Review | Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
The Uncharted franchise has been one crazy roller coaster of a series, benchmarking industry leading visuals and even some of the best storytelling and acting in video games. The fifth game in the series (counting Uncharted: Golden Abyss), and considered to be potentially the final game of the franchise, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is perhaps the best in the series, a position that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves arguably had with many fans. The whole franchise is fantastic regardless, but developer Naughty Dog really made this entry an excellent swan song for series hero Nathan Drake.
The game begins with a sequence that takes place in medias res, and despite not having any context, it works well for a series like this to show the protagonist as he makes his way towards his goal. Nathan Drake, voiced by Nolan North, and his brother Samuel, who is introduced in this game and voiced by Troy Baker, take a boat through raging waters in the middle of a storm as they trek towards an island. After a brief run-in with a private military group, Shoreline, the boat is suddenly capsized and the brothers are tossed into the ocean. At that moment, Uncharted 4 sets the stage and players are placed decades into the past with a young Nathan, living in the St. Francis orphanage when he gets a visit from his brother, who was previously kicked out from said orphanage. This helps build the bond between the brothers, which is necessary for the plot since this is the first time fans would even know about Sam.
The first handful of chapters take place in the past, setting up a tutorial for the player but also further establishing a relationship for the brothers, from their teenage years to adulthood as they spend time in a prison in Panama, though not as true prisoners. This moment takes place even before Uncharted: Golden Abyss, fifteen years before the true events of Uncharted 4. This moment in prison explains how Nathan’s brother fell off the radar in the franchise and even introduces elements of the plot like the antagonist, Rafe Adler, played by Warren Kole, as well as the character’s goal of uncovering Captain Henry Avery’s pirate treasure, which is estimated to be worth over 400 million dollars.
Fast forward to days before the opening sequence, Nathan Drake is shown living a fairly normal life. He’s employed as a diver for a salvage company and is happily married to series love interest Elena Fisher, living comfortably with their past behind them. Despite this, Nathan still craves the life for adventure, longing for the thrills of his life in previous games. Elena encourages that he should take a job in Malaysia that gets offered to him by his boss, but good old Nate continues to turn it down. Enter Sam Drake, the long lost older brother that tracks down Nathan and suddenly reignites the search for Avery’s treasure, giving Nathan just enough reason to go back out for one last ride as his brother puts him in an ultimatum.
Without spoiling too much, the story has several strong points with an extra bit of emotional weight carrying it this time as Nathan’s relationships with key characters strengthen and weaken throughout this adventure. Naughty Dog clearly learned some lessons with the strong storytelling of The Last of Us, and while it may not reach that same emotional impact, it still reaches the goal better than any other entry in the series, which was clearly what the talented team wanted to achieve with this game. Even without the emotional strengths, the story still strives to give higher stakes and pushes many of the characters to their physical limits, and the strong performances from the cast definitely help compliment these moments. The ending alone is a high point for the series, or even gaming franchises in general as it works as a fitting end to a series that is so beloved.
As stated previously, Naughty Dog is well known for making some of the most breathtaking visuals in gaming today, from previous entries in the Uncharted series to The Last of Us. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End does not disappoint, as the game is filled with so much detail, from character models to the environments, there is always something to behold. From lush jungle greenery to dilapidated ruins, there is a great sense of love and care put into the visuals of this game. The game includes a photo mode which players may actually want to use just to see some of the incredible moments from different angles. Having all the cutscenes in the game engine helps to make transitions seamless between gameplay and story as well, giving a nice pace to the game.
Getting to the gameplay, Uncharted 4 doesn’t change the formula too much from previous entries. Naughty Dog added a grappling hook to further enhance the platforming element, but it even has a place in the combat as Nathan can shoot from the rope or even swing off of it for a vertical takedown. Much later in the game, Nathan finds a new tool, a piton, to help him climb into soft grooves that adds a little bit of variety to the climbing as well, making it more about guess work as to how to advance further in climbing sections. It also allows for more dramatic moments when jumping to said soft grooves to latch on with the piton, seeming intentionally reminiscent of the ice pick that Lara Croft uses in the recent Tomb Raider titles. Aside from those changes, the gameplay for movement has mostly become more fluid, more natural. Moving the left analog stick to move from one ledge to another just seems more seamless and controlled than previous entries.
For the first time, Nathan Drake gets to get behind the wheel of several cars in this title as well, as previous entries only let him drive a jet ski. The driving controls work well as players should never get the sense that they don’t have control of the vehicle. The cars even have a winch which gets used to solve various puzzles or get up steep hills, which shows impressive use of model detection as the player will have to wrap the winch cord around objects and pillars. Even though driving isn’t a big part of the game, it was nice to see Naughty Dog using vehicles in a flagship franchise again.
