Uncharted is certainly on the Mount Rushmore of PlayStation franchises. Therefore, the pressure on this final installment goes without saying. Nathan Drake is a legendary gaming hero that deserves a proper sendoff. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End brings back and improves upon the familiar and favorite elements of Nate’s original trilogy, while introducing new features and strengths that set Uncharted 4 apart as the all-around best of the series.
If there’s one word to describe all of Uncharted, it’s adventure. There are always breathtaking set pieces to carry you from one bit of snappy dialogue to the next. In some ways, one could argue that elements of Uncharted 4 are a little too familiar. I certainly don’t think so, and can’t get enough of the franchise’s foundation. But there is another lost city, another series of puzzles, and another roster of power-hungry scoundrels fighting for a glimpse of history and fortune. But familiarity can be a good thing in gaming. After all, people play Uncharted to experience those things. You just have to pick and choose where to make the formula different, and Uncharted 4 does just that. The variety lies in the plot, and A Thief’s End functions as well as a character study as it does an Indiana Jones adventure.
The first three Uncharted games aren’t weak at all as far as storytelling is concerned. They simply kept pace with other quality gaming stories, while trailblazing new standards in the areas of action and overall personality. This time around, they move gaming forward in every aspect of development. You could strip every cinematic from the game and still have one of the best action games you’ve ever played. You could just as easily take out every second of action and watch one of the best movies of 2016.
As a character, Nathan Drake was already an iconic figure in gaming, but A Thief’s End allows him a depth that furthers our investment in his character. Even the supporting cast, which was much more one-dimensional in previous installments, feel and act like real people. The conflicts are believable and unforced. Each character’s decision-making process and motivations make complete sense to the player. And most importantly, none of this comes at the expense of jaw-dropping fun.
The game has a surprising amount of heart, or not so surprising based on what we’ve come to expect from the Naughty Dog developers. The Last of Us may forever be their storytelling masterpiece, but A Thief’s End does just as great a job with a different genre. In the same way that the former’s bleak universe was also made fun, this universe of modern pirates hunting down the treasure of ancient pirates is given an emotional weight that transcends any one category.
I thought we’d see a more even split between Elena and Sam’s screen time. But no one is going to complain about the two most prolific voice actors in the business, Nolan North and Troy Baker, playing brothers and filling the majority of the game’s story. Their chemistry is the nucleus that ties together every other string of plot. They then wisely dedicate some of the more pivotal chapters to Elena, so that her character doesn’t feel under-represented at all. The humor is as good as ever, even going a step further than previous installments to integrate full, well-written conversations on top of their patented wealth of one-liners.
The alternating themes of family, marriage and friendship take turns in the spotlight while complimenting each other. Drake’s internal conflict shines as brightly as any of these, giving the player meaningful insight into the protagonist’s heart and mind. He genuinely misses the life of a thief-hero hybrid, a struggle that is demonstrated early on in some light-hearted sequences. But he genuinely does prioritize his love for his wife over all else. He wrestles with this balance, one that doesn’t leave much room in the middle.
The graphics are obnoxiously good, showcasing the game’s beauty on several occasions with shameless and well-earned shots of flawless scenery. Prior to Uncharted 4, I had never taken so many moments to stop whatever I was doing and just admire what was on the screen for a full minute before continuing to climb ahead. Drake's ability to maneuver throughout said environment is better than ever.
The grapple hook is a new feature that they clearly wanted to feature, but never force on you or overexpose (take notes, Batmobile). Combat is harder hitting and more visceral, giving Drake his most capable melee arsenal yet. Stealth gameplay allows the player to approach a wave of enemies in a variety of ways, ranging from an explosive shoot ‘em up to my preferred method, infinite neck snapping as you pick Shoreline forces apart one by one.
I don’t do any spoilers in gaming reviews, unless otherwise specified, because unlike movies these aren’t two hour excursions that you can expect people to have seen already while reviewing the material. The story takes many twists and turns that add some spice to the character development. As mentioned earlier, this is the best Uncharted story by miles. If I had to nitpick and say something that maybe isn’t their best yet, I’d argue that the show-stopping action set pieces in Uncharted 2 might be a little bigger and better. Nothing was ever going to top the train sequence, both in its execution and presentation. However Uncharted 4’s consistent, scene-by-scene action is actually far better, and the big moments are barely a nose behind.
I personally hate multiplayer-only games, due to the repetitive style-over-substance and typical lack of effort beyond the game’s core gameplay components. Multiplayer modes should be a complimentary piece that fans flock to after they beat the awesome single-player stuff. Forgive the “back in my day” moment, but Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare or Modern Warfare 2 aren’t the most widely loved and most fondly remembered of the franchise because they were the technological best. They’ve actually improved on those gameplay aspects year after year, yet the games are considered garbage. This is because back in my day, those two games and Black Ops, campaigns actually meant something. The ten-ish hour adventures were well thought out and directed, which transitioned smoothly into fun multiplayer experiences. Now you go another century into the future to play with a new gadget for a few hours, then you’re bored.
Uncharted 4’s multiplayer is a quiet success, and I’ve been hooked on it ever since I completed the story. They don’t overthink the game modes, opting for classic team deathmatch, control and capture the flag options. Then, they go the extra mile by giving you the entire cast to play with and customize. So many games don’t do the easy things like extensive customization that isn’t solely determined by stats. The multiplayer here allows your personal take on your favorite characters from any of the four games.
The mode also rewards you with an unlock and progression system that is perfectly paced. You won’t unlock it all at once, but the slate of weapons and items isn’t hopeless or discouraging. I can’t speak for the unreleased DLC yet, but this is one of those elite companies that get my money without question. That’s when you earn when you make quality games. Star Wars: Battlefront played the short game, using the Star Wars label to squeeze every dollar out of me as early as possible. I’ll proudly admit I reserved the full game, season pass and all. Now I definitively won’t buy a Battlefront 2 that’ll be sold before the first game’s content is even fully released. They got their immediate $120 out of me, and now I’m gone. Meanwhile Naughty Dog could open up a game for preorder called “Mike Charest Will Hate This Game” tomorrow and I’ll reserve it in a second. And the best part is, they’d never make that game that I hate, because they earn my continued business.
In addition to being a gaming masterpiece, Uncharted 4 is basically one of the better movies you’ll see this year. For that reason, it still amazes me when studios choose to release movies like Warcraft or Assassin’s Creed that have comparably zero story to work with. The games have value in their own way but, as movies, these are head-scratching choices. Much like Hitman, Resident Evil or the many other failed attempts at video game movies, the poor reception of the genre has more to do with selection than anything else.
The Last of Us or Uncharted are already movie-ready; even copy and pasting them to the big screen would create a huge success. Forget if they actually find ways to improve the concept. That trend will continue to confuse me, but luckily we already have our perfect Uncharted movie. It’s just around 15 hours, and on PS4. Assuming this is in fact the franchise’s finale, A Thief’s End is a beautifully made end to a legendary franchise.