After years of waiting and some significant delays, we’re finally getting another adventure with treasure-hunting rascal Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. This is Naughty Dog’s first game built specifically for the PS4 console, and there’s been a great deal of expectation that the bar has been raised markedly since the last Uncharted games. It’s a big ask, but somehow the studio has managed to go from strength to strength in every release to date.
The focus of the Uncharted games has always been its story mode, and in many ways the over-arching plot of A Thief’s End is standard fare, with Nathan and his friends taking on villainous forces in a race to find centuries-old treasure. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s effectively the same premise that’s been used for the last three games as well. While on the surface the game appears to be treading well-worn ground, the execution here differs enough that it never feels stale.
I will not go into great detail regarding the story except to say that Nathan is now older, wiser (well, sometimes), and reluctant to get involved in anymore erroneous escapades. But his efforts to avoid his previous life come crashing to a halt with an unexpected arrival on his doorstep, and in the blink of an eye he’s sucked right back into one last treasure hunt, though this time it’s pirate gold that’s ripe for the plundering.
The mo-cap acting that was demonstrated in The Last of Us has made a return for Uncharted 4, directed and acted in an organic manner that has been present in films for years but only now is beginning to manifest in the video game format. The detail of facial expression and body language that transfers through from the actors via the animators to the screen is better than most animated films I’ve seen, and the final product is a true credit to both cast and crew alike.
And it has changed everything. The rogues and heroines that have starred in these games over the last decade have slowly transformed from stereotypes into human beings that love, hurt and have a depth to them that just wasn’t there in the earlier titles. I was even taken aback in some scenes, with the change in writing portraying the characters in new ways, almost as if they were different people. And in many ways they are, given the length of time that’s passed since the events told in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.
The fact that this is the most emotionally involved story yet could perhaps be attributed to the influence of Druckmann and Straley coming off the back of the hard-hitting The Last of Us. I did find that there was not as much of the light-hearted humour present, and that the game as a whole had a darker tone. However, the end result is a blend of film and game that surpasses anything I’ve played thus far in the genre.
A strong story is only a part of the equation for a great game though. Always striving to increase the immersion factor, Naughty Dog has pushed the franchise’s graphics to a new giddy high. While it’s very obviously still a video game, Uncharted 4 is far and away the best looking title on the PS4 to date. The lighting, high dynamic range, and textures are leagues ahead of the remastered The Last of Us, and just about every other facet of the visuals has seen some improvement as well.
From a technical standpoint alone, the graphics are stunning, with Naughty Dog pushing the PS4’s hardware for all its worth. But it’s the art direction that really separates A Thief’s End from the competition, and combined with an immense draw distance, captures the scale the game’s early concept artwork. Even previous efforts from the developer pale in comparison to the majestic vistas that Nate regularly stumbles upon, and it’s that unrelinquishing flair for the dramatic that will keep players visually engrossed from start to finish.
It wasn’t just the grand set pieces that had me putting on the brakes to admire the view; the delicate and thoughtful touches throughout every single level showcase the painstaking hours of work that went into building them. I wandered around the inside of a house for 15 minutes, doing nothing more productive than marvelling at all the mess and clutter that had been so artfully arranged within, as if it had all been placed there by the digital occupants themselves.
The sound design is right on point as usual, with a 7.1 surround sound mix being employed in splendid fashion. Ferns whisper in the breeze coming in off the ocean, the far off squeaks of bats echo in massive cave systems as boots smack desperately against sheer rock faces, struggling to find purchase against the unrelenting stone. At every location there is a sense of atmosphere to match the visual spectacle, and I found the sheer variety of ambience in the audio to be some of the best that I’ve heard in recent times.
The gameplay staples of Uncharted are platforming and combat. Naughty Dog has practiced its craft for many years now, and the gunplay has probably seen the biggest improvement – not only in its technical aspects, but also the number of weapons available to unleash death with. The enemies are no slouches when it comes to shooting though, and on hard difficulties you are going to want to use cover wherever possible when things get hairy.
The unarmed combat is even more frenetic than before thanks to a few tweaks. Instead of being able to constantly sit back on your heels and wait to counter enemies moves as was the case in Uncharted 3, now the counter button has been completely removed. Standing still while an enemy is swinging at you is just going to leave poor Drake with a face looking like squished fruit, so the only option now is to dive roll to avoid enemy attacks. Combined with a camera view that comes in over the shoulder, it leads to crazy fist fights that are utterly frantic.
Stealth has also been worked on, and enemies now have alertness indicators pop up over their heads when Drake isn’t quite as sneaky as he thought. To counter the increased numbers of the patrolling grunts in levels, he can now hide in long grass and ferns in fashion similar to a Metal Gear Solid game. Pure stealth is now very much an option in some areas, which is a real improvement as it was still pretty shonky in Uncharted 3.
It wouldn’t be an Uncharted game without some good ol’ ledge jumping either. And really, the core platforming mechanics of running and jumping haven’t changed much since the original. What is new to this game is a grappling hook, which Drake can use to rope swing across normally impassable divides, or climb up hand over hand to get over obstacles. It’s the combat areas that benefit the most from this feature, as the grapple can be used to either silently swing past enemies when their backs are turned, or cannon into them for a frontal assault.
The only real criticism with the gameplay I could come up with was with – cue drumroll – boxes. These convenient crates on wheels are perfectly situated to help Nathan bypass many a roadblock that has him flummoxed. Occasionally they fit the context of the setting, but many are just contrived, placed within the environment purely because it was easier to add them to the puzzle rather than create something new. By the end of the game I’d even started looking on the side of these cubes to see if they were emblazoned with the telltale large pink heart.
And while I’ve sung the praises of the story mode for paragraph upon paragraph, I would be remiss if I did not make some mention of the multiplayer, as the growing popularity in this area of Naughty Dog’s last couple of games has led to extra time and effort being spent on this feature. The roadmap it recently released shows a wealth of free DLC on the way, and with a philosophy aimed at making all players as equal as possible, it should be buckets of fun.
Sadly I never got the chance to try it for myself, as there were only very small windows open for reviewers to chance their arm at the player versus player combat. Regardless of how this part of the game eventually pans out though, my score will not be affected. The single player experience alone is worth every cent of the asking price.
And so this review draws to a close. I’m going to wrap it up with a quote from the game, one that has been used since Drake’s Fortune right through to the final chapters of A Thief’s End: “Sic parvis magna”, or as Nathan Drake chose to interpret it, “Greatness from small beginnings”. A truly prophetic turn of phrase, given the heights that this series has reached from it’s humble roots.