Our first PlayStation review could hardly be a bigger one. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is billed as the conclusion to Nathan Drake’s generation-spanning story; having the unenviable job of living up to the heights of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Uncharted 3: Drakes’s Deception whilst also doing something new. Esteemed developers Naughty Dog have managed to pull off another fantastic experience here, even if it does have flaws that keep it from being the best Uncharted game yet.
A Thief’s Life
A Thief’s End is, as the name signifies, the conclusion to the central 4-game arc of Nathan Drake. Despite this, Uncharted 4 feels different to the previous games. The new hardware may have something to do with this, but more important is the growth of Naughty Dog as a team and the new influences they have; The Last of Us‘ impact on this game is stark, with the areas in the game being much larger and containing more potential for exploration. Whereas previous titles had the throwaway Treasures as the main items to collect, Nathan Drake now has notebook entries and dialogue bubbles to seek out. You can get lost in this game, and taking a slow pace through the adventure rewards you with richer environments and deeper storytelling.
Where the influence of The Last of Us isn’t so welcome is on the pacing of the beginning of the game. While both third-person and action-oriented, Uncharted and The Last of Us (don’t worry, I won’t compare them all the way through this review) are very different stories with vastly different tones. The first six chapters or so feel like they get these two games mixed up, as A Thief’s End moves along at a sluggish pace with limited excitement. Nathan’s brother Sam (voiced by Troy Baker) is introduced and while this character is a solid addition to the cast (we’ll touch on this more later), at the start of the game you’re looking to connect with the characters that have made this series so special – Elena and Sully. Holding them from us inevitably hurts the content you offer us instead.
The focus on Sam feels like a distraction, and, crucially, this opening segment lacks Uncharted‘s brand of fun. Drab environments and little gun-play keep the game stoic, and overall the set-up of Sam coming back to send Nathan on another adventure wasn’t smoothly executed – even if it is necessary. Seeing Nathan’s home life is wonderful, but when you’re throwing a certain Easter Egg (you’ll know it when you see it) in my face as fan service, it doesn’t come across as a subtle nod. It comes across as a little self-indulgent by the game and it ultimately took me out of the story that was being told at that point.
The Brothers Drake
I’m sounding down on the game here, but this criticism of the beginning stages is due to the high standard set by the Uncharted games, and, indeed, the rest of Uncharted 4. Naughty Dog had to be careful not to lose the light, adventuring spirit of Uncharted even as they constructed a deeper, slightly darker story. I’m glad to say, though, that as you progress past the beginning of the game, that familiar feeling of adventure gets stronger and stronger.
When the first big explorable area comes up, in the Scottish Highlands, it really begins to feel like Uncharted – and not only that, but a real evolution of what that means. The world is lush (and the directing is set up to show it); the characters are chatting enjoyably through the environment; you might even feel inclined to use the returning Photo Mode, but there is a difference – you don’t run through the area like you may have used to. It’s sprawling, so you explore the different corners and find collectibles, take your time, and listen to conversations. Eventually, you get to some action and combat, but the exploration until then is just as interesting – even if it is optional (I really mean this: take your time with this game).
The slower gameplay of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is suitable, as really, the theme of the game is about knowing when to stop and appreciate what you have. At the beginning of the game, we are shown a Nathan Drake that is going on dives and salvage missions. Clearly, however, he is yearning for the big adventures of which we saw in the three previous mainline Uncharted games. At home, he stares at a painting of a faraway place as Elena’s talking slowly fades into the background. We see him doing not-particularly-thrilling paperwork. He has this life with Elena, but he isn’t satisfied with that and desires another adventure.
That’s when Sam turns up, offering him just that. His brother needs to find the great treasure of the pirate Henry Avery to get his cellmate and drug lord (doesn’t he sound lovely) Hector Alcazar (Robin Atkin Downes) off his back and he has gone to his brother for help. Being in the situation he is in, Nathan accepts – and off he (and we) go.
This is a story that allows the character development of Nathan Drake to naturally progress. He’s never going to be content as he is at the start of the game, but along this adventure he learns a lot about what he really wants and how to go about getting it. While this is a globe-trotting tale with bad guys, it’s really all about Nathan’s future. As we progress towards the middle of the game, events continue to ramp up to the point where you wonder “is it worth it?”. The stakes, the action, the interactions, it all escalates – and not only is this extremely engaging and thrilling to play through, but it works in the context of the story. As aforementioned, Uncharted 4 is about when to stop, and you’ll be tackling that as Nathan Drake does.
Woven into all this is Rafe Adler (Warren Kole), an old prison acquaintance of the Drake brothers who is after the same Treasure in order to prove his own ability as a treasure hunter. With the physically proficient Nadine Ross (Laura Bailey) and her army to back him up, he gets mixed up with Nathan’s adventure and causes a fair bit of trouble. Their stories are interesting enough and work as alternate views on the situation Nathan is in himself. Still, the central conflict of Uncharted 4 remains with our protagonist and his ideals.
