Naughty Dog’s Uncharted Trilogy spearheaded the cinematic shooter genre, blurring the lines between video games and action adventure movies in ways that hadn’t really been attempted before. All three were critical and commercial successes, Nathan Drake became a household name for Sony fans, and Naughty Dog added yet another of their franchises to some of the best gaming has to offer. Yet here we are with a fourth entry in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. It’s nice to get a Sony mascot on a current-gen console, but is Uncharted 4 a worthwhile addition to one of gaming’s biggest series?
Uncharted 4 takes place some years after the end of the previous game, Nate has retired from the grand adventurer/treasure hunter trade to work in marine salvage. Living the simple life with Elena; the only excitement in his day stems from being a little cavalier with his oxygen tank. Things start to get interesting however when out of nowhere Nathan’s older brother Sam shows up. He fears for his life after getting in deep with some real bad dudes and the only way to get them off his back is to find the fabled treasure of infamous pirate Henry Avery. A fairly by-the-numbers premise to be sure, but where Uncharted 4 sets itself apart is in the execution.
The game takes its time getting the adventure rolling, and this is in no way a flaw. The first hour or so will see you playing as different characters at different times in their life. These opening chapters serve as a way to familiarise us with the ups and downs of Sam and Nate’s relationship over the years, but it also provides much-needed gravitas to the myth of Avery’s treasure. This is, after all, the fourth long-lost treasure we’ve been sent after. The way emotional connections are introduced and developed in so little time, without feeling rushed, is nothing short of masterful. The voice and mo-cap acting are absolutely phenomenal and the uncanny valley has never seemed so small. Naughty Dog have clearly learned some lessons from the far more grim and grounded storytelling of The Last Of Us. That’s not to say they’ve brought the oppressive, horror vibes of that game and done away with the running, gunning, climbing, sliding, almost-but-then-not-actually falling and wisecracking that we all know and love. Fans may rest assured: A Thief’s End is still Uncharted through and through.
Fundamentally this is exactly what Naughty Dog have achieved here: it’s the classic mix of Uncharted conventions with an overall improvement to the script, tone, direction and pacing. There’s exploration, cover-based shooting, traversal, puzzles and spectacular set-pieces, all of which have been fine-tuned to feel intuitive and, more importantly, fun. They’ve come a long, long way since Drake’s Fortune back in 2007. One aspect of A Thief’s End that really shines is its level design. In general the levels are larger with branching paths, but there a specific areas that rival an open-world game in terms of the sheer space to explore. These areas see Nate and co driving a vehicle of some kind, allowing you to disembark whenever you want to take a closer look at some ruins or prepare an attack on an enemy encampment. Sully and Sam will chat away while you drive, and their conversations will stop and start seamlessly if you decide to jump out or get into a fight.
These open areas are visually stunning and break up the far more linear caves, tombs and city streets, but they are relatively sparse in terms of content. You can find treasures and other clues but for the most part you’ll be travelling from combat encounters, to puzzles, and end the chapter with a big story moment. That said, the puzzles do have a certain physicality to them that I really enjoyed. The 4WD, for example, has a winch that you have to manually walk up to a tree, wrap it around the trunk and then clip it back on. It may sound inconsequential, but these really add to the immersion and there’s a handful of them that are quite clever with this ‘real-time’ mechanic. In their past games Naughty Dog have often used huge, looming landmarks to give the player an idea of how far they’ve progressed through a particular environment, and Uncharted 4 continues this tradition with gusto. There’s nothing like suddenly realising the ruined bell tower or crooked mountain you’ve been seeing in the distance for the past thirty minutes is now directly above you. The weather and time of day will also change as you go, creating spectacular vistas around every corner.
The shooting itself looks and sounds amazing, and explosions sending bad guys flying always elicited a laugh. With that being said the combat is definitely the weakest element of Uncharted 4. Now this may be more a criticism of the series in general rather than specifically A Thief’s End, so if you’ve never had a problem with Uncharted’s combat then you won’t have any issues here. For me though it’s just not very fun. The regenerating health system, while certainly cutting edge back in 2007, just feels pointlessly restrictive here. The AI are relentless and absurdly accurate even on moderate difficulty. Often I would find myself backed into a corner because as soon as I attempted to move I’d be back to low health again. On top of this the arsenal available is so very uninspired. I don’t want lasers or anything but at least make the guns fun to use. Thankfully the combat is only one part of this incredible game (in fact I feel Uncharted 4 probably has the least amount of combat encounters in the entire series) and I was never frustrated enough for it to detract from the overall experience.
Aside from masterful storytelling, the real showstopper of A Thief’s End is the graphics. Some absolute witchcraft must be going on under the hood because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game look this gorgeous. The artistic flair and attention to detail applied to every single inch of this game is jaw-dropping. You can watch trailers and ogle screenshots all you like, but actually seeing it play out in front of you, moving the camera around and drinking it all in… it’s unparalleled. It makes traversing the meticulously designed environments a joy, even if all you’re doing is pressing X to climb or jump. The Uncharted games have always been impressive to look at, and A Thief’s End has raised the bar all over again.
Uncharted 4 is a fantastic game and one that will be held up in the years to come as one of highlights of the PS4 era. The storytelling and graphics are second-to-none, the humble number of new additions to the series welcome and the combat is inoffensive for the most part. Naughty Dog are known for creating utterly beautiful worlds, painfully emotional storylines, incredible action sequences, loveable characters and compelling villains. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End continues this hallmark, proving they remain masters of their craft and more than justifying it’s existence in the series. Whether you’re a long-time fan or a recent adopter, you owe it to yourself to play this game.