About two nights ago I was finally able to wrap up Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. I sat down, put my headphones in and powered through what was one of the most emotional journeys I have ever had in a game. Uncharted 4 is not only an excellent entry into a beloved franchise, it is arguably the best entry, a swan song to nearly ten years of loving character development and thrilling adventure.
Uncharted, as you may be well aware, is an adventure series not unlike Indiana Jones that follows the adventures of Nathan Drake, a treasure hunter who seems fated to keep discovering legendary cities and ancient treasures, while (spoilers!) never actually coming away with anything but fantastic stories. Also, he climbs a lot of shit. The series has always geared towards spectacle, and it does spectacle better than nearly any game out there. It’s akin to a summer blockbuster film, not grounded in realism or trying to convey any deeper message than the beauty of exploration and the thrill of a big-budget action movie. It is tongue in cheek, beautiful to look at and a blast to play. I always used to default to Uncharted 2 as an example of how videogames have narrative power.
Uncharted 4 is all of that, but it has a slightly different feel to it. About midway through development the creator and writer of the first three games, Amy Hennig, left Naughty Dog (on amicable terms, so it would seem) and the writers/directors of The Last of Us, one of Naughty Dog’s other beloved franchises, stepped in to write and direct Uncharted 4. Whatever game they had was scrapped and basically restarted from scratch, which left a lot of people worried that we would get a darker entry into the Uncharted series. What we got instead was an Uncharted game that focuses more on character building and emotional stakes than previous iterations, while keeping what was core to the Uncharted series alive.
Before I go on and talk about the game’s strengths or weaknesses, I would like to say one thing. The Uncharted series, especially from 2 onward, is a must play for anybody with the means to do so. The impact of 4 is only made stronger if you have played the previous entries, but they are all incredible romps across the globe and some of the best examples of how great video games can be at telling a story. Go play them all right now.
Ok, now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I want to talk about the game’s most obvious strengths: its story and visuals. As of this moment, Uncharted 4 is the best looking game I have ever played, hands down. Naughty Dog has always made games that push their technology to its limit, and this is another great example. The Playstation 4 is relatively weak compared to the better PCs that are available, but somehow this game looks incredible, like take-your-breath-away incredible. This is partly due to the amazing graphical fidelity, but it’s also due to some breathtaking artistic design. Every area you encounter (and there are many; the game’s locals are varied) has an amazing amount of care and detail put into them.
With more realistic looking characters it is easier to show the subtleties of emotion on their beautifully rendered faces. It is also easier to create incredibly detailed and stunningly beautiful environments. Naughty Dog treats the environment as a character, and it feels alive. No other game captures the quiet, dusty feeling of walking into an ancient place nobody has visited in hundreds of years, seeing the decay of bedframes and the skeletons of people laid out in a way that tells a story about the past. I had many “wow” moments where I walked into a new area and just paused to take in the sights and the sounds. The sound design is amazing, too; I really suggest putting in some headphones to play this game. Uncharted is known for it’s spectacle, but spectacle only works if it is punctuated by quiet moments, and some of my favorite moments in the game were the ones where the frenetic action stopped and the game let me take in my surroundings.
The writing in an Uncharted game has never been stronger. I don’t want to spoil the story in any way, as it is best experienced with all of its twists and turns. This game focuses on the relationships between the characters more than any game in the series, and explores why Nathan Drake does what he does in a way that justifies every adventure that he has. Naughty Dog has a talent for giving it’s characters tiny moments of interaction, be it with the environment or each other, that ground them and give them depth. The characters are flawed and likeable, and they feel very real, which is difficult to do in a narrative that is bigger than life.
On top of that, the performances the actors give really sell the game. The acting here is film-worthy. Nolan North brings the same affable charm to Nathan Drake as always, with Richard McGonagle providing the fatherly sarcasm of Victor “Sully” Sullivan. Troy Baker gives another outstanding performance as Nathan’s long lost, ne’er-do-well older brother Sam who kicks off the whole adventure. Emily Rose plays Nathan’s wife, Elena, and the relationship between her and Nathan is, in a way, core to what this game’s narrative is all about. Laura Bailey plays Nadine, the ruthless leader of the mercenaries you spend 30% of the game shooting at. And I feel special recognition needs to go out to Warren Kole, who plays the game’s villain Rafe Adler, a man with charm like a snake and probably the series’ best villain yet. Actors in videogames often take the back seat as their faces are never seen, but these people motion captured nearly everything in the game and their performances are all top of the line.
So now that I have heaped praise on the game, it’s time to talk about the gameplay, which is unfortunately one of the game’s weaker points. First of all I’ll address the game’s shooting: it sucks. It always has in the Uncharted games. It’s really too bad, because the shooting galleries become more of a chore than something to look forward to, especially later in the game where it just throws an inordinate amount of enemies at you. Fortunately for the most part the game gives you new ways to get around the shooting, and those are genuinely fun. They added a very simple stealth mechanic, which allows Nate and Co. to hide in tall grass and take enemies out. If you are spotted the shooting begins, but if you can break line of sight and hide again the enemies will lose their bead on you and you can start taking them out one at a time again, Batman-style. The mechanic could have used some more fleshing-out, but it’s a welcome addition to diversify the enemy encounters.
Another big change they made is opening up their environments. No longer are they long, scripted corridors from one closed-off enemy encounter to the next; Uncharted 4’s levels are long, open affairs that require genuine exploration to find what happens next, and the enemy encounters are multi-level open arenas that feel great to traverse. When Nate actually does what you tell him to, that is. This was probably the best choice they could have made in terms of gameplay, as it really adds to the feeling of exploring a distant and exotic place. The only issue I ran into is that often I would get lost, not knowing where to go next. It is frustrating seeing a ledge that Nate could theoretically climb to, but not being able to get there because that’s not how the game devs designed the area to be climbed. Perhaps a more dynamic climbing engine, with more pathways, would have removed the frustration.
The final, and perhaps the most gimmicky, of additions is the grappling hook. It adds a fair amount of diversity both in terms of combat (swinging from a ledge to jump on top of an enemy and steal their gun in mid-air looks awesome, when it works) and in terms of exploration. Being able to grapple between ledges is great fun, and trying to find grappling points adds to the environmental puzzle. Exploration is where the gameplay itself is strongest. Scaling ruins, discovering ancient tombs, solving puzzles; that’s where the fun is at.
The game’s biggest issue is that Nate just doesn’t always do what you want. The shooting is swimmy and inaccurate, and too often I would try to roll out of the way of a gunner only for Nate to take cover out in the open, and end up dying as a result. It’s incredibly frustrating that it’s four games in and they still haven’t figured out how to make their combat flow smoothly.
So the game isn’t perfect. But I really don’t care. Despite all of these blemishes, it was still one of the best experiences I have had in years. They know that they are closing out a story that people have been invested in for years, and they give it the best send-off it could have possibly gotten. I spent the last fifteen or twenty minutes of the game nearly in tears. It is such an emotionally powerful, beautifully crafted story that it is absolutely a must play. It is beautiful to look at, and it’s great to sit down with some friends and just play through, like a well written, well produced summer movie for all ages.
I’m going to miss these characters and adventures deeply, more than I expected to. It’s the end of an era. After 3 I didn’t think I needed or wanted another Uncharted game, but this was truly the perfect ending to a fantastic series. I can’t wait to see what Naughty Dog does next. Maybe Jak and Daxter (please)?