On 10 May 10 2016, developer Naughty Dog finally released the much-anticipated fourth mainline instalment in the seminal Uncharted series to widespread critical acclaim. Bringing hero Nathan Drake’s narrative to a close, the game serves as the final entry in the Uncharted series and was undoubtedly a fitting departure for one of PlayStation’s most beloved icons. However, with the conclusion of Nathan Drake’s story and the tentative end of a prestige franchise, comes debate – which title is the greatest? Within this feature I will be discussing why I believe that Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the series’ best.
For many fans, the unrivalled answer to the question above is Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Released in 2009 and remastered last year for the Uncharted: Nathan Drake Collection, the game stands for many as the pinnacle of the franchise. Whilst maintaining the series’ heavy emphasis on action and its predecessor’s memorable cast of characters, the sequel to the 2007 original far surpassed its precursor in nearly every regard. From its thrilling set-piece moments, to the game’s stronger emphasis on story and character development, Among Thieves managed to feel familiar whilst also showcasing growth and a desire to not only provide jaw-dropping visuals and big action moments, but a stronger and more elaborate story that helped accentuate the protagonists’ personalities.
“Just when you believe that the game has reached its outrageous limits, Uncharted 3 deceives the player and delivers breathtaking moments of pure adrenaline”
However, leading into the release of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, I was adamant that my favourite entry in the series was Among Thieves‘ sequel: Drake’s Deception. Released two years after Uncharted 2, Drake’s Deception builds upon the excellent gameplay developed within the previous two titles whilst also in my mind, weaving a more compelling narrative. Uncharted 3‘s story sought to highlight not only the foundations of Nate and Sully’s relationship, but also grant a deeper understanding of the psychology behind Nate’s drive to find fortune as well as the repercussions of his obsession. The twists, turns and surprising revelations that occur throughout the campaign help to consolidate a more comprehensive grasp of who Nathan Drake is and why he is drawn to the lure of adventure. This is something I greatly appreciated and whilst there are those who feel as though Nate’s character within the third entry betrays his development in previous titles, I feel as though it helps better round out Nate’s persona and showcases that our hero does indeed have flaws.
Furthermore, the third title in the series continues the high visual fidelity of previous entries, whilst also preserving and heightening the franchise’s renown for awesome set-pieces, producing some of the most memorable and truly insane moments of the last generation. Playing through Nathan Drake’s third adventure, there is a continuing and escalating sense that the game is attempting to go bigger and better than its predecessors.
Whereas Among Thieves had its infamous train sequence, Drake’s Deception sees Drake scrambling his way to safety through a sinking cruise liner as well as surviving a plane crash in the middle of the desert. Just when you believe that the game has reached its outrageous limits, Uncharted 3 deceives the player and delivers breathtaking moments of pure adrenaline.
Why then, you ask, is Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End my personal favourite of the series? Why, when the game somewhat abandons its furious pacing and bombastic set-pieces, two of the series’ most integral ingredients, is it still considered in my mind, the best the series has to offer? In one word: cohesion.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a special game, more so than its lauded precursors. Its gameplay is fine tuned, smooth and more diverse than before, its visuals more beautiful and its story more personal, grounded and tense. The series has witnessed subtle changes throughout its development but playing through this fourth entry, A Thief’s End almost doesn’t feel like an Uncharted title at all.
“Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a special game, more so than its lauded precursors. Its gameplay is fine tuned, smooth and more diverse than before, its visuals more beautiful and its story more personal, grounded and tense”
The first few chapters of the game’s campaign are slower and more measured than previous instalments and contain set-pieces that are grounded in storytelling rather than action. For example, the game’s second chapter within the prison is certainly a powerful and chaotic series of events, but serves to grant the player an understanding of the relationship between Nathan and his brother Sam instead of merely acting as a jolt of high-octane action. The opening to this fourth entry in many ways mimics protagonist Nathan Drake’s newfound “normal” life and is as a consequence more thematic and grounded in tone.
The foreboding subtitle “A Thief’s End” at this point appears to have been heavily misunderstood and does not evoke a literal end to Nathan Drake, but rather a ceasing of his former life as a fortune hunter and the beginning of a new one. From this point, developer Naughty Dog is able to take its time with the story it wishes to tell and the game is stronger for it. Uncharted 4‘s storytelling is more measured and more assured of itself. The game’s writers, Neil Druckmann and Josh Scheer, are confidently poised in their writing and aren’t afraid to linger on a significant moment if it adds to the story they wish to tell. The slower and more thematic pace of the story adds to the game’s sense of symbiosis as it mirrors the protagonist’s own experiences and consequently allows the player to feel connected to Drake in a way not found in previous Uncharted titles.
The tale is also a more personal one, a theme partially explored within Drake’s Deception. Marital anxieties are brought to the fray; friendships are pushed to their fragile limits; and the bond between brothers is examined in great depth. As someone who really enjoyed the more intimate tale that was told in Uncharted 3, in addition to the fact that I have a brother of my own, the narrative is arguably the series’ best – but is undoubtedly its most complex.
The story is complete with many plot twists and as I reached the final chapters and the story approached its culmination, I almost didn’t wish to see it through. Not because it was bad in any way, but because I was unsure regarding the fates of certain characters and because this may ultimately be the series’ final title. In a sense, you could also argue that the story is a more personal one for the player too, as we all must say goodbye in one shape or form to this memorable cast of characters that we have loved for almost ten years.
