There’s something retrospective about a finale, a desire to come full circle and provide a sense of closure and finality. It’s a summation of the parts that came before it, a logical place to emotionally close out a story and make the investment up until this point pay off. A finale should be a love letter from the creators to the fans that have devoted time and impassioned energy in the series. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is Naughty Dog’s finale to the Uncharted story.
Uncharted games have always stood on their own, offering a self contained globetrotting treasure hunt leading to fantastic ancient civilizations and mysteries of lost riches, accompanied by action set pieces that make the heart race every time. All the while, the handsomely charming Nathan Drake manages to quip and joke, keeping up his happy-go-lucky treasure hunting demeanor. You don’t necessarily need to have played the previous games to get the next one, but there are core elements that do carry throughout the series to help heighten the connection to the characters and make the investment pay off. Uncharted 4 is no different, though with Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection available on PS4, there’s really no reason not to play through the whole series.
The latest entry opens with some deeper insight into the relationship between Nate and his brother Sam, a newcomer to the series. We learn where Sam has been for the last 15 years and why Nate has never mentioned him in any of the three previous games (or the Vita’s Golden Abyss), and it’s believable enough to pass muster without retconning stories that have already been told. It sets the emotional stage for Sam’s return to Nate’s now normal life, pulling him back into treasure hunting. This time the adventure isn’t about the long lost treasure however, it’s about his long lost brother’s life.
This driving force is different than any we’ve seen before. Instead of an obsession with gold and riches, Naughty Dog created a story of a stronger motivation: familial bonds. While we do see that classic Nathan Drake shine through as his eyes light up when he figures out the next step in the mystery, his impetus for packing up on a trek around the world in search of pirate treasure is far more personal than money and glory, as Sam’s life rests on finding the treasure for a notorious drug lord. Naughty Dog somehow managed to write a story that has so much more weight than the previous installments, where every tense action scene is less about the thrill of the moment and more about survival to make sure that Nate gets himself and Sam home in one piece. Then there’s the added tension that Nate isn’t just a lone wolf anymore. He’s got his wife, Elena, to think about, and ventures out with a lie that was meant to protect her. Throw an aging Sully into the mix, and it’s clear that the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. Nate has so much more to lose than ever before.
And despite all this added weight, it’s still that same classic fun and lighthearted Uncharted feel. Nolan North and Troy Baker, as Nathan Drake and Sam Drake respectively, play off of each other so well. Nate has always used humor to brush of instances of near death and to get through tough situations, and having somebody around that he’s had a very close relationship with really steps up the conversation, making every bit of gameplay feel like it has a story to tell through the entire 12 or 13 hours that it will take to make it through to the end. I had a smile on my face as much as I had my heart racing every time a cliff would crumble, an armored car would smash through a building, or Nate would be thrown out of a five-story window.
That’s the best part. The narrative is balanced and interwoven into the gameplay in such a way that neither feels separate from one another. I was never itching or rushing to get through a gameplay portion just to find out what would happen next because there was enough story in the gameplay to keep my interest. Uncharted has always been great about this, but Naughty Dog learned a lot from The Last of Us and you can definitely feel the influence in the way Uncharted 4 plays. From the deeply integrated gameplay and story, to the increased focus on being able to approach situations stealthily, to having an AI companion by your side at nearly all times, there are a lot of parallels that can be drawn to Naughty Dog’s critically acclaimed post-apocalyptic title.
As much as Uncharted 4 is a love letter to fans of the series with repeated callbacks to events, characters, and relics from previous games, it doesn’t rest on its laurels without building on that foundation and adding new elements to the series even as they are closing it out. The new rope swing mechanic adds a bit of variety to the traditional climbing, and traversal routes are more open now, meaning that there may be more than one obvious path to move forward. Sometimes it does still have that odd magnetic feel when swinging or leaping towards a ledge at a weird angle, but it’s a tiny oddity that can easily be forgiven in the grand scope of things. There are also new semi-open driving levels that allow you to stop and get out of the vehicle to search for hidden treasures and provide paths forward. Little things like manually grabbing the winch of the jeep and wrapping it around a tree, or four wheeling up a muddy riverbed add a level of immersion without feeling overly cumbersome. Again it’s a fine balance between immersive storytelling and engaging gameplay that Naughty Dog have command of, and are getting better at with every game they make.
It ought to go without saying that Uncharted 4 is one of the most graphically impressive marvels currently on PS4. The acting of the voice and motion capture cast is complimented by incredible animations and detailed fidelity that allow even gameplay segments to show emotion through facial movement and body language. The lighting and particle effects provide depth to each environment, and an engrossing immersion that is critical to throwing oneself all in to the story that you are a part of. Only twice for a couple of seconds did I have noticeable slowdown when a grenade would go off next to a highly destructable piece of cover and the system struggled for a moment to compute and render. That’s not a deal breaker for me, but it bears mentioning.
And that ending? Obviously I am not going to spoil it here, and there will be a lot of buzz on the internet about it after the game releases. Some people will hate it and others will love it. I plan on writing a more in depth review of how Naughty Dog wrapped up the ending and my own personal thoughts rife with spoilers, but for now just know that I felt it was a fitting farewell perfectly characteristic of the series. It satisfied the sense of finality and provided that full circle, retrospective sense of closure that’s the best way to end things.
Uncharted 4 handily earns a 10 out of 10 by itself as a standalone single-player game, but there’s still the multiplayer to talk about. Another love letter to fans, the selectable characters include heroes and villains from across Nate’s adventures, as well as abilities called “mysticals” that are essentially the supernatural items from previous games used as special abilities like a radar pulse or healing beacon. While I only had a brief time to spend with the multiplayer during limited review windows, what I did play of it was very fun. It takes the cover shooter gameplay from the main game and translates it effectively into a multiplayer environment, including the rope swing mechanic that offers some unique takedown opportunities. We plan on doing a more full analysis of the multiplayer when we get a chance to play it for a longer time. Once the servers are fully live we can explore the depths of the abilities, loadouts, and unlocks to give you a better idea of what it has to offer.
A good series should end on a high note. Naughty Dog could beat the series into perpetuity, but they chose to close this chapter of their story at a high point and allow themselves and players to move on. In some ways it feels like I’m playing Uncharted for the first time again, living that sense of incredulity and adventure as we join Nathan Drake and his charming half-tuck for one final adventure rooted in love and sacrifice. It’s a bittersweet feeling, but they’ve gone all in to make sure that A Thief’s End is the Uncharted finale that the fans deserve.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End review copy provided by publisher. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.