Video Games Review: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (PS4, 2016)

In this gig, it’s rare you get to play a game that feels complete anymore. Some games reach for the stars and fall short. Others feel like they could have used more time in the oven. Others still promise sequels before the credits have rolled. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is that rare game that feels utterly complete. A larger-than-life adventure wrapped around a core story that is actual size, it takes the lessons Naughty Dog learned on The Last of Us and iterates on them in surprising and compelling ways.

I’m not looking to spoil the plot for anyone, but feel free to skip the next paragraph if don’t want to know anything about the game’s basic premise.

Uncharted 4 reunites us with series hero Nathan Drake, now in a self-imposed retirement from his days as a globe-trotting treasure hunter. His marriage to longtime compatriot Elena is stronger than ever and he’s working  a stable job in marine salvage. The call of adventure still rings in his ears however and, despite assuring Elena that it’s all in the past, he’s still having trouble adjusting to domestic life. When his estranged brother Sam Drake arrives out of the blue with an offer he can’t refuse, Nathan finds himself unraveling ancient mysteries once more, dodging violent criminals and figures from his past, scaling treacherous cliffs and monuments — and lying to Elena about it the whole time.

Praise must be given to the game’s emotionally taught script, written by The Last of Us scribes Neil Druckmann and Josh Scherr who took over from departing series writer Amy Hennig (Druckmann also directed the game with Bruce Straley) but Uncharted 4‘s true emotional payload comes from a litany of career-best performances from actors Nolan North, Troy Baker and Emily Rose.

Baker we already knew was a prodigious talent, but his Sam Drake is a chameleonic performance on par with his previous role as Joel in The Last of Us. It’s not just that Sam looks completely different to Baker, the devil is well and truly in the details. One moment, you feel like you could trust the guy with your life. The next, you’ll notice some perfectly-timed physical tick or subtle vocal inflection in Baker’s performance and it will make you doubt Sam deeply. You spend quite a bit of time with Sam in this game and every now and again I would remember that it was T-Bakes behind the mask and be blown away all over again.

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Emily Rose’s Elena remains one of the great video game heroines, as capable, scrappy and irreverent as Drake himself. Elena is not only the emotional eye of the hurricane here, she’s also (as ever) the game’s true and unsung hero. She’s never the nagging, shrill female tag-a-long, she’s never Willie Scott. She is only ever useful, helpful and is resolutely Team Drake, for better or worse.

But of course, it’s Nolan North’s Nathan Drake that is the game’s real gift. North’s nimble, energetic performance carries the entire game, giving us a Drake that is more beautifully flawed than we’ve seen before. He is older (but somehow no wiser), craftier (but still caves to impulse in a heartbeat), wearier (but still bursts with childlike enthusiasm when a piece of the puzzle falls into place) and snarkier (but still keeping a sense of humour about each dire situations he finds himself in). It’s his interactions with other characters that really set the performance apart, though.

North’s energy and charm seems to embolden the performers around him. His romantic chemistry with Emily Rose is electric and their scenes depicting Nathan and Elena’s home life among my favourite parts of the game. In the hands of less skilled or less comfortable actors, their banter would come across as trite but North and Rose bring such warmth to each scene they share. It’s easy to believe that these are two people who are very much in love. I’m serious, I could watch the two of them hang out in their inner-city home for hours and not be bored.

I also want to give a shout out to the incredible Laura Bailey, who is given the ludicrously delicate job of playing militant PMC boss Nadine Ross. Bailey’s casting was quite rightly seen as a racial issue when it was announced — why is a white woman being cast as a black woman in a video game? Even if performance capture means you never see her face, shouldn’t you still be getting an actual black actress for this? — but she works through it like a pro, juggling the demanding physical component of the performance with a flawless South African accent. It’s a credit to Laura’s ability as a performer that if you didn’t know she was white, you might never pick it up, but I still think Naughty Dog hung her out to dry on that one and if the game has a chink in its armour, this is it.

