Naughty Dog are a developer known for making a core trilogy of games in a console generation and moving on with a completely new IP, as seen with Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter, something which was directly on track with the release of The Last of Us after Uncharted 3 in 2011. However, to everyone’s surprise Naughty Dog decided to go back to the well for one more (final?) adventure in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End takes place a few years after the events of Drake’s Deception (Uncharted 3). Nathan has given up the illegal treasure hunting and settled down with his love interest from the first three games Elena, as well as holding down a semi-regular day job. Step in Nathan’s long lost and presumed dead brother, Sam Drake, to pull him back in to his old Indiana Jones-esque life. This time they are in search of the four hundred million-plus booty of the world renowned pirate Henry Avery, which the brothers have sought after since their adolescent days of treasure hunting. It doesn’t take Nathan long before he’s back to globetrotting and mowing down bad guys.
There were defiantly brief moments in the first few chapters of this game, past the nostalgia factor of seeing Nolan North be Nathan Drake again, where I wondered whether we really needed another Uncharted game after the seemingly full rounded conclusion of Uncharted 3: Drakes Deception. However, I’m proud to report my doubt dissipated extremely quickly with the inclusion of Sam, his motivations and character moments. That’s what really it comes down to in a Thief’s End; character moments. There are absolutely big popcorn action blockbuster set pieces present, as is the stable of the Uncharted series, but it’s the slower, more personal moments between the characters that really cement the emotional attachment I had for the characters.
Having been delayed multiple times for various reasons I will say perhaps the best decision Naughty Dog made during the development of Uncharted 4 was bringing in Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley from The Last of Us team, adding that games methodical past and darker character moments to the Uncharted universe just seem to flesh out and breath fresh life in to how and why Nathan Drake became the man he is, and how hard it is to adapt to a foreign form of life.
Obviously, at first I felt a little bereaved as to how believable Sam would be as a character considering there have previously been zero references to Nathan having an older brother. Any scepticism I had faded within the first couple of chapters as a little bit more of his background came to light. It’s thanks to the collective writing at Naughty Dog and performance of Troy Baker that really sells the whole ‘’Nathan Drake has always had an older brother’’ a lot more, and even though he’s new to the series I’d argue against trying to find a character outside of Sully or Nathan that is more compelling to watch and learn about.
Like previous instalments in the franchise within most of the games chapters you are accompanied by a secondary character, having them by your side interludes to plenty of back and forth banter between the characters that feels extremely natural. During the game’s many ‘’shoot or stealth’’ sequences, if you choose to sneak your way through an encounter, they’ll sneak into tall grass or behind objects with you. In fact the buddy AI is impressively competent; they’ll also mark up and take guys out for you in times of need. Much like The Last of Us, Naughty Dog here made it so Sam (or whoever you’re with) cannot alert enemy presences as to avoid any frustrating uncontrollable moments, and smartly so.
When not sneaking about the real meat of game experiences is third person combat, whether it be shooting or hand-to-hand. In this regard Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End it relatively serviceable. Press circle to lean against some form of cover, wait for the enemy to pop out of theirs- shoot. What is pretty cool is the addition of tag-team takedowns. If you’re being overwhelmed by enemies and they sneak up close enough to you and your partner you’ll have the opportunity when using melee to enter one of several canned animations where you and your AI partner are both clothes-lining. The guns themselves feel ok, but there were times when I would set up my crosshairs ready to blind fire to where I thought I would hit my target, only to miss a high percentage of my shots, this didn’t seem to vary no matter how I changed my aim in these situations. I could never seem to get blind fire to work to a standard where I felt it helped me in any considerable way.
As I’ve said previously, Uncharted 4 is a much slower, methodical game than its predecessors, although the past games in the series have been pretty good about not just funnelling you down a narrow shooting gallery, here it takes it that one step further in that there’s less combat overall but the game builds these moments really well by letting you interact with other characters, solve puzzles and get your grappling hook on. The grappling hook is the main add on to the parkour system, at various points during the climbing sections of the game Nathan and the gang will be able to swing from one wall to another. It can be fun and exhilarating at the end of a set piece having Nathan slide down a wall and having to jump, swing and land a death-defying leap. Looking back it really does seem like the grappling hook should have been there from day one.
