For ten years, the Uncharted series has been a lesson in game design. Whether by a little or a lot, each entry in the series has been better than the last. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End carries on this tradition with glorious abandon; however, the same problems that have been present in the previous games are still around, only now they’re more masterfully hidden.
As has been the case before, we begin In Medias Res with a white-knuckle action sequence, and it is here that Uncharted reminds us so effortlessly why it has ran with our hearts in its hands for a decade. Rain lashes down as windscreen wipers struggle to keep up; our hero is on a boat in the middle of a storm-whipped sea. Cue the mercenaries: enemy boats, bullets flying, and quick-witted quips are all reassuring signs that we are home again
It is not an exaggeration to say that Uncharted 4 is the most beautiful game that I have ever played.
As part of the game’s lengthy introduction, we find Nate not wrapped in the green hues of some damp tropical paradise, but instead, a new kind of jungle – perhaps more intimidating: a house. We find him settled down with a job and a wife. Something has got to give, and give it does. Without going into too much detail on the plot, or rather the story, of Uncharted 4, it is the best of series so far. This tale examines Nate’s past, his relationship with his brother, his wife, and his best friend. There’s more going on here than in previous games, and it serves the narrative very well, giving each scene the weight of destination along with the thrill of the chase. Any lingering fears that followed Amy Hennig’s departure from the series are quickly allayed; in place of her deft touch, Neil Druckmann steps in fresh from his gargantuan success with The Last of Us. There are signs of that game’s passage here in abundance.
Once the game has gotten underway and we are truly let loose to play, it becomes clear very quickly that the formula has finally been nailed. The shooting is back, but it has the weight and fluidity it needed; the platforming is back, but it has nuance, accuracy, and a hefty dose of precision it always was lacking. Playing this game, one may wonder why it took Naughty Dog this long to ace the formula, but like all greats, they make it look easy. The combat has been lifted from The Last of Us, and the guns have a satisfying punch to them, the aiming has slowed to a reassuring pace, as if the reticule is moving through treacle, and this makes lining up head shots a joy. Explosions shower debris across the scenery, as each goon is sent flying from a well-placed stick of dynamite. There is less combat overall, and this was much needed, stealth has been introduced in a meaningful way, effectively making entire sections combat free if you devote yourself to efficiently sleuthing. Naughty Dog have borrowed a slice from Metal Gear Solid V by introducing bases; environments will have broken structures patrolled by guards, offering you the chance to mark enemies so that they appear through walls (fast becoming an action-game staple), and go to work. These sections work incredibly well because they marry the game’s already excellent platforming with its combat, giving you the chance to shimmy up ruins and plunge off the top of a guard tower onto a hapless guard, who will then dutifully crumble into a heap on the floor.
The environments are also open-ended in part, giving you branching options – inevitably to the same end point – which create a nice illusion of freedom. Some of these paths don’t lead anywhere, but others contain hidden relics and journal entries (à la The Last of Us) which flesh out the adventure nicely, providing backstory and colour for the completionists out there. Negotiating the terrain is more rewarding here because the platforming is more responsive than it’s ever been. We now haves the ability to move Nate’s hand manually to grab handholds, which gives us a real sense of working out how best to climb, rather than just blindly mashing the X button and having him leap until something works. The climbing is doubly satisfying for having such a rich and varied range of terrains, buildings, and elaborate crumbling chambers to traverse. It’s in some of these areas that we find the best that the series has to offer in terms of puzzles – although sadly that isn’t saying a lot.
It may well just be the series’ roots in serial adventures like Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, but playing through them I always expect more potent puzzles than I find. This may well not be fair criticism for the Uncharted series, but I’ve always felt Naughty Dog have a warm hand on your back and would rather you keep moving at a swift pace than stop and engage your grey matter. Uncharted 4 makes the best effort in this department of any of the games so far, still not reaching the head-scratching cerebral heights of Miss Croft’s adventures, but offering a fair distraction (and often much-needed break) from the relentless plot. Just as the game now marries its combat with its platforming, so too does it combine its platforming with its puzzles, creating some wonderfully complex environmental mechanical set-pieces. These are never much of a challenge, and you never really have to stop and think in order to move past them. Keep looking and leaping and pressing and you will stumble through. On top of the puzzles there is far more distraction on offer by virtue of being able to stop and take in the sights.
It is not an exaggeration to say that Uncharted 4 is the most beautiful game that I have ever played. The graphics layer each scene with a kind of lived-in smoulder; the environments were enough to stop me dead in my tracks a number of times, just panning the camera to take in the edges of the scenery. The light and shadow trickle through dense and impossibly green jungles, clothes ripple and move just as they would in reality. It’s perfect. Entire city streets are filled with not just people, but life. Nate walks through a crowded market at one point and I was left with my mouth open as hagglers haggled, scooters sped by, traffic trudged as throngs of determined walkers cut in front of hissing cars. Witnessing the game in motion leaves us with the sense that the medium can move beyond its current limitations, not just by making the graphics better, but by having them good enough to support other more traditional areas – like acting.
There are several scenes where the facial expressions said more than the dialogue was able to, and this is a beautiful thing; it allows subtlety in some scenes where things are best left unsaid. The characters pop out at the player more here because of this; they are brought to more vivid life. The reason the characters in the series have been so likable and distinct is that they have never really been held up to the microscope. Nate is the loveable, roguish, quipping hero; Elena is the determined, resourceful, and sensible counter to him; Sully is the old dog with plenty of old tricks, with an anecdote for every possible (and implausible) situation. And now Sam is the ne’er-do-well brother with a heart of gold who always has the knack of pissing the wrong people off and getting Nate into trouble. These figure heads have never had enough of a break from running and gunning to really become authentic people with depth, and despite some layered and emotional attempts that is still the case here.
For the majority of the time the cracks are hidden by masterful bluffing, and when we relax and enjoy the ride Uncharted 4 is one of the best examples of blockbuster gaming in the industry. Perhaps the best. The same trademarks flaws are here however, if you have keen (and perhaps jaded) eyes: you are still given the wind on your back for certain jumps that you’re supposed to make, you are still asked to repeat the same exercises over and over, and you will likely still be ready for the end before the end comes. You will be asked to shoot too much, but the shooting is better, there is less of it, there is more variety in between. The platforming is better, weightier, and with the best environments we’ve yet seen, but there isn’t any real challenge here still. The puzzles are more elaborate, and exploration not only facilitated but encouraged, yielding prizes for the intrepid, but are we still restricted by the sometimes visible hand of scripting.
Uncharted 4 confidently closes the book on the series, and goes out on a high note, without feeling the need to go over-the-top with its conclusion. The things that it does well are much bigger, and much more important than the few niggling things that it – along with its three predecessors – gets wrong. Naughty Dog has increased its powers of misdirection exponentially, advancing the series in its skillful and peerless storytelling, whilst leaving the gameplay more or less unchanged. Thankfully they have not left it untouched, and this is clearly the best – and last – of what is now an unrivaled quartet of games.
This review deals with only the single-player portion of the game. The review will be updated should the multiplayer affect the score, but c’mon, this single-player is worth the price of admission on its own.