Historically, the best series come in sets of three. For films; Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Die Hard are typically enjoyed during the first three movies. Many television shows start to lose interest after a third season. Even a vertical tasting of wine usually includes bottles from three particular vintages for comparison. Let’s face it: humans seem to appreciate collections in triplicate (especially writers when trying to make a point).
When it comes to video games, the Rule of Threes starts to get a bit muddy. Beloved gaming heroes like Mario and Link have long since surpassed their third game, yet they continued to be adored by the gaming public. Meanwhile, some characters languish well beyond their glorious trifecta of earlier titles; overstaying their welcome and becoming a joke among the community.
When Laura and I played Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception nearly five years ago, the series seemed to have met its logical, albeit unsatisfying, conclusion. At the time, we didn’t even entertain the idea of a fourth Uncharted title coming to pass, as there was no obvious plot carrot dangled before us. As luck (and the appearance of a new Sony console) would have it, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End was released earlier this year. Naturally, this was one of the games that cemented our decision to purchase a PlayStation 4.
Eager to see how the fourth game in a previous series of three would fair, Laura and I started the game on its day of release; making sure to have an appropriately themed brew to accompany this adventure.
For the last several years, Heavy Seas Beer (brewed by the Clipper City Brewing Company) has experimented with the unique influence of wood aging on beer. Dubbed the Uncharted Waters series, this line of beers features different styles aged in specific barrels or wood. Some examples include Blackbeard’s Breakfast (an imperial coffee porter aged in bourbon barrels) and Red Sky at Morning (a Belgian-style saison aged in Chardonnay barrels). These beers are typically offered as limited releases over the course of the year.
Appropriately named, Plank IV is the fourth in a series of beers aged on woods that have rarely been used to produce unique beers. Released in 2011, Plank I was an English ale aged on kilned poplar wood planks. Plank II in 2012 was a German Doppelbock aged on a combination of poplar and eucalyptus wood. Plank III in 2014 was a Belgian Tripel aged on Jamaican allspice wood. For the fourth in this series, Heavy Seas took a Belgian Quad and aged it on four different woods: planks of kilned poplar, kilned cherry, Jamaican allspice, and Cuban cedar.
The result is a very complex and rich beer that pours with a cola brown color and cherry red hues. Plank IV has a strong odor of dates, cinnamon, and maple syrup, with a smoky hint from the wood aging. The taste matches the nose; starting with a tart raisin flavor that leads to a rich allspice body. There is a lingering smoked finish, that gives way to a vanilla bean aftertaste.
As implied from its origin, Plank IV tastes like a beer with a unique history. This is no mere Belgian Quad. There are unique notes of smoked wood and aged spices mixed with the expected dried fruit and dark sugar flavors. This beer is an ideal match for the swashbuckling narrative and complex backstory of Nathan Drake’s latest, and presumably final, adventure.
Of all the game series Laura and I have enjoyed together, Uncharted is the only one that has been a mutual experience from the start. Sure, there are plenty of games that I have shared with Laura (and vice versa), or titles that we individually played while occupying a shared space. But every moment of play in the world of Uncharted has been as a team.
When we last left our hero Nathan Drake, his adventuring career seemed to have come to an end. The third game showcased that if left unchecked, Nathan’s pride would lead him to ruin. Thanks to the advice of his mentor (and a few too-close calls), Drake reconciled with his wife, Elena, and started a semi-lucrative career in salvage.
Uncharted 4 opens three years later, with a glimpse into the Nathan’s current life. His days are spent rescuing cargo from damaged freight ships, while his nights are filled with domestic bliss; playing video games with Elena to decide who cleans the dishes. All things considered, Nate should be happy with his new situation. But there is a part of him that misses the old thrill of adventure, made evident by a clever combat tutorial in the form of a toy shooting gallery that Nathan has set up in his attic.
So it comes as no surprise that Nate eagerly agrees to join his thought-to-be-dead brother on a massive treasure hunt involving mercenaries, criminals, and pirates.
For the most part, the core gameplay in Uncharted 4 is mostly unchanged from previous entries in the series, which is just how we like it. Nathan Drake still spends most of his time traversing exotic locales and ancient ruins via jumping, climbing, and (in our case) repeatedly falling to his doom. Developer Naughty Dog has introduced some new tools, such as the climber’s spike and grappling hook. These items add new verbs to Nathan’s movement repertoire, which enhance the tradition of fun movement puzzles and enjoyable action sequences.
Alternatively, manual vehicle sequences are an unwanted and cumbersome addition to Nate’s means of travel. Poor handling and strange inertia make every moment spent driving an automobile very frustrating, which is compounded by certain terrain that is designed to be hazardous. When your car already handles like a drunk walrus, the inclusion of muddy hills only makes things worse. Fortunately, Nate doesn’t have to take the driver’s seat in every vehicle, and the moments spent shooting from the passenger side are genuinely fun.
There is a shift in the combat to a stronger focus on stealth gameplay, which fits into the greater narrative of Drake and Company being severely underpowered when compared to the Shoreline private military company (the main baddies of Uncharted 4). While this makes for some very satisfying takedowns, it further emphasizes a problem I had with the previous Uncharted titles: combat arenas. Most of the enemy encounters bring the narrative to a screeching halt, tasking players with clearing every potential threat from an area instead of trying to avoid them altogether. I understand that in certain situations, it makes sense for Drake to take out all enemies to make progress, but repeating this action in nearly every combat scenario makes the game drag at certain points.
Minor combat grievances and major vehicle complaints aside, Uncharted 4 is an excellent game. The increased power of the PlayStation 4 has provided Naughty Dog with the tools to make a beautiful and impressive world. The transition between each gameplay moment and cutscene is seamless, making for a more cohesive narrative than many of its video game peers.
Without getting too deep into Spoiler Territory™, what beings as a narrative about a treasure hunter coming out of retirement transforms into a very heartfelt and engaging story about family; both biological and marital. Initially, Drake uses his brother’s resurfacing as an opportunity to have one more big adventure like those from his past. In order to do so, he lies to his wife about his plans, thinking that he is protecting her by keeping her separate from this part of his life. What Nathan discovers is that at its core, marriage is a partnership. Elena is the best teammate for which Nate could have asked, and her involvement would only strengthen his chances at finding a lost pirate treasure to save his brother. She literally and figuratively saves Nathan on this quest, which gives him the final push to figure out what truly matters in his life.
Like many other fourth titles after a trilogy, I expected Uncharted 4 to feel like a tacked-on expansion to the series. I figured there would be some marginal improvements to the visuals and gameplay, along with a story that feels like so many other action movies and video games. However, Uncharted 4 exceeded all of my initial expectations, and turned out to be my favorite in the series.
The upgraded visuals have set a new standard for video games, while the mechanics are polished to near-perfection. The story is earnest in a way that avoids being on the nose; with complex characters and relationships that seem wonderfully out of place in an action-adventure game. Both the treasure hunting setting and the engaging narrative are a perfect complement to the rich flavor and wood-aged notes of Plank IV. I would definitely recommend this pirate-themed combination.