Moving to the combat, the shooting mechanics haven’t really changed much, if at all. Players are still encouraged to take cover and shoot using either a handgun or a secondary weapon like a shotgun or an assault rifle. Blind fire is still an option, though a less accurate one, and grenades are still an option to use to help clear crowds. Most of the weapons will feel familiar, though Naughty Dog did have a little fun with a couple things like the flintock pistol, sticking with the pirate theme, even at an expense of having any real use in firefights. The enemy AI, while not exactly bad, does seem to have a certain pattern to them. Depending on the weapon the enemy carries, they tend to perform differently on the battlefield. Enemies with shotguns or gatling guns will always move up to draw the player out of cover with deadly force, while enemies with assault rifles, pistols and sniper rifles will tend to hang back, using grenades so make sure the player doesn’t just stay in one spot. The enemies do at least move out of the way of the aiming reticle if they aren’t behind cover, and they’ll react to certain situations like when a sentry gun is unmanned, so that’s a plus to the AI.
The melee combat may feel familiar, but there are subtle nuances that show improvement after The Last of Us. One of the biggest complaints one could make about Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception could be the big brute fights, as they were very repetitive and all played exactly the same. Uncharted 4 removes these type of fights entirely and puts a stronger emphasis on stealth takedowns than ever before, having entire sections that could be passed without killing a single enemy. If the player chooses, they can take down enemies quietly by emerging from tall grass to pull them in, or by sneaking up to take them out before they can alert their allies. Some moments can be a bit more challenging like when an enemy decides to latch onto Nathan’s leg when pulling the off a ledge, needing the player to mash the triangle button quickly if they want to maintain a stealth approach.
Fist fights seem well choreographed and feel mostly natural when in any environment, as players can use walls, ledges, and even their AI partner to their advantage. In some moments, when fighting alongside an AI partner like Sam, both Nathan and the partner will grab an enemy and take them down together, reminiscent of the dual takedowns in Batman: Arkham Knight, though not quite as elaborate or heroic in appearance. There aren’t a lot of fights in the game that don’t involve guns, but players are given the option to use hand-to-hand combat in any fight, though there are armored enemies that require removing their protective headgear first before engaging in a fight. There is a cool prison fight scene in the beginning that does a good job of showing just how far these moments have evolved over the series and how engaging they can be.
Exploration in Uncharted 4 seems to have improved as well, as many areas are much more open this time around, from jungle ruins, to a bustling city full of civilians, and even to large mansion-like homes with plenty of rooms to explore. Even exploring the subtle details of Nathan’s home and finding little remnants of the previous games, like his scarf from Uncharted 3, or even a picture of him with Tenzin from Uncharted 2 show a great attention to detail and design. Like all Uncharted games, there are treasures to collect, even giving fun nods to other Naughty Dog titles with the three “strange” treasures. While nothing groundbreaking, it does continue to work as a nice collectible element to give players a reason to go back through a chapter to explore every nook and cranny. Unlike previous entries, there are now four different types of collectibles in the game including the treasures, as players will also be collecting journal sketches, journal notes, and even optional conversations that give a bit more depth into the character interaction. Luckily, these extra collectible elements are less frequent and at least have a bit of purpose towards the plot and character development, so it doesn’t feel tacked on.
The sound design and music for the series has always been a strong point as well, and the familiar theme of the Uncharted series is still a pleasure to hear to tell the player they will soon be embarking on a thrilling adventure. Uncharted 4 does have a couple potential problems with sound mixing, perhaps due to bugs or due to something else altogether, but there were a couple moments where dialogue was nearly inaudible because of a loud explosion or some other situation. It was brief but noticeable, though upon another playthrough, the situations didn’t repeat, so it may have just been due to mixing the gameplay with scripted events. Despite that, the rest of the sound is excellent and makes sense no matter the environment.
The voice actors are all on point as well, as Nolan North still shines as Nathan Drake, keeping a light tone throughout the story to make for an enjoyable experience, but being serious where it counts. Troy Baker impresses as Samuel Drake too, making for a convincing older brother to the series hero. Emily Rose returns as Elena Fisher and expertly performs as a strong female badass, able to show Elena is no damsel in distress, but also still maintains the subtleties of a loving wife. Richard McGonagle also returns as Victor “Sully” Sullivan, giving good senses of nostalgia during the Nate and Sully segments of the game, feeling just like old times. Warren Kole makes for a good antagonist as Rafe Adler and performs well as a character that feels untrustworthy, even if his character isn’t exactly intimidating in appearance. Arguably, one of the standout performances comes from Laura Bailey as Nadine Ross, the leader of Shoreline and the other antagonist of the game. It was very surprising to learn that she was playing a South African character despite being Caucasian herself, and considering how believable her performance is, it’s a testament to her abilities as a voice actress, though it is Laura Bailey, one of the most prominent female voice actors in the business.