Time for Adventure
It’s wonderfully ironic that the change in gameplay approach is similar to the recent Tomb Raider games. Lara Croft’s reboot – which has propelled Lara back to critical acclaim – has plenty of open areas that enable you to choose your own paths, but the game keeps you on a linear track. This is the case in Uncharted 4 as well, even with the introduction of vehicles about halfway through the game! In these instances, you have such a large scale of land to explore that it begins to feel like an open world game – but as you go in search of nooks and crannies, the game is cleverly edging you along to the next story point. There is a positive back and forth with these two franchises; for example, Uncharted‘s Indiana Jones-style adventuring owes a lot to the classic Tomb Raider games, just as Crystal Dynamics’ reinvention of Lara has traces of Uncharted‘s gameplay DNA.
The more open areas affect the way combat works, as well. The core of the gunplay isn’t dissimilar from before, but – and I’m gonna mention The Last of Us again here – the way Joel and Ellie operate appears to have given Nathan new ideas. For starters, companions are integrated more cleverly into combat (ahem, Ellie) and – usually – don’t get in your way. Furthermore, tall grass can be used to conceal yourself and attack enemies quietly, and the addition of being able to mark enemies encourages you to take them down quietly, one by one.
Doing this can be challenging, with the AI moving intelligently and packing a punch. You’ll find yourself having to go all guns blazing sometimes of course and in this department, Uncharted‘s action shooter gunplay remains solid, if unspectacular. The larger environments make battles sprawling and tactical, as you try to find the cover you need whilst also attempting to get a clean shot at the enemy. Little touches spice combat up from time to time, such as the simply awesome, cinematic-style attack from above (which has wisely been incorporated into Uncharted 4 trailers! Seriously, it looks very cool).
Which brings us to the new item, the rope. As a choice for a new item, it’s an interesting one. It adds a bit more visual excitement to the climbing areas of the game, stopping it from being a constant search for the next ledge, but apart from that aspect it’s quite a shallow item. It has limited use in combat and exploration, and feels like lost potential at times. On the whole, it doesn’t hurt the gameplay, but some more interesting uses of the item could have added to Uncharted 4‘s refined gameplay.
Lights, Camera, Action!
Without spoiling too much, let’s talk about those action set-pieces. Unlike, say, Uncharted 3‘s boat scene, there isn’t a clear stand-out in A Thief’s End. It’s almost as if the game opts for the direction of more sequences, albeit with the caveat that they aren’t quite as bombastic. Indeed, Uncharted 4 feels distinctly longer than the PS3 Uncharted games, so the need for more intermissions of action is understandable. Nevertheless, there are still great moments. A multi-faceted chase sequence and the ascent of a clock tower are memorable; when the set-pieces do arrive, they are still energetic and varied, but it does lack that one sequence that you leaves a really strong and lasting impact.
Speaking of these high-octane moments, Naughty Dog is setting a high standard with the way it does game presentation. The motion capture, choreography and performances by Nolan North (Nathan Drake), Emily Rose (Elena Fisher), Richard McGonagle (Victor Sullivan, AKA Sully) and co. continue to be captivating. The added polish of the storytelling pulls you in in a way few other developers seem able to execute.
The graphical performance of the game is utterly stunning, too. You often get treated to tremendous views (a long time was spent in Photo Mode), but it is the way that Uncharted 4 looks consistently beautiful that impresses most. Details like grass moving fluidly in the wind, particles of snow hovering in the air, and dust affecting the lighting add up to make one of the best-looking game worlds you can inhabit.
It’s also impressive how the attention to detail translates over into the gameplay. You can clamber over the backs of companions when climbing, so you don’t get stuck behind them. Clear a group of enemies silently and Nathan will express his pride. It’s little things like these, in both gameplay and presentation terms, that elevate the quality of Uncharted 4.
Nevertheless, there are a couple of small criticisms to level at the game. Late on, jungle environments pop up a little too frequently. Character interactions keep things lively, but these similar environments are noticeable. On the topic of repetition: can we stop this reliance on the ol’ boost-someone-up-a-ledge-then-wait-for-them-to-push-something-down-for-you in Naughty Dog games? These are exceptionally creative developers; surely there is a better way to break up sequences?
Give Me a Boost
It’s easy to forget that a game as story-oriented as Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End has multiplayer. It’s a substantial offering of content, but speaking of Tomb Raider, it feels a lot like the multiplayer in that 2013 reboot. It all feels a bit… unneeded. There’s a few different modes, including straight-up Team Deathmatch, capturing Command Sites in Command, and retrieving idols in Plunder. Rather small maps, with pretty straightforward routes of navigation, restricts combat to pretty simple scenarios within these game modes – ultimately, it all just feels a bit throwaway.
There is undeniable enjoyment to take out of playing as characters you aren’t able to control in the single-player, such as Elena and Sully, but past kitting your characters out in your favourite garb and pushing up the Ranked Leaderboards… there isn’t really too much longevity to be found here. We know more content is coming, so it may be worth keeping an eye on, but the single-player is where your attention should be going here.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End concludes (no spoilers) in a way that neatly sums up the game. I started by having problems with a bit of it, but then the main substance of the ending was so well-done, so interesting, that I sort of forgot the discrepancies of it. Sure, the pacing of Uncharted 4 is damaging to the momentum of the game early on, but once it hits its stride, you find yourself along for the ride and savouring each moment.
Is Uncharted 4 flawless? No. Is it still fantastic? Certainly. As an end to the story of our central character, the charismatic Nathan Drake, it is immensely satisfying. In terms of presentation and storytelling, this is a standard games should look to be inspired by. Nathan Drake’s adventure may be ending, but hopefully many more are just beginning.