Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Rated: T for Teen
Completed: 21 May 2016
Here's how good the Uncharted franchise is: after playing through all four games in sequential order, I still want more. After spending over 40 hours running, jumping, climbing, swinging, and shooting, I'm disappointed that it's over. I've gotten to know Nathan Drake, Elena Fisher, and Victor Sullivan over the past four games, and I'm legitimately saddened that my time with them is over. At least Naughty Dog's final entry in the franchise is a perfect sendoff, filled with all the action, adventure, thrills, spills, laughs, gasps, twists and turns you've come to expect from one of the best franchises in gaming. But this time there's also a surprising emotional core that makes Uncharted 4 easily the best in the series.
After a typically action-packed sequence, we flash back to Nathan Drake and Elena, now living a quiet and comfortable life as husband and wife. Right away, I was struck by the attention to every detail. Exploring Nathan and Elena's home is as memorable as any of the big setpieces from any of the four games. It's not just the insane level of graphical detail; there's a realism in the way the couple interact. Their playful teasing, Nathan's wistful stare at an exotic photograph, and Elena's knowing looks. It's a continuation of the tone Uncharted 3 began exploring - Nathan's obsession and the consequences it brings - and it adds a lot of emotional weight to the whole story.
That's not to say there isn't plenty of typically lighthearted wisecracks and laugh-out-loud moments, but Uncharted 4's story handily trounces the three previous entries. For the first time, I felt legitimately angry at Nathan in one sequence. I felt sad for Elena at times. I smiled broadly at Sully's first appearance. I raged at the villains. I felt betrayed by someone I thought I trusted. The story runs the gamut of emotions in the same way a great film does.
Without drifting too far into spoiler territory, the story also retcons a few things with the appearance of Nathan's older brother, Sam. Thought dead after a failed prison escape, the plot does a decent job of explaining why Nate has never mentioned him before, but it doesn't quite explain why Nate never used his handy grappling hook, handed down by Sam in a playable flashback, in any of his earlier adventures. It sure would have come in handy!
Like most new video game devices, the grappling hook sees a lot of use, but gone is Nate's ability to toss grenades back at his enemies. Climbing and platforming is pretty simplistic and linear, but fun and exciting all the same. I felt like combat was a little less prevalent in this outing, or perhaps it's a result of Nate's other new ability - stealth attacks. This is an incredibly welcome addition, similar in many ways to The Last Of Us or Shadow of Mordor. Sneaking around large areas, hiding in grass or hanging off the edge of buildings to eliminate enemies one by one is both satisfying and thrilling. It falls victim to typical video game conventions in the interest of fairness to the player: enemies will lose track of you pretty easily and return to their patrols, and they do not react to any AI companions. This means you may see Sam, Sully, or Elena running around right in front of them, possibly even bumping into them, and they'll pay it no mind as they search for you. There are also new vertical attacks which allow you to knock out enemies in one hit if you get the drop on them.
Other than that, the gameplay is pretty much the same as ever, but that's not a bad thing. There's a slightly heavier focus on puzzle-solving this time around. None of them are very taxing, but it's definitely a step up from the lever-based puzzles of the previous games. Most times, the levels themselves are the puzzle as you have to figure out how to navigate them, but there are a few fun logic puzzles this time that reminded me a lot of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
On a technical level, A Thief's End is absolutely unmatched. This is the best looking game on any console, period. Hands down, end of discussion, full stop. The level of detail is nothing short of unbelievable. Clothes look realistically fuzzy with visible seams. Lip-syncing and subtle facial expressions are spot on. The whole game looks as photorealistic as the trailers and TV spots, mainly because those commercials are NOT pre-rendered CG. That's all in-engine. Your jaw will drop through the floor during the heart-racing car chase sequence midway through the game. If you've seen the trailers, you may be familiar with part of it: Nate dangles by a rope under a bridge as a convoy overhead drives away, sending him crashing through construction scaffolds, dragging him through muddy roads as he desperately fires his pistol at enemy vehicles and inches forward to the vehicle dragging him. After jumping from truck to motorcycle and vice versa, he ends up on the back of his brother's motorcycle, chased by an armored personnel carrier firing high caliber rounds from its mounted cannon as they speed away through crowded city streets. It looks like something that should be pre-rendered, but it's not. It's all playable, and it had me literally on the edge of my seat, exclaiming to no one in particular that it was the coolest fucking thing I'd ever played.
