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Uncharted is quite possibly my favorