The Uncharted games have been a long-running series from Sony throughout the last hardware generation, with one smaller game also released on the Vita, and now it’s making the leap to the PS4. I started with a back-to-back playing of Drake’s Fortune and Among Thieves when I first got my PS3, and later picked up the third game Drake’s Deception when I got a 3DTV and wanted to try it out (to cut a long story short 3DTV gaming sucks balls – too much ghosting and fiddling about with settings), and in each case I’ve thoroughly enjoyed them for the action-packed adventures that they are. I even picked them up and played them again remastered onto PS4 last year, and reviewed them for my blog. The games have all released to critical acclaim and great sales success for Sony, which makes the fact that Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is supposedly the series swansong a hard pill to swallow. This is allegedly the last we’ll see of lovable protagonist Nathan Drake and his pals, and it’s a game I’d been looking forward to for a long time, even though it seemed like it was going to be a melancholy end to an upbeat and light-hearted series. What I didn’t expect was just how blown-away and enamoured I would be by this grand finale. When reviews started rolling out from gaming websites I avoided reading the text as much as I could and just checked the scores to make sure it lived up to my own hype. Lots of game critics were trotting out plot details and “cools bits” of the game, which sounded like important twists and surprises to me, without a care in the world and I simply did not want to know; I wanted to go in blind. And this is something I would highly recommend to anyone interested in this game, especially long-time series fans. I’ve avoided plot details I this review, instead focussing on the technical merits of the game as much as I can.
Instead of using pictures scraped from google, which is what I usually do, I’ve taken screenshots using my PS4 for this article, and I can say with absolute conviction that they don’t do the game justice. Whilst I try my best not to be a “graphics whore” and slather over visuals above everything else, I can’t help but gush about the fidelity on display here; Uncharted 4 looks absolutely phenomenal. With no hyperbole I can say that this game is probably the best looking videogame available right now, purely in terms of detail and art design, even surpassing other visual showcases like The Order 1886 released just last year, all while still offering a more ‘off-rails’ approach to game design. The lighting in Uncharted 4, and the way that materials react to it, is gobsmackingly beautiful and once again Naughty Dog has gone for a hyper-real look to the game, so it ends up looks more dazzling than almost any real-life place could ever possibly compete with. The effects work is also great, with realistic looking fire and explosions, water that reacts naturalistically when splashed about in, and mud that goops and clings to things in a very satisfyingly sloppy way. Nathan Drake, Sam, Elena, Sully and almost any other character that appears onscreen longer than a mere goon is given an ultra-high detail character model, and their facial expressions (as well as motion-captured animations) are very expressive; bringing the characters to life like never before. All of this runs at a very fluid 30fps, without slowdown or framerate jitters, and at a faultless 1080p presentation that shows absolutely zero signs of aliasing.
The sound design is also another aspect that has had as much attention lavished upon it as the visuals, with an absolutely fantastic 7.1 surround-sound mix that perfectly pitches vocals, music and meaty gunfire effects. During firefights you will often fall back on audio cues to gauge where bad guys are approaching from, and whilst adventuring the sounds of waterfalls shifting about keep you orientated whilst exploring tropical islands. Explosions pack a huge wallop here, and some of the more bombastic sequences of the game will make the room shake providing you have the correct sound setup. The only negative you could make in the sound department is that the music is not as memorable as previous Uncharted games, and this could largely be due to the absence of long-time series composer Greg Edmonson. Don’t get me wrong, his replacement Henry Jackman does a respectable job, but iconic themes barely scratch the surface and the whole musical soundscape is much more subdued this time around. The complete absence of “Nate’s Theme” playing over the title screen is a huge disappointment. Voice acting though, as always, is phenomenal and Nolan North nails it once again as protagonist ‘Nathan Drake’. This time the character is joined by brother ‘Sam’ who is played by the always-welcome Troy Baker, and scenes where the two voice-actors play off each other are some of the best in the game. The actors for both ‘Sully’ and ‘Elena’ also return to reprise their roles one last time, and even the bad-guys put in a great show, with fantastic performances all ‘round. In terms of production quality, you can tell that Sony pumped a lot of cash into this game, and the time spent (constantly) delaying it has resulted in a very high-level of polish.
