When Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End was first announced at E3 2014, I wasn’t convinced. How could the fourth iteration of the franchise offer anything new? Despite the visual improvement of the new generation of consoles, won’t it just be more of the same? It fills me with overwhelming pleasure to announce that I was wrong. Not only does Naughty Dog’s new installment offer breathtaking graphics, and fast paced action sequences, but it shares an unbreakable bond of brotherhood and family. It does so with a cast of characters who give heart-warming performances, and provide a genuine level of humour to keep you stretching your play session as far as possible. Uncharted 4 is not only a strong addition to the franchise, but it is the best installment yet.
The story begins in retirement. Our favourite treasure hunter, Nathan Drake, has hung up his holster, literally. Besides playing make-believe gun battles in his attic, he is living a happy life with re-occurring love interest, now wife, Elena. However, retirement never lasts; when long lost brother Sam -voiced by Troy Baker, shows up at his doorstep and asks for help paying a debt to some unsavoury people, Nate can’t refuse. Though, as always they aren’t the only ones seeking the treasure, and what ensues is Nate’s greatest and final adventure.
Reappearing from previous Uncharted games, the staple characters such as Elena and Sully are as present as ever. At its core, A Thief’s End isn’t about gold, protecting a secret, or solving a conspiracy. In fact, the outlining story is fairly straightforward. Uncharted 4 is about family; interaction between characters, and their close bond with one another. Primarily, it explores the relationship between Nate and Sam; their connection growing up on their own, and their motivations for becoming who they are today. The game wrestles with the importance of loyalty and trust as a true test of the journey.
It is the heartfelt and authentic delivery from the voice actors that truly sell the thoughts and feelings of their characters. The back and forth quips, awkward pun jokes, and general conversation which occur during exploration make you truly care for them. You want them to succeed, but despite all the joking and good intentions, there is always the sense that something bad is waiting around the corner, ready to take it all away. Few games have managed to make me feel so connected and invested in the lives of their characters as Uncharted 4 has.
This series has always been at the forefront of pushing consoles to their limits, and number 4 is no exception. As you’d expect, there are snowy mountains, lush forests, and tremendously muddy deserts. Boy, does the mud look good! Not only that, but everything looks so beautiful! The lighting and shadow effects skirt across the environments; the trees blow in the wind, and the vibrant colours, no matter where you are, constantly have you re-examining the screen to understand how gorgeous it is.
This visual step-up from previous gen consoles is exemplified in the new use of open spaces; the deserts in Madagascar in particular were my favourite. You drive a Jeep (while listening to thrilling back-seat commentary of course), which serves as a grounded platforming experience. Traversing the vehicle up hills, past obstacles, and through the mud provides a true appreciation for the setting. And if you’re taking the time to marvel at the scenery, you might want to explore off the beaten path to uncover any of the collectable treasures, or discover the grim fate of people left for dead. Decaying corpses, old letters, and man-made constructions breath history into these areas. They provide just enough information, but entice you to discover more about the area and its secrets.
“… The vibrant colours, no matter where you are, constantly have you re-examining the screen to understand how gorgeous it is.”
The setting also diversifies the combat system in the game. As a result, encounters occur on much larger scales than the previous games, offering multiple avenues of approach. Most of the time you will start an encounter in stealth. Permitting you are patient enough, and make use of tall grass, you can clear out all the enemies to avoid reinforcements, but if you’re seen, you’d better hope you’re in a good spot because things can turn bad, fast. Enemies will loop around to flank you, or climb up ledges and peer down cliffs to get a better vantage on you. Grenades will flush you out of cover, and Heavy enemies always appear when you want them the least. Shooting feels satisfying, and explosions make roaring sounds, which cause massive bursts of smoke as the AI soar into the sky. To avoid death, you’ll be required to jump around, shoot from ledges, fire blindly and make speedy dashes to new sets of cover, only to be immediately enthralled in a hand to hand fight to the death.
Indeed, the new hand-to-hand combat system is wondrously cinematic. It’s not difficult to pull off, but it is awesome! Using only two buttons, one for attack, and one to release yourself from the grapple of an enemy, each blow is impactful and incredibly satisfying. The companion gameplay also lends itself to this new system. If any of your partners in crime are nearby, they can help release you from a grapple, or your character will instinctively use them to aid in a takedown combo.
Fortunately, the combat doesn’t outstay its welcome, as classic Uncharted style platforming and puzzle exploration chimes in to break up the action. All of the puzzles are relatively easy and some require neat use of his journal, which you can refer back to for useful information. Even if you find yourself stuck for a period of time, the game will give you a glaring hint, either by pointing out what you need to do, or having a companion offer a suggestion. These hints, which also occur during platforming sections as well, ensure the game moves at a steady pace, and prevents you from shutting off your console in frustration. However, the puzzles occasionally felt tedious and time consuming. Despite knowing exactly what to do, a few puzzle mechanics were either not fun, or required an annoying amount of controller input to complete.
Platforming has diversified a bit from other games in the series. Don’t worry, there is still plenty of sliding down mountains, hanging from ledges, and jumping across wide gaps, but this time, wait for it… Swinging! Yes, there is a lot of swinging, using a new grapple mechanic which honestly never gets old. There is also a lot of falling, shocker I know. Every leap to a ledge has you unsure whether or not it will collapse underneath you, and every bridge you cross will surely falter. It’s not a new technique, and sometimes it can seem like an inevitability in the way of the next story beat, but at some point you have to laugh at how unlucky Nate is. One gripe I had with the platforming was the over-reliance on boxes. Ultimately, it didn’t detract from the game but just felt silly; every time you needed an extra boost, there was always a convenient one-by-one box nearby.
“… A new grapple mechanic which honestly never gets old.”
In addition to the Single Player, Uncharted 4 contains a multiplayer component. It’s pretty much as you’d expect; the maps incorporate the grapple hook from Single Player, and provide enough cover and things to climb on to have some parkour fun. You’ll find the standard Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag, and Domination modes, and to unlock new weapons you must complete in-game challenges. During the match you will accrue currency for completing acts or picking up treasure, which can then be used to purchase ‘Artifacts’, which do different forms of damaging abilities. Each game will net you Uncharted points, which can be used to purchase new skins, cosmetic items, and random chests. There is also the option to spend real life money on these points, while the bigger currency, ‘Relics’, can only be obtained through challenges. The multiplayer in no way is a draw to the game, but if you’ve just finished the Single Player and are looking for some light, Uncharted style action, it’s there.
Small knit-picking aside, and irrespective of the multiplayer content which had no weight on my enjoyment of the game, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is spectacular. The narrative connects missing back story from previous games, wrapped within a thrilling adventure, and a profound set of characters that had me invested until the very end. I’ll miss you Nathan Drake, but I couldn’t have imagined a better send off.