Developer: Naughty Dog
As a friend jokingly exclaimed to me after hearing that I was reviewing Uncharted 4: “Just give it an ‘A’ and say it's amazing and a fitting end to the series. Done.” I initially laughed off the suggestion… But ya know, after playing through the game and dropping over 20 hours into the story mode and the multiplayer, I could have probably done exactly that and saved myself a whole lot of time and effort. So there ya go, review done!
Of course, just tossing up a one liner and a review grade wouldn't really be fair to Naughty Dog and the staff who have toiled over the game for the past few years. As great as it is, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End deserves some exposition at least. But at least you know where I’m headed.
As hoped, Uncharted 4 is a masterpiece of storytelling and gameplay, and it proves that Naughty Dog is still very much on top of their game. Coming off of Uncharted 3 in 2011 and then The Last of Us in 2013, the release of Uncharted 4 (the studio’s first new PS4 title) is especially well timed. Fans booed and hissed when the game slipped release dates, but with the polished end product that everyone is getting there’s really no legitimate reason to complain. If I was forced to point out a few deficiencies up front, those would be: a lack of enemy variety and “boss” fights and a couple of drawn out, slower-paced chapters. You could possibly say that Uncharted 4 doesn’t have as many traditional set pieces as previous titles, but seriously, the game is essentially one never-ending set piece from start to finish; so it’s difficult to complain about it in that context.
Whereas The Last of Us’s plot and characters were designed to stomp on our hearts and make us shed a tear (or several), Uncharted 4 still keeps it relatively light even with a slightly more ominous personal quest involving his long-thought-dead brother Sam Drake. You can feel some of The Last of Us’ story-telling techniques seeping into UC4 all throughout, and somber moments regarding Nate’s history do carry some weight in between the wisecracks. Nolan North, Troy Baker, Emily Rose and Richard McGonagle do great voice work here as expected, as do the rest of the supporting cast, thanks to the sharp writing and fairly straightforward plot points. The Uncharted 4 story is mostly centered around the search for Pirate Captain Henry Avery’s long-lost treasure, though as one may expect from the game’s subtitle, there’s plenty of personal drama intertwined. The new antagonists are slightly two-dimensional, but they serve their purpose well.
One thing I really love about Uncharted 4, is that like Joel and Ellie in The Last of Us, Nathan Drake is almost always paired up with another non-player character. While they aren’t always useful (though, like Ellie, they never get into trouble), they are a near constant presence that offer up witty, useful and/or occasionally dead-serious banter. There are times that they'll conveniently knock an enemy back, or take them down during a battle, but a majority of the time they are there to assist Drake. On a side note it was nice to see that Elena can still crack some necks and kick some serious ass.
Beyond the their pedigree for crafting a great story, Naughty Dog certainly knows how to wrap up their narrative experiences with enjoyable gameplay and attractive visuals. The latter is really obvious — it’s a Naughty Dog game after all, but as for the former — Uncharted 4 is easily among their most polished gameplay experiences yet. As with the storytelling, Uncharted 4 has obvious influences from both previous Uncharted games and The Last of Us, and the end result is a satisfying blend of 3rd person cover-based shooting, stealth and platforming. There’s a few moments of puzzle solving thrown in for good measure, though they are relatively few and far between as compared to other Uncharted releases. There's definitely nothing abstract enough that will hang experienced gamers up for more than a few minutes or so.
As compared to your modern, run-of-the-mill cover-based shooter, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is not exactly cut from the same cloth. The more extreme platforming elements (thanks in part to a handy-dandy grappling hook), much larger, interactive environments, and the enhanced stealth system really changes up the pacing and how gamers will approach many enemy situations. Drake can now “spot” enemies, via the L3 button, to highlight and keep tabs on their movement and level of alertness. From there, you can either break cover and dish out some heavy weapons fire and grenades, or go all Solid Snake and sneak around the environment and systematically take down the bad guys by crawling through tall foliage or shimmying out of sight. This applies to nearly every single enemy encounter in the game. Even without a weapon handy, Nate can still fight his way out of many close quarter situations… so well in fact that it It feels like he may have picked up a move or two from Joel from The Last of Us.
One thing that differs from other games with stealth gameplay elements, in Uncharted 4, you are usually required to clear out all enemies in a particular area to make progress to the next. So you can't just expertly sneak from point A to Z and skip the action entirely. Ideally, many gamers will end up with a hybrid approach, especially at higher difficulties when being spotted and pursued by a dozen (or more) sharpshooting, ‘nade chucking, flanking-happy enemies almost always means certain death. With that being said, silenced weapons are few and far between, so Nate usually needs to take them down the old fashioned way — pushing/pulling them off a cliff, putting them in a sleeper hold, or jumping them from behind. Oddly enough, throwing grenades/dynamite doesn't cue enemies into your position, so hiding in grass and lobbing explosives works in a pinch.
The controls in Uncharted 4 are tight and responsive and the amount of surfaces that Drake can climb and interact with are exponentially greater than in previous Uncharted titles. If it has an edge, it can be grabbed and/or traversed, and having confidence in your character's abilities can be the difference between success and failure. Very infrequently did I find Drake missing jumps or grabs even while swinging from a grappling hook or rope or leaping wildly across chasms.
