Early in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, it’s evident that life’s changed for Nathan Drake. His days of globe trekking in search of lost treasure and fending off cunning thieves are behind him, relegated to artifacts and journals in the attic. Nowadays he works as a recovery diver and spends evenings at home with Elena, discussing their day-to-day lives in a pedestrian, unfulfilling manner. When his long lost brother turns up unexpectedly, this allows him an opportunity to quench his thirst for adventure, but at what cost? Developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony on May 10, 2016, Uncharted 4 tops the efforts of its predecessors in every way and nearly two years later, stands in my mind as a masterpiece.
After the events of the previous game, Nate and Elena have wed and settled into a normal existence. Despite living comfortably, and with the love of his life, Nate’s clearly unfulfilled with the lack of adventure. Unexpectedly, his long thought dead and previously unmentioned brother Sam turns up at his workplace. Having spent the last fifteen years imprisoned in Panama, Sam’s reportedly only escaped because his drug lord cellmate wants him to find the lost treasure of the 17th century pirate Henry Avery. Feeling duty bound to save his brother, seeing it as an opportunity to satiate his thrill-seeking appetite, and afraid that Elena would be against it, Nate agrees to help Sam without telling her the truth.
Before this entry, the fact that Nate had a brother has never been touched upon. Accordingly I was skeptical of Sam’s introduction, initially considering him little more than a MacGuffin, a sleazy one at that. My instincts regarding his character were ultimately justified by unsavory behavior. In spite of his character flaws, the more exposure I had, the more I grew to like him; a testament to the combination of excellent writing and acting. Their brotherly relationship and the events that preceded the present dilemma were fleshed out via a sequence of enlightening flashbacks, in addition to the trademark banter this series is known for. These flashbacks were peppered throughout the game and allowed me to experience a couple of formative events from their past.
One period examined, their stint in the Panamanian prison, also introduced Rafe Adler, a former partner and the game’s main antagonist. All three were seeking Avery’s treasure back then, something Rafe never gave up. While the last fifteen years haven’t produced results, he’s headstrong and determined to beat the Drake brothers to the treasure; a little nuts to boot. Supplying Rafe’s troops and equipment is Nadine Ross, the self-assured and capable leader of the Shoreline mercenary group. Nate had a few run-ins with her and he… well, he survived. Another run-in, the game’s final encounter is, bar none, the best in the series. Nate and Rafe go mano-a-mano in an appropriately theatric and vigorously satisfying manner.
Nate and company still suffer from that narratively important scourge called luck but I didn’t find it as bothersome as it was in the prior entry. Unbelievable set piece events and spectacular climbing obstacles still caused my jaw to drop in disbelief but their comparative frequency was diminished, allowing for more impact. Platforming obstacles varied but still retained a linear inevitability that precluded a great sense of satisfaction from their completion, save for instances involving the grappling hook. Newly introduced, this tool granted Nate the ability to climb and swing across designated points in an entertainingly way. Nate acted more natural while climbing, reaching for protrusions when I motioned towards them; a nice touch. The act of platforming, and moving about altogether, felt better than ever due to an unprecedented level of silky smooth animation detail.
The improvements and increased emphasis on melee and stealth takedowns the previous game implemented carried through to this entry and these options seemed ever more viable and enjoyable. Many encounters played out in ways not dissimilar to those from one of my stealth touchstones Far Cry 3, omitting its crucial rock throwing mechanic. Almost always, I’d stealthily work my way from goon to goon, picking them off individually. With patience, and new factors like hiding in tall grass, stealthily eliminating an enemy force was not only feasible, but thrilling. When spotted I could try and escape detection, possibly resetting the encounter for stealth but it was equally fun to resort to weapons. Gunplay was well-executed and differed very little, if any, from the previous entry. One aspect sorely missed was the grenade throwback ability; it took me a death or two from grenades to realize this was no longer present.
Surprisingly, a few sections of the game were set in relatively large open environments. They still featured a linear endpoint but allowed for lengthy bouts of exploration. Based around vehicular travel, I spent about an hour in each, methodically hunting for collectible treasures, taking out enemy outposts, and looking for great photo opportunities. Like every other game nowadays, I spent way too much time fiddling with its feature-packed photo mode. These open sections were radical additions for a story-driven, chapter-based series and slowed the pace of an already lengthy game: my virgin playthrough was twice as long as any prior game in the series. I wonder if it included time spent taking photos… That said I enjoyed nearly every minute I played and wouldn’t consider these sections a negative addition, just different.
With this entry I was able to participate in the multiplayer while still fairly current. Driven by the desire to unlock trophies, I needed to complete a handful of matches at the very least. A beefy set of playable tutorials clued me into multiplayer specific facets and I hit the ground running. I had no trouble finding matches and in fact, played a few more than I needed to because I was enjoying myself so much. A wave-based survival mode was added after the game’s release although I have yet to attempt it. Regarding trophies, they were implemented slightly differently. Gone were practically all of the basic weapon trophies, replaced instead by unique situational requirements and tougher combat challenges. These were inherently more creative than what I achieved in prior entries and made my “clean-up” phase more interesting.
Serving as the end to Nathan Drake’s saga, I had my misgivings at the onset with the introduction of Nate’s previously unmentioned brother. However, these concerns failed to take into account the deft storytelling and acting Naughty Dog has come to be known for. Their execution of gameplay: platforming, gunplay, stealth was top-notch as well, improving completely on their previous entries, save for the absent grenade throwback… The inclusion of vast, less linear stages offered a welcome variety unseen in previous entries. And, their technical chops remain second-to-none. This is unquestionably the most visually impressive game I’ve ever seen. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a masterpiece, pure and simple and must be played.