Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review

The following review has been edited to include some of the things I missed because I stupidly lost my original notes. The overall verdict on the game hasn’t changed however.

All good things must come to an end.

And what an end it is.

Uncharted 4 comes as the closer to a long-running franchise that has been full of adventure, action, and a massive body count. Naughty Dog has clearly outdone themselves this time, creating a game that ups the ante but fills the story with human elements that have been missing from the series before.

The finale to the series doesn’t go out with a bang though, it goes out with a bow worthy of a composer directing his last orchestral performance.

FINE, SKIP AHEAD IF YOU WANT

GAMEPLAY

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Naughty Dog has done what many developers fail to do with successors to their entries; they improved heavily on the original formula. Combat and movement in Uncharted 4 is smooth like chocolate, or butter, or some sort of chocolate/butter amalgam (Nutella?). I had previously struggled with the controls in the Uncharted series before, with Drake seemingly trying to commit suicide by jumping into an abyss far too often. This newest game seems to have had those issues addressed quite well, even it not completely.

The combat in particular is wonderful. Nathan moves in battle much like the folks in Desmond’s bloodline… Like a wisecracking ninja, with significantly more explosions. Firearms exhibit the satisfying oomph that they should have and sneaking through the tall grass like the Sam Fisher of old is not only an option, but a damn good one at that. Sneaking around can put you in a better position to take out large groups of enemies while putting yourself at much lower risk.

There have been many assertions that Uncharted’s iconic hero, Drake, is a mass-murdering psychopath… Let’s just say that those people are picking a battle over something that is a non-issue.

 

Like all video games there’s a required suspension of disbelief. Sure, the player kills many mercenaries in the course of each campaign but Nathan also does plenty of other things that require the player to have a reality check, like Nathan’s impeccable ability to scale rock faces and buildings with his bare hands.

Let me reiterate that for impact. Uncharted 4 has some damn good stealth mechanics for a decidedly unstealthy series. In one section in particular I was able to eliminate an entire group of mercenaries without being spotted. It wasn’t by an stretch of the imagination, easy. However, it was definitely more possible than in several other games. There are still a few oddities that have carried over from the previous games from Naughty Dog. The companion AI are thankfully undetectable when using a stealth approach, but it’s rather immersion breaking to see your buddies clomping around in front of an enemy yet somehow not getting seen. On a side note too, Nathan and his cohorts are loud as hell when they should be quiet… That’s more just funny than a complaint.

The nice thing about using stealth is that you aren’t penalized by going in guns-blazing. Uncharted 4 still allows the player to choose how he or she tackles the combat segments. Combat has become far more fluid, perhaps as a result of Naughty Dog’s additional experience in the last few years. Weapons feel useful as well as deadly, with a decent variety of firearms to choose from. There were a few that I chose not to equip, but I could probably attribute my lack of affinity for the revolvers and burst-fire rifles as something that just not fitting with my play style.

When you aren’t shooting people, you’re often treated to low-key sections that add to the story and atmosphere of the game. Like in previous entries, characters exchange banter and exposition as a way to flesh out the plot. My only issue with games utilizing this method of storytelling is that it can often be interrupted by the player crossing a threshold into combat or a mission marker, cutting off the flow of information. I don’t recall this happening in Uncharted 4 though. Interestingly, Naughty Dog added interactive elements into the dialogue that allows you to make some changes to the conversations if you wish.

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Naughty Dog also fleshed out the explorative elements of the series too, offering sections that add to the illusion that this game is less linear than the previous ones. You’ll really see what I’m talking about when you finally go to King’s Bay in Madagascar. You’re dumped into a sandbox area where you’re free to tear around in a jeep. The entire time I was in that part of the game, I had a huge grin on my face, especially when the topic of winches came up. That’s not even mentioning the new grappling hook that allows for some true Indiana Jones style moves. The only downside of this added exploration is that there really isn’t much added of substance as a result. The Madagascar section with the jeep is massive and open, but there isn’t much in the area to do once other than head to the destination, which makes the openess feel kinda wasted.

Also, if you’re the type to play through games multiple times, Uncharted 4 has not only the usual option to play the beginning or skip to certain chapters, but you can even simply skip to a specific encounter that you want to play too.

If I have any serious complaints, it has to be that the collectibles still aren’t of much use. Sure, they add a little fluff to the game if you’re the trophy hunting sort but you’re aren’t going to see much in the sense of tangible rewards for hunting them down. You will find that collecting them, in addition to completing the game, offers you currency to purchase gameplay modifiers and assets to ogle. So there’s that.

PRESENTATION

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Now I know I say this about many games, but hear me out. Uncharted 4 looks amazing. Not amazing in the sense of “Oh, it looks realistic and pretty”… More like “Holy shit, this looks incredible!”. Uncharted 4 sets a new bar for video game graphics that other games can’t touch, and will always be measured against. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few rough areas. Jim Sterling in particular lambasted the poor design of the fruits in the game. Granted, that specific criticism shouldn’t be taken at face value, but like any other game, there are definitely areas where Naughty Dog decided to cut corners to save on resources and development time. Luckily however, they didn’t skimp where it counted.