Because I’m stubborn, I always choose to play Naughty Dog-developed games on Hard difficulty (or greater) first and Uncharted 4 was no exception. Sure it took me another few hours to get through the campaign, but the more aggressive enemy AI always provides for a greater thrill the first time through. Thankfully, Naughty Dog has implemented a super generous checkpoint/encounter scheme with allows gamers to reach mini-checkpoints at various points during an extended enemy encounter, instead of just before and after. There’s a chance of getting yourself into a bit of a pickle on occasion if Drake is ill-equipped or left in a dangerous position for whatever reason, but players can easily trigger the “restart encounter” or “restart checkpoint” options at any time to back out of the situation. Beyond the stunning audio-visual detail (which again, goes without saying), it is this type of attention to game detail that permeates Uncharted 4 throughout.
There’s no way that Naughty Dog wasn't going to deliver a sublimely detailed take on the Uncharted franchise for the PS4. They got their hands dirty with the hardware with The Last of Us Remastered and it was seemingly a smart thing to do to prepare for this project. Uncharted 4 is crazy good looking and is probably the most visually impressive title that I’ve personally played this generation. UC4 has everything you would hope for in a new-gen Naughty Dog title: ultra crisp textures, glorious lighting and effects, and a stupidly smooth and steady framerate that always seems to keep up with the action.
The animation, during both the real-time cut scenes and the gameplay, are blended incredibly well giving Drake eerily real-looking sequences of stumbling, climbing, rolling, falling, flinching, punching and so on. The studio tried to do this in the PS3 games — having Nate stabilize himself with his hands on surfaces or more quickly snap into place when making contact with interactive objects — but the PS4 engine is light years beyond that. The touch of motion blur fused with the dynamic animation is really something else. Non-interactive foliage is usually on the top of my list of video game pet peeves and there’s literally nothing to complain about in UC4. Everything moves: grass, trees, shrubs, plants and seaweed, whether being initiated by a character tramping through it, or wind gusts and water currents. With beautiful scenery, organic environments, and even little critters inhabiting many of the settings, “alive” is an appropriate Uncharted 4 descriptor.
The environments in Uncharted 4 are generally much larger in scale when compared to what was present in previous installments, so that particular enhancement does influence the gameplay possibilities all throughout. Whether Drake and friends are traversing massive natural structures in Scotland or speeding across the muddy plains of Madagascar in a Jeep, it’s impressive how well the engine copes with everything the game throws at it. Claustrophobic tombs, underwater caves, dilapidated mansions, congested cities and more are rendered in obscene amounts of detail. Remember those few scenes in The Last of Us which totally made your jaw drop? (hint: giraffes) Now picture that kind of “holy crap!” moment happening at least every chapter or two, sometimes more than once per chapter, and you’ll understand the Uncharted 4 visual experience. Yes, they aren’t always “set pieces”, but there are a ton of photo mode moments all throughout the game. Thankfully, beating the game actually unlocks a proper photo mode, so there’s no reason to beg the developers for it.
Something new to the series in Uncharted 4 is the ability to drive vehicles in a few instances spread out across the full game. It’s mostly Jeeps (with a usable winch), but there’s also a boat. There are not many of these sequences, though they do serve as a nice change of pace and blend in with the action and adventure sequences well. Without giving anything away, there’s some light puzzle solving elements during a couple of the chapters too. There are a couple of dramatic, Naughty Dog-style on-rails sequences, but I'd say the actual controllable moments outnumber them overall.
I’m a completionist, so you better believe that I’ve already spent way too much time seeking out treasure hidden throughout the story chapters (and will likely to continue to do so until I hit 100%) and unlocking bonus goodies. The beauty of Uncharted 4’s larger and more varied environments is that they lend themselves well to figuring out multiple solutions to tricky enemy engagements, using a combination of stealth and brute force, so there’s that kind of replayability that Naughty Dog is known for. Bumping up the difficulty to Hard or Crushing forces players to mix up their strategy since the enemies are that much more aggressive and deadly.
Out of the box, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a very complete experience and well worth the asking price, even without the addition of the online multiplayer mode. If you factor in the enjoyably casual 5 vs 5 multiplayer, then UC4 is a pretty amazing bang for your buck. If you’ve read their Uncharted 4 online multiplayer roadmap and future content plans (here, via the PS Blog), it’s obvious that Naughty Dog wants to keep players hooked on the experience with daily challenges and free new content and features (such as co-op), not just paid DLC. That’s a refreshing attitude which seems to reflect some of the pushback that players have been giving publishers when it comes to expensive season passes and such. As it is now, Uncharted 4 multiplayer is a fun diversion, and one with some unique new features such as chargeable mystical powers, NPC sidekicks, well thought-out ranking and currency systems, and the use of the grappling hook to get around the environment. There’s no shortage of updates planned for the future, but the included modes and options are a great starting point. There will be some paid DLC at one point, including a single player expansion of some sort, but Naughty Dog seems interested in keeping the multiplayer as fair as can be.
So circling back to the review intro to wrap things up: Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is indeed “amazing”, and yes, it is also a “fitting end to the series” (though time will tell if this is truly the end). And it goes without saying that Uncharted 4 definitely earned the ‘A’ grade that we’ve stamped it with.