REVIEW: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016)

Nathan Drake returns for what could be his final adventure! R.G. gives us his verdict on what may be the best PS4 exclusive to date.

Whenever a brand new console comes out, there is always that one game – a killer app –  for everyone to gravitate toward and sell some machines. As the true saying goes – software sells hardware! The PS3 was an interesting tale when it came to its killer app, as it started out as your typical console horror story. It was too expensive, didn’t have many interesting games at launch, had poor third-party support, and was the butt of many jokes in the console market. Then it started to pick up steam as the years went by, and the PS3 went from the laughing stock of the gaming industry to one of the most beloved and diverse consoles ever, with many thanks going to a little game called Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune – Naughty Dog’s first game on the console. For me, though, the reason why I got the PS3 and the point where the console reached its absolute peak was when Uncharted 2: Among Thieves came out. I’m telling you this because, without the Uncharted series, the Sony brand would never have recovered from its dismal 7th Gen launch, and for that reason (and for many others, of course), it’s arguably the best Sony exclusive franchise out there.

To hear that Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End may be the legendary developer’s last foray into the series is quite sad. Unsurprisingly, though, Naughty Dog are renowned for giving their series bookends rather than milking them into multifaceted franchises. Nevertheless, if it is the last one, they might as well go with a bang! Uncharted 4 is the longest, most technically-ambitious title in the series in true Naughty Dog fashion and, just like they did with Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter and The Last of Usthey pretty much solidified themselves as the Kings of the PlayStation, pushing the console’s boundaries to outstanding levels of technicality and power.

Beginning three years after the conclusion of Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Nathan Drake and Elena Fisher are married and have retired from thrill-seeking adventures, having settled down to a normal life. Suddenly, his thought-to-be-dead older brother Samuel reappears and Drake is pulled back into treasure hunting, this time going after the most sought-after pirate treasure in history – something that Sam and Nate have been looking for since they were young! From the cliffs of Scotland to the island of Madagascar, Drake is undertaking a more personal quest of self-realisation and sacrifice that challenges who he truly is and how much he is going to do to save the people he cares about.

For a supposedly final game in a series, Naughty Dog pull no punches in terms of a fitting send-off. From a story standpoint, this is easily the most raw and emotional in the entire series, really exploring Drake’s obsession with adventure – Uncharted’s most important recurring theme. In Uncharted 1 to 3, Nate’s biggest dilemma was his almost unhealthy fixation on raiding tombs, something which has negatively affected his well-being and the people that care about him. Even if every single adventure leads to ruin, he just keeps coming back for more. With 4, we see him try a sedate life with Elena, almost succeeding in fact, but he  still craves the thrill of the chase. Like a drug addict, it only took minor pushes to bring him back to that obsession.

Uncharted 4, much like its predecessors, follows the same formula of Drake looking for lost treasures in mythical locations, fighting a villain who also wants said treasures, and in the long run, ending up without any loot and destroying said mythical location. The writing is pretty predictable but it’s an identity Uncharted thrives on, and in many instances, has moments of deep dramatic heft. It also takes the time to make fun of itself, as this series is also infamous for being well-aware of its more annoying and repetitive parts, from pointing out that there is so much climbing to how everything Drake touches crumbles on him.

Neil Druckmann, who directed and wrote the depressing and highly-emotional The Last of Us, takes the helm after Uncharted head writer and director Amy Henning left, and it really shows as Druckmann’s fingerprints are all over this game. While still funny and snarky like the series should be, 4 contains a lot of cues Naughty Dog learned from TLoU. Out of all the entries, 4 definitely has the best acting and has the most compelling drama. It’s not the best Uncharted story (that still goes to Among Thieves) but its simple Hollywood-style narrative and careful pacing keeps it from being boring. Previously,  the dramatic scenes were usually downplayed to focus on the action, but here, the drama was not only a lot more realistic, it felt way more important than it should have been. While it is the most somber and serious of the Uncharted lot, it doesn’t take enough risk to justify its tone, which is probably the biggest flaw of the story. I wish it would have had the balls to kill off a significant character to push its hero to the absolute edge, but it either almost happens or doesn’t happen at all.

The main cast – along with the spectacular set-pieces – are the best aspect of this series in general, and 4 portrays them as the most human and vulnerable than they have ever been. It doesn’t matter if the story is half-arsed or predictable; we still get invested because of how lovable these people are. Nate is still the charming, smartass everyman and scoundrel who develops and learns over the course of the series that there is more to life than treasure. Elena – who is one of the greatest female characters in video game ever – is a caring yet badass rock for Drake, grounding him every time he’s in trouble. And then there’s the irascible Sully, who went from a pretty unlikeable horndog to an important emotional anchor for the seemingly aimless Drake. Not ignoring the new characters, Nate’s brother Sam does his part as the catalyst of who Drake really is and why he does what he does, even if he isn’t that interesting of a character. Uncharted villains are usually one of the weaker aspects of the narrative since they are only there for the sake of having an antagonist. 4′s baddie Rafe has an edge because, out of all the villains in the series, he has the closest connection to both Nate and Sam, and unlike the previous adversaries, his motivations are more about pride and self-worth than greed or power.