The sound design stands out as well. If there’s a way for a game to sound pretty, Uncharted 4 does so with great aplomb. The soundtrack makes for a fantastic example of how to add music to a game. Then again, Uncharted has never had a problem with a mediocre soundtrack, so I suppose they’re just continuing the trend…

Something that really sets Uncharted 4 apart though is the facial animations. Cutscenes are played out with not only some great dialogue and effective camera work, but the animations of the characters are fantastic. Nowhere is this made more evident than in the part featuring Nathan and Elena at their home. Naughty Dog didn’t have to tell the player how the characters felt, they just let the emotions come directly from the characters themselves in their body language and expressions.

Additionally, Uncharted 4 has impressively obvious, yet subtle visual cues for puzzles and platforming. There was rarely a point in which I didn’t know what I needed to do or where to go and it didn’t require a waypoint or floating text on the UI to guide me.

ORIGINALITY

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See, if there is anywhere that Uncharted 4 suffers, it’s in it’s originality. Here we are in the 4th major entry of the franchise and the fundamentals of the game hasn’t changed all that much. It’s very much still a standard third-person shooter with platforming elements. If there’s anywhere that it sets itself apart from the rest of the series, it’s in the story itself. There are motivations at play that go beyond the usual “stop the bad guy from getting the treasure” plot. Other than that, it’s the same as all the others.

STORY AND MULTIPLAYER

SPOILER WARNING: If you don’t want to know anything about the story, do not read this part.

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Uncharted 4 sets out with the idea that Nathan Drake had a brother, Sam Drake, who passed away during a job that went awry early on in his career as a treasure hunter. Nathan and Elena married in the years following the events of Uncharted 3 and have settled into a fairly normal 9-5 life. Nathan has taken to salvage operations as a career, but the itch to take on more dangerous and lucrative work has burrowed into his mind. Elena, being a woman with far more than half a brain, knows that Nathan isn’t happy and is just hiding the fact that he’s bored and pining for the adventures he’s left behind.

I’m just going to come out and say it: Nathan Drake is an imbecile when it comes to relationships. Any person in a long-term relationship or with even just a semblance of understanding regarding relationships will see that Nathan is a moron. His refusal to keep Elena in the loop about anything inevitably leads to a confrontation between them, and that can’t even be considered a spoiler because it’s obvious that the shit is going to hit the fan at some point in their marriage from the first time he lies to her.

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I will say that Naughty Dog hit the nail on the head about this type of conflict in relationships though, and it’s something that stuck with me throughout the story. Nathan desperately doesn’t want to tell Elena that he isn’t happy with a normal life out of fear that she might think that he isn’t happy with her at all. Elena just wants to know what he wants in life, even if that means he wants to go back to the excitement of adventuring. It all comes to a head later on in the story when she inevitably finds out what he’s been up to. This conflict makes Nathan and Elena seem more human, which is a welcome change from the usual cardboard characters.

Insert Sam…

Sam careens into the story as a catalyst for the events that unfold. His survival comes as a shock to Nathan considering that he saw his brother seemingly die before his very eyes. It isn’t long before Sam drags Nathan back into the search for a fabled treasure that they were looking for when Sam was supposedly killed. The thing is, Sam’s life apparently depends on Nathan’s help in finding the treasure, so Nathan packs his bags and tags along.

The story itself hinges on the emotions of the characters and each of their own motivations and it works well. At the very least, the mold is partially broken. Nathan isn’t hunting for Henry Avery’s treasure for fame or fortune like so many times before. He is hunting for it to save his brother. The story of their brothers’ relationship is told throughout the events of the game as you play as a younger version of Nathan on a fateful night with Sam. It serves to fill in the blanks and provide a little context for why things turned out the way they did for the Drake brothers.

If there’s a weak spot in the story though, it’s here. These sections are painfully slow and devoid of the fun that is packed throughout the rest of the game. Granted, it wouldn’t make sense for a pre-teen Nathan to be running around and shooting people, but it would’ve probably been better served up if it wasn’t interspersed throughout the game.

Lastly, I will be honest about the multiplayer. I didn’t play it at all but I will assure you that the single player campaign is more than enough to make the game worth the purchase. The multiplayer portions are not of a tacked-on quality from what I understand though, despite the inclusion of microtransactions.

WILDCARD: A SATISFYING END

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Naughty Dog did what so many other developers consistently fail to do. They ended the series on a high note. The epilogue itself made for a perfect way for players to come to terms with the end of the franchise. I won’t spoil that here though.

I know this seems short. Like I don’t have much to say about the game other than the standard stuff… Well you’re wrong. There’s something incredibly satisfying about a good ending.

Revelations

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Uncharted 4 is perfect in many ways, though not without its faults. It definitely has some rough edges that could’ve used some sanding down but you have to really look for them to find them. What it does right, it does really right. The story, the gameplay, and the graphics are all phenomenal. I can see this being a strong contender to be Game of the Year for many, though I’m not sure given how there are still many months left.

Let’s just say that Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a must-buy for anyone that owns a PS4. I have no idea who wouldn’t love this game.

Oh and Naughty Dog: can you please figure out the thing with the flashlights? It’s kinda sad that there have been four Uncharted games and The Last Of Us and every single one has had the same “flashlight beam pointing in a different direction from the flashlight” thing.

 

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