Uncharted 4 might be the most hyped title on the PS4, and if you’ve been following the publicity, you’ll be aware there’s a nice little Easter Egg early on in the game. Nathan Drake finds himself sitting in front of an original PlayStation, trying to beat a high score on Naughty Dog’s very first PlayStation release, Crash Bandicoot. It’s a cute gag, meant to show how far Naughty Dog have come in terms of visual prowess, storytelling and realism (as Drake quips critiques about the realism of bandicoots wearing pants). However, juxtaposing Crash with the game that follows, just goes to show that after twenty years, some things haven’t changed so much at all. As Crash races along the narrow path, jumping over obstacles and leaping platforms while being chased by a destruction-causing boulder, you might realise that it’s not too far removed from Nathan Drake’s adventures, even if Drake isn’t collecting so many pieces of fruit, and the destruction is on a whole new level.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a fitting end to the Uncharted series, a love letter to the franchise, full of nostalgia for its characters, plotlines and highlights. Possible directions forward are suggested, but Naughty Dog clearly intend for Drake to lay down his pistol vest for the foreseeable future, with an adventure that fares much better overall than the somewhat uneven Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. Indeed, many of the issues that players had with the previous game, and the entire series so far, have been directly addressed – making for perhaps the best Uncharted experience in the series, if not the most memorable one (that distinction still lies with the thrilling setpieces of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves).
The plot itself doesn’t stray too far from the established Uncharted formula. Nathan Drake appears to have settled down in marriage with Elena Fisher, working a 9-5 job in marine salvage, doing taxes and taking turns doing the dishes at home. He claims to be long past his days as a treasure-hunter – that is, until his long-lost older brother, Sam Drake, tracks him down. Sam comes to Nathan with a dilemma – he must find the lost treasure of famous pirate Henry Avery in three months, or he’ll be put to death by the murderous drug lord responsible for freeing him from prison. Of course, it doesn’t take much to pull Drake back into the Indiana Jones lifestyle, and it wouldn’t be Uncharted if silver-fox Sully wasn’t along for the ride, or a villainous duo was racing against them to find the treasure (one of whom has their own private army, as per usual).
Since Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is centered around being such a cinematic experience, it’s great to see that the story is markedly improved over the previous installment. The plot itself, regarding uncovering a conspiracy between pirates like Henry Avery and Thomas Tew, is more grounded than the fantastical elements in previous games, and the slow reveal of what happened to the treasure and why is much more interesting than a giant drug-filled lake, or a virus-filled golden statue.
The cornerstone of the game is the relationship between Nathan and his brother Sam, which is played with great chemistry and charisma by both actors, Nolan North and Troy Baker. The banter between the two never leans too heavily on quips, and their relationship does become kind of heartbreaking as we see Nathan fall into the same obsessions that have driven Sam for so long. Inserting a character like Sam, who has never been mentioned before yet may have the closest relationship to Nathan out of anyone, means there are scenes upon scenes of exposition and flashbacks in order to connect him to Nathan, and while these are generally well done, their pacing can get clunky. There are twists you’ll see coming a mile away if you’re paying attention, but it’s all executed well enough that it keeps a sense of adventure alive throughout the game.
It goes without saying that the game is gorgeous – one look at a trailer or the various screenshots will be enough to tell you that. Cutscenes of course hold the most detail, with Nathan Drake in his most realistic depiction yet, almost crossing into the uncanny valley as the facial features of Nolan North seep into his updated appearance. The environments once again steal the show, from ancient temples to overgrown villages, and throughout it all the game seemingly runs at a smooth 30fps. The music too has some amazing cues, especially during gunfights and action sequences, although distractingly there is some synthesizer or instrument in there that sounds exactly the same as my apartment doorbell…
The single-player game itself runs about 12 hours, and features the tried-and-true Uncharted blend of platforming, wall-climbing and cover shooting. However, a few new elements have been thrown into the mix this time, making for some very welcome variety and improvements on the formula – stealth and vehicle sections.
