Naughty Dog does more than go back to the well with Nathan Drake's greatest adventure yet.
Published 05 May 2016 By Dan
After Naughty Dog released The Last of Us in 2013 to rave reviews and commercial success, fans of the studio were left wondering where the developer would go from there. The story of Joel and Ellie was seemingly complete, and another Uncharted entry seemed unlikely considering Naughty Dog’s history of putting out a trilogy per console generation before moving on to a new IP. When it was revealed that the studio’s new title would indeed be Uncharted 4, many fans (including myself) were disappointed that we wouldn’t yet be getting a new series on the PlayStation 4. We were ready for the next big thing from the studio, and Uncharted 3 already felt a bit too familiar to its predecessor. I’m glad to discover that these worries were misplaced, and Naughty Dog has created another classic with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. While it shares plenty of elements with the entries that came before it, the bar of quality has been raised substantially to create the best game in the series.
There were times in the opening hours that had me doubting if A Thief’s End was a necessary sequel. Nathan Drake’s story had tied up neatly at the end of Drake’s Deception, and this new entry goes out of its way to establish a new character that’s never been mentioned before in the series. As it turns out, Nathan has a brother. Sam Drake has been presumed dead for many years, but he suddenly reappears and complicates the more relaxed, civilian, and legal life that Nathan has settled into in the years since Uncharted 3. The stakes are higher than a simple treasure hunt this time around (because of storyline purposes that I won’t spoil in this review), and Nathan not-so-begrudgingly agrees to untuck half of his shirt once again for another globetrotting adventure.
It takes several chapters for the game to really get moving, as it’s dead set on selling you on the character of Sam Drake. My early skepticism faded before too long, as Sam’s personality, storyline, and Troy Baker’s voice acting creates a character that’s critical to the overall experience from both a narrative and gameplay perspective. He’s only in one game in this four-game series (five if you count Golden Abyss), and yet Sam is responsible for more memorable moments than any other Uncharted character outside of Nathan or Sully.
Sam accompanies you during many of the game’s chapters, and having him by your side results in plenty of banter between the brothers that feels more natural than hammy. During stealth sequences, he’ll sneak alongside you and spot guards or take them out himself. Like Ellie in The Last of Us, he navigates these stealth sequences without any possibility of his presence alerting enemies to your position. When you’re in melee combat with enemies, he’ll frequently pop up beside you to throw punches at your enemy or help you escape from their clutches. There were numerous occasions during the story that I thought I was seconds from death, only for him to pop up and save the day with a one-liner or some brotherly ribbing in tow.
Having an AI partner join in during gameplay sequences isn’t new to the series, but it feels more fleshed-out this time around thanks to context-specific takedowns and the rapport between the brothers. Like Uncharted 2, the running theme of Uncharted 4 is doing everything its predecessor did, only much better. Everything feels more inspired than Drake’s Deception, from the storyline to the setpiece moments to subtle gameplay touches and animations.
One of my favorite additions to the gameplay is the grappling hook, which I expected to be a simple tool for moving from platform to platform. It does that just fine at predetermined grapple points, but it also comes with a variety of other uses. If you’re swinging above an enemy and hit the melee button, Drake will come down on him with a tackle that causes his gun to fly from his hands. This would be satisfying enough, but I found myself smiling every time Drake finished this animation by reaching up and snatching the gun out of mid-air. Uncharted has always been great about letting you shoot from virtually any situation, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I discovered that you can fire weapons while swinging from the hook. While this level of control may not be uncommon for the series, it’s hard to not feel like you’re in a big-budget action movie when you’re swinging through the air while raining sub-machine gun fire down on enemies.
While the overall level of quality is up across the board, there’s no doubt that this is still an Uncharted game through and through. Most areas are filled with perilous cliffsides that are covered in convenient handholds. A large number of platforms crumble or break the nanosecond you jump off of them. Solving several of the puzzles boils down to “push that box over there and climb on it.” There’s a lot of dangling by one hand as the camera swoops around to see Drake’s face as debris crashes below him. Nolan North must have recorded no fewer than 600 takes of Nathan doing some variation of “No no no NO NO.” It’s an Uncharted game. It’s just a really, really, really good Uncharted game.
