Greatness from small beginnings…
Very few experiences are capable of capturing the essence of adventure, let alone doing so with a resounding sense of polish; this honorable achievement in production and execution is conspicuously present in Naughty Dog’s flagship series. The fourth, and arguably final, entry in the series, entitled “A Thief’s End”, is an immaculate culmination of the blood, sweat, and tears that have been poured into this journey for the past nine years. Both the player and Naughty Dog have grown with these characters for nearly a decade and Naughty Dog appropriately honed in on that premise to create possibly the most personal and melancholic Uncharted experience to date. To close things off, Naughty Dog decided to slowly dig into Drake’s past, providing much needed context, and ultimately closure, for this character who has essentially become an icon to the PlayStation community. While I’d normally advocate the traditional “gameplay over story” mentality, Naughty Dog’s repertoire would be an obvious exception to the rule. Naughty Dog has always excelled in their ability to construct well written characters and the impeccable development present in their latest triumph is further proof of the fact. Their attention to detail, excellent writing, intriguing character development, and production quality are second to none and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is yet another successful notch on Naughty Dog’s impressive belt. While Uncharted 4’s gameplay is unable to match its sheer presentational brilliance, every minute element is pooled together to create a masterful experience that is equally thrilling as it is emotional. With a heavier emphasis on exploration, new implementation of storytelling, one of the greatest Easter eggs in gaming history, and an exceptional ending that mirrors the poignancy of Persona 4, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End may be the slowest entry in the series, but it’s arguably the best and undoubtedly my favourite. Nathan Drake’s final adventure is a worthy end indeed.
A Thief’s End tells an exceptional tale that is exquisitely coated with clear thematic elements of obsession, sacrifice, love, and family, as I have profusely stated that Drake’s final adventure is easily the most personal, with the stakes arguably being the highest. This time around, Nate is plucked away from his life of tranquility, roped into a search for Henry Avery’s fabled treasure in order to pay off an insurmountable debt. The crux of the plot may seem derivative through initial lenses, but the weight of the characters, through their stories and interactions, polish the narrative to a pristine shine. Seeing Nathan Drake cooped up behind a desk and logging in paperwork is rather comical but relatively detrimental to the soul – knowing that he clandestinely craves the thrill of adventure (granted scoping out underwater landscapes for lost cargo is probably more adventurous than the average job) as he clings to remnants of the past. Uncharted 4 is filled to the brim with moments of tranquility that will undoubtedly warm your heart up like a cup of hot cocoa. A simple dinner between Nate and Elena, accompanied with hysterical banter and a phenomenal Easter egg, is easily one of the greatest moments in the entire series, a serene moment deviating from the traditional hectic action-packed nature that the series has become synonymous for. The original trio – Nate, Elena, and Sully – are as charming as ever and truly encapsulate the essence of a family; we’ve grown with these characters for nearly a decade, through trial and tribulation, and to see them band together for one last time is an ineffable degree of bittersweet. Nathan’s brother, Samuel, provides a perceptive window into Nate’s past, discovering their roots of deception and the true importance and connection to Sir Francis Drake. Sam is quite integral to Nate’s final outing as you’ll spend around 70% of the game with him, roaming by your side and in a sense, he is at the center of this chaotic adventure; the juxtaposition between the Drake brothers is an intriguing component as Sam thematically represents everything that Nathan embodied in Uncharted 3. Rafe and Nadine serve as the game’s main villains, a definite improvement over the malicious figures in previous entries, at least when considering the imprudent Lazarevic. Nadine is the leader of Shoreline, a mercenary group for hire – which would’ve been rendered to a nameless army otherwise – employed by Rafe, an old acquaintance of the Drake Brothers who developed an inferiority complex in result of Nathan’s success and legacy.
Out of all of the chosen historical figures, Avery’s tale of lost fortune is by far the most compelling and realistic; certain nonsensical elements found in the previous entries are completely removed from the picture, resulting in a more grounded experience. Henry Avery himself can be classified as an actual character as players are brought in significantly closer to the results of his actions which tell a story of their own, developing an understanding for him and for those who followed, all thanks to Uncharted 4’s environmental storytelling. Taking a page straight out of The Last of Us, Uncharted 4 encompasses a larger map to explore, ripe with gorgeous vistas to see, optional conversations to partake in, and additional collectibles to find – which serve as documented notes written by individuals who followed the same destructive path in search for Avery’s lost fortune. A Thief’s End is best defined in its very last moments, an ending that simply took my breath away; it manages to blur the line between predictably sweet and surprisingly audacious, and is one of the greatest endings to ever grace the gaming community. The remarkable characters and story aren’t the only presentational highlights as Uncharted 4’s visual and audio counterparts are arguably the industries’ best. The traces of mud adhered to Drake’s skin or the residual development of sweat stains seeping into his clothing are two simple examples of Uncharted 4’s immaculate attention to detail. The sheer graphical detail in this vivacious world is simply breathtaking and unrivalled; from the illustrious nighttime sky of Italy to the radiating sands of Madagascar, each gorgeous locale is impressively brought to life in what is easily the best looking game of the current generation. This time around, Naughty Dog has incorporated real time cutscenes, which are nearly identical to the visual fidelity of gameplay, presenting a seamless transition between the two, greatly enhancing Naughty Dog’s immersive quality. Surprisingly enough, Uncharted 4’s soundtrack is helmed by a different composer; replacing Greg Edmonson’s usual warm-hearted resonance with Henry Jackson’s somber style of composition, catering to the darker aura that encompasses this instalment. While I sincerely miss the originality of Edmonson’s creation, Jackson’s musical score boasts a bombastic quality that rivals the exhilaration of Klaus Badelt’s work in Pirates of the Caribbean, complementing Uncharted 4’s thematic elements of thievery and adventure. Despite a few graphical hiccups and some slowdown during the hectic gunfights of the third act, Uncharted 4’s presentational quality is the closest thing to perfection – in terms of its captivating storytelling, exceptionally well-written characters, dynamic relationships, and graphical fidelity – and is the new golden standard for production value in video games past, present, and future.