During these slow moments of parkour and light level exploring the game borrows from the Last of Us in terms of how open and vertical the levels are. In most levels throughout the game you’ll be faced with multiple ways to get to the same end goal. Do you want to go up? Do you want to go down? Do you want to swing your way there? Set pieces here are handled similarly. Previous games were mostly about a lot of jaw dropping set pieces that connected different gameplay sections. Sometimes they felt a little bit misplaced and forced, but this time it’s different. Just like gunfights, the game builds itself exceptionally well before throwing you in to the deep end and seeing if you come out the other side.
I will also just say quickly how good this game looks. If you’re looking for a benchmark on how to judge not just modern gaming but modern entertainment, then look no further than Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. The way it directs you through its scenery with the camera and lighting is at times mind blowing. It’s not enough just to call the crowds objects in the world; they’re alive. Nor is it enough to say the characters are simply talking to each other – they’re reacting to each other’s sentences. There’s incredible animation and detail going on in every part of this game, the subtle emotions each character feels in the moment can be seen and absorbed like any character movie out there. Nathan gets punched, he winces, Nathan comes across a puzzle, and he genuinely emotes confusion convincingly. I have to commend the motion capture here, even on the fodder soldier enemies.
With the return of Uncharted comes the return of Uncharted Multiplayer. Although not the clear draw of the playing experience, Uncharted multiplayer in the past has offered a decent distraction after finishing of the campaign. But in terms of this multiplayer, ‘’distraction’’ seems to be the word to sum it up for me. In past multiplayers the maps seem to be more distinctive and expansive (see Uncharted 2) than they are here. Considering this is proposed as the last outing of Nathan Drake and co., it would have been nice to perhaps had a ‘’best of’’ playlist with maps from the previous games.
What is pretty cool though is the ability to unlock and customise characters from past Uncharted games. You do this by completing in game challenges whether they be kill three enemies using a melee or getting 20 headshot kills and getting ‘Relics’. Much like recent multiplayer shooter video games, you can also purchase chests with these ‘Relics’ or real world pounds where you’ll get an assortment of random unlocks, that can range from taunts you can do during a match, to silly things like bunny costumes or red noses for your characters.
New to the mechanical formula are ‘’Mystical Attacks’’ that make use of all the artefacts we’ve seen throughout the franchise. After gathering enough money throughout a match by getting kills or assists you’re rewarded with a selection of in-game buffs to choose from – do you want to save up for that Heavy armoured ally that follows you around the map shooting at anything that is on the opposite team? Or do you want to quickly unlock a one shot rocket launcher that could take out a close nit group of people in one go?
Within a few games you get the ability to create a custom load out where not only can you get new weapons but also new Mystic Attacks. You will, however, have to balance your loadout, as much like a Call of Duty you have a finite number of points to spend. The more levelled up guns and attacks you want, the more it costs to have, and with only a low amount of LP to start off with it definitely makes you think before you just choose a tanky loadout.
It’s also unfortunate that, at launch, the game only has a handful of modes that are typical with this type of competitive multiplayer: Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch (which playout the way you’d expect), Command (which is basically a domination variant) and Plunder (which is a capture the flag variant). The multiplayer isn’t bad but it just seems to be the bare bones at the minute. However, if you’re investing in it, Naughty Dog have said they plan to make and release free map packs and updates throughout the year.
The main draw here is the remarkable and breath-taking single player journey. How it all cohesively comes to together to form something so complete in all forms. Uncharted 4 isn’t the perfect game, it’s still Uncharted, and only you’ll know if you want more of that, but it’s damn near close. The gameplay compliments the writing, the writing compliments the story, and the story compliments the characters. At the end of the day that’s what Uncharted has always been about; the characters and their story, how they get there and how it pulls you in. It’s without a doubt the best looking game I’ve ever seen in motion, from swimming in the ocean to driving through Madagascar. I thoroughly enjoyed all 14 or so hours I spent experiencing it and it’s a franchise I’m glad Naughty Dog came back to. At the end of Uncharted 3 I thought I didn’t need another trip with Nathan and Sully and the rest, but man, I was so wrong. A Thief’s End has set a benchmark of storytelling in video games, one that I don’t think will be matched any time soon.