GAME REVIEW – Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (PlayStation 4)

By Marty Mulrooney

Uncharted 4 A Thief's End

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is an action-adventure game developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. A sequel to the critically acclaimed original PlayStation 3 trilogy that ended in 2011 with Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Uncharted 4 has been confirmed by Naughty Dog as the final game in the Uncharted series. Picking up several years after the events of the previous game, A Thief’s End sees Nathan Drake drawn back towards a life of adventure when his long lost brother Sam turns up asking for help.

Sic Parvis Magna: Greatness From Small Beginnings. When Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was released in 2007, it was well received by gamers and critics alike. It certainly had its fair share of problems (too many shootouts near the end, frustrating jet-ski sequences), but there was something inherently likeable about the wise-cracking treasure hunter at its core. Nathan Drake felt like a real, everyman hero and his likeability (along with the endearing nature of his fellow adventurers Elena and Sully) was enough to paper over any substantial cracks. Then Uncharted 2: Among Thieves came along in 2009 and changed everything…

Among Thieves is arguably one of the greatest video game sequels ever made, right up there with Half Life 2. It fixed the majority of the first game’s problems and for many fans of the Uncharted series, it’s their favourite instalment. It upped the ante in terms of graphics, spectacle, action, adventure, romance, controls, gameplay, music… you get the idea. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception came out in 2011 and was likewise incredible, although it had the unenviable task of following one of the most popular games of all time. Its main strength was its story, which delved ever-deeper into the origin of Nathan Drake and how he grew up to become the man he is today. It added some wonderful depth to the character and, for this reviewer at least, had the edge over the previous two instalments.

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So now it’s 2016 and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End has finally arrived. Taking into account Naughty Dog’s track record to date, it’s doubtful many fans were worried about the game being bad. The real question has always been: how good will it be? Expectations can weigh heavy, but when your main competition is the previous three Uncharted games… you’re in a strong position. Thankfully, Uncharted 4 isn’t just a good game – it’s a great one, offering the perfect send-off to a series that deserved nothing less. It raises the bar in terms of visuals, acting and technological prowess as expected, but the most delightful surprise is how it sets new standards for the gaming industry as a whole when it comes to interactive storytelling. Uncharted 4 isn’t simply trying to emulate Hollywood movies – it’s trying to be something more. It succeeds.

Taking a healthy dose of inspiration from The Last of Us, Uncharted 4 is never in a rush to tell its story. The thrilling opening boat chase offers a small taste of things to come ‘in media res’, but it isn’t long before the player is thrown back in time to Nate’s childhood as he sits on his bed in the St. Francis orphanage. He’s soon clamouring and climbing over rooftops to meet up with his older brother. Remember Nathan’s brother, Sam Drake? Of course not, he was never mentioned in the previous three games. Introducing him now may seem risky, but it’s a risk that pays off. Naughty Dog lays enough groundwork to make him an acceptable addition to the established Uncharted universe and give a passable enough excuse for why Nathan hasn’t mentioned him for the past 15 years. Sam Drake only feels slightly shoehorned in and his introduction is justified tenfold by the time the final act arrives. He’s the spark that reignites the fire for discovery and adventure in the pit of Nathan’s stomach. He could also be his downfall.

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The measured pace allows players to familiarise themselves with the controls, which are mostly the same as in previous games. The left stick moves Nathan while the right stick controls the camera. You aim your current weapon with L2 and fire with R2. Grenades can be thrown quickly with a tap of R1, or more deliberately aimed by holding down the same button. Reloading is Triangle, melee attack is Square, Circle makes him roll or take cover and X is the all important jump/vault button, which you’ll be using a lot. There are also context sensitive controls and these are displayed clearly on-screen when required. Although familiar, the controls have been greatly refined and feel highly responsive. Climbing is far more involved and enjoyable than in the previous games, with the multiple paths available to take highlighted by nudging the left stick to reach out Nate’s closest arm. Yet it’s the L1 button that’s the game changer.

