Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a spectacular conclusion to a series that always promised to blow us away. Truth be told, we thought it did with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves; that was merely a taste of the greatness that was to come on PS4. With genuine emotion, a greater emphasis on character development and more balanced gameplay, A Thief’s End is not only the Uncharted game that surpasses all expectations, it’s the best in Naughty Dog’s critically acclaimed catalogue. It’s easy to get swept away and make rash claims about a mid-generation game being a console’s best, so before you skim to the score know this: I’ve never been so invested in an action game’s story and its characters.
Uncharted 4 is everything Uncharted 3 should have been – I’m adamant to avoid being distracted by the missteps of a 2011 PS3 sequel, but the stark contrast, and how far the development team has come going from making a great-looking game to a great game, is extraordinary. Some of that can be attributed to the extra power afforded by the PS4, but it runs much deeper. Following The Last of Us, Naughty Dog has become a masterful storyteller – a quality few developers, as a whole, possess – allowing Nathan Drake to prosper with a likeable and relatable persona, the envy of all video game protagonists.
Set primarily following the events of the trilogy, a hearty backstory sets the scene. Opening with an innocent Nathan during his childhood confined to an orphanage, we’re introduced to his delinquent brother Sam (Troy Baker). Jump ahead, and the two are serving a faux prison sentence on a futile search for the mythical $400 million treasure of notorious pirate Henry Avery. Naturally, it all goes wrong; the brothers Drake are separated, and 15 years later, a middle-aged Nate has settled into a normal life with his wife Elena.
There’s some crafty writing to explain Sam’s whereabouts, and why Nate never bothered to mention him. The elder Drake embodies the greedy thief deep within that Nathan has mostly repressed to flourish as the charming hero of folklore – but let’s not pretend he hasn’t stolen a lot of treasure and murdered thousands of goons just doing their job in the process.
The mundane (on paper) opening stanza is more reminiscent of The Last of Us than the generic shooting of Drake’s Deception. There’s almost no murdering during the first few hours; it’s replaced by authentic character development and a story that captures your undivided attention like a newly discovered TV series accidentally binged in its entirety. I didn’t want to put the controller down until the credits rolled, and I’ve been here before. ‘Just another chapter’, I kept telling myself to the detriment of a university assignment whilst playing Uncharted 2. It’s even harder to walk away from Uncharted 4, desperate to discover the next bout of shenanigans. In that respect, the narrative breakdown into chapters encourages fun size snippets to be binged deep beyond nightfall on May 10.
It begins with the characters you know, but on a level you’re yet to meet them. I sincerely felt the relationship between Nate and Elena – the seed had been planted in Uncharted 2, but it doesn’t compare. The acceptance of an ordinary existence, repressed torment generated by the compromises of marriage, deep-seeded mutual admiration, and longing for former glory; before you’ve thrown a grenade, Uncharted 4 develops unprecedented characterisation and embarks upon a hair-raising narrative – that’s not embellishment. When the end is nigh, the hairs on the back of your neck will stand to attention.
It would be misleading to imply Uncharted 4 holds up entirely as a standalone experience. It’s the long-awaited conclusion to a winding adventure for a reason, and its resounding success owes a great deal of gratitude to the groundwork laid in the previous generation. However, such is its strength, I wouldn’t label The Nathan Drake Collection a prerequisite. The core cast is reintroduced, new treasure is given a greater purpose than any past motive, a new rival emerges (complete with a reasonable army of goons), and it’s the addition of newcomer Sam who enables it all.
Nolan North and Troy Baker play off each other so convincingly, I suspect they might actually be siblings separated at birth. Sam injects a much-needed element of intrigue and questionable morals into the Drake clan, and is a serviceable A.I. companion. Sully and Elena are given their fair share of the grunt work, but for the most part it’s the Nate and Sam show. It’s an obvious partnership, but one that explores an uncharted relationship. Without time to catch-up in a rowdy pub, the brothers reunite with a healthy dose of male bonding through competitive banter. For the first time, Nate has more than an accomplice, he has an equal to play off. While he and Sully have a similar dynamic, there’s no escaping their stature as master and more physically-abled apprentice. Elena settled into the role of love interest, and in previous entries Chloe was independent, without a need to rely on Nate, as he did her. He has never been partnered with a true equal, someone who forces the best out of him often against his better judgement, until now.
With a new generation comes a vast overhaul to the last-gen Uncharted mechanics. Polished climbing, treasure hunting through linear exploration and puzzle solving are pushed to the forefront, as gunplay accepts a reduced role and is all the better for it. With the body count reduced, Nathan finally becomes a treasure hunter first, and a cheerful killer second.
Playing on moderate, I still had a tally of just over 500 kills from the 15-hour adventure (plus cutscenes). But that’s less than half what I registered in the previous two games, and the affect is profound. By the time a mass firefight roles around, it’s exciting and welcome. It’s no longer the default objective, and that adds credence not only to the varied gameplay, but to the powerful narrative. A wave of well-paid mercenaries throwing everything at two people is more believable when less frequent, as they desperately try to foil Nate’s success, always being a step back. Crucially, it doesn’t feel like the legendary Nathan Drake is lagging behind an army of cloned goons anymore.
Naughty Dog has tightened up the gunplay controls, without falling into the trap of reworking TLOU as an action game. Head shots are much sweeter, but are harder to achieve under pressure, and aiming is much less cumbersome. No trophies for getting ‘X’ kills with weapon ‘Y’ makes a much bigger difference than it deserves, removing the shackles of needing to follow a kills checklist. Being there as an optional doesn’t mean a weapon should have to be used. It’s much more enjoyable using a core group of three or four favourites than struggling through 45 minutes with a horrid shotgun. A barrage of enemies can still be frustrating, especially since they’d all take out gold if there was an Olympic event for grenade tossing, but that’s countered by an increase in stealth options.
With a handful of exceptions, most encounters can be completed without alerting the gaggle of goons to Nate’s presence. Baddies can be tagged from a safe distance, and tall grass hides Nate in plain sight in-conjunction with the new enemy alert system. The South African henchmen are easily startled, but aren’t smart enough to follow their instincts if you slip away quickly. Once you’ve been spotted, the system regresses to a classic Uncharted bloodbath, and there’s almost no way to slip back into the shadows, without restarting the checkpoint. While certainly an improvement, for the first time there’s incentive to sneak passed or covertly eliminate enemies, it’s the only element where Uncharted can’t match its biggest rival.
There are several changes that can be attributed to the success of Tomb Raider – with both games since the reboot launching between Uncharted 3 and 4 (and to be fair, they borrowed heavily off both Uncharted and The Last of Us). A renewed focus on stealth is an honourable nod to Lara, but she does it better. Nate doesn’t have a silenced weapon – either sneak up on a goon, or shoot him in the face and give away your position. While being trigger-happy is the Uncharted way, and increased stealth options are much appreciated, the binary approach demanding either no detection or loud action would have been improved with a quiet ranged attack.
The fluid climbing mechanics also benefit from Lara’s athletics. With his brother back in the picture, Nathan suddenly remembers Sam taught him how to lasso and swing around ruined buildings on a rope all those years ago (the only major plot inconsistency). It speeds ups the process and opens new areas, so the path forward isn’t always immediately obvious. He also introduces a climbing tool into the mix, almost identical to Lara’s axe, though relied upon to a lesser extent.
In semi-retirement Nate has become a much more accomplished climber. Whereas he once replied upon brute force alone, he’s more nibble and better manoeuvres with a somewhat realistic technique – but of course can still stick the landing on outrageously overzealous leaps when the moment calls for an action hero. It’s smoother in motion, and a treat to explore the beautiful landscapes he encounters during the search for Avery’s loot. From snowy mountains, to perilous waterfalls and pristine beaches, the world of Uncharted 4 is magnificent to admire from the side of a cliff.
Visually, A Thief’s End is top of its class. From the picturesque views, to the motion capture performances and muddy tires after getting behind the wheel, it’s a stunning sight to behold. The character models are aided by strong voice performances, which joined with the excellent script and the PS4 being pushed further than ever before, delivers a marvel of interactive entertainment that’s almost as enjoyable as passive observer (tell that to your little brother when he asks for the DualShock 4). Visual prowess alone doesn’t make a great game, but as part of the bigger picture – story, performance, gameplay, and an iconic musical score – it combines to surpass what we thought was possible from a lengthy cinematic video game.
Climbing inevitably leads to puzzles and ancient mysteries to unlock. Uncharted 4 is rife with the best puzzles in the series, with several historical pirates neatly tied into some great fictional traps. There’s still an over-reliance on conveniently placed crates apparently just lying around in pristine condition from 300-years-ago – there’s always a crate or an extendable ladder – but gloss over those and there are some inspiring conundrums to solve. Most are quite short, and anyone with their head screwed on won’t struggle, but accessibility is the perfect fit for the dysfunctional family in such a dramatic saga. They’re still very clever, and getting bogged down in a massive cave for an hour or two would actually work to the detriment of Uncharted. While the comparisons are fair, it’s where Uncharted 4 and Rise of the Tomb Raider embark upon different paths – A Thief’s End is most focused on enthralling you with its story, whereas Rise of the Tomb Raider needs you to think hard to progress.
The exhilarating set pieces remain just that, but adopt a new lease on life as a facilitator of the story, rather than the other way around. Naughty Dog is careful not to bloat the new driving segments, which ensures getting behind the wheel of a jeep or boat remains fulfilling. There’s a small element of exploration for hunters determined to go home with all 109 treasures (plus notes and journal entries), but it’s really to keep you playing when a cutscene may have once sufficed. Dicey moments are plentiful, and fit within the overarching narrative better than ever before. But those aren’t what we’re going to be talking about over a beer once we’ve all finished the campaign – and I am DYING to talk about so much of it to someone.
You remember the train mishap, you remember the plane that inspired Mission Impossible 5; they were awesome. But when you walk away from Uncharted 4, you’re going to remember Sam, Elena and Nathan Drake, and let’s not forget ol’ Sully, plus a few more giddy surprises that have nothing to do with explosions. The end for Nathan Drake is the beginning of when it all comes together for Uncharted.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End was reviewed using a pre-release promotional disc on PS4 as provided by the publisher.
Review: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
If you meticulously read through this entire review, congratulations on an afternoon well spent. You probably noticed we didn’t even mention multiplayer. Don’t worry! It is alive and well. However, we weren’t able to adequately test online functionality before launch. Considering the nature of the game and strength of the campaign, in our opinion multiplayer is not a key component to Uncharted, but rather a delightful optional extra. Therefore, we have decided to review A Thief’s End based entirely on its solo offering. We’ll have something separate about multiplayer after 10 May, but bearing any significant impact positively or negatively, it won’t affect our review score.