The small moments in between are just as impressive though. Nate's house is so filled with little details and nods to previous games that you could spend an hour walking through it, investigating everything with a fine-toothed comb. There's a scene at a swanky underground antiquities auction where I'd swear I was just watching real people in a real location had I not known any better. There's even a nod to Sony and Naughty Dog's history together that I dare not spoil (you really have to experience it for yourself), but it brings back so much nostalgia it will leave the biggest, dumbest smile on your face.
It should come as no surprise that the sound is as good as the visuals. The returning cast are as excellent as ever, but Emily Rose deserves a paragraph all to herself. It's easy to focus on Nolan North or Richard McGonagle as Nate and Sully, but no character received as much care as Rose's Elena. While she's always been an important part of the series, she's given so much depth and Rose plays her beautifully. She's not a nagging wife or a damsel in distress. She's a woman who knows she's being lied to. She's hurt, but she still decides to save her husband's skin once again because she believes in the vows she took. It's not a case of sexism, as some "reviewers" may call it; it's an example of the bond her and Nathan share, and it all culminates in the emotional finale of the game and its excellent epilogue. Elena is a beautiful, fully fleshed out character, more so than she's ever been.
Likewise, much credit has to be given to Troy Baker - the OTHER voice actor who apparently appears in every game - for his turn as Sam Drake. Though he has an inexplicable Brooklyn accent that his brother lacks, Baker manages to capture so many of the mannerisms that North infused into Nathan. Early on, they sounded so similar at times I wondered if North was pulling double-duty as both brothers. Sam has lost 15 years of his life to prison, but he's got the same wit, much of his little brother's charm, and unfortunately the same obsessive-compulsive need for adventure.
What's a great game without a great villain, though? This time around, that honor belongs to Rafe Adler, voiced by Warren Kole, a pretty-boy, second-rate treasure hunter with a massive case of Drake envy. Rafe relies on his inherited wealth to take shortcuts, hoping his finds will make him as famous as Nathan. He's partnered with Nadine Ross, played by Laura Bailey, the head of a private mercenary force and a hell of a combatant herself. If I had one complaint, it's that neither of them are seen enough. Rafe is a perfect villain with a perfectly punchable face, and a cocky attitude to match. Nadine is a bit more layered, and together they make one hell of an obstacle for Nate and his gang. They're both outstanding villains you just love to hate. The final showdown with Rafe is so gratifying I caught myself shouting in victory, cursing his name in the process, the same way you would when a great cinematic villain gets what they deserve.
It's hard to complain about the control either. A few minor changes were necessitated by the addition of the grappling hook, notably mapping the reload button to triangle. This will probably result in you accidentally wasting a few grenades if you're used to tapping R1 to reload, but you'll get used to it quickly.
Uncharted 4 is really the culmination of all that Naughty Dog has built. It's a practically flawless game, and with that, the franchise enters hibernation. I'm sure it's not the last we'll see of it, but whether Naughty Dog returns or passes the torch to another developer remains to be seen. Personally, I'm not sure how I'd feel about a new game developed by someone else, but at the same time I'm not ready for the franchise to be over. The possibility for future installments is left wide open, and the third entry was originally the planned end, so I'm hopeful we haven't seen the last of the Drake family. As a whole, the series have given me some of the greatest gaming memories I've had to date - the kind of moments you want to replay just to show others and say, "THIS is why I love gaming!" If this is truly the end, what a ride it has been.
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End was completed on a PlayStation 4 with no cheats.