Adventuring through my backlog of games, one game at a time.
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Release Date: May 10, 2016
Played On: PlayStation 4
Playing every Uncharted game (+ The Last of Us) within the last few months has been a fascinating exercise. It’s a deep dive into a single developer’s strengths, weaknesses, and passion throughout two generations of consoles. And no where is the leap more pronounced than with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.
It would have been easy (well, easier) to drudge out Nathan Drake for yet another globe-trotting adventure of light-hearted hi-jinks, death-defying action, and mustache-twirling villains. In some ways Uncharted 4 doesn’t rock the franchise boat too much. Yet it’s also an emotionally satisfying end to a larger-than-life character, providing a rich story with a hefty amount of character growth, while also improving every aspect of a series that defies fossilization.
The big new story addition is the reappearance of Nathan Drake’s long-lost (presumed dead) brother Sam. Retconning a brother into the fourth game would normally be a sour move, but it’s handled well thanks to several childhood flashbacks – including a clever Sam-only flashback involving a prison breakout that later turns out to have been completely fabricated, providing a surprising twist later in the plot.
Sam had been thought dead this whole time, so when he turns up it upsets Nathan’s whole world. Ironically this works in his favor, as Nathan hasn’t been adjusting to the home life very well. I really enjoyed the angle that Nathan Drake has some thrill-seeking issues, and trying to live a life at home with Elena is driving him (and her) a bit crazy.
There’s a brilliant scene early on when you’re given leave to simply wander around their house and see the life they’ve built together, and inspect various artifacts from previous adventures. When Drake picks up a nerf gun, the battle music starts, and you can take cover and fire darts at targets. Nathan is totally absorbed in the moment – and so are we.
With Sam suddenly in the picture, the two resume the one historical treasure that got away – the treasure of infamous pirate Henry Avery. The pair meet up with Sully, Drake’s old confidant and partner in crime, and we jump into a heist mission at a manor in Italy. Then it’s investigating ancient graveyards in Scotland and going off-road in Madagascar before a thrilling car chase.
While the gunplay is better served by a nice variety of guns, the real winner combat improvement is the focus on stealth. While you could technically stealth-kill a few enemies in Uncharted 3, it was impossible to do more than one or two before being spotted, and levels weren’t really designed with stealth in mind.
Uncharted 4 finally allows for nearly full stealth runs, with many combat encounters featuring large playgrounds of vertical cliffs and ledges, tall grass, hidden caves, and rope swings.
I was overjoyed with attempting my best Batman tactics in each of these scenarios, barely having to fire a single shot. Only in a very few situations did enemies automatically spot me, including one big war zone near the end that finally killed me several times over.
Platforming was also given a significant boost thanks to the grappling hook. If stealth made me feel like Batman than the rope swinging was all Spider-Man. The Uncharted series was a pioneer for helping make third-person platforming fun and intuitive, and the rope-swinging goes even further beyond that, adding an entirely new dimension that could also be used in combat.
The vehicle sections were also completely new. Previous games had chase sequences (and that one horrendously long seadoo chapter in Uncharted 1) but never let you truly drive in a semi-open world setting.
Uncharted 4 takes full advantage of its much, much bigger level designs. From using a winch to ascend cliffs with a 4×4 jeep around the canyons and jungles of Madagascar, or crashing through fences and city streets during a deliciously chaotic chase sequence. I also enjoyed the quieter moments, and was really impressed when I was given free reign to cruise around in a boat following hidden markers to my next clue. The vehicle segments were a huge plus and did a great job breaking up the on-foot action.
The entire second half of the game takes place on a lost island, which eventually leads to the discovery of Libertalia, a fallen utopia founded by a secret society of pirates, headed by Avery.
Yes, Uncharted 4 trots out the lost city angle once again. But since it’s a much longer game (about 15 hours instead of 10), we’re treated to a far deeper dive into the city and its surroundings, turning Libertalia’s history into an intriguing mystery rather than a sequence of horrendously difficult firefights. And refreshingly, there are no weird supernatural ghouls or cursed water here, just a bunch of pirate thieves that turned on each other.
The island setting is gorgeous and filled with a variety of backdrops, from deep caves to cascading waterfalls, centuries-year-old architecture, overgrown buildings, and craggy mountains. This is Naughty Dog’s best-looking game ever, and they know it. Nearly every scene is staged with a beautiful vista, whether it’s clear African skies or a mountainous island. Two years later it’s still one of the prettiest PlayStation 4 games around.
Through it all the story keeps it down to around one ally at a time. While at times I miss Uncharted 3‘s relatively large cast of supporting characters, I found the intimacy worked much better here. Sam is there for much of it as the new guy with a complicated history, but we’re also given a solid amount of screen time with both Sully and Elena. The later Elena chapters in particular navigate the murky waters of marital strife and their on-again, off-again past quite admirably.
If you can’t already tell, Uncharted 4 is unquestionably my favorite of the series. It’s a huge leap forward not only in visual and art design (being the first Uncharted developed specifically for PS4) but also in gameplay and storytelling. It succeeds at feeling like a classic Uncharted game while still infusing a healthy amount of new and improved features. Nathan Drake deserved a satisfying conclusion, and we got that and a whole lot more.
- Stealth is not only viable but encouraged, transforming nearly every combat encounter into a series of rewarding puzzles.
- The grappling hook and rope are incredibly fun and easy to use, though limited to certain spots.
- The vehicle sections are all enjoyable and lend an open-world feeling to several chapters. And they aren’t just limited to linear chases (but those are fun too!).
- Sam is a welcome addition to the roster, and he’s given lots of quality attention and backstory to catch up to everyone else.
- The story is much more personal, touching on more mature themes of obsession and thrill-seeking that speak directly to Sam and Nathan.
- The epilogue is a bit sappy but an effective and nice ending for Nathan and Elena.
- A single frustrating chase sequence involving a forward camera and a relentless ATV made me roll my eyes. A callback to older games that I definitely didn’t need to see or play again.
- As the pseudo-secondary villain, Nadine ends up underused and a bit pointless by the end.
- Despite being a major character in Uncharted 2 (and semi-major in 3) Chloe is conspicuously absent from the entire game (Yes I know she stars in Lost Legacy, but still weird that she’s not even a cameo here).