I’ve always enjoyed the core gameplay of the Uncharted games, and the fact that they were linear story-driven shooting galleries didn’t bother me; it was the price you paid for a high-octane action movie experience. However, Naughty Dog has listened to criticisms and the new directors have given Uncharted a run through the “Metal Gear Solid 5” school of game design, switching to sandbox areas for vast swathes of the game. For the most part you’ll still be jumping and climbing your way through an area, finding hand holds to grab purchase, or using the new rope swinging mechanic, or the rock pick to create additional ledges. This time though it’s not so linear a path, and areas tend to snake this way and that, often offering up either several different routes that you can take, or sometimes throwing in dead-ends and causing you to backtrack a little, and think harder about your navigational options. This feels fantastic and very intuitive, and speaks wonders for the level design of the game that simple logic and deduction will get you through without a mini-map. Once you do happen upon some goons looking for a firefight, you’ll be given the choice of sneaky stealth or full-on combat (or if you’re like me you might use a combination of them both), and the gameplay has been deeply refined in both areas. Stealth is not only viable now but incredibly fun, borrowing lots of mechanics from Metal Gear, such as the ability to tag enemies for future reference, hiding in long grass, etc. The enemy AI isn’t stupid either, as often I would be watching their patrol routes and suddenly they would switch it up, especially if they found a dead body I’d carelessly left in plain view.
The areas where fights break out are also a lot more vertical, and offer tons of opportunity for outflanking, sneaking about and choosing optimal spots for engaging in shootouts; which the enemy also uses to their advantage. Once the firing begins, it escalates fast, and is pretty bombastic and brutal. Bad guys will constantly attempt to close in on you; some taking long routes to your rear to choke hold you or pop your head point-blank with a powerful shotgun. Cover is snappy and easy to navigate from place to place, you can blind-fire, fire from the hip, arc grenades or just chuck them willy-nilly, and there are many other options for jumping about and taking down enemies from the safety of a wall, ledge or higher position. Simply put, it’s an absolute *joy* to play!! Never in an Uncharted game have I spent so much time plotting and planning the perfect takedowns or solutions for tricky situations, and when I pulled them off I felt like a true badass. In fact the only negative in terms of combat is that I miss being able to toss back grenades like in Uncharted 3, and I don’t know why they removed this handy option. Rounding out the improvements to gameplay are the open-area vehicle sections, where you get to drive about in a 4x4 or scoot about in a boat. Here you’ve got an objective to reach, but again it’s up to you how you get there as there are often multiple paths that you could take, and lots of distractions on the side to waste some time, if you’re so inclined. An early example of this is the off-road section in Madagascar, where you can zip straight over to the part of the map you’re travelling to or you can frequently get out the car and explore smaller areas containing additional loot, or sometimes little snippets of story exposition. Some of these sandbox areas in the late-game are exhilarating and great fun, and I completed one section of the game in total stealth, not killing anyone or even getting spotted until I jumped in a car and zoomed off.
Ultimately though, despite the absolutely eye-watering visuals, stellar sound design, and immaculate gameplay, it’s the story and characters that make this entry in the Uncharted series stand out. The directors of ‘The Last of Us’ are at the helm and, whilst keeping the momentum and light-hearted camaraderie that the series has become known for intact, they inject it with a poignant story and deep issues surrounding family, identity and obsession. When I initially learnt that Nathan Drake’s brother was going to be in this I cried bullshit, as it’s never been mentioned once that he even had one, but the way Sam is introduced, absence explained, and his impact on Nathan is handled is impeccable. The script is tight and the characters are very believable, their journey helps them to grow and develop throughout the course of the game, and we learn so much about Nathan Drake that at this point I think all the skeletons are finally out of the closet. I also enjoyed the historical context this time around, being a big fan of pirates anyway, and happily read up on Captain Henry Avery, and other nefarious figures mentioned throughout the game. All this believability and suspension of disbelief would be challenged by any of the usual supernatural shenanigans that usually happen towards the latter half of an Uncharted game. As a result, this entry is firmly grounded in reality, so don’t expect any ghost pirates or cursed treasure. Special mention must go to the marketing of the game. It’s called “A Thief’s End”, the PS4 theme that you can download depicts Drake sitting amidst a burning pirate ship, and Naughty Dog have hinted strongly that the much-loved character would die in this one. So the entire time I was playing I steeled myself for the inevitable. I’m not going to spoil what happens but the story has a definite final ending that not only does a great job of closing out this epic game but also the Uncharted series as a whole. I completely believe them now when they say this is Nathan Drake’s final adventure, and really we couldn’t have been given a better finale.