Review: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (Sony PlayStation 4)

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Publisher: Sony
Developer: Naughty Dog
Genre: action/adventure
Release Date: 05/10/2016

In Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Nathan Drake and friends come to the end of their story. Is this final tale more of the same to satisfy fans of the series? Or is it something different that can bring in people new to the series? The answer to both those questions is yes. It also manages a satisfying story to close out Drake’s adventures in a package with strong gameplay and incredible audio and visual presentation.

Sound and Stage

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a feast for the eyes, I am not sure if any game looks this damned good. It is easy to lose time marveling over ferns. Everything looks amazing with lots of details, a ton of things to take in in every screen. The plant life is especially eye popping, looking real and dense in a way that feels right and looks right. Everywhere you go there is a reason to just stop and look. The most breathtaking is the storm at night raging over the sea. It is spectacular. Nate’s trademark wet clothes return and are more impressive than ever. I could espouse the visuals all day, but all you really need to do is look at them, words are not enough.

The music in a Thief’s End isn’t quite as iconic as Uncharted past. It is still fantastic, though more subdued. It really is used to get emotion across. One of the best scenes in the game is just driving the jeep when the sound effects all drop out and a melancholy tune starts up. You just drive along, with only the music in your ears. Mixed with what happened directly before this moment, it creates something very powerful. The music, the lack of sound, the lighting and the mood coalesce into a very moving moment.  From that point on the music is really always on point, adding to the proceedings. The sound effects meet the high standards of the rest of the production, and when that happens, there just isn’t much to say about them.

Tall Tales, Telltales

Seemingly like all great adventures for Nathan Drake, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End starts with a lie, and the duplicity just snowballs from there. Overall the story is pretty well worn territory; some National Treasure, a bit of The Goonies, and of course, Indiana Jones. What is impressive is how it is told, with some of the best voice acting and motion capture to ever grace the medium of video games. This crew is talented, acting the scenes together on a stage with a green screen, and then having their words and actions made into the characters we know. It adds a lot of nuance and naturalness to the proceedings, and helps avoid that uncanny feeling.

Special mention goes out to Emily Rose’s portrayal of Elena, she has the heaviest lifting to do when it comes to carrying the emotional weight of the tale. Her husband has been lying again and could be in danger, her arc is really about why their relationship always seems to come back to this, and Rose handles it exquisitely. The tremors of sadness in her voice, the gentle gestures of affection, and the frustration all come to life in a very believable way. What really stuck out was the fidgeting with her wedding ring as she was working over internal conflict; it added a touch most games, and a lot of movies, wouldn’t even think of.

Meanwhile, our hero Nate has conflict of his own, not only with his wife, Elena but with his guilt over his brother. He allows it to let him make rash decisions. His story is very much about finding out who he is in this world, and how he can be truly happy, and not just going through the motions. Nolan North had to dig deeper than he has in the past with the character, needing to show regret and self-awareness in a way we aren’t used to from Nathan Drake.

Sully is great as always, and Sam is well fleshed out as roguish scamp, very much in the vein of a younger, unmarried Nathan. The conflict all revolves around him, and Troy Baker handles it in an exceptional manner. Our villains do what they need to do, with Rafe being a pretty annoying, glorying seeking butt-head with ties to our heroes’ past.

The biggest change is how much they use environmental story telling. Filling those blank spaces with dialogue that adds color and personality along with the game world showing you layers of narrative that are never said. It is heavily inspired by the Last of Us. The hidden journals that tell the tales of our pirates of the past really flesh things out, and give a dual, complementing narrative to our main quest.

While a bit heavy on the tropes, the story is very satisfying and offers up closure for the fans. This is very much an ending to the story of Nate and Elena, and while there is room for a sequel there doesn’t need to be one. I won’t lie, I got a bit choked up as I was crossing the finish line; not because the story was ending in a sad way necessarily, but because a realization hit me. I have spent 5 games and 8 years with these characters and it was over. More so, I wanted it to be over, it feels right to close this book.

