Over the past decade, no studio has come into their own the same way Naughty Dog has. In 2007, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was an impressive game from a visual and storytelling standpoint, but it was also clearly a product of the early days of cover based shooters. Two years later, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was a revolutionary title and Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception followed the wonderful formula that game laid out. Then, at the tail end of the PlayStation 3’s life cycle, Naughty Dog released The Last of Us, a game that received universal acclaim. Their success with a new IP made the prospect of a fourth Uncharted game somewhat underwhelming. However, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is not just a retread of its predecessors. Naughty Dog took everything they have learned in the past ten years and created an incredible experience and a wonderful capstone to this landmark franchise.
One of Uncharted 4’s most impressive feats is how it handles being the last game in a franchise. Uncharted 4 is both filled with nostalgia yet an entirely new experience. The game has an entire chapter early on that is almost built for the purposes of nostalgia. However, when filtered through the story of A Thief’s End, it fits almost too perfectly. I don’t want to say much else about this, other than that if you have been a fan of this franchise from the beginning, you will feel rewarded by this game without feeling like you are being pandered to. And the ending is fantastic too. It is the perfect send off for this beloved series, and it makes me hope that Sony has the wherewithal to leave it alone going forward.
But even when you take it outside of its place in the franchise, Uncharted 4 still tells an engaging story. In fact, the story in Uncharted 4 is better written and more interesting than anything the series has had to offer in the past. It doesn’t have the grim undertones of The Last of Us, but it definitely has a more mature feel. The game takes place a few years after Uncharted 3 with Nathan Drake living a domestic life with Elena. This makes sense as a direct continuation of the ending of Drake’s Deception, but it also works its way into the game’s character development. Uncharted 2 and 3 both played around with Nate’s obsession with adventure, but Uncharted 4 finally dives into it head first. Nate, Elena, Sully, and Nate’s long lost brother Sam all end this game in different places than where they started it. And all of this development feels natural for the characters.
Samuel Drake is the crux around which the story of Uncharted 4 is told. He is in trouble, and he needs Nate’s help to find the lost pirate treasure of Henry Avery. Introducing Nathan’s brother four games in could easily go poorly, but Naughty Dog pulls this off by both justifying his absence and lack of mention in the previous games as well as giving the character plenty of screen time to develop over the course of Uncharted 4. That being said, I never grew to love the character the way I did Chloe in Uncharted 2 or Cutter in Uncharted 3. That isn’t to say that Sam is a bad character. He’s well written, well acted, and works well within the context of the game. He just isn’t very memorable on his own, outside of the relationship with his brother.
But Uncharted 4 does introduce a pair of great new characters into the mix. Rafe and Nadine, the two villains of Uncharted 4, are the best bad guys in the entire series. The two play off of each other well and both have actual histories with the protagonists. Nadine feels a little underutilized and underdeveloped, but Rafe is so much fun to hate. Unlike the other Uncharted villains, Rafe isn’t out to rule the world. He just wants to make a name for himself, and Drake would probably let him if he didn’t need the same treasure to save Sam. But that doesn’t stop him from being an incredibly unlikable and irredeemable human being. It is a much more interesting dynamic and makes me wonder what Uncharted 2 would have been like if Flynn was the main antagonist.
Uncharted 4 is paced differently than the other games in the franchise, and it is better for it. Combat is at a premium here, with most of the time spent either climbing, solving puzzles, or exploring the environment. Not only that, but the game also spends a fair amount of chapters setting up the story before diving into it. While you’re playing, you might be wondering why the first part of the game is so slow. However, it picks up a few hours in, with a story that wouldn’t work without all of the set up. This is easily the best story Naughty Dog has told in the Uncharted universe, and the hours of set up is a large part of this. But the other part that makes Uncharted 4’s story work so well is the elements of story telling taken from The Last of Us, and more specifically the Left Behind expansion. There is a ton of environmental storytelling happening in Uncharted 4. Notes that you find along the way as well as optional conversations and just evocative environment design crafts memorable narratives that run parallel to the primary one. The story of Henry Avery and the fall of Libertalia is just as interesting as the story of Nathan Drake and much more interesting than any of the historical story lines in previous Uncharted games. I’m not somebody who tries to find every collectible in a game, but I was scouring certain environments in Uncharted 4, looking for notes or optional dialogue to piece together bits of story. And even when I couldn’t find any of them, I would still take a look around the environment and try to discern for myself what happened there.
