I’ve been waiting for this for quite a long time. I’m not sure why I kept putting it off, given it’s been cheap for ages and it’s a part of a series of pretty reliable games, but there we go. Let’s roll on towards the (current) end of the Uncharted franchise with A Thief’s End.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (PS4)
Released May 2016 | Developed: Naughty Dog | Published: Sony
Genre: Action-Adventure, Third-Person Shooter
I’m not sure what I expected from an Uncharted game on the next generation up. Maybe I thought there’d be some kind of evolution in the gameplay? More fool me; in reality, Uncharted 4 is, well, more Uncharted. The foundations of the game remain the same as every other installment; I can imagine some might have liked more changes or upgrades to have been implemented, but I’m quite happy with it as it is. After all, the franchise has gotten where it is by incrementally improving upon the same core.
If you’ve seen or played an Uncharted game then you’ll know precisely what to expect; Uncharted, after all, is not a series which pushes the boat out in terms of adding new features. In fact, in general I think the series warrants praise for knowing when not to add in anything extraneous, and instead each subsequent release focuses on sharpening up the extant gameplay loop. As a result Uncharted 4 is the tightest and best feeling one to date. As per usual then, Uncharted 4 is a pretty standard action-adventure mix of third-person cover shooting, clambering around extensive ruins, solving the occasional puzzle, and there’s always a few high-octane action sequences thrown in for good measure as well.
As in previous sequels, the gunplay shows only a marginal improvement, but it never needed too much tweaking in the first place. You get a reasonable variety of guns, so there’s almost always something you’ll be comfortable using, though I feel like Uncharted 4 is at its best when you don’t get attached to them; just fire away and then rush in and grab something new, and in my experience that helps keep the game feel more faster-paced. Of course, that is often dependent on the difficulty you choose; I’ve said before that I’m a big proponent of easy modes in games, and Uncharted is a series that has always featured both a fairly well-planned difficulty curve but also random spikes. It should at least satisfy fans who want some sort of challenge, but the game makes concessions towards accessibility as well for folk like me who prefer not to worry about tough games.
Melee combat has also been sharpened up, again building on the foundations laid by the 3rd game. It doesn’t feel quite as cinematic as in Uncharted 3, where fights would often let you dunk enemies through tables or bonk them with nearby bottles or tools, but it does manage to present a more engaging, and dare I say, exciting combat system as now Nate’s contextual attacks feel a lot more natural. I especially like the way that Nate can seamlessly team up with an ally to start smacking away at foes; I feel like in previous games this would feel like little “moments”, but here they’re just a natural part of the combat.
One area that’s seen a dramatic improvement however is stealth. While the Uncharted franchise has used stealth from the 2nd game onwards, almost exclusively as a way to thin enemy ranks out before encounters, it’s at its best here. Because areas are much larger, Nate now has infinitely more opportunities to be a stealthy bastard. It felt like almost every encounter could have been taken on without my being spotted if I had been good enough, and it’s exhilarating to be able to just drop into tall grass cover and sneak about, silently taking enemies out. What I think I love though is that the game never penalised me for being crap at stealth or for eschewing it altogether. Instead, stealth is a distinct option available to you, but if you’re more gung-ho you can always opt to go in all guns blazing.
I mentioned that the levels are larger, but I’m not sure I adequately expressed how absolutely massive they are in comparison to any previous game. Uncharted 4 isn’t an open-world game by any means, but Naughty Dog have embraced making the stages both bigger and denser at the same time. Sometimes that means that there are multiple paths to platform through, and at other times it simply means that you’re going to be left gaping at how utterly, mind-bogglingly beautiful Uncharted 4 is. That’s not a comment made lightly either; the series has always been considered at the top of the game when it comes to pushing its consoles to the limit in terms of graphical fidelity, but Uncharted 4 was a surprise even then in just how jaw-droppingly gorgeous it looks. The customary lush green jungles grace our screens once again, obviously, but the levels that really took me breath away were places like the Madacasgan plains we get to tear around in, where the arid red rock juts out from the ground, and mud squelches and pools realistically as Nate stumbles through it. It’s also got probably the best looking water in any game I’ve played, and the game doesn’t shy away from letting you dive down into rivers and pools in order to explore.
