The final chapter of Nathan Drake’s story is the culmination of one of last generation’s most iconic new IPs and developer Naughty Dog‘s mastery of cinematic storytelling.
Following Drake on his last adventure through the jungles of Madagascar and rolling hills of Scotland, it’s easy to get swept up in the stunning vistas and lose sight of those elements that make Uncharted 4 a great video game, rather than just an entrancing playable movie.
And truthfully, although the “video game” aspects aren’t as groundbreaking as the game’s visuals, A Thief’s End is worthy of its spot in nearly everyone’s Game of the Year rankings.
Taking place three years after Uncharted 3, A Thief’s End begins with Drake living a comfortable but unsatisfying life in suburbia with Elena. Drake longs for his days of thieving and exploring, but has grown to accept the mundane safety of the American rat race for the sake of his new wife.
But Drake’s new life is interrupted by his brother Sam, who had been assumed dead following a partially successful prison escape. Sam explains that Drake must help him find the lost treasure of pirate Henry Avery to repay a debt he owes the Panamanian mob. Drake (not-so-reluctantly) agrees, and gets pulled back into the treasure hunting game for one last job to save his brother.
The story centers around the tension of Drake having to choose between risking his life on another potentially fatal adventure for his brother and giving up his aspirations for the sake of Elena. A Thief’s End is the most thematically complicated of any of the Uncharted series, but it still maintains the fun levity of the series’ past.
Superb voice acting from series regulars Nolan North and Emily Rose is no surprise, but it’s Troy Baker as Sam who completely steals the show. Baker’s delivery of Sam’s emotionally complicated dialogue showcases his range as a voice actor, and he’s the center of nearly every scene he’s in.
In-between the first rate cut-scenes, the skirmishes are a mixed bad. The shooting’s responsive and the cover system’s competent. There’s a certain weight to combat that feels leftover from The Last of Us, and it fits comfortably into Uncharted’s realistic aesthetic.
But while most everything in Uncharted 4 feels like a step forward for the series, the melee combat will feel like a remission for Uncharted veterans. In Uncharted 3, hand-to-hand felt intuitive, and there was a seamless transition from shooting to melee. Fighting someone with your fists in Uncharted 4 feels clunky, and it’s usually a better idea to shoot an enemy outright than to struggle with the controls.
Stealth is another sore spot; it’s something that each Uncharted game has struggled with, and although this is the best it’s ever been in the series, that’s not saying much. The inclusion of an awareness meter and the ability to mark enemies helps a bit, but there are no additional stealth techniques to help make sneaking easier. There’s no way to call out to guards, no long-distance takedowns, or any other viable strategies besides just patiently waiting for guards to turn around and snapping their necks. It turns sneaking into a chore that you’re better off skipping by just shooting your way through stealth sections.
While the quality of the combat is inconsistent, the exploration sections are solid, mostly due to some of the new mechanics added to change up what was becoming a tired aspect of Uncharted. The new grappling hook opens up some interesting puzzle opportunities, and gives Drake a quick way to escape danger during firefights (although the gag of “sliding down a hill and having to grapple something at the last second” wears thin by the third act).
The gigantic puzzles also do not disappoint, as Uncharted 4 takes full advantage of this entry appearing on the PlayStation 4. There aren’t any brainbusters, but the level design of some of the large-scale set pieces is awe-inspiring. Particularly memorable is the clock tower puzzle, which, as is tradition in the Uncharted series, gets climatically destroyed after Drake solves it.
And also like the other Uncharted games, the multiplayer in A Theif’s End feels like a tacked-on afterthought to add a perceived amount of value that would have been lost on an exclusively singleplayer game. There are no stand-out modes or features in Uncharted 4‘s multiplayer. It’s essentially just the combat framework of the campaign ripped out and thrown into an online setting. It’s functional, but there’s nothing remarkable to get excited about either. It’s hard to imagine any player developing an attachment to such a mediocre multiplayer, as it’s likely that the only people playing Uncharted 4 online regularly are the people who don’t have any other games to play on PS4.
While the footage of this game speaks for itself, it has to be noted how incredible Uncharted 4 looks. The cuts and scratches that cover Nathan Drake’s face add that much more believably to Nolan North’s already remarkable performance. You can almost feel how slick the rain-covered cliffs of the Madagascan jungle are as Drake slips and falls onto the hard rock bed. Sand pours from piles of shrinking sandbags that you’re using as temporary cover.
Simply put, Uncharted 4 is one of the best looking console games ever made. This is the kind of game your dad stops you to talk about on Christmas morning. It’s one of the first major steps forward for graphics this console generation, and it’s going to be a treat seeing the next thing Naughty Dog’s in-house engine cooks up.
Although A Thief’s End is a better film than it is a video game, it’s still a really damn good game. It showcases the magic that happens when the best of the two mediums collide. Uncharted 4 is the new benchmark for cinematic games, and for that, it’s a standout in what has been an excellent year for AAA video games.