It could be argued that the character of Nathan Drake was satisfyingly deconstructed in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception and while the story wasn’t the tightest, the themes and character arc was.
We learned that Drake wasn’t actually a descendant of Sir Francis Drake, how he met Sully, and seemingly choose his life with Elena over a life of treasure hunting and adventure. If that were where it all ended, it would have been reasonable. And yet, here we are, five years later, getting what by all accounts is the final adventure for Nathan Drake and company. Touching, gorgeous, smile-inducing, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a very good, ultimately rewarding send off to one of my favorite series of all time. It wraps up the characters I’ve come to truly love over the course of the four main games in a truly satisfying way and in terms of story, it ranks as one of Naughty Dog’s best. However, as a complete gaming experience, it is slightly disappointing as it is light on the bombastic set-pieces I’ve also come to associate the series with and the changes to combat lead to some frustration on higher difficulties. It also suffers from some odd design decisions that affect the pacing and features some archaic mechanics. The 11th hour introduction of Sam Drake also didn’t resonate with me and felt a bit like a gimmick added to give the story somewhere to go and give Nate a reason to be doing this all again.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End begins in the midst of another high octane action sequence. It’s here where we are introduced to Sam Drake, Nathan’s never before mentioned or even alluded to brother. Immediately Naughty Dog has an uphill battle to get us to care about this new character we’ve never heard of but who has a relationship with Nathan. They’ve managed to do it well in the past with Chloe and to a lesser extent with Cutter, but unlike those characters, which are very believable in the sense that Nathan would know and meet new people in his adventures, Sam’s existence hangs over the narrative of the previous games. And for the most part, Naughty Dog does the best they can to explain away how we have never heard of this character. For me, however, it caused me to never truly care about Sam on the level of affection I have for the other characters. He’s played incredibly well by Troy Baker; he’s well-written and realised, but he never evoked much emotion from me, and highlighted how much I missed the other characters who aren’t given as much screen time.
That’s not for the lack of trying. We are introduced, again, to childhood Nathan in a flashback as he and Sam share an adventure, while we are introduced to some of the new traversal mechanics such as sliding down sloped surfaces as well as the new, incredibly fun and simple to use grappling hook. While I understand the dual purpose of this scene, it didn’t quite work because I’ve never really cared much for younger Nathan and as the first real scene with Sam, nothing he does here endeared himself to me. I understand this is subjective and everyone’s experience will vary, but for me, it never quite worked because I truly never cared about Sam. I cared that Nate cared and that’s good enough, I guess.
We then move forward to yet another flashback (both before the main title sequence) where we truly get to the MacGuffin of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End: Henry Avery’s treasure which is his haul from the infamous Gunsway heist. Rumored to be worth around 400 million dollars in gold, it’s a great thrust for Nathan as a character who is always chasing treasure. Things don’t go as planned and while I won’t spoil it here, it gives us a narrative reason as to why Sam isn’t in Nathan’s life for any of the previous games, if not a good reason as to why we have never heard of him before.
Presently, Nathan is retired from his life of adventure and settled into his life with Elena. Ah Elena, what a great presence and character she truly is. Always the love of Nate’s life, it’s such a joy seeing them interact in even the most mundane of circumstances and really highlights how their relationship is the heart of these games. In all honesty, I could watch and listen to these two interact for hours and probably never be bored.
Ultimately, Sam shows up in Nate’s life again and Nate is reluctantly pulled back into adventure “one last time” as Sam’s life depends on it. And thus the adventure begins, taking us across the globe in true Uncharted fashion to exciting and interesting locations. This starts at about chapter 7 in a 21-chapter game, and with the exception of the Elena and Nate scene, the pacing is really slow, albeit by design, in these opening segments. It feels more deliberate; like the narrative of The Last of Us, although it didn’t quite work for me as well. I attribute this to the fact that I wasn’t invested in Sam, and that this is an Uncharted game, which usually starts much quicker. There are good moments here for sure, and again, mileage will vary from player to player, so I don’t expect everyone or even many to agree with me on the early pacing issues.