I have never been able to see eye to eye with the negative qualms that most have with Uncharted’s gameplay, yes it’s not a groundbreaking series in terms of its third person shooting, and its quality of character and story easily outshine its gameplay counterpart, but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of Uncharted 4’s gunplay, hand-to-hand combat, exploration, traversal, and puzzle-solving, all of which have been vastly improved, resulting in the most mechanically sound Uncharted to date. Almost every gameplay mechanic boasts extremely familiar tendencies, from the bombastic action of heated shootouts to the responsive and exhilarating dangers of traversal, Uncharted 4’s gameplay, on a surface level, is exactly what you’d expect it to be. However, a heavier emphasis on exploration and player choice makes Uncharted 4 the most dynamic and accessible gameplay experience to ever grace the series. This time around, encounters can be approached in whichever manner the player sees fit: clinging to the shadows or concealed inconspicuously in patches of tall grass enables Drake to silently pick off enemies one by one, offensive approaches are much larger in scale as there’s a greater sense of verticality – gunfights are also more challenging as almost every form of cover is destructible, with the enemy AI being downright ruthless – and lastly players can swiftly avoid confrontation all together, where certain encounters reward the more passive approach. This level of accessibility undoubtedly fluctuates the overall gameplay experience, removing any remnant of monotony that can be found in Uncharted’s core structure. The melee system has also been greatly improved as it replaces the scripted structure of button prompts for a more improvised mechanic, which interacts with the environment around Drake, similar to the brutal melee system of The Last of Us. The series’ signature implementation of set pieces is conspicuously present in Uncharted 4, and while the total number is considerably lower than what we’ve come to expect and they lack the groundbreaking nature of those found in previous entries, Uncharted 4’s set pieces cater to non-scripted and interactive tendencies which ultimately results in a more accessible and arguably more breathtaking segment. One of the greatest new gameplay mechanics is without a doubt the grappling hook which greatly improves both gunplay and traversal. In terms of combat, there is nothing quite as satisfying as running off an open ledge, grappling onto a point of interest, just before landing a punch on top of an enemy, knocking him out cold, then catching his assault rifle mid-air, and continuing the chaotic gunfight – all in real time I might add. The grappling hook adds a new sense of versatility that the previous iterations simply cannot match, creating exhilarating non-scripted set pieces that you can call your own. In terms of traversal, the grappling hook is an extremely helpful tool, giving Nate the remote ability to latch onto certain points of interest and swing across at his own leisure, which results in some of the most exhilarating traversal in the entire series. Sliding down an edgeless cliff, only to jump off last minute, latching my grappling hook onto a branch in mid-air, swinging across onto the next platform, is one of many exhilarating platforming moments that mirror the intensity of its action counterpart. One personal complaint of mine with the overall series is its oversaturation of excessive shootouts, as they are extremely extensive and are placed way too close to one another, exhausting the pace substantially. Luckily, with A Thief’s End, questionable pacing is no longer an issue, as each and every segment is placed impeccably with nothing overstaying its welcome, but never ending abruptly. Its pacing structure is never rendered to a formulaic nature and at best is impressively unpredictable. Hectic shootouts and intense platforming goodness are spread out accordingly, wedged between excellent moments of explorative tranquility and pleasantly challenging puzzles, culminating into a perfectly paced experience. While these serene moments definitely improve the game’s overall pacing, they result in an experience catering to a more methodical nature, with A Thief’s End arguably being the slowest entry in the series; so understand that while there are still a copious amount of adrenaline inducing set pieces, there are also an increased amount of pauses that will allow you to soak in the exquisite details. As I have mentioned ad nauseum, Uncharted 4 is far grander in physical scale, allowing players to roam large vistas, interact with the gorgeous environment, and collect a slew of contextual documents, adding an intriguing layer of understanding to Henry Avery’s notorious history and legacy. Given the exploration’s versatile nature and expansive level design, players are now able to explore the vast glistening waters surrounding King’s Bay using an illustrious boat or trail across the vibrant plains of Madagascar in a four by four, allowing them to reach new destinations in a convenient manner of time. Whether if you’re leisurely strolling in your vessel soaking in the vivacious sights, or embarking on a thrilling convey chase, hopping from one exploding car to another, these vehicular segments are welcomed additions that enhance the pacing’s fluid and accessible nature in more ways than one. Another new inclusion in Nate’s latest is the incorporation of dialogue options, which don’t necessarily add anything to the integral experience, but are most certainly an enjoyable after thought. Lastly, puzzles have always been an important element of the Uncharted series, with Uncharted 4’s implementation of puzzles easily being the best in the series. Simply put, there are more puzzles in Nate’s final adventure; the puzzles aren’t overtly challenging but they are extremely enjoyable and satisfaction is practically guaranteed through every solving. One puzzle in particular, incorporating the importance of Pirate Captains and their idiosyncratic sigil, proved to be quite perplexing in certain instances but ensued some rather exhilarating aha moments. While Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the slowest entry in the series, and its set pieces lack the nuanced impact in comparison to its predecessors, it’s also the most diverse and versatile in terms of its gameplay and its pacing is fluctuated to near perfection.
