A Magnificent Magnum Opus
It’s been a hell of a run for adventurer extraordinaire Nathan Drake. After three explosive entries on the PlayStation 3 and a handheld treasure hunt that proved to be a compelling showpiece for the Vita, developer Naughty Dog’s pistol-packing smart aleck with a heart of gold is ready to hang up his holster and pass the torch to new generation of treasure hunters. However, he’s not going down without one last trek through another gilded and forgotten city. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End may mark the end of Drake’s career, but it feels like the beginning of even greater things for the studio that first cut its teeth on the Crash Bandicoot series two decades ago.
Yes, I know, that’s certainly a bold claim. However, within five minutes of clutching the controller in your sweaty palms you’ll understand where I’m coming from. The Uncharted games have always been known for their unrivaled set piece moments and sky-high production values, but Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End cranks the dial to 11 right out of the gate. The game delivers an unrivaled sense of spectacle and interactivity that raises the bar for the series and the medium as a whole, proving once again that the console generation doesn’t start until Naughty Dog says so.
The first Uncharted game to be developed from the ground up for the PlayStation 4, A Thief’s End is one of the most impressive looking games I’ve ever seen. Sure, the dramatic vistas and ancient, crumbling architecture of the ruins you’ll explore look as awe-inspiring as ever, but Naughty Dog’s work with The Last of Us is also plain to see with all of the little details you’ll notice peppered throughout every environment. From the everyday toiletries that line the bathrooms in Drake’s house to the natural, lived-in clutter of a stately home you’ll explore mid-way through the game, each and every area is filled to the brim with even the finest details. There were countless times I meandered through an environment for far longer than I should have just because I had to take in every last detail. From the posh looking carpets in Drake’s home to the texture of the linens and reflections cast on picture frames, Uncharted 4 is a sight to behold. It’s more than pretty scenery, too, as every character is brought to life with unbelievably fluid and convincing animations, from the way a body crumples when blasted with a shotgun to the way Drake gently rests his hand on a wall as he makes his way around a corner. Simply put, I don’t see another game reaching this level of visual splendor for quite some time.
A Thief’s End begins with a bang as Nathan Drake and his long-lost brother Sam are under fire on a stormy sea by a mysterious group of mercenaries known as Shoreline. After a chaotic introduction, the story bounces back and forth between Nathan’s formative years in an orphanage and the present as he pursues his life-long goal of uncovering the lost treasure of famed 17th century pirate Henry Avery. Nathan and Sam’s quest for glory leads them on a globe-trotting adventure that sees the duo in such varied locales as forgotten Scottish crypts, sun-soaked Panamanian ruins, and even the vast expanse of an uncharted (see what I did there?) waters in search of the score of a lifetime.
If you’ve ever stepped into the hiking boots of Nathan Drake before then you’ll feel right at home with what A Thief’s End has in store. The game delivers the same — though this time more refined — blend of Indiana Jones-meets-Rambo adventure you’d expect from the series. You’ll spend just as much time scouring dank caverns and crypts in search of Avery’s treasure as you will gunning down hordes of soldiers of fortune. As expected, the developer has once again managed to find that fine balance between pensive puzzle-solving and adrenaline-filled action that fans of the series crave. And whether you’re rummaging through derelict catacombs or trading bullets with an army atop a speeding truck, you can almost always count on a jaw-dropping set piece event to cap things off.
It’s nothing short of amazing just how pitch-perfect the game’s pacing is. Over the course of one chapter you’ll perform some extreme acrobatics through shifting innards of a massive clock tower as you leap and swing from churning gears and mechanisms, only to take the wheel of a jeep moments later and barrel through a bustling city while being pursued by an armored truck. While you’d expect this to be a largely linear affair, you’re actually given a staggering degree of freedom as you navigate your battered buggy through numerous side streets and detours to reach your final destination. This breathtaking scene comes to its climax in a segment that forces you to jump from one speeding vehicle to the next while fighting off soldiers in dozens of speeding motorcycles and trucks in a chase sequence that makes Uncharted 2: Among Thieves’ beloved “convoy” scene seem almost quaint in comparison. I’d go into more detail about these over-the-top sequences, but I’d hate to spoil the surprise. They’re just that good.