Once the adventure starts proper, however, it’s the Uncharted we know and love. We are introduced to the game’s villains, Rafe and Nadine. While we do meet Rafe and his villainous nature in one of the earlier flashbacks, it’s here were we are properly introduced to him as the antagonist for our heroes. And then there is Nadine. A truly great character who is unfortunately underused and feels ultimately superfluous to the overall plot. She’s a great character whom I would love to see more of, but with this seemingly being the final game in the series, it doesn’t seem like we will. She’s tough, muscular, charming, and beautiful and can kick the ever loving stuffing out of Nathan Drake. If you cringe at the thought of Nathan fighting a woman, put those thoughts at ease. She can more than hold her own.
Gameplay remains largely unchanged from the previous Uncharted games, if refined. The new additions include the aforementioned grappling hook, driving sections and a stealth system that involves hiding in tall grass/weeds. From here you can either take out the enemies one by one or if you’re patient and lucky, avoid combat altogether. While this is a welcome change, the stealth never felt tuned enough to compare to other games, including The Last of Us, where stealth felt viable and rewarding. It’s fine and works well enough, but considering how it’s only implemented in certain situations and always in the same grass, it telegraphs moments where it’s going to be an option. As such, it feels like another idea that was added but never feels like a gameplay system that is fully fleshed out.
Uncharted 4‘s shooting is tighter for sure and the added lock-on makes it much easier this time around. It’s still not a standard bearer, but it is a nice and welcome improvement, even if does make the experience much more arcade-like and less immersive. Combat sections themselves have been altered to make cover less viable. Naughty Dog removed the ability to toss back grenades which means that staying in cover leaves you open to be a magnet for grenades. Cover is also mostly destructible so moving around the combat arenas becomes a must. This can lead to frustration on higher difficulties because enemies don’t miss. As a result you take a lot of damage in more open areas and barely have time to have your health regenerate before a grenade lands at your feet forcing you to either move and hope for the best or simply accept that you’re going to die and do the section over again unless you hit a check point. Traversal seems to be the area that received the least amount of refinement, which is fine because it’s always been the best gameplay system in the series. What is interesting is that there are now various ways to get through an area. There are still the obvious spots where Nate can grab onto, but there are different paths. You can also use the grappling hook to circumvent whole platforming sections, provided there is a telltale overhang with rope wrapped around it. Inexplicably, there is a late game climbing spike added that allows you to use it to plant it into certain rock surfaces and reach further apart grip spots. It feels like a superfluous addition that comes far too late into the game to make any real significant change.
Lastly, there is the driving. Again, it works fine, but it seems like a system designed around having something to do to break up the walking while you listen to more excellent dialogue exchanges between the characters. The first section where driving is introduced is massive and if you’re not paying attention you could very easily drive aimlessly for great lengths of time. Naughty Dog wisely puts subtle markers and has the cast call out when you’re on the critical path. Again, the dialogue exchanges are all top tier and goes to great lengths to mitigate any possible negatives one might experience while driving.
Between the traversal, combat, stealth, driving and general walking around, there is the occasional puzzle. Some of these are archaic environmental puzzles that involve finding and moving a wheeled crate under an otherwise unreachable ledge. To be frank, there are way too many of these throughout the game. They aren’t rewarding and feel like busy work. That we are in 2016 and these aren’t the butt of a joke in the game but an actual mechanic used over and over is kind of odd and seem deaf in regard to design.
Thankfully, there are also actual puzzles in Uncharted 4 and they’re among the best the series has ever produced. Never truly challenging or mentally taxing, I had fun with each and every one. The biggest one is multiple leveled and employs a slew of mechanics to get through. That none of them are repeated in the entirety of the game is a testament to how smart the design is here, although it does also highlight the contrived nature of the frequent block puzzles.