One of the chief annoyances I’ve had about the Uncharted series has been the amount of sheer murder that goes on. When the Nathan Drake Collection graced my PS4 last year, I kept track of just how many enemies I was killing in each one, and I believe the total exceeded 1,000 in both the first and third games. It seems that Naughty Dog have listened to this feedback, and while the kill-count is still high, and waves of enemies occasionally inevitable, the majority of combat sequences in Uncharted 4 can be tackled with a degree of stealth. You’re encouraged to Naked Snake your way through tall grass, trying not to alert enemies, picking them off one at a time from ledges or corners, or sometimes avoiding them altogether. From a story perspective, this makes perfect sense – the charming quippy Drake seen in the rest of the game is hard to reconcile with the mass-murderer responsible for killing entire private armies. Being sneaky, avoiding conflict and being smart about combat situations is exactly his style – and it’s exactly what is required of you.
New vehicle sections also allow a few more open areas to explore. While much of the game is on the same linear path that does remind me of a well-decorated, expanded version of Crash Bandicoot (which is not necessarily a bad thing), there are times it opens up to allow you to drive around in 4x4s or boats and search for treasure. There are lots of secret items, optional conversations and documents to find, and while you won’t be coming across any amazing optional tombs like Rise of the Tomb Raider, it is a nice dose of occasional free roaming that allows you to do a little sight-seeing on your worldwide trip.
A Thief’s End is a far more globe-trotting adventure than you might have assumed, having seen the trailers prominently featuring a tropical jungle. You’ll be taken everywhere from Scotland to Italy and Madagascar, bringing a large variety of buildings, walls and cliff faces to traverse. Drake’s picked up a few tricks from his main competition, Lara Croft, and over the course of the adventure becomes outfitted with rope swing to attach onto pre-determined points, and a pick to create handholds in rockfaces. These new tools help the traversal feel a little fresher, as does the design of many of the climbs, with various paths and dead ends to keep you on your toes.
The puzzle sections are also a marked improvement over past games – where Drake would often give you the answer after barely a minute of thought, or the solution was simply found in a journal entry. You’ll be required to use some lateral thinking for Henry Avery’s tests and traps, and get a genuine sense of accomplishment for working out the tricks for yourself (although hints are available if you’re stuck). Unfortunately, they do seem to disappear by the last third of the game – replaced by an infuriating section involving exploding mummies.
Alongside the main adventure is the much-loved multiplayer of the series, which we initially had a bit of difficulty connecting to consistently until the 1.02 launch patch. Even then I have had issues with the connection stuttering at inopportune moments in gunfights, but hopefully this is simply due to server load and the game will perform more consistently as time goes on. Which would be fantastic, as while the modes aren’t very inventive (simple variations on Team Deathmatch, Capture the Flag and Command Points), they are a great deal of fun with the Uncharted gameplay mechanics. Whizzing around the map with the rope swing to surprise enemies, or using stealth to pull someone down off a ledge when they least expect it, lends the multiplayer a very unique identity. Players are encouraged to find treasure around the map to earn money, which can then be spent on weapons, AI allies or special super-powers based around artifacts from the Uncharted series like the Cintamani Stone or El Dorado that can heal allies or deal area damage.
Points earned from multiplayer matches can be spent to buy randomly-assorted packs of one-use boosts – for instance making purchasing mystical artifacts cheaper during a match. Meanwhile, ‘Uncharted Points’ can be earned or bought with real money – thankfully they seem only to be connected to cosmetic micro-transactions, allowing players to buy silly hats or outfits for the heroes and villains featured in multiplayer. While the purchase prices go all the way up to AU $75 for the wealthy or extravagant, you can also try your luck buying random-outfit packs with regular points.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End really does feel like the culmination of Naughty Dog’s experiences, from Crash to Uncharted to certain influences from The Last of Us. It may have the best executed gameplay of the series, finally making adjustments to the combat to bring it more in like with Drake’s character, and adding elements of exploration into the mix to the same end. While there aren’t any huge groundbreaking set-pieces that are comparable to say, the hanging train in Uncharted 2, I would say the game makes up for it with many smaller moments that are well-executed and, over the course of the adventure, form a satisfying whole. Between this and last year’s Until Dawn, Sony are really making the PS4 the home for exclusive cinematic games, and if you own one then it’s a no-brainer to pick up Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End for both the thrilling single-player and the uniquely enjoyable multiplayer.
Well-executed closer to the series Amazing visuals Improved combat and puzzles Fun multiplayer
Can be formulaic and predictable Uneven pacing Exploding mummies