Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End review

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Naughty Dog is simply better at this than anyone else. When it comes to marrying narrative and gameplay, creating an interactive adventure where you can be both participant and audience, agent of events in the game and spectator of the drama this developer is ahead of all others. It gets the balance right again and again, and Uncharted 4 is one of its best examples of that.

We’ll say right out of the gate that this isn’t quite on Uncharted 2’s level in terms of action and mind-blowing setpieces, but on the other hand it gives The Last Of Us a run for its money in the gripping story stakes. Don’t get us wrong, Drake hasn’t hung up his holster or given up leaping off collapsing buildings, it’s just that this game feels like it was written with story beats and character development at its heart rather than a series of big, showcase events that needed to be squeezed in.

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Uncharted 4 is driven by character rather than plot in other words and that means everything feeds back into the deeper Drake tale. If one lesson was taken from The Last Of Us, it was that grounding the story in the human relationships can be just as potent as derailing a train. Everything just matters more than it has before.

This struck us the deeper we went in to the game as we realised that the ultimate goal and treasure of A Thief’s End was becoming less and less important to us and the ultimate fate of these characters and their relationships grew in stature. We’ve always like Nate, Sully and Elena with their quippy banter and occasionally heartfelt confessions to one another, but Uncharted 4 made us really care about them. You get given an insight into their true natures and why they’ve stuck together for so many years, despite Nathan Drake being a mess of conflicting motivations and desires.

It all gets played out on the screen and, of course, this being Naughty Dog, played out in smart, subtle performances from the cast, intelligent writing and with plenty of exciting gameplay moments in-between. The introductions of a handful of player-dictated conversation trees keeps you engaged, although we didn’t notice too much difference from outcomes based on what was chosen.

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The big action moments are not quite on Uncharted 2 levels and unfortunately that’s really a problem Naughty Dog created for itself. That game was on another level in terms of structure and plotting and it’s been smart to offer something tonally different and emotionally more engaging this time around. If you can’t match the feats of the past, aim for a different peak. There’s a good amount of leaping and running (a couple of fantastic chases that match the best escapes of these series), but the spectacle is spread over the game a little more evenly than before.

It comes from incredibly rendered landscapes that are fully explorable, from insanely detailed buildings and ruins that only seem to get more and more breathtaking as the game progresses. While the opening couple of hours of the game are a little slow, the pacing of the rest of the adventure is consistently excellent, with less of the peaks and troughs of previous games. Again and again the game shifts emphasis from fighting to puzzles and climbing to exploration, interspersed with cinematics to let you have a breather. And it all gradually builds towards a big finish.

Everything about Uncharted 4 feels more grounded even while it still plays in the heightened pulp reality of an adventure serial and that even extends to the new mechanics and gameplay emphasis in Uncharted 4. The introduction of the grappling hook, for instance, makes for some greater variation in world traversal, freshening up that experience, while also allowing for more vertical encounters with enemies.

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Swinging around the landscape has plenty of escapist fantasy about it, but it also opens up the maps wonderfully and Naughty Dog has taken full advantage of that. These are real playgrounds to explore and should offer a healthy challenge to completionists who need to find every treasure and jot down every possible journal entry. There is just so much to see and find. On top of this there’s a much heavier emphasis on stealth.

Again we wonder how much influence The Last Of Us had here, but while resource management isn’t really an issue for Drake, he is and should be pretty vulnerable when faced with an army and as such this game encourages a more thoughtful approach. Direct attack is possible, but risky, while using tall grass, hiding in cover and picking your moments to move around a location to pick off enemies is very satisfying. We should also give a shout out to the companion AI design team who managed to make this much more believable than in The Last Of Us as Sam and others keep well out of sight rather than running around in clear view all the time.

Now, being faced with ten enemies feels like a puzzle to be solved rather than just a firefight and while that means things take a little longer, they also offer a nice mental challenge on top of all the marksmanship. And frankly Uncharted has never been at its best as a shooter. The mechanics are just a little too loose, the guns a little light and characterless. The introduction of a colour scheme to gun pickups that identifies better weapons helps a little here, but we enjoyed the stealth too much. Things descending into a shootout felt like failure, not unlike playing Metal Gear Solid.