And a big part of what makes these environments so interesting is that they are just gorgeous to look at. I can’t stress enough how good this game looks. It is the best looking video game I have ever seen in terms of fidelity, and the art direction is great as well. There are moments in this game that look more like concept art than an actual video game. And unlike a game such as The Order 1886, Uncharted 4 does this across some fairly large environments. This is nowhere near the size of modern open world games, but it is not a bunch of linear corridors either.
Uncharted has never been a premiere third person shooter, and it still isn’t. However, Uncharted 4 brings the series closer to that mark than it has ever been in the past. Incredible animation and improved hit detection make for an incredibly smooth and satisfying shooter, while plenty of design changes encourage more movement and improvisation as opposed to staying behind cover. The new movement abilities come in the form of the rope and the slide. These abilities are primarily used for platforming sections, but they do get a fair amount of use in combat and can be incredibly satisfying. Other elements of the game that encourage movement are the removal of the grenade throwback mechanic from Uncharted 3 as well as a large amount of destructible cover. All of this makes Uncharted 4’s gunplay very fast and frantic, and the restraint in terms of littering the game with them meant that I never got tired of combat. In fact, the gun fights felt like a reward rather than a chore for the first time in the franchise.
The biggest change to the gameplay this time around comes from the addition of new stealth mechanics. You can mark enemies and hide in plants, and all of the enemies have a detection meter. It is no longer the case where everybody focuses on you once you enter an enemy’s line of sight. Now you can sneak around for a while and take out plenty of guards before you get into an all out gun fight. And once you are seen, you can then lose those guards and sneak away. In fact, there are entire combat scenarios that you can leave without killing all of the present guards. This isn’t to say that Uncharted 4 is a true stealth game on the level of Metal Gear Solid V or Splinter Cell. However, it is viable for the first time in the series and does more than enough for what is still an action game at its core.
A staple of the Uncharted series since Uncharted 2 has been the big set pieces. There are three in this game, and two of them primarily involve climbing. However, they are all exhilarating visual treats, and the jeep chase that was shown pre-release is one of the best moments in the entire series. But if you come to this game looking for another Uncharted 2 in terms of action, you might be disappointed. This isn’t that game. It is a much slower, much more deliberate Uncharted game, and I appreciate it for being that. However, not everyone is going to feel that way. The game has an increased focus on traversal that some people might not enjoy. Even personally, as somebody who enjoys the climbing, I thought that some of that could have been replaced by puzzles which are notably sparse in this game. I also could have done without the sections borrowed from The Last of Us in which you have to move boxes in order to reach a higher point. It’s a shame too, because the game delivers some really fun puzzles when it tries too. But these are minor complaints about what is otherwise an immaculate campaign.
Uncharted 4 also comes with what is at this point the standard Uncharted multiplayer experience. It comes with the standard three modes of deathmatch, command, and plunder as well as a trail mode which allows you to experiment with some of the different gear, sidekicks, and mysticals. Mysticals and sidekicks are both new to Uncharted and can offer up some pretty game changing bonuses. Mysticals are treasures from the previous campaigns which you can use to do things such as attack enemies, revive teammates, or move around super fast. Sidekicks are incredibly generic looking characters which can be useful for dealing damage, sniping, reviving, and holding enemies in place. Both of these add as nice additions to the game and from what I’ve played seem to be balanced well. This mode is also filled with fan service, letting you play as basically any character you can think of from the previous three games. By playing and completing challenges, you unlock in game currency that can be used to purchase chests which grant you characters and customization options. You can also spend real money on this stuff if you want. Naughty Dog is going to be making all upcoming multiplayer updates free which is great, but in order to do so they implemented one use items which you can pay real money for. I haven’t seen this system be abused yet, and I doubt it will ruin the online experience, but just the existence of it is gross. The multiplayer is not a reason to come to Uncharted 4 in the first place, but it is a fun reason to keep coming back.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a special game. Very few developers put the amount of care and attention of detail into their games that Naughty Dog does, and nobody puts out games that are more beautiful or better written. All that Uncharted 4 had to do was wrap up the series in a satisfying way, but it goes above and beyond that. Uncharted 4 is not only the best Uncharted game, but it raises the bar for narrative driven games in general. And in an industry rife with sequels, it is nice to see one developer give their star the sendoff he deserves. “Sic parvis magna” is a phrase that the games have always used to describe the character of Nathan Drake, but it is really something that has come to define the series itself; Greatness from small beginnings.
Final Score: 5 Stars