Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review
Drake's swansong is a visual and technical triumph. While it's often hamstrung by a surprising lack of bravado, it's still a satisfying, if bittersweet, end for this family of thieves.
The wait for Uncharted 4: A Thief's End has been a long one. Not because of the long stretch between reveal and release, or the three delays (which in retrospect could have been much worse). It's got nothing to do with the game switching its creative direction from Amy Hennig to Druckmann and Straley (of The Last of Us fame) either. It's because Uncharted 4 is the kind of exclusive tent-pole release that PlayStation owners banked on being extraordinary when they threw their hard-earned cash at Sony’s shiny console.
Was that wait worth it? Absolutely yes, but it’s not without stumbles. While Uncharted 4: A Thief's End may falter occasionally in trying to clear the high bar the series has set itself, it's still an incredibly enjoyable finale to a true Sony icon, and a testament to what the PS4 can produce.
A Thief's Beginning
When we left Nathan Drake and Elena in Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, the couple were settling down to a "normal" life. In Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, we rejoin the characters in this new, more bourgeois state. They play video games together; they cook together; they take turns doing the dishes. Immediately something is awry with these two prolific pilferers and it's not just the missing sense of adventure players have come to expect. In fact, Nate and Elena play homebodies quite well - if it weren't for the smaller subtleties, you would think that Nate and Elena were totally chuffed with their new nine-to-five lifestyles. However, the discord is in the details.
Squirrelled away in the attic are their memories of past adventures, and as Nate goofs off before dinner, there’s a longing for a past time (manifested in a neat shooting tutorial). It becomes obvious that the couple has somewhat forced this life upon themselves, rather than grow into it naturally. The house is beautiful but unkempt. Their interplay, while playful and cutesy, is punctuated by longing stares and awkward silences. This investment in character is what has stood the Uncharted series in such good stead, and this part of the introductory sequence is an absolute testament to Naughty Dog's knack for narrative and the technical wizardry underneath the PS4's hood. I have never seen a more photorealistic video game character, which certainly helps you in invest in his story.
I revelled in the first few hours of Uncharted, but in truth, it's not without its missteps.
I have never seen a more photorealistic video game character.
Prior to joining our favourite couple, there is a small scene brought forward from the final act - a narrative trick Naughty Dog played with aplomb in Uncharted 2. But here, it falls flat. The cold open has the player, as Nathan, take control of a boat in troubled waters. The aim of this short section is to reach an island on the horizon while avoiding mine, jagged rocks and enemy boats. In this moment, you're trying to wrap your head around the controls, steer the boat with the left stick and wrangle the camera with the right to spot incoming enemies from behind. It's all too much too early.
An obnoxious enemy boat ploughs through the waves, crashing into the player's boat with little to no warning and the resulting cheap deaths really tossed me out of the game early on. I also didn’t feel it was the right way to introduce Sam Drake, Nathan’s brother who was previously thought dead, to the series – I had no connection with Sam at that point and rather than thrill me with a taste of what was to come deeper into the game, it simply left me hanging, waiting to break even with the flash-forward. It also robs the story's first half of suspense knowing Sam would survive long into the game, despite the death-defying action that leads to the third act.
This touches on one of my biggest misgivings with the game, and that is how the third act is handled. Unfortunately, Drake’s swansong sings too long. Without spoiling too much, the back third involves a lot of one-on-one time with Nate, doing little more than climbing. Without interactions with other characters to pass the time, I found myself starting to just bash the X button to grind through some of the longer climbing sequences. And with it, my engagement began to wane. It took me 15 hours to finish the game, and I can’t help but feel that upping the pace of that final third would have benefited the overall experience.
When you stand back and look at the full arc, it's still absolutely thrilling popcorn fun. When his scruffier older brother Sam Drake returns from the dead, Nathan is given a lead to a mystery long dead, the whereabouts of Henry Every's pirate enclave. Initially hesitant, Nathan offers up his expertise when it becomes clear Sam's head is on the chopping block with a gang leader.
Sam is a welcome addition to the usual Uncharted troupe. He clashes with characters we love, brings out a side of Nathan we've never seen and most importantly, grows as a character over the course of Uncharted 4. My only disappointment with Sam comes from his story arc. By the end of you're left feeling like Naughty Dog really pulled some punches when writing his character. Some dramatic choices Sam makes feel somewhat phoned in, and by the end, his motivations aren't crystal clear.
With that said, Troy Baker's voice acting range is as superb as ever, spinning Sam's accent with a slight Boston twang, and Sam's character animations convey a likeable, if not enigmatic and rough, reflection of Nathan.