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But there are of course real puzzles and these are some of the most fun and interactive of the series to date, although really not the most challenging. Perhaps it speaks to Naughty Dog wanted to keep the game moving at a nippy pace (and after the opening, once the adventure starts proper it does whizz along), but rather we think we’ve been spoiled again by recent fare. In the face of The Witness, Uncharted’s approach to puzzles almost seems a little quaint. We did like one moment though, which reminded us a lot of how we played The Witness, jotting down thoughts on a notepad as we went. It turns out Drake does something very similar when he’s tackling a brain-teaser, so it’s nice to know we at least have that in common.

The last really fresh addition is the jeep, which appears a little before midway through the game and is a rare example of a driving mechanic being added to an action game that doesn’t suck. Getting the jeep through the world is fun, fast and offers up it’s own smaller puzzles. Using the winch to get the jeep up hills for instance becomes a small and satisfying challenge with some interesting variations later in the game.

The fact that it’s designed physically, too, as you have to walk the cable around the anchor point before latching it in place, is really nice. There are so many canned animations in Uncharted for lifting heavy objects and opening doors, it’s nice to have these little moments be player-controlled. The driving portions of the game stand out as some of the best in the game, and we’re not just talking about the armoured vehicles chase from convention demos of the game.

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Again and again it delivers some great opportunities and putting you behind the wheel only elevates that. The new mechanics that have been added don’t feel like back of the box fillers aimed at yelling ‘New!’ at you either. They feel pragmatic and intended to aid the story and elevate the feel of the game. Their introduction is justified through story beats and conversations. Sully and Drake argue about getting a car with a winch on it in the first place, Sam teases Nate about his throwing skills as he misses a grappling hook opportunity. Naughty Dog never misses a chance to give us an insight into these characters and you’ll leave Uncharted 4 feeling like you know more about them now than you did from three games’ worth of development.

Tonally it ties in nicely to an overall sense of openness and inclusiveness that Uncharted 4 radiates. There’s always been an approachability about its characters and that’s reflected in the narrative and gameplay mechanics now too. Case in point, as the game begins, you’re invited to turn on and off various assists and aids for the game, such as an auto lock-on feature or assisted aiming to help the shooting areas become a little more manageable. Want a real challenge however and the tougher settings will give that to you. Plus the typically fun unlocks of skins and render modes are there to play with later if you want to.

In the fun stakes, the multiplayer for this edition of Uncharted deserves a lot of praise. It’s not a heavyweight online experience and it’s not trying to do anything that feels really groundbreaking or extraordinary, but it is fun. Respawns are fast, loadouts simple, and in-match power-up purchases easy to make. It’s the flipside of the coin to this game’s single-player where logic, physics and plot reign supreme; here it’s insanity, totems that suck the life out of players and tight maps that keep things moving. The fact that you can unlock party hats for your character to wear tells you everything you need to know about what this section of the game is all about.

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Playing before release, the thing that stands out above all else is the map design. Based upon stages from the story, every map offers interesting approaches, harnessing abilities like the grappling hook again, good vantage points for snipers and tight lanes of cover for shotgun users. There’s some nice verticality to how Naughty Dog has approached this part of the game too.

So, the combat can still feel a little loose and the setpieces aren’t the biggest and most insane things this series has ever offered us, but the construction of it all is much more impressive than before. This is one of the best looking games we’ve ever had the pleasure to play, but just in terms of graphical fidelity, but scene composition, camera positioning and lighting too. This is a masterful piece of storytelling from Naughty Dog, packed full of wonderful and genuine character moments, great performances from the main cast and no small amount of little references for fans of both the series and developer. As a celebration of what Nathan Drake has given us over the last nine years we couldn’t really have asked for too much more.

9
Beautiful, joyous and thrilling from start to end