The areas you’ll explore in Uncharted 4 are more sprawling than ever. Thankfully, Nathan Drake has a few new toys to help him get around. One of the most interesting of these comes in the form of a handy grappling hook, which gives Drake the ability to swing like a heavily-armed Tarzan across gaps and rappel down sheer cliff faces. The grappling hook adds an entirely new level of verticality to the package, and you’ll put it to good use over the course of the game’s 15-hour campaign. In addition to the aforementioned jeep, you’ll also get to channel your inner pirate and take control of a boat as you sail a fairly expansive island chain. While you’d think taking control of vehicles seems a bit out of place in an Uncharted title, it actually works extremely well. Cruising through each environment is fun, and these new ways to get around work well to underscore just how enormous each environment is.
While stealth was a viable option in previous games in the series, the system is a bit more fleshed out this time around. When an enemy notices Drake, a white shield above their head will begin to fill up. If you fail to break their line of sight, the shield will eventually become yellow. At this point the enemy is now alert and actively looking for Drake. If you fail to conceal yourself immediately, the icon will become orange, which signifies your cover is blown and every enemy in the area will be gunning for you. Oftentimes the best way to survive larger encounters is to work your way around the perimeter of an area, stealthily killing as many enemies as you can before mopping up the remaining grunts with a barrage of gunfire. Though it doesn’t make the game feel radically different, the more refined stealth system does provide an extra layer of strategy to each encounter that rewards players who approach each encounter discreetly.
If Amy Hennig’s departure from Naughty Dog in 2014 put any doubts in your head that A Thief’s End would feature as memorable of a story as the previous entries in the series, I’m happy to report that you can put those fears to rest. Lead writers Neil Druckmann and Josh Scherr have done a stellar job of crafting a captivating tale that sits proudly alongside the best games in the series. Of course, the dialog is also just as entertaining as ever, with series mainstays Nolan North, Richard McGonagle and Emily Rose reprising their roles as Nathan Drake, Victor Sullivan, and Elena Fisher respectively. The playful jabs between Sully and Drake are as endearing as ever, and the feeling of camaraderie that manifests itself between the estranged Brothers Drake feels natural and sincere. What’s most impressive though is the way the writing handles Drake’s relationship with Elena, which is handled in a way that’s much more personal and nuanced than any on-screen couple I’ve seen in my 30-something years of playing video games.
Multiplayer returns in Uncharted 4, and while it likely won’t replace your current online obsession, it’s still an entertaining addition to the package. The grappling hook that’s so predominantly displayed in the game’s single player campaign is used to great effect, allowing teams to quickly make their way around the battlefield. Additionally, you can use in-game currency that you earn over the course of a match to purchase more powerful weapons, summon backup units (such as a medic and an armored, minigun-wielding grunt), and even supernatural items that can unleash harmful spirits across a wide area. It’s fun, mindless chaos, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
If there’s any place where Uncharted 4 falters, it’s in the moments where its video game tropes are overplayed a bit excessively. For example, enemies are quick to huddle around exploding red barrels like moths to a flame, which makes some gunfights feel like flashy shooting galleries. Another example is the bizarre abundance of rolling crates are always conveniently just around the corner whenever you need them, much like the pallets that so often saved the day in The Last Of Us. By the umpteenth time you’ve found yourself a perfectly intact rolling crate or wagon in a 300-year-old pirate settlement you’ll be hard-pressed not to laugh at the absurdity of it all. A little more imagination in this department would have most certainly been welcome.
Extremely minor gripes aside, it’s not often a that game like this comes along, and when one does it stays with you for ages. Nathan Drake’s final outing is without question his finest hour. Naughty Dog’s smart refinements and welcome additions to the series tried-and-true formula pay huge dividends, laying sturdy groundwork for an epic that plays like a dream and is without equal in its scope and presentation. We only hope that we don’t have to wait too long before another treasure hunter fills Drake’s shoes, because Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is an adventure worth its weight in gold.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: PS4 (Reviewed) ; Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment ; Developer: Naughty Dog ; Players: 1-10 (online) ; Released: May 10, 2016 ; ESRB: M for Mature; MSRP: $59.99