One thing that was nice to see as a gamer was just how many Easter eggs made it into this game. Some are subtle like a poster on the wall of a room, while others are actually a part of the game. A certain classic Naughty Dog hero makes an appearance in the game a couple times for some fun moments, and Naughty Dog makes sure to put some of their own little Easter eggs like license plates that show the year they were founded. One trophy even has the player reenact the infamous E3 situation from last year during the Uncharted 4 demo. There’s even a fantastic homage to a famous video game pirate that is cleverly integrated into the overall plot, with funny dialogue to coincide with it too. One funny bit of dialogue even made a jab at Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which gave a good chuckle to someone that found the twist in that movie to be a little unnecessary. There are probably plenty of other fun pieces to find in the game, but only the minds at Naughty Dog would know them all.
Moving onto the multiplayer, the third person combat lends itself to a solid online experience. With new gameplay elements like the grappling hook, it adds new options, not only for traversal, but also for takedowns, as players can charge up a swing with the grappling hook and use it for a powerful melee attack. There are also new items in the form of mysticals, special supernatural items that can make trouble for the opposing team such as the Wrath of El Dorado, seeking enemy players with powerful blasts of energy, or using the Staff of Ayar Manco to reveal enemy locations. There’s also the sidekick option, as players can purchase an AI controlled ally from the shop (using currency earned during the match) to bring some pressure to the fight, like the gatling gun-toting Brute, or the Savior who will help revive downed allies or replenish ammo and gear. These new features really breathe new life into the multiplayer of the franchise and yet it still feels reasonably balanced.
Fans of the multiplayer experience in Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3 can definitely feel right at home regardless of the new features, as there are the familiar game modes of Team Deathmatch and Plunder, as well as the new mode Command. Team Deathmatch is standard enough with five on five battles, while Plunder is essentially a Capture the Flag mode. Command is a bit more of a complex mode, giving more objective based gameplay as players are tasked with capturing various command sites on the map to earn a steady flow of points. Gaining a command site for a team is just one element though, as the game will also assign a team captain to both teams based on performance. The team captain will get benefits of cheaper items in the shop, faster revives, and more health when downed by enemies. The longer a team captain remains, the more noticeable to the other team they will be, even to a point where they will be marked on the map. The reason this is relevant is because killing a team captain gains a lot of points as well, so there is a strong emphasis on protecting the team captain. It’s a nice mode that adds a lot of tension and combines elements seen in other shooters for a pretty interesting match.
As players finish matches and complete various challenges, they’ll earn relic points which can be used to buy new weapons to use in multiplayer matches as well as new cosmetic features like skins and emotes. While on the subject of emotes, Uncharted 4 arguably has the best emotes ever in a multiplayer game, some of them pretty typical like dance moves or cheers, while others going over the top like the “make it rain” emote where the character takes out a wad of cash and proceeds to send it flying. Another one involves the character pulling out a golf club and ball, hitting it off into the distance. All of them are brilliantly animated and quite often hilarious, especially when using a character that doesn’t really fit the animation. Given that the multiplayer lets the player use characters from the whole series, it makes for a lot of fun options that let fans show more of their personality in the game.
Players can buy Uncharted points, the micro-transaction based currency which can be used on more premium items as well. Despite the micro-transactions, it was still confirmed that all future game modes and DLC maps would be free, so at least not everything will need to be paid for after the initial purchase. There is also a selection of single-player challenges called trials that let players practice using certain items and features of the multiplayer. Each one has three difficulties and can earn the player relic points upon completion. It’s a nice way to get used to the mechanics and get ready for the main multiplayer.
Naughty Dog has teased a new story add-on as well for the game, which is a first for the series. Unfortunately this is not free and is currently offered as part of the Digital Deluxe Edition for $79.99, as well as part of the Uncharted Triple Pack for $24.99, offering up two multiplayer bonus packs as well. Hopefully when the story add-on releases they’ll offer an option to buy it by itself, but for fans of the multiplayer, it isn’t such a bad deal. It does make one wonder what kind of add-on can be added for the game due to how the story plays out, though only time will tell.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End as it is, may not be a perfect game, but it is a perfect ending to a series that is clearly beloved by both Naughty Dog, and of course the fans. Every gorgeous vista in the game is complimented by the engaging action and the memorable performances of the characters, and the game hits at a solid length for a single-player story with enough replay value to at least give the story another go. Beating the game unlocks a lot of game options and filters like a cool 8-bit mode, so it might be worth just trying it to see those alone. Multiplayer may not be able to compete against games like the recently released Overwatch, but it’s still fun enough for fans of the series that enjoy third person combat.
Final Score: 4.75 out of 5