Sam also brings with him a lead on Henry Every's treasure stash, a mystery that's confounded the brothers long before the game's beginning. The Henry Every mystery is, in my opinion, the most intriguing puzzle in any Uncharted game. What's starts with the brothers simply searching for the pirate's loot (which is rumoured to be history's biggest stash of pirate treasure), unfolds with each chapter to become something much bigger. By the end, I was more invested in Henry Every's adventures than I ever was with anything Sir Francis Drake had to offer.
All things considered, Uncharted 4's story quality at least matches Among Thieves. It's more understated than previous entries, but it works in maturing the series just enough without getting too serious. While Uncharted 4 sticks to the series' guns by offering the light-hearted action romp fans deserve, The Last of Us still stands out to me as Naughty Dog's greatest story ever told - but I'm more a fan of emotional gut-punches and high-tension drama.
In its middle third, however, where Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is every bit the experience we’d hoped for in the last Uncharted game from Naughty Dog. By now you’ve become accustomed to the new grappling hook, which is a welcomed addition to Nate’s library of actions. Gaining momentum before a giant leap, hook attached, is an enormous rush and landing on an enemy fist first is not only extremely satisfying but also a quick way to end a fight. Plus, swinging and rappelling with the hook become thankful gameplay respites later in the story where you spend a lot of time suspended from a cliff face.
Elsewhere we see improvements to climbing, shooting and stealth. Almost everything about climbing has been improved. When you reach out for a ledge with the left stick, Drake's hand follows your input to a tee, allies will let you clamber over them if they get in the way, and you even unlock a piton later in the game. I would have liked to see the piton added earlier and utilised more (or more unlocks in general), but unfortunately, it's limited to one use, securing Nathan to spongy walls.
Enemies are still split into three classes, standard cannon fodder, heavier tanks and snipers, and there's nothing noteworthy in terms of new weaponry outside of a few rare guns that only every last a few rounds. However, the cover system is stickier and more efficient than ever. Nathan really hugs those crates and corners and heading for cover is always a reliable way to recover lost health. Better yet, cover objects are more destructible than ever, meaning you're constantly on the move. Keeping you on your toes like this keeps shootouts interesting. I recently replayed in Uncharted 3 and its cover system is a mess in comparison to Uncharted 4's.
Birds flee on approach and the sun glistens off slowly oozing mudslides
Arguably Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End most joyous moments come in Madagascar. Here the world really opens up – it’s not quite an open-world, but far greater expanses than we’ve seen previously in the series - and you're suitably given a handy 4WD vehicle in which to explore. Driving around the plains of Madagascar is a true sensory delight. I really enjoyed devouring the sparse, but alive, landscape as flocks of birds flee on approach and the sun glistens off slowly oozing mudslides. The sound effects of tumbling rocks, spinning tires and chummy conversation between characters never gets old.
Everything about the 4WD gameplay is amazing. The way it handles is sublime – especially its behaviour in the mud - and the banter surrounding Sully's choice to skimp on suspension is not only spoken, but seen through the characters reactions when the ride gets particularly rough. The depth Naughty Dog goes to with its animations is really on show here; surely best in class. There's also the winch.
Using the winch is part of the puzzle-solving process and helps ingrain the 4WD into Uncharted’s exploration experience, making it less a mode of transportation and more an essential cog in the gameplay. You take the winch in hand and manoeuvre Drake around a tree stump or flimsy obstruction and press triangle to secure it. It's simple to execute but has some extremely complicated physics that bring it to life. I've not seen anything like it before.
I had so much fun using the winch to get over tricky terrain that I feel Naughty Dog missed out on an opportunity here to experiment with it more. Overall though the inclusion of larger areas and off-road driving adds greatly to Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End’s entertainment.
Is Uncharted 4's multiplayer any good?
We've only experienced Uncharted's multiplayer in its beta form. While we had a great time with it's team-based skirmishes, artefacts, perks and summons we are yet to try it out in an uncontrolled environment. Check back by the end of the week for our full review of Uncharted 4's multiplayer.
While it’s Every's treasure that drives our gang of thieves forward, it's the personal motivations and fragile relationships of our main characters that pushed me to see this adventure to its end. I already loved the Uncharted series' gameplay and was content with the way Naughty Dog improved every aspect of their winning formula of shooting, climbing and exploring. As an action-adventure title, and an exclusive of note for the PS4, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is bound to meet and exceed the expectations of series veterans and console loyalists. While the pacing wasn't quite up to series standards and there was a curious lack of new gameplay ideas, there's still more than enough on show to make the 15-hour stint worth every second.