Visually and technically, what can I say that hasn’t already been said? Naughty Dog are renowned for pushing Sony consoles to their absolute limit and Uncharted 4 really utilises the PS4’s power to the max. So much so that you would think the console might explode just from running it. Uncharted is a graphically busy series that juggles numerous things onscreen at once, and 4 does not mess around in this department. It is impressive that the PS4 – a console I don’t think is all that powerful – can run it so smoothly and consistently. It’s definitely the most visually stunning title on the PS4 so far. The environments, character designs and animation have so much detail to them; it boggles my mind that it was possible to churn out something so pleasant for the eyes! In past games, cutscenes were played via movie clips, and while Naughty Dog tried to make it seamless, it could be quite obvious and jarring – until now. In 4, the cutscenes are actually rendered in-game so there are no blackout cuts and the scenes just start with no interruption. Of course, there are some bits where it does do the usual edit when a cutscene initiates, but it is much less distracting than previous entries. We must also give props to the level designers as this is the most open game in the series. Even though it is a very linear title, each level is designed to be open-ended, giving you plenty of options when either exploring or engaging in gunfights, as well as appreciating how bloody gorgeous the levels themselves look. Seeing that panoramic view of the volcano in Madagascar pretty much sums up how far console graphics have come.

Gameplay consists of very grandiose climbing and platforming, cinematically-charged combat scenarios and Indiana Jones-style puzzle-solving. Not too much has changed mechanically since the previous games, but it’s easy to spot refinement from beginning to end as Uncharted 4 is easily the most responsive title in the series. Jumping and climbing are less fidgety, stealth is more satisfying to pull off, and the battles are way more diverse. Not only that, but one enemy spotting you doesn’t alert every single guard in the vicinity, and they don’t soak up bullets like in the other entries. A striking change in 4 is that it dials down on firefights. Granted, combat is one of Uncharted’s weaker and more unrefined aspects, though 4 has by far the best combat in the entire series. With a dwindled number of shooting scenarios, the limelight goes to the climbing and puzzles. Climbing is Uncharted’s trademark excuse to show off how beautiful and expansive the levels are. Because these areas are so massive, you will get stuck on a puzzle at first, searching for that sweet climbing spot that will progress the game. New mechanics like sliding environments and the grappling hook really emphasise the size of a level. Some of them require you to think in a non-linear way to reach a certain point, rather than just going for the obvious exit, e.g. sliding down a mountain to actually reach the top of it. This game also has a lot of puzzle-solving areas. Some are quite inspired and enjoyably elaborate, but others are pretty easy and forgettable.

Since this is a pretty long single-player campaign, the abundance of climbing does get tiring as it heads into its third act. Since there are actually less gunfights to break the monotony of it, and the puzzles themselves are hit-or-miss, you’ll be wishing that Drake would just stop scaling walls. How many times does a piece of rock or a platform have to dramatically break whenever Drake places a pinkie on it? It was a nice novelty in the beginning, but as the series went on, it got pretty indulgent. The worst part is that Naughty Dog are well-aware of this and haven’t attempted to avoid staleness. With all that said, many folks play Uncharted for its blockbuster-level action scenes and its characters, areas where 4 truly delivers. Naughty Dog didn’t stop trying to one-up themselves with more bombastic set-pieces, and since the single-player journey is so personal, you want Drake and the gang to pull through these death-defying situations. The chase scene in South Africa alone is enough to justify how far Naughty Dog has come.

Of course, while the single-player is the game’s main feature, there is indeed multiplayer. The online component runs at a slightly lower resolution but on a higher framerate in contrast to the campaign’s 1080p, 30fps performance. A surprise feature that was added first in Uncharted 2, it uses the run-and-gun parkour gameplay to offer a very action-heavy experience – whether it is a deathmatch between other players or cooperative against increasingly difficult AI opponents. 4 is not much different, but since the gameplay is so refined, this might be the best it has ever been. It’s not a huge feature by any means but it’s a nice afterthought when you finish the single-player campaign.

To sum up, Uncharted 4 is like saying goodbye to a dear old friend who gave you so many fond memories. A Thief’s End does its absolute best job in giving you a wholly satisfying experience as expected from this series, and as supposed finales go, Naughty Dog threw everything at it to make it feel like a crescendo. It’s not the most perfect game as it does feel overstuffed and repetitive at times, but it is still an Uncharted game, and it delivers on the reasons why the series is so damn special to me and to anyone who has followed Drake’s story. Story-wise, this is the most personal and reflective Uncharted has ever been, as we see characters we love finally go through the changes the writers have been building toward since the very first entry, even if it could have taken some risks to justify such themes. It is also a near-masterful title worthy of being called the PS4’s definitive technical showcase, with visuals so beautiful, performances so smooth and gameplay so refined that it makes you appreciate how the series has evolved so beautifully.

If this truly is Nathan Drake’s final adventure, then at least his swansong is hands down the best PS4 game to date.

R.G. Villanueva

Contributing game and film writer for SquabbleBox. Occasional DJ and instrumentalist, amateur programmer, all-around lazy guy.

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