Buckling Swash

The standard 3rd person Uncharted perspective returns, as does the gunplay, climbing, stealth and treasure hunting.  The controls have been changed a bit with the move to a new platform, everything is still smooth and responsive, and headshots are as easy as ever.

The platforming largely feels the same, but very early in the game it gets a new wrinkle, in the form of a grappling hook. This wonderful toy is very instrumental in hunting down treasure, traversing rough terrain, and it lets you be a badass in gunfights. The hook can only be used in specific areas when there is a button prompt. Sometimes grapping hook points are in areas where you fight enemies, allowing you to swing around and pop caps in fools while playing a mix of Tarzan and Rambo…Tarzambo?

The paths are now less filtered. You aren’t always given one right way to go. Drake may be able to reach your destination by clambering up different cliff faces, going through various caves or buildings, or swinging in a less obvious direction. It leads to a much more open and experiential world.

The vehicles all work well, but they can be slippery from time to time. After time it feels pretty natural though. The jeep is a bit more fiddly than the boat, but both do their jobs as conveyances.

Gunfights still revolve around finding cover and taking out the baddies. Now though you have options. Most battles can be handled multiple ways and from different directions. If you want to go in guns blazing, running from cover to cover, you can. Do you have the desire snap necks and throw suckers off a cliff, going unseen while thinning the herd? You can do that. Other times you can just sneak on by, leaving the gun-toting mercs blissfully unaware. The game really does feel more open and interesting.

Add in buyable cheats after you complete the campaign and you have lots of ways to play as well.

There is also a competitive online mode, it is pretty fun and a bit crazier than single player. It runs smooth and looks great just like the campaign. It has standard modes like team death-match and a “grab a thing and take it to a place” that every game has. There is progression for weapon add-ons and perks, including mystical totems with magical powers that can help you turn the tide in battle. It is fast, fun, and kind of silly. Nothing is better than popping off a headshot while swinging on your grappling hook.

Picking Nits

So, what are the downsides? They are few and minor. The vehicle sections can feel a bit like padding if you spend a lot of time exploring. Sometimes Nathan with jump where you don’t want him to, that almost never directly results in death, but can start a chain reaction to your demise if you aren’t quick.  The final boss introduced new mechanics just for that fight. The game could have used a bit more of Sully; he didn’t get a really great shining moment with Drake. At worst, maybe it followed the tropes of the pulp adventure genres a bit too closely, leaving little room for surprise. Sometimes your stats reset, which isn’t a game breaker, but is mildly irritating. My biggest annoyance may be that there is no theater mode to watch the cut-scenes in, they have forgotten that before and patched it in, so I am hopeful. That is really about it and they are all very minor quibbles.

A Thief’s End

The 5th Uncharted game is a weird beast, it is a fitting end for fans, while also being a great jumping on point for players new to the series. It is more of what was loved, but also a deviation in many ways.  If you have never liked the series, give it a shot; if you have loved it, enjoy last call.

I ended up playing through the campaign 3+ times. One on normal to enjoy the story and search for secrets items, one to find the rest of the goodies, and a final run on the hardest difficulty. Even after all that, I started reloading chapters to play with cheats on. Naughty Dog learned a lot from The Last of Us, and it shows in every aspect of A Thief’s End. It is a fantastic game, and one of the very best of the generation.

Short Attention Span Summary:

It is easy to say that a Thief’s End is just more Uncharted, and while that is true, it is also something very different. Everything has been rebalanced. There is a lot more story and less combat. The fact that Naughty Dog embraced lessons learned from The Last of Us about environmental storytelling shines through. With the strongest narrative for Nathan Drake to date. The acting is fantastic, and not just the voices, but the motion capture as well. Visually it is a number one stunner and the sound work is sublime. The enemy encounters offer more flexibility creating a game to be played more to the players choosing than Uncharteds past. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is really something special; if you never liked the series before this one may actually change your mind. If you already loved Nate and friends, the story offers closure for our lovable rogue, while keeping the world open for future adventures. You couldn’t ask for a better swan song.



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