I should mention now that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is far and away my favorite game in the series and my favorite game from last generation. Beyond the story and the characters, it was a revelation as to what Naughty Dog could accomplish with games and storytelling. It also set the bar and thus my expectations for summer blockbuster like action set pieces. From the escaping from the HIND attack helicopter, engaging in shootout while a building is collapsing with Nate in it, to the train to the truck convey along a snowy cliff side, there are so many truly jaw-dropping, adrenalising set pieces that anything less would be a disappointment. While the story wasn’t nearly as tight in Uncharted 3, the action set pieces met my high expectations and many times exceeded them – I’m thinking of the sinking ship and the jeep chasing the plane and subsequent action sequences.
Imagine my disappointment when these types of sequences are largely absent from Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. In fact, I only really remember one being on the same level as anything from the previous games and it comes about halfway through. It’s stellar and a series highlight, but it also means the game peaks relatively early in this regard. This isn’t to say the game is a slog afterwards, far from it, but as I reached the end of the game, I felt a pang of longing for more moments like that one and was ultimately let down by the lack of them. I don’t want this to sound like the game isn’t fun, because it is, a lot of fun. It’s just not as much fun as I had with the previous entries.
The presentation, however, is utterly flawless. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a masterpiece in this department. The environments are staggeringly beautiful, rich and alive with history, foliage, and colour. From the greens of the jungle to the decayed remnants of a colony long dead and everywhere in between, nearly everything you look at is worth taking a screenshot of or showing to that friend or relative who still thinks of Super Mario Bros. when they hear “video game.”
This is a Naughty Dog game, after all, and as much as I love the worlds they build, it’s the characters, acting, writing and animations that I keep coming back for. I just don’t think there is another developer working that can do what this team can do with regard to making lovable characters relatable in fantastical situations. Every single person involved in bringing these characters to life is at the top of their game, and the story by Neil Druckmann and Josh Scherr is by far the most grounded of any Uncharted game. Where these characters are in their lives after all their experiences is the heart and soul of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and the cast deliver their best performances yet. The facial animations convey every emotion flawlessly. Coupled with the exemplary sound design and score by new composer Henry Jackman, you have the complete package.
The story resonates moreso than the previous Uncharted games because it’s so tied to the characters and their relationships. While not as light as the previous games, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End still has moments of levity as well as mature moments that depict these people, especially Nate and Elena, as genuine and fully-realised adults with real world concerns and problems. Avery’s Treasure and the surrounding events, both in the present and past, mirror each other as the chase for treasure and the amassing of it have very serious effects on all parties involved. It’s great stuff and elevates the entire experience and is ultimately what makes Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End so enjoyable.
If I came for the story, I just might stay for the multiplayer. It fully embraces the more ridiculous moments of the series with consumable unlocks like the El Dorado statue that can be thrown into a combat zone and will shoot lethal dark energy that homes in on nearby enemies, or a heavily armed Brut that basically follows you around laying waste to any poor enemy sap that gets in his or her way with a Gatling gun. Each action you take, including killing an enemy, performing a KO, or reviving a teammate gives you cash you can use to purchase a consumable or weapons. Fast paced, a ton of fun, and at times over the top gonzo with supernatural absurdity, it offers one of the best multiplayer experiences I’ve had in years. Adding value to an already good game, the multiplayer elevates Uncharted 4 to a great one, overall.
It would be easy to dismiss Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End as a jack of all trades and a master of none, and in terms of gameplay, that would be true. Beyond navigating the environments, nothing is truly exemplary and is mostly fine or good. Thankfully, it’s so much more than that because of its brilliant presentation, writing, and acting. Sure, Sam Drake didn’t quite resonate with me as the newcomer to this cast of loveable characters. Honestly, how could he? Over the past nine years and numerous playthroughs I have come to think of these characters as friends whom I care deeply about. And if this is the end of our time together, Naughty Dog did absolutely right by each and every one of them. Thanks for the memories, Naughty Dog.