Review: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

When Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End was first teased at the PS4 launch event in November of 2013, it was met with some trepidation from fans. After all, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception seemed to be a fitting end to the then trilogy as Nate, Sully, and Elena quite literally rode (a plane) off into the sunset. Fan concern grew as Uncharted 4 lost some of its most key personnel during development, including Justin Richmond, game director, and Amy Hennig, creative director and head writer. On top of that, when Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, the leads of The Last of Us, came in as the new co-directors, they threw out eight months of story on which Hennig and her team had been working. In the hands of a less capable developer, this game would have crumbled under the weight of this type of upheaval, but with Uncharted 4, Naughty Dog proves once again why many consider it to be the preeminent developer in the entire industry. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a massive achievement. With its gripping story, unrivaled character development, satisfying gameplay, and the very best graphics that have ever been produced on console, it not only justifies its existence as a sequel, but it unseats Uncharted 2: Among Thieves as the best Uncharted game there is. In fact, when the dust settles, this could very well be this generation’s best game, period.

With Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Naughty Dog has given us a darker, deeper, more deliberately paced story that explores Nathan Drake’s inner struggles as well as his interpersonal relationships to a degree that they have never been explored before. After a few chapters of prologue that convey some much-needed context for Nate’s relationship with his brother Sam, we find present-day Nate struggling between his desire to be the husband he thinks Elena wants him to be and his lifelong obsession with exploring, thieving, and hunting treasure. Elena can see that Nate isn’t entirely happy in his “9 to 5” job as a commercial diver, and though it’s apparent that Elena isn’t entirely happy either, Nate has convinced himself that he must live this “normal” life for her benefit. So when his brother Sam reappears to tempt him with one last adventure, Nate is incredibly conflicted. And though there wouldn’t be a game if he didn’t eventually give in, he remains conflicted for the entirety of the 13-hour campaign, creating the backdrop for one of the most emotionally resonant games I’ve played in a long, long time.

And as the player, I was conflicted, too. Uncharted 4 delved deeply into Nate’s relationships with his friends and family, and through these relationships, forced me to reflect upon who Nathan Drake truly is. Through Sully, I was forced to come to terms with the fact that Nate isn’t quite the invincible hero I want him to be and absolutely needs others to prop him up. Through Sam, I was forced to come to terms with the fact that Nate isn’t necessarily always the good guy in the story, and that Nate’s obsession has often put others in danger. Through Elena, I was forced to come to terms with the fact that Nate is often incredibly selfish and needs to learn to be a far more trusting person. And through these characters, both Nate and I were forced to come to terms with the fact that this could and probably should be his last adventure. When the credits rolled, despite all these flaws, I felt closer to Nate than I’ve ever felt to a fictional video game character, and that is absolutely a testament to the fact that Uncharted 4 delivers some of the best character development in any video game ever. This felt like the end of an era, not just in Nate’s life, but in my own as well.

Though Naughty Dog obviously invested an incredible amount of resources into storytelling, they did not do it at the expense of the other aspects of their game. Uncharted 4 boasts the same rock-solid gameplay for which this series is known, but introduces enough tweaks to make this the smoothest, most satisfying game of the bunch. Uncharted has always done climbing well, but that doesn’t change the fact that it has been done to death in video games over the last decade. Thankfully, Nate’s new grappling hook and slide abilities do just enough to make traversal feel fresh.  Now, instead of relying solely on his super-human upper-body strength and his record-breaking leaps to scale rock faces and cross giant chasms, Nate can slide down angled rock faces and use his grappling hook to reach previously unattainable heights. Though these mechanics were welcomed additions on their own, they shine brightest when they are combined in novel ways. I got a real sense of joy the first time I used Nate’s momentum from a slide to complete a jump that would be impossible to complete flat-footed; however, it didn’t compare to the sense of achievement I got from smoothly chaining that same slide with grappling hooks and traditional jumps to progress in the adventure. And thankfully, I was given ample opportunity to do just that. These new mechanics work so well the lion’s share of the time that it’s easy to forgive the way they were clumsily introduced in the story (If Nate learned these techniques from his brother in the orphanage, why did he wait until his fourth big adventure to use them? And how has he been so lucky to avoid angled rock faces until now?). Still, the way to combine these abilities isn’t always obvious, and at times I found myself a little more frustrated with wondering where to go than I’ve been used to in previous Uncharted games. Perhaps Sam could have been a little more helpful in navigating from time to time, but it’s a small gripe with an otherwise gratifying experience.