Praising the visuals in this series should be the least surprising thing in the world, but Naughty Dog’s work on A Thief’s End looks impossibly gorgeous. To say it’s the best-looking game on PlayStation 4 feels like doing it a disservice. It’s the best-looking video game I’ve ever seen on any console, from the expressive faces to the realistic animations to a wide variety of stunning environments. Interiors feature a crazy amount of minute details, and many of the outdoor vistas made me want to just stand in place and rotate the camera around. I’m not sure what kind of voodoo Naughty Dog has been practicing, but nothing on PlayStation 4 or Xbox One comes anywhere close to Uncharted 4’s visuals.
More surprising to me than the graphical upgrade is the bump to the quality of the narrative. I’ve always enjoyed the natural-sounding dialogue of the series, but the treasure-hunting plots never really stuck with me (no matter how many odd supernatural twists came from out of left field). For the first time, I found myself caring about the fate of these characters and their relationships with each other. Sam is a fantastic addition to the series, and Nathan and Elena’s relationship presents several memorable moments by the time the credits roll. Nathan feels like more than a walking quip machine this time around, and A Thief’s End does a great job of presenting his various struggles after he presumably retired at the end of Drake’s Deception. At times, the dialogue and relationships between characters resemble the heartfelt, character-driven tone of The Last of Us: Left Behind more than a summer blockbuster.
I appreciate the pacing at which the narrative is presented, and it’s especially apparent during one vehicle-based mission. In this fairly open section, Nathan is free to drive around the vast plains of Madagascar in the shadow of a volcano. Sully and Sam are in tow, and a lot of this time is filled with conversation between the three. Some is plot-centric, and some is spent reminiscing over old times. At a couple of points, the trio pause their chat as they stumble upon outposts filled with mercenaries. They hop out of the car, partake in several minutes of neck-snapping and gunfire, and then get back on their way and continue their conversation. Rarely does a gameplay sequence or a cutscene feel like it drags on for too long, save for a couple of chaotic areas near the end.
Multiplayer is present once again, and “present” basically sums up how I feel about it. It’s there, it features a few modes (team deathmatch, domination, and capture the flag), and it all controls perfectly fine. All of the solid gunplay and platforming controls are intact, but they lose a ton of their impact when removed from the cinematic presentation of the campaign. There’s fun to be had at times, like scoring a headshot on an enemy as he swings from platform to platform or charging your own grappling hook for a one-hit melee kill. If you’re looking for a multiplayer mode that will keep you coming back, however, I don’t think it’s this basic offering. Character customization options and weapon mods unlock as you play (or you can take a shortcut by purchasing Uncharted Points for real money), but they’re nothing that’ll make Uncharted 4 the multiplayer game of choice for most shooter fans. If you find yourself enjoying it, however, the upcoming map and co-op DLC packs will be available for free.
The jump in quality from Uncharted 3 to 4 is similar to the ways the second entry trounced the original. It’s still the same Nathan Drake partaking in the same ludicrous, death-defying action as before, but everything is done with so much more panache. I haven’t gone into detail about the specifics of the setpiece moments, as I’d hate to rob readers of the “Oh, WOW” feeling that I had so many times during my dozen-plus hours with the campaign. There was a steady stream of moments that I loved, from insane action sequences that literally dropped my jaw to somber storyline moments in between bombastic firefights. Uncharted 4 isn’t a perfect game...it runs a couple of chapters too long, some of the puzzles feel uninspired, and its multiplayer component is serviceable but largely forgettable. Those nitpicks are in no way significant enough for me to consider A Thief’s End as anything but the best entry in the Uncharted franchise, though. It’s not even just the best Uncharted game. This is one of the most fully-realized action campaigns of all time, and it sets a new bar of quality for what’s possible in the genre.