Nathan's literal car-hopping joyride? These are but a couple of moments that showcase the franchise at its highest gameplay peak, but conflicting design in the title when playing on higher difficulties not only spoiled half of my experience, but also taught me to reevaluate my entire approach to video game difficulty settings.
It's key to acknowledge that Uncharted 4 is surprisingly different from its predecessors. Throughout most levels of past titles, you expected numerous combat sequences across contained, linear areas with platforming to mix things up. The fourth game opts for more platforming and stealth to spread the action, which takes place in locales that invite varied approaches with their semi-open nature. Some encounters force you to go in guns blazing, but more than half of them incorporate stealth as an option. Being sneaky is a viable alternative with tall grass to hide in and more responsive cover movement, and figuring out how to tiptoe your way past an enemy encampment or eliminating grunts one by one can be fun. However, problems arise when dual gameplay approaches like this have one option that's favoured, when ideally, both options should be equally enticing and balanced.
After the first few hours of playing on Hard, I noticed that stealth is easier if it's available. Whenever I was caught or decided to take the fight to the enemy, I was severely punished by the unexpectedly aggressive AI, so I just reloaded my checkpoints and tried again. I didn't want to engage in stealth on occasion since there are long periods between staged shootouts, but I felt forced to do it out of necessity rather than strategic preference, which became a chore that I loathed. Whenever I came across an area that I knew would be a blast to let bullets fly in, I was forced to check myself before I wrecked myself.
It's as if the game communicates that "combat is bad" on this difficulty setting, and this is further exacerbated since stealth is basic and one-note compared to the unexpected twists and improvisation this title's action brings to the front with melee fights, the grappling hook, and more. After all, this design bias goes against half of the fun the Uncharted series is known for as an action-adventure shooter. Because of this, I made myself wait for forced fights after long periods of platforming and self-imposed, egged stealth - and it's the latter that made my disappoint grow as the chapters flied by.
The ending fight for chapter 10 is a prime example, which is suffocating with its small interior and droves of enemies. It makes combat an absolute nightmare as you scramble for cover, since you're largely unable to engage in amazing fistfights along with Sam and Sully or swing across the chandelier to drop on an enemy, pick up his gun, and fire away. You'll be immediately gunned down if you try. This dramatic, cinematic brilliance I've pictured can be realised at lower difficulties, but stripping it away on higher ones by forcing you to stay behind cover and potshot foes haphazardly negatively changes how you play, which is not the kind of "hard" I had imagined.
I'm not necessarily finding fault with Uncharted 4 in itself - I just walked away from it knowing I could've had a far better experience by doing one simple thing: lowering the difficulty! This would've given me the middle ground where I can enjoy and act upon all the game has to offer while receiving an adequate challenge. However, I've always been stubborn about changing difficulties mid-game because I like to stay committed for the sense of accomplishment. Altering it for convenience feels dirty, and since I've played the second and third games on Hard, you can imagine why I was conflicted about making the switch. I did rough my way through the tough bouts and have earned the bragging rights, but at what cost?
I'll always play franchises like Call of Duty and Resident Evil on hard difficulties, and that goes for most games in their genres in general. However, the difference between them and Uncharted 4 is a matter of restriction. With the former examples, I have every ability and mechanic at reasonable disposals, which means that the fun I have is only limited by my own skills. Wolfenstein: The New Order gets this with sections where you can choose to lay low with your throwing knife and silenced pistol, but can make a mistake and go in gung-ho without feeling anxious, even with more severe settings.
Rise of the Tomb Raider makes its close-range combat and host of weapons comfortable to use at all times on the Seasoned Raider setting. You have health you can apply at any time and can feel confident approaching situations in any way you wish with a decent challenge, but I'd argue it's still a bit too easy. Survivor seems like the perfect challenge to play the game, which keeps resources at just the right scarcity while throwing enemies at you that are appropriately testing - all without making stealth or combat feel limited or unbalanced.
On the other hand, Uncharted 4 discourages using the grappling hook and getting into fistfights on Hard because they demand you to be out in the open, which is challenging for the wrong reasons. It reminds me of Dishonored in a roundabout way with how it encourages stealth, but is far more fun when you can use twice as many powers and weapons if you're a murderous, loud assassin. However, the game punishes you with a bad ending for playing this way, and if you choose to be merciful and stealthy, your arsenal and options are severely limited. It's a confusing, frustrating tension that's generally shared with Uncharted 4.
I relish the bigger challenges games can bring on. I adored Alien: Isolation on one of its toughest settings and never hesitate playing the latest first-person shooter at an intense level. I do this because I want to use all of my resources to the best of my ability, but Uncharted 4 raided my naive assumption that game difficulty universally scales in this fashion. The game has a drastic increase in AI intelligence and damage that unexpectedly discourages mechanics and close-up immersion with its jaw-dropping combat. Survival-horror games may limit the use of certain mechanics at tough settings, but this works within the spirit of the genre. That was fine with The Last of Us, but we're talking about the bombastic Uncharted 4 here.
I can't stubbornly stick to a self-imposed rule with difficulty at the expense of not experiencing the full joy a game can provide. Sullying the fun for the challenge here is when I lost track of how the two should be logically hand-in-hand, and if a game poorly or mistakenly makes itself hard by offsetting this balance, I can't be hard on myself by confusing the difference between rewarding difficulties and frustrating ones. That's why, in returning to Uncharted 4, I'll be setting aside my pride to experience all its glory on the Normal difficulty. One last time.
What do you think of Joey's thoughts on Uncharted 4's harder difficulties? Do they limit the game's potential, or realise it? Can you think of any other games that are like this, and how did you feel about them? Where do you draw the line on challenging yourself versus having an experience where you're still enjoying a game to its fullest? Climb down to the comments section below.