The grappling hook – such a simple addition that adds so much to Nate’s moveset. Introduced during the opening chapter when he is sneaking out of the orphanage to meet his brother, it’s a tool that immediately offers increased gameplay possibilities and is a blast to use. Although it can only latch on to specific grappling points, there are enough of them to make it quickly become an essential addition to Nate’s arsenal and they’re all expertly placed. You can use the grappling hook to scale walls, swing across large gaps and stop yourself mid-fall. It isn’t a pre-determined animation either and you can still shoot with your pistol. When Nate swings on the rope, it’s all controlled by the player and it looks and feels fantastic. Much like climbing, you’ll know when you can safely jump to a nearby ledge, as Nathan will reach out his arm. You can even detach from the rope mid-swing and melee enemies from above which is immensely satisfying, especially when pulled off mid-firefight as bullets whizz past your head.

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Other new additions include improved stealth (with stealth grass!) and jeep driving across large, open levels. Yet during its opening hours Uncharted 4 advances in a linear fashion much like the previous games. In fact, it’s much slower, with Nathan’s life as a settled down married man drilled home. That isn’t to say these moments aren’t enjoyable. They do a great job of showing Nathan’s civilian life and how, despite it never really sitting right with him, he’s determined to stick with it because he loves Elena. She isn’t a nagging cliché holding him back either – she encourages him to take a salvage job in Malaysia without the necessary permits and he declines. It isn’t worth the risk. Instead, he eats dinner in the living room and tries to beat Elena’s high score on her PlayStation 1 to settle who’s washing the dishes (you actually play the game in question and it’s a genuinely surprising, delightful Easter egg – the first of many).

Of course, Sam Drake soon turns up and gives Nathan a compelling reason to lie to his wife and return to a life of adventure: he’s still alive, but he won’t be for much longer if he doesn’t find the location of Captain Henry Avery’s long-lost pirate treasure. So begins Uncharted as we’ve always known it, new and improved. Joined by cigar-chomping fan-favourite Victor Sullivan, their quest will take them from Italy to the Scottish Highlands to Madagascar. It’s in the latter location that the game shows off it’s ‘wide-linear’ level design, with sprawling locations that will eventually funnel you down a set path but allow plenty of leeway and player agency in the meantime. Driving a jeep across the grassy and muddy Madagascan plains is absolutely awe-inspiring. The vehicle handling is fantastic (even when it’s realistically not) and particularly muddy inclines will require the use of a winch, which is a lot more exciting than it sounds (despite Sully’s reservations).

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The improved stealth mechanics add a lot to the experience too. As in previous Uncharted games, Nathan will automatically crouch down when he spots enemies from a distance. You can then sneak around knocking out enemies until you’re spotted, at which point the game will revert back to being a slick cover shooter. Improvements come in the form of ‘tagging’ enemies by aiming at them and clicking the L3 button, and using tall grass to move about without being spotted. You can even avoid some firefights entirely. When all hell does break lose, the friendly AI does an admirable job of fighting by your side, taking down enemies and never getting in the way. They’ll even help you attack stealthily, snapping an enemy’s neck for you if the opportunity presents itself.

The gunfights never overwhelm the experience (a justified criticism of the previous Uncharted games) and the people you’re fighting against no longer feel like bullet sponges. The gameplay experience feels like it’s constantly evolving organically, with exploration, climbing, puzzles and combat all mixed together beautifully into an immensely satisfying, coherent whole. Although the cutscenes are stunning (with the best facial animation and acting ever seen in a video game), the action is largely played out with the player in control. The gameplay mechanics are so ingrained into the experience that you can simply enjoy the excitement of chasing a convoy in your jeep, using the grapping hook to latch onto an enemy truck’s crane, shooting at pursuing soldiers while being dragged through the mud, climbing the rope, punching a bad guy in the mouth and throwing him overboard… and never once have to stop and think about the controls. Intuitive is an understatement.