Visually, Uncharted 4 easily ranks among the most beautiful games ever created. Moment-to-moment, I would find some new visual quirk that would cause me to stop. The translucency mapping on on some tree leaves in an early level stopped me dead for minutes on end. The branches shifted slightly in the breeze, sunlight behind them illuminating the upper-most leaves just as it does in real life, I had to take a moment to remind myself that what I was looking at wasn’t real. This level of detail can be found throughout the game in everything from exceedingly expensive villas in Italy, craggy Scottish coastline and bustling markets in Madagascar. Miraculously, in spite of the granular detail, everything hums along at a rock solid 30-frames per second. The only time I noticed a significant drop was when I encountered a fast-moving river toward the end of the game, resulting in a dip to 20 fps or so. I bring this up not to quibble, but to highlight just how finely optimised the rest of the game is. Further, aware that their game is exceedingly pretty, Naughty Dog have included a camera mode that allows you to take quick snaps of anything that catches your eye.

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In terms of gameplay, if you’ve played an Uncharted game before then you already have an idea of what to expect. Uncharted 4 follows the series formula of scaling dangerous terrain, shooting your way through hordes of gun-toting paramilitary types and being involved in some of the most dizzying action sequences ever created in any medium. What Uncharted 4 does well is it takes these already fairly honed mechanics and finds way to further refine them.

The shooting, historically my least favourite part of previous Uncharted games, feels much better this time around. You can switch between a lock-on or free-aim playstyle in the options menu, though I found the free aim more than adequate. The array of weapons feels solid and all behave as you’d expect them to. The biggest and best change to combat in my opinion is no longer having to empty clip-after-clip into enemies to bring them down as a substitute for difficulty. When I put a sniper bullet as long as my forearm into a guy’s face, I expect him to die promptly and without complaint. I do not want him to tell his friends about the experience. Uncharted 4 finally gave me what I wanted in that regard.

The climbing mechanic in Uncharted has always been fluid, but it feels moreso now. Or, at least, Drake is less picky about what he’s willing to grab onto. This makes scurrying up the side of a mountain or quietly moving around the outside of a bustling party feel less sticky. It also doesn’t mean you misjudge a jump very often either, which is nice. While it’s never been as finicky about verticality as something like Assassin’s Creed, climbing in Uncharted 4 finally feels the way it would feel to Drake — like second nature.

Level design too is a step beyond what Naughty Dog created in past Uncharted titles. It also owes a clear and significant debt to The Last of Us. That game’s finger prints are all over A Thief’s End and nowhere is that more apparent than in its approach to architecture. Dilapidated houses, crumbling ruins, they all forcibly reminded me of The Last of Us‘ water-logged, overgrown world. But where Joel traipsed flat-footed through that dystopic space, Nathan Drake takes the more acrobatic approach. One area of design that I’ve always found to be uneven in Uncharted has been conveyance — it wasn’t always clear where you were supposed to go, especially when climbing. Uncharted 4 only had one or two moments of poor conveyance that I ran into, and after wandering about for a few minutes a hint appeared onscreen to point me in the right direction. I understand this may annoy some players and the good news is that you can turn that feature off (which I did).

There is a complete multiplayer mode to accompany the lengthy single-player campaign as well, but at the time of writing we were not able to full test it due to the low player count. We’ll bring you a more substantial piece on that in the coming days.

Without going into detail about the remainder of the plot, it is easy to see that Naughty Dog have a plan in mind with this game and that plan is to bring Uncharted as we know it to an end. In the same way that Pixar created a note-perfect farewell in Toy Story 3, Naughty Dog does the same for the series that proved they were capable of much more than Crash Bandicoot. Indeed, Uncharted 4 pays homage to Crash in ways both overt and far more subtle throughout.

Playing through Uncharted 4 is not unlike having a really great meal. There is a delicious mingling of flavours and textures, and it’s just the right size so you don’t feel bloated when you’re finished. You’re satisfied and you’re glad you had it, but if someone offered you seconds you’d turn them down. If the Uncharted series was to continue, it would need to be in a drastically different form to this one lest it cheapen the experience.

Uncharted 4 is as complete a game as I have played in a long time. Every mechanic is tightly honed, every set piece masterfully executed, every character and plot moment rings true. There’s not an ounce of fat on this thing, on-screen or under the hood — a true rarity in games today.

It’s a landmark technical achievement, it’s a narrative tour de force and it feels a bit like saying goodbye to a dear friend.

So long, Nathan Drake. I’ll miss you.

Score: 10/10
Highlights: Immersive; Beautiful; Epic
Lowlights: Bye, Nate.
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: 10/5/2016
Platform: PS4

Reviewed on PlayStation 4.