Justin knocks out a rock solid review of Uncharted 4.
Naughty Dog has come a long way since Crash Bandicoot. The studio once famous for goofy humor and talking animals has spent the last decade delving into world of realism and human stories. The Uncharted series was a mainstay of the PS3 era after the surprise hit that was Drake’s Fortune, and The Last of Us wowed players and critics alike with its emotional storyline and adaptive gameplay. Many people, myself included, didn't really know what to expect from a fourth installment of the series, especially considering how Drake’s Deception wrapped up. To my surprise, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End nailed it on nearly every level, and its compelling story and cinematic action are sure to cement its place as not only one of the best games of 2016, but also the best title the Uncharted series has to offer.
Considering the series’ history, it goes without saying that A Thief's End is visually stunning. Naughty Dog set the bar for graphical fidelity countless times throughout its history, and continues on that trend with Uncharted 4. There is no doubt in my mind that as of the time of this review there are no games from the current console generation that are more graphically impressive than Uncharted 4. The textures and lighting are a technical masterpiece, and I often found myself stopping to ‘smell the roses’ to take in the beauty and realism of the environment. In an era where console games are plagued with frame rate issues and long load times, especially in comparison to gaming on the PC, it’s a breath of fresh air to see such beautiful vistas and smooth animations from a console game.
As far as the story goes, I wasn’t sure what to expect considering creative lead and writer Amy Hennig’s departure from Naughty Dog in 2014. Coming off the success of Naughty Dog’s previous title The Last of Us, Uncharted 4 was placed in the capable hands of the Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley who lead the project to smashing success. Their influence shows, and the story is the best it’s been in the series. The story still has adventure movie written all over it, to no one’s surprise, but more so than in past titles it played out in a satisfying fashion that made the game hard to put down. In general I appreciate a good story in a game, but the unfortunate truth is that so many games have throwaway narratives that are clearly shoved into the game to fulfil an obligation. This could not be further from the truth in Uncharted 4. Despite being the final entry in the series, it does the best job of any Uncharted game at developing Nathan and his companions as characters. The sarcastic quips and banter between characters have returned, but the addition of Nathan’s estranged brother to the mix allows for further, and surprisingly well-executed, character development.
The fine tuning of things like facial animations and voice direction go a long way in making the characters feel as if they are actual humans that don't just exist in the video game uncanny valley. The voice acting in particular is outstanding, and the addition of Troy Baker as Nathan’s previously unmentioned elder brother Sam only typifies the talent of the new and returning cast. The story jumps around different timelines in Nathan and Sam’s lives in a way that not only provides motive for Nathan’s actions throughout the series, but also cleverly justifies Sam’s absence prior. I was pleasantly surprised to find myself the most excited for the quiet moments of the game. Whether it was seeing Drake in his ‘unnatural habitat’ as a free man making an honest living, or cruising across the plains with Elena taking in the environment and just talking, it all just felt so real. Most my favorite parts of A Thief’s End were far removed from gunslinging and rope swinging, and I think that is really telling of the cinematic and character-driven nature of Uncharted 4.
While it is by no means bad, I found that the combat and new stealth portions were the most disappointing part of the game. I respect that they nailed the feel of the shooting from the past games in the series for the sake of consistency (and maybe to a lesser extent, safety) but, with the improvements made in other shooters in the years since Uncharted 3, I expected more from the combat. A grappling hook has been added to your arsenal which is useful for the aforementioned rope swinging, but I rarely found it to be any more effective than engaging in ground combat, although I can't argue with its fun-factor. When you aren't in the fray, the grappling hook adds new elements to puzzles, but where it seems to shine the most are the new opportunities for Uncharted’s famous moments of spectacle. The stealth mechanics are also new to the series and a welcomed change. Using stealth and careful play you can skip some encounters entirely, but more often than not I found it to be more of a means to thin the herd before getting spotted and going in guns blazing. You are given the ability to mark targets akin to games like Far Cry 4, and they supplemented your abilities with silent stealth kills and new hiding places. The companion system integrates with it as well, as Sam and your other companions can mark targets and execute stealth takedowns. Naughty Dog clearly took notes here from The Last of Us with self-sufficient companions that never reveal your location, and there were countless times they saved my ass with a well-timed warning or takedown. As a whole the combat and stealth is well designed, but it just didn’t do it for me in the climate of action games in 2016.
There is a multiplayer mode in Uncharted 4 as well, though it’s a perfunctory attempt at best. Naughty Dog created a gorgeous world with tight controls and a fun shtick for the main story mode, and it feels like they just threw in a few new mechanics and said “Ship it!” for the multiplayer. I know that I am biased because I’m not in love with the combat in the series as a whole, but even looking past that it wasn't particularly compelling. It has the kind of modes you would expect (Deathmatch, CTF, Point Control), and unlockable mods and upgrades to earn as you play, but doesn’t do much to break the mold. The climbing and shooting still hits the good notes it did in single player, but the lack of the strong narrative hooks from the single-player campaign made it feel meaningless. Some characters from past Uncharted games make an appearance as unlockable characters, which is a nice touch for fans, but has no particular effect on the gameplay. New moves are available online to mix up the gameplay from the single-player mode, including an oddly satisfying charge attack with the grappling hook, but the gunplay being what it is I didn't feel compelled to keep playing.
Uncharted 4 is a fitting end for what was the titular action-adventure series of the modern ‘HD’ era. The story concludes in an emotional and satisfying way, despite the third entry having already tried to put a bow on the series in the PS3 Era. Naughty Dog set quite the precedent with The Last of Us and still knocked it out of the park with Uncharted 4 despite that. There is no news yet regarding details of the rumored single-player DLC to come for Uncharted 4 at the moment, but I have high hopes considering the success of the Left Behind DLC for The Last of Us. I would highly suggest A Thief’s End, even if you’re new to the series, and if you like it there is an HD remaster of the previous titles available for PS4 to check out as well. I am not sure what the future holds for Naughty Dog, but if you weren’t already on board with their particular flavor of action this is a great place to jump on, and I’m excited to see what comes out of their studio next.
Developer: Naughty Dog, Inc.
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: Playstation 4
Release Date: May 10th, 2016
Reviewer’s Platform: PS4