Reviews PlayStation

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End Review - What a Good Bye

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We are often haunted by the things we no longer have, the things we believe should have been ours. Just out of reach, we’ve watched dreams turn to dust and hopes wither, as they’re hit by cold blasts of reality. It’s little wonder, then, that fiction is bloated with themes of loss and finality. Uncharted 4 drips with both, yet developer Naughty Dog takes a view that’s not cynical.

Instead, Uncharted 4 takes the idea of loss and finality as a reason for growth, not a reason to shrivel into a husk. But no one said growing up would be easy.

Starting at the End

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a PlayStation 4 exclusive and the final game in Naughty Dog’s action-adventure franchise, following the events of Uncharted 3. Players don’t need to know the intricate plot details of the franchise since, to be frank, there really aren’t any. Simply knowing who the three main characters are - Nathan, Elena and Sully - and how they relate is sufficient to appreciate Uncharted 4. There’s more depth and complexity in Thief's End than the the previous games, but that’s due to character rather than plot.

Players assume the role of Nathan Drake, as he finds himself drawn into yet another adventure thanks to his long missing brother. It’s not Nathan’s “biggest”, in terms of changing the world, but it is his hardest and one that’s been central to his life since childhood. Even here you have a mature approach: Instead of making it about the end of the world, the game’s far more personal and focused on Nathan’s loved ones.

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When we meet the man himself, he’s still doing what he loves: finding abandoned items. Except this time, there’s paperwork. He’s working with blue collar workers, pulling wrecks of vehicles out of nearby ports. And, at night, he’s stamping and signing documents. It’s a “normal” life, where the most dangerous aspect is probably papercuts. But he’s surrounded by the memories of his adventurous past, keeping items from lost cities and magic trees alongside dusty albums and toy pistols. He’s got a home life with his wife Elena, who’s still writing incredible articles few believe.

The game gets you involved, instead of merely telling you: You control Nate as he picks up and examines items from his past, items players of previous games will recognise. There’s a charming scene to teach you the basics of gunplay, where he’s rolling around in his socks shooting a toy gun - he’s letting off plastic balls and one-liners we expect from him. You can explore large sections of the home Elena and Nate have built for themselves: washing machines, bathrooms and all. It conveys a sense of comfort but also longing, as Nate still can’t shake off the call for something more.

*mild spoiler*

One of the most incredible scenes is where you, as Nate, play Crash Bandicoot. This is the game which made Naughty Dog famous and the game features a PlayStation One. It even boots the same! Nate’s ongoing commentary, performed with a comfortable perfection by Nolan North, alongside “gamer snark” from Elena had me crying with laughter. It’s truly something to have one famous Naughty Dog character play another, while criticising why a “fox” is collecting fruit.

*end spoiler*

Down time is a big factor in Uncharted 4. Indeed, I can see some people getting annoyed at how long and how much down time there is, for an action-adventure game. No matter which section of the world the game takes you to, there are large sections where you’ll be talking to your companion and taking in the gorgeous sites. Action is that much more intense, since combat is the exception not rule.

This helps carve out a space for Uncharted 4 among the other games in its own series and in the genre itself, as it stresses exploration and character, rather than shooting. However, don’t let that fool you.

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The Action Remains

The action set pieces are jaw-dropping. I gasped and cried out and my hand covered my mouth numerous times. There’s one particular set-piece involving leaping from car to car that beats any of the franchise’s previous incredible set-pieces. It’s Naughty Dog wizardry how they so carefully crafted a sequence of chaotic events, yet somehow they did.

Unfortunately, combat is still as iffy as it’s always been in this franchise. Though the shooting feels OK, there’s a weird issue of the reticule not appearing until you shoulder aim or blind-fire. This means you can’t line up shots while in cover. In a way this makes it more “realistic”, but I felt more clumsy. Shooting was mostly unpleasant for me. However, the game has dramatically improved its melee: I could take out entire groups thanks to the stealth mechanics, such as crouching in long grass. Further, you can mark enemies and companions can insta-kill, too.

I think it’s possible to love the combat, but I don’t think most will. While it’s exhilarating to see the game’s engine take care of debris and slowly eroding cover, glass and chairs and wood flying, enemies were too precise. Their grenades and bullets always hit their mark, whereas I was lucky to even scratch a torso. You also get a rope launcher? Grappling hook? One of those devices every game has now, which gives verticality to your movement. It’s fun to use and helps you land insta-kills, by letting you land on top of enemies.

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Travel stories & characters

Story is essential to the franchise. Though, as always, it’s pretty simple, I’d rather not reveal too much. Instead, what’s far more interesting is how Drake’s motivations are more complex than they’ve been before. There’s a genuine struggle to continue, seeing the hurt he’s causing (not the 540 families, which is the number of men I killed according to the game) - mainly to Elena. Drake thought he could balance his normal life with his true self, but this conflict begins causing issues. What’s fascinating is seeing how Drake matures into understanding himself and what he should be fighting for. I genuinely felt he grew up.

