The appeal of the Uncharted games has always been tied to their ability to make players feel as though they’re star of their own summer blockbuster.
As is the case with many of the high-adventure films that influence the series, Uncharted games feature exotic locations, lip-curling villains, snappy one-liners and oodles of action set-pieces. The final piece of the package is the hero battling against all odds, overcoming the impossible with high-flying leaps, shootouts and fistfights with cocky grin plastered across his face.
In short, Uncharted succeeds at its aim because the action movie tropes it uses to weave its magic are as familiar as they are welcome. That Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End contains many of the same beats as its predecessors is no surprise, but they’ve never been as well presented as they are here.
The game’s visuals are mind-blowing; the plot’s locations – which range from overgrown jungles to dank caves to a swanky Italian retreat – are insanely detailed and polished to a diamond-tipped gleam.
Furthermore, the improved graphic fidelity allows for incredible motion-capture performances, enabling the actors to convey a huge range of expression and emotions bubbling above and below their characters’ surfaces.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Nolan North’s portrayal of Nathan Drake. Over Uncharted 4’s 12-hour story, North’s performance pulls the player into not only the chaos surrounding the game’s protagonist, but reveals the motivations and desires that lie at the heart of him.
By the time the credits roll, players will have gained a better and deeper understanding of Drake than was possible in any of his previous adventures. Without revealing any spoilers, players learn that something rather damaged lies behind the cocksure smile and devil-may-care attitude they’ve come to know so well.
The game begins with a gun battle at sea and then skips back to past events. As the story properly starts, players find Drake in semi-retirement; he’s taken a quiet, boring day job at a marina having traded treasure hunting for domesticity with his long-time love Elena Fisher. Then Drake’s brother Sam – previously thought dead – pitches up and everything turns sideways.
Sam, we hear, has spent the last 15 years in a Panamanian prison and he shot his mouth off to the wrong people about his working knowledge of buried treasure. His cellmate, a reedy-voiced psychotic drug lord, busts him out of the can and then gives him three weeks to return with the treasure he talked about or else.
Faced with his promise to Elena stay straight and his brother in need of a wingman, Drake does the necessaries and straps on his climbing boots and holster. It’s not long before the Drake brothers – along with long time compatriot Sully – are at odds with Rafe Adler, a spoiled rich-kid CEO, and Nadine Ross, Rafe’s hired muscle and the owner of a private military firm. Hilarity ensues.
The supporting cast are uniformly excellent but Troy Baker as Sam Drake is one of its stand-outs. Aside from aping similar speech and movement patterns, Baker and North have excellent chemistry and can turn a simple stretch of climbing into an engaging bout of sibling banter. Laura Bailey, who plays Nadine, also deserves a few bows; equal parts smarts, elegance and brutality, Nadine is one of the better villains the series has seen in a while, so it’s a real pity she’s given so little screen time.
A lot of what players are required to do in Uncharted 4 will strike veterans as very familiar. Action smoothly segues between climbing, exploring, shooting and fighting with the odd bit of puzzle-solving thrown in for good measure. Naughty Dog have augmented some of its more standardised game features – enemy AI, even on Normal difficulty is vastly improved – and there have been a couple of new mechanics added: for instance, Nathan now has a grappling hook and rope to reach outcroppings and swing between platforms.
The developer has also widened the scope in some of its environments; there are a couple of stretches in which Nathan and the gang have to traverse muddy and unstable terrain in what has to be the most indestructible jeep in existence. These sections aren’t true open worlds, to be sure, but they allow for more exploration for players and offer more gun battles and more collectibles – meaning there will be plenty for players to get stuck into on repeated plays.
Uncharted 4 isn’t flawless; as solid as Naughty Dog’s playbook is, it starts to wear thin over the 12-hour stretch. Players will lose count of the number of boosts Nathan gives to other characters or the number of times he’ll need to move a crate or a wagon into place in order to reach the top of a high wall.
Areas filled with enemies offer a little variety as players can go loud or choose to move through them stealthily, but it’s hardly groundbreaking. Furthermore there are no gains from fighting other than weapons and ammo; there are no crafting options – as there were in The Last Of Us – or any kind of levelling system at all.
The game’s multiplayer is a decent diversion. Players take on the roles of Nathan, the gang and a couple of characters from earlier games and then unleash all manner of hell on each other over a series of maps. The unique feature here is the use of artefacts that bestow powers offering new abilities and means to attack foes. It’s chaotic good fun, but unlikely to bother the likes of COD or Battlefield.
But then, multiplayer was never Uncharted’s appeal. The draw here has always been to empower players, put them in the company of well-rounded characters and send them on an adventure of epic proportions and Uncharted 4 ticks all of these boxes and then some.
It’s the strongest entry in the franchise to date and if (as Naughty Dog has said) this is the last game in which we’ll spend time in Nathan Drake’s company, it’s a genuine pleasure to see one the last-gen’s iconic characters check out on the current gen on an unqualified high note.
- Uncharted 4 was reviewed on a PS4. A review copy was provided by the publisher.