Furthermore, A Thief’s End also benefits from Naughty Dog’s previous title – the magnum opus: The Last of Us. The Last of Us made tremendous use of environmental storytelling in order to create the illusion of a lived in and weathered world. During the course of Joel and Ellie’s adventure, the player can find letters, diary pages and items that depict what life was like for individuals during and after the Cordyceps outbreak. However, one particular example springs to mind. Some hours into the campaign, players enter a sewer system and by reading collectibles scattered throughout the area, are able to learn that this decrepit environment once served as a home for a cast of survivors. Yet, by obtaining further letters and notes, the player learns that events turned increasingly ominous and eventually the player learns the fate of its inhabitants. The Last of Us demonstrates environmental storytelling at its best and by succeeding so strongly, the game manages to create an inherent sense of history surrounding its world.
“Marital anxieties are brought to the fray; friendships are pushed to their fragile limits; and the bond between brothers is examined in great depth”
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is heavily influenced by its developer’s previous game. Throughout the course of Nate’s adventure, similar collectibles can be found that help immerse the player. By constructing tales of previous explorers that have gone in search of Henry Avery’s fortune, the game successfully creates a sense of place, adding to the game’s naturalistic world. Additionally, these fallen adventurers’ quests parallel Drake’s and their unsuccessful demises only adds to the sense of tension as the game reaches its climax, as it leaves Drake’s fate uncertain until the conclusion of the story.
Moreover, a case could also be made for The Last of Us‘ influence in Uncharted 4‘s gameplay. Slowly throughout the series, stealth elements have been implemented in order to provide more choice to the player in how they tackle an area of enemies. However, the encounters would largely end in gunfire as the player would inevitably be caught whilst trying to sneak their way through enemy territory. Stealth can be considered almost as an afterthought within the first three Uncharted titles as although it was occasionally possible to progress through an area without alerting its foes to your presence, these moments were few and far between.
In Uncharted 4 however, stealth has been fully integrated into the gameplay and it’s now entirely possible to slip through certain environments without ever having arousing the suspicion of your adversaries. Hiding spots have also been implemented, allowing you to remain unseen when enveloped within tall grass or rain-forest vegetation. Stealth gameplay necessitates a more patient style of play from the player but the idea is in tune with Nathan’s more restrained and withdrawn life within the series’ fourth entry.
It all feeds back into the idea of the player paralleling the experiences and feelings of the main protagonist, and the gameplay also mirrors the growth the players will have had inevitably undergone since the last instalment in the series. A Thief’s End‘s gameplay has grown and developed along with its characters, and its player-base also. With the full addition of stealth, gameplay within Uncharted now feels somewhat like a puzzle and consequently has real challenge. Combat is no longer a foregone conclusion of firing a weapon, but rather a relentless and tense game of cat and mouse that is in thematic keeping with the game’s apprehensive story.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End also includes what many players most commonly associate with the franchise: jaw-dropping set-pieces. Whilst it is contestable that A Thief’s End is slightly lacking in terms of blockbuster action moments, those that are encompassed within the game’s fifteen hour campaign are truly awe-striking. The Madagascar car chase sequence still leaves me open-mouthed, gawking at my television screen, even on my third playthrough. The story also affords moments for smaller, more personal set-pieces and these are often just as effective as their big brothers.
From a visual standpoint, the game can also be considered the series’ most diverse. Locations range from the rain-forests of Panama, to the coasts of Scotland and even the muddy mountains of Madagascar. However, it is not simply diversity where Uncharted 4 shines above its predecessors. Graphical fidelity is also at a series’ high, with the level of detail astounding at times, and whilst Uncharted games past have also been graphically and technically superb, A Thief’s End takes this to uncharted territory (sorry I couldn’t resist) and makes full use of the power of the PlayStation 4.
“Combat is no longer a foregone conclusion of firing a weapon, but rather a relentless and tense game of cat and mouse that is in thematic keeping with the game’s apprehensive story”
The visuals aren’t simply there for show however, and whilst they are indeed beautiful, they also add the game’s aforementioned sense of cohesion. Subtle details are used to tell stories, both big and small. Whether its bloodied writing on the walls, graves of former adventurers, or the muddy boot print from Nathan’s footwear. Each small visual detail is used to great affect and is implemented in order to underscore other features of the game.
The visual upgrade also translates to character design. Clothes are realistically textured, hair moves in tandem with its owner and facial expressions are more distinct than ever. No other title in recent memory, aside from perhaps Until Dawn, captures facial movements and changes so accurately. This improved motion-capture and animation is put to stellar use during cutscenes in order to provide some truly poignant moments that are only further improved by terrific voice-acting.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a masterpiece. The game represents the pinnacle of what this medium can achieve and what the rest of the industry should strive to emulate. Its personal tale is complemented by its slower and more thoughtful pacing, in addition to its thematic gameplay. Visuals emphasise the game’s beauty in a literal sense, however, its intimate and grounded story only heighten its charm and its importance within the video-game industry. I mentioned it previously but Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End feels the most complete, coherent and cohesive title in the series. Its gameplay has been fleshed out and expanded, its characters and world fully realised, and its story sadly concluded in order for the series to finally rest as a united and truly magnificent whole.