Besides the impeccable campaign, Uncharted 4 also has an excellent multiplayer component which is at best, an addicting competitive experience to share with your friends and at worst, a great distraction and time killer for those who’ve completed Drake’s final expedition. Although it’s relatively derivative, catering to the formulaic structure of the modern online multiplayer, it adds a few idiosyncratic touches that slightly spice up the formula, allowing it to stand conspicuously amongst the clutter. The newly introduced grappling hook transitions well into the multiplayer, providing an additional layer of depth for traversal, an element that is still relatively foreign to the multiplayer scene. Players are also given more freedom when selecting loadouts and certain abilities, as they can fine tune the available selection to their own accord. Whether if they choose to equip the supernatural ability of the Cintamoni Stone to instantly revive allies or spawn a Sidekick Brute to provide some aggressive cover fire, players are able to mix and match and experiment with what options best suit their preferable playstyle. Mysticals, such as the aforementioned Cintamoni Stone, are deployable abilities that allow players to harness the supernatural elements found in the Uncharted series, and Sidekicks are just as self-explanatory as one would assume. While the available selection of game modes may seem minimal, each mode is able to boast its own set of unique qualities, avoiding any stale comparisons. From the familiar but addictive nature of team deathmatch to plunder, Uncharted’s excellent take on capture the flag, every single minute is an addictive roller coaster that appropriately rivals the thrill of the main campaign. In particular, Command is an extremely intense team based mode that merges elements of turf war and target elimination into one chaotic experience. Players who contribute the most points to the team’s objective – by capturing command sites – become the Team Captain; Captains are given enhanced abilities and benefits but are equally countered as the enemy team will be able to identify the Captain almost immediately. This mode is pure unadulterated fun, perfectly encapsulating the chaotic essence of the campaign’s set pieces, and is undoubtedly my personal favourite. For those of you who feel Uncharted 4’s multiplayer fares too comfortably on the shallow spectrum, be reassured that Naughty Dog has a clear roadmap for post-launch multiplayer DLC which is filled to the brim with new maps, modes (co-op is currently targeted for Autumn 2016), weapons, abilities, and cosmetic items, all of which will be available at no additional cost.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a masterpiece. It’s not a perfect game – no game really is – but it comes pretty damn close. Drake’s final adventure simply hits all the right notes as it’s everything that I wanted it to be, and so much more. It’s a beautiful experience, both visually and thematically, that’s exceptionally endearing until the very end; A Thief’s End is the culminating emotional payoff to the relationships we’ve built over the past nine years, and saying goodbye to them is most certainly not easy. As much as it saddens me to say goodbye to Nate and the gang, I’m greatly pleased that Naughty Dog decided to send them off with a bang in what is easily the best Uncharted experience to date. The story and characters are remarkably constructed and are an achievement in and of itself, its production quality is second to none, its explorative nature and moments of tranquility are nuanced and heartwarmingly breathtaking, and its beautiful ending is a personal favourite of mine. Uncharted 4 is simply one of the most exhilarating, gratifying, and versatile experiences that Naughty Dog has ever dished out. Uncharted 4 is absolutely the killer app that defines the PlayStation 4 and is easily the best game of the current generation. If you own Sony’s exclusive console, you owe it to yourself to play this masterpiece; just do yourself a favour and grab a copy of the Nathan Drake Collection if you haven’t had the pleasure of experiencing Nathan’s previous adventures. Uncharted 4 is simply more than your average modern video game, it’s an experience in every meaning of the word; a bittersweet celebration of the memories shared with this family that we love. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is an absolute treasure.