The shooting and melee combat mechanics have also been refined to varying degrees of success. Melee became one of the series’ strengths in Uncharted 2, was improved in Uncharted 3, and is the best it has ever been in Uncharted 4. If you’ve played previous Uncharted games, you know what to expect. Reminiscent of the Arkham games, this system is all about timing, allowing for chaining of counters and attacks. These counters feel better than ever before, thanks in large part to improved fluidity of animation and the increased variety of combos at Nate’s disposal. Depending on the situation, Nate might knock the opponent’s gun up into his face, or he might dropkick his enemy over a conveniently-placed crate. He even has double-team attacks, which are rare, but stand out as some of the most memorable moments in all of the combat sequences.

While melee combat has been tweaked to near perfection, the cover-based shooting is essentially a slightly improved version of the good-but-not-great system we’ve seen in previous installments. It can be clunky, particularly for those of us who leave the auto-aiming option turned off, but it never feels quite as clunky as it did in previous games. Guns feel a bit tighter, but still suffer from the fact that, when leaving cover, the reticle is rarely in the expected position, requiring slightly too much immersion-breaking adjustment. Even so, serial-killing enemy after enemy is a fun, albeit repetitive, experience. The repetition is exacerbated by the samey feel of most weapons, but is somewhat alleviated by the varied encounters. Each encounter felt different enough, and the enemies behaved unpredictably each time I had to reattempt an encounter due to an untimely death. There’s a better balance in these encounters in Uncharted 4, and I never got the feeling that I was fighting enemies just to pad out the game. Each encounter was logical in the story, and the shooting mechanics performed competently enough to add, not subtract, from my enjoyment. And thankfully, if shooting ever gets too frustrating, most encounters have a welcomed stealth option that allows Nate to sneak around, silently taking out enemies one-by-one.

Disappointingly, there aren’t a lot of puzzles in this game, and the ones we’re given aren’t that challenging. Nate and Sam also give more verbal cues than ever before. If I didn’t solve the puzzle on my first or second attempt, Nate and Sam would start thinking out loud, heavily hinting at the solution. Still, the puzzles were marvels to behold, with intricate, yet believable mechanisms that tied in with the overarching narrative.

Graphically, this game is unparalleled. It’s a damn work of art. I don’t have the technical expertise to do this game’s graphics justice, but what I do know is that I’ve never seen a game that’s more visually impressive. From the lush green tropical forests of Libertalia to the to the dusty, desolate, centuries-old walls of Avery’s Tomb, every single environment is astounding. Every nook and cranny begs to be explored as Naughty Dog has obviously taken painstaking care with every texture, with every minute detail. I found myself pausing mid-climb to appreciate every gorgeous vista.

As impressive as the environments are, this game’s biggest achievement may be in its facial animations. Like its predecessors, Uncharted 4 has incredible voice acting. Nolan North and Troy Baker prove once again why they’re the most prevalent, most well-respected voice actors in video games. But these performances are bolstered by the most lifelike facial animations I’ve seen in the medium. Nate’s internal struggles tugged at my heartstrings because I could see the conflict in his eyes and face. I never found myself fully trusting Sam, not because of what he said, but because of the hint of deviousness in his smirks. I’ve never felt more attached to Sully because he spends most of the game wearing his unspoken paternal love for Nate on his proverbial shirtsleeves.  I wanted to pistol whip the shit out of Rafe, not because of what he said, but because of that smug look on his face while he said it. These animations gave characters and overall narrative a certain depth that they’ve lacked in previous installments. As the player, I’ve never felt more attached.


BROPINION

If this does end up being the last Uncharted game, it will be the perfect way to end one of the best video game series of all time. Thanks to its amazing story, unfathomably gorgeous graphics, and stellar gameplay, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End not only blows away its predecessors, but also blows away every Triple A title this generation in almost every conceivable way to the point where it will likely be the measuring stick against which Triple A titles are measured going forward. If you’re lucky enough to be a PS4 owner, go out and buy this game right now. If you’re not, go out and buy a PS4. This game is that good.

 

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