With larger levels comes more platforming, and again Uncharted 4 doesn’t offer much in the way of new experiences here. Nate now comes equipped with a grappling hook that gets used quite a lot for fun swingy bits, but it’s less of a wild new addition and more just a nice extra that feels like it always ought to have been there. This is a small additional note, but I really like the extensive accessibility options that are placed in front of the player at the beginning of play. It feels unusual and noteworthy for console games to go to these lengths, which is a shame, but I’m glad to see it here at least.
But what is Uncharted 4 actually about? Well, for a start it introduces us to Sam, Nate’s long lost brother. Remember that off-hand line about how grim Panamanian jails are, way back in the first game? Well that’s where we get dropped off here as we see Nate and Sam in a younger time. Both are treasure hunters, of course, but when a job and a subsequent prison escape attempt goes wrong, Nate is forced to watch on in horror as his brother is shot and killed. 15 years later, Nate is retired from the treasure hunting life. He’s earned his happy ending after all, and lives a normal life with Elena. However, one night he’s greeted at the door by none other than Sam! Grizzled and scarred, he recounts to Nate how he was saved by prison doctors and imprisoned until a riot orchestrated by a drug lord gave him his chance to escape. Now he’s out and wants to get back on the trail of the treasure of Henry Avery, a British pirate, who reportedly went missing with 400 million dollars worth of gold and treasure. Despite (or perhaps because of) his calm, sedate life, Nate cannot resist the call and rushes off, and the brothers Drake join forces once again in search of some pirate gold.
Although there’s obviously a lot of the regular plot stuff you’d expect from Uncharted – a rival, unhinged treasure hunter, a PMC staffed like a small country, and the usual globe-trotting array of traps and clues – the actual draw here is the character writing. The Uncharted franchise is one which, I think, has never really tried to do too much with its cast. The first game was populated by Hollywood stereotypes and written-by-committee wisecracks, which made Drake into a particularly loathsome bloke, and Naughty Dog definitely realised this as since then they’ve made rather more efforts to give their characters personalities. The second game does a little better of a job about it, and because the third game is basically Naughty Dog’s take on The Last Crusade, a lot of the game is given over to exploring Drake and Sully’s relationship, and I remarked in my review of it that it made for something genuinely compelling. However, Naughty Dog pulled out all the stops for A Thief’s End. The action and explosions that follow Nate wherever he goes are juxtaposed with calmer moments that allow Nate to confront all 3 of the most meaningful relationships he has, with his friend, his brother, and his wife. It’s telling that the most powerful moments of peril are the ones where Nate threatens to destroy these relationships. Although Uncharted is no stranger to predictable plot points, A Thief’s End does its best to give these moments actual emotional weight, and it culminates in a beautiful poignant and emotionally impactful ending; if nothing else, it draws a clear and final line underneath the franchise, or at least Nathan Drake’s role in it, and it does so in a way which is, I think, as close to perfect as one could want.
I’ve really grown to love the Uncharted franchise. I can still remember back to when I played that first critically-acclaimed entry and felt so very nonplussed by it; even on replays I still find Drake’s Fortune a largely mediocre experience. However, if it’s possible for game franchises to have character growth, then Uncharted is one of the best examples of it in my opinion. Among Thieves showed a surprising depth once it realised that its principal cast should be characters rather than tropes, and then Drake’s Deception used that to craft a touching and excellent experience that had the added bonus of not messing up in the endgame like its predecessors. With A Thief’s End I think we’ve reached the culmination of this series’ craft. If you asked me which one I’d choose to play, I’d be really hard-pressed to pick between this one and Deception, and that’s a lovely dilemma to have; Uncharted 4 hits the high notes it needed to hit, and gave me the finale that I didn’t realise I needed.
7/7 – TOP TIER.
As close to perfect as it gets, a game that surpasses any faults it might have and comes with the highest of recommendations. A must-play.