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The first two and a half years of the PlayStation 4’s lifecycle have seen many outstanding games released on the platform. But unlike the console’s predecessor, the Sony-exclusive titles have ranged from disappointing to mediocre, with both fresh IPs and new entries in old franchises falling well short of the mark. inFAMOUS: Second Son failed to capture the magic of the two games that came before it, The Order: 1886 was more interactive movie/walking simulator than third-person shooter, and Driveclub was…well do we really need to kick Driveclub anymore than we already have?
So naturally there was some apprehension regarding Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End as the game’s release date approached. A shakeup in the creative team, a somewhat embarrassing e3 demo last summer, and multiple delays did little to calm the fears that fans of the franchise had for the game. And developer Naughty Dog’s promise that this would be their last adventure starring beloved series protagonist Nathan Drake was certainly ominous. Would they actually kill off what is widely considered the PlayStation brand’s most popular character? Would Sony even allow them to do that? I’ve never gone into an Uncharted game with so many questions and so much doubt, but as soon as I entered the world of A Thief’s End all my concerns evaporated.
From a purely technical standpoint, Uncharted 4 is the best video game I’ve ever played. Naughty Dog has always been able to get more out of PlayStation consoles than their competitors, and their unparalleled knowledge of the hardware gives this game a polish that I’ve simply never seen before. The game runs so well that if I wasn’t holding a controller I’d swear I was watching a big budget summer movie rather than playing a video game. The transitions from cutscene to gameplay are so smooth that I found myself wondering why my character was just standing around doing nothing, not realizing that the cinematic sequence had ended and I had been given control back again. This isn’t the first game to pull this off, Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots' cutscene to gameplay switchover was nearly unnoticeable as well, but A Thief’s End is able to take advantage of the better hardware to make it even more seamless. The game is full of the same exotic locales and big blockbuster set pieces that the previous Uncharted games featured, it’s hard not to take a break from the action to simply soak in the sights and sounds of places that I can only visit in my imagination or in a video game. Uncharted 4 took me just under seventeen hours to complete, and in that time I noticed only three graphical hiccups. That’s pretty damn impressive.
Gameplay-wise, A Thief’s End is classic Uncharted, a well-balanced mix of platforming, exploration, and tight gunplay. As with the other 4 entries in the franchise (don’t forget about the outstanding Uncharted: Golden Abyss, available only on the PlayStation Vita), climbing in the game feels natural and satisfying. While the objects that Drake can hang from aren’t as clearly marked as in the previous games, I had little trouble picking out what I could and couldn’t grab onto while platforming. Uncharted 4 gives Drake a couple of new tools this time around, most prominently a grappling rope that allows him to swing around to reach new locations. It’s very reminiscent of how Indiana Jones would use his iconic whip to reach impossible heights, which is fitting given how influential Hollywood’s greatest archaeologist has always been on the character of Nathan Drake. The second new climbing mechanic, which I won’t spoil here, doesn’t work quite as well. It’s introduced way too late in the game, feels awkward and clunky, and is underused to the point that I would’ve preferred to not see it at all. On a more positive note, the game introduces some of the most fun driving sequences I've ever played in a third-person shooter.
The game’s shootouts are just as fun as well, although it felt to me like A Thief’s End has significantly fewer of them than the previous Uncharted titles. It’s still pretty easy to pick out when you’re entering a shooting gallery so it’s hard to be caught by surprise, areas where a gunfight is about to happen are usually littered with crates and rock walls that Nathan and his companions can use for cover. The shootouts are challenging, but I didn’t experience any of the brutal difficulty spikes that we saw in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves or Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. A robust mix of pistols, shotguns, sniper rifles, and machine guns make an appearance, with each type of weapon requiring a different combat strategy. The gunplay remains a big part of this game, but this time around it definitely takes a backseat to environmental exploration.
One of the selling points of this game prior to release was that the areas would be more open and explorable, and that certainly is true. But don’t go into this game expecting a true open world environment like inFAMOUS, Fallout, or even last year’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. The areas you visit in Uncharted 4 certainly do feel more explorable, but you’re still on a fairly set path the entire time. There’s plenty of opportunities to stray from the obvious path to search for the 109 collectible relics that are hidden throughout the game, but you’re not going to find some secret way to flank your enemies or avoid them altogether. This isn't a bad thing, honestly I don’t see how a true open-world environment would work in this franchise given how story and character-driven these games are.
And that’s what the real strength of the Uncharted franchise is, what makes the games so memorable and sets them apart from other third-person shooters is the story and the characters that live within it. Nathan Drake has had the kind of adventures that we can only dream about having, yet when he’s reintroduced to us in A Thief’s End he finds himself in a situation that all of us can relate to. Again, I refuse to spoil the story here because it really is something that needs to be experience firsthand, but you’ll know it when you see it. This is a game about consequences, it does an outstanding job of stripping away the glamour of being a gunfighting treasure hunter. Naughty Dog does a remarkable job of using the colorful cast of characters that surround Nate to peel back the layers of characterization of their protagonist. Drake is rarely by himself this time around, and several interactive conversation opportunities are sprinkled throughout the game, borrowing heavily from Naughty Dog’s last title, the critically-acclaimed The Last of Us.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a masterpiece of both storytelling and game design, from start to finish it’s full of memorable situations and characters. This is the kind of game that sells consoles. Yes, Naughty Dog held true to their promise that this was the end of Drake’s treasure-hunting, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s nice to see Nate go out on top, I’m not sure how the quality of this game could be surpassed by future entries in the franchise. And they handled his swan song beautifully, in such a creative way that I never saw coming. I couldn’t have asked for a better send off for one of my favorite video game characters of all time.
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