Additionally, the cast is incredible. Nolan North grunts and cries and laughs and snarks better than he ever has. It remains, for me, the series’ greatest strength that North is so comfortable in this role. His unscripted comments on what’s occurring breathe a great deal of life into what could be rather flat exploration. And it’s not merely his worded comments, but the animation as he gently touches a wall, moves branches out the way and so on.

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Drake is also one of the most incredible characters to control. His lack of elegance hammers home his bumbling nature, but it’s how they’ve made him responsive to the controller. It’s not often I feel embodied in a character, sometimes gritting my teeth and hissing. I did that often playing Nate. This is especially welcoming for someone like me who struggles with movement and sometimes chronic pain, to feel empowered and almost able to feel what jumping and climbing can be like.

The main cast unfortunately is not very diverse, but that’s to be expected given they are recurring characters from the previous games. Elena has become such a badass, though she’s unfortunately used a bit as the fists on hip, Woman Ruins Man’s Fun character. Thankfully, that doesn’t last long and she ends up being a total badass. And, thankfully, she doesn’t get damselled.

(*Mild spoiler*: Nate does and she has to save him.)

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There’s a badass South African woman in the game, trained in martial arts and combat who heads up a mercenary group. What’s not to love! Unfortunately, her motivations were incomprehensible. Also, her South African accent was so jarring, it sounded Australian and even Russian.

The main villain might be the most irritating the series has created. I was hoping there would be someone as closely connected to the group and fascinating as Uncharted 3’s Marlowe, but alas. The main villain is, in essence, a boring, spoilt rich kid. The game doesn’t do anything interesting with him and he’s another one dimensional villain, who even the characters convey has no reason to be this deeply invested in stopping them. (He also slaps the other villain in the face, i.e. the only other major female character in the game. That was just gross and undermines her as an equal the game was treating her as.)

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Nonetheless, it was good to see women in leading roles, men being vulnerable and showing affection and mostly fantastic performances from all. My favourite remains Richard McGonagle's performance as Sully - who doesn’t let age slow him keeping up with Nate and is ready to call him out on his nonsense. This is also the only game that has had me roaring with laughter almost consistently from beginning to end.

The writing is good, the performances fantastic, it almost doesn’t matter how shallow the story itself is.

Smooth Operator

Uncharted 4 may be the most visually impressive game I’ve experienced. At times it very difficult to look at screenshots to realise it’s in-game. This is not merely in terms of texture detail, but lighting, how sand is animated under your feet, how mud collects on everything from the wheels to pants and gets washed off.

There’s a scene where Elena rubs some dirty off Nate’s face and it actually makes a difference.

You’ll be travelling to snowcapped mountains to fancy auctions and, of course, lush jungles. You get to drive vehicles, swim and climb. While Drake’s no Ezio, he is still able to make ridiculous jumps, grabs and so on.  As indicated, he feels good to control and his body gestures help navigate the rocks (reaching out means it’s safe direction to jump toward, for example). Expect falls and slides and swims, all with cries and expletives.

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With your grappling rope hook thing, you’ll also be swinging from ropes and pulling big items to solve environmental puzzles. These aren’t as evolved as you might’ve hoped for a new Naughty Dog title: they still mean finding biggish items so someone can get higher. There is a cute short scene where Nate gets caught mid jump, however, by a passing waiter.

You can expect to use your jumping and rope to solve chin scratching puzzles. These aren’t Myst-level complex, but they’ll still give you a few minutes of consideration. These are often beautifully constructed set-pieces, because the artists could work in a small space. Though it’s still remarkable pirates found engineers to build stairs that fold into floors and back, it’s more remarkable to experience these mysterious areas. Thanks to Nate’s trusty notebook, though, you probably won’t be lost for too long.

The levels are massive and, remarkably, you’ll have no loading screens except the initial booting up - not even for new levels or different locations. It just cuts. Cutscenes transition smoothly into gameplay and back. I don’t know how Naughty Dog achieved this, but there we go: In a game this beautiful, this complex, you will have no noticeable loading screens and no discernible difference between those eye-melting cutscenes and gameplay. (There obviously are for those who examine every pixel, but if you just play, you won’t notice anything.)

The game is also long. It took me more than 16 hours to finish and I wasn’t trying to find every collectible item. You’ll also be spending some time with its Photo Mode, due to how stunning the vistas and landscapes are.

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In the end, Naughty Dog have created a stunning, exhilarating experience. While its main villain is as interesting as wet cardboard, its shooting still kinda bad, it offers a fantastic end to a remarkable series. It’s not cynical or even dark, but still manages a mature response to themes of finality and loss many can appreciate. It wants to you have affection for these characters and I certainly felt that. It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest games I’ve played and offers hours of play. With no loading screens, no noticeable drop in framerate, no difference between cutscenes and playing, this is a solid, smooth ride from beginning to end. And what a ride it is. I know I want to hop immediately back on.

Screenshots provided by PlayStation.

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"the most visually impressive game I’ve experienced"

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