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It’s all held together by a story that puts the focus on far weightier issues than mere treasure hunting. Nathan Drake is still an everyman that manages to end up in incredible situations, but he’s more relatable than ever before in A Thief’s End. He has a good job, a wife he loves… but there’s something missing. It would have been easy to create a sequel that didn’t come up with any other reason for one more adventure than simply ‘because’. Instead, Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann (of The Last of Us fame, taking over from Amy Hennig) craft an experience that is always relatable even when it’s fantastical. It’s a story about family and finding happiness and, because it’s truly the last game in the series, it has an emotional resonance that is palpable and sticks in the gut for days after completion. It’s a much more grounded tale than what has come before in the series and strong writing only furthers the impact. When Sam questions whether Sully can be trusted, Nathan replies matter-of-factly with “he’s family”. Sam feels the force of the words and so does the player. That’s good writing, and good acting.

Nolan North, Emily Rose and Richard McGonagle return as Nathan Drake, Elena Drake and Victor Sullivan respectively and they all inhabit their roles to perfection. They’ve been phenomenal since day one way back in 2007 and continue to raise their game today. Troy Baker (Joel in The Last of Us and Booker DeWitt in BioShock Infinite) as Sam Drake adds another credible performance to his CV and does a great job with a somewhat duplicitous character. The new villains are superbly acted and voiced too. Rival treasure hunter Rafe Adler (Warren Kole) and South African mercenary Nadine Ross (Laura Bailey) aren’t as over the top as previous villains in the series, but they’re exactly what’s required for the more personal story being told. The characterisation is impressive across the board and it isn’t just because of the voice acting – the graphics are so detailed that as much can be read from what isn’t said as what is. The motion captured facial expressions are extraordinary. This is without question one of the best looking and sounding video games released to date. No wonder Naughty Dog included a highly addictive Photo Mode.

Online multiplayer takes all the combat mechanics and tricks from the single player campaign (including the grappling hook) and applies them to three competitive modes: Team Deathmatch (Ranked and Unranked), Command (where you have to capture and defend points on the map) and Plunder (which is like a more involved version of Capture the Flag). It may seem like a basic selection, but the maps are well designed and despite the lack of traditional ranking (Ranked Team Deathmatch aside) there are plenty of weapons and ‘gear’ to unlock. You can also customise your characters and weapons and don’t need to spend any real money to do so: earning free unlock points will take longer, but it’s certainly possible and doesn’t feel too unfair.

The main innovation in the multiplayer modes comes in the form of ‘Sidekicks’ and ‘Mysticals’. Sidekicks are AI allies (Brute, Saviour, Sniper, Hunter) that can be called in to offer support once enough in-game cash has been earned (either by shooting opponents or finding treasure on the map). They are a great way to turn the tide of the battlefield and each has their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Mysticals are artefacts from previous Uncharted adventures and media (Wrath of El Dorado, Cintamani Stones, the Staff of Ayar Manco, Spirit of the Djinn, Indra’s Eternity) that can be strategically summoned by players (again, once enough cash has been earned). They all have their own unique abilities, for example showing all enemy players or allowing you to revive downed teammates. Combined, Sidekicks and Mysticals do enough to keep Uncharted 4’s multiplayer feeling fresh and most important of all, fun. The single player campaign is obviously the main attraction but the multiplayer mode certainly adds the icing on the cake.

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Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a triumph. It only drags ever so slightly near the end, but that’s likely a side-effect of Naughty Dog not wanting to say goodbye to these characters and this world. It’s understandable and forgivable. They’ve raised the bar ridiculously high not only on PlayStation 4, but for the video game industry as a whole. The soundtrack by Henry Jackman (Captain America: Civil War) rivals that of any Hollywood film. The characters are lifelike without ever crossing into the uncanny valley. The locations are as beautiful as – if not more so than – their real life counterparts. The gameplay is easy to learn and satisfying to master. The puzzles are sometimes a bit too straightforward, but they’re never the focus and the captivating storyline more than makes up for any lack of challenge. In short, it’s one of the best games ever made. Endings are always tricky, but Uncharted 4 couldn’t have ended any other way. Stick around for the epilogue and try not to feel too sad when it’s all over. Nathan Drake may be gone, but he’ll never be forgotten. Sic Parvis Magna: 2007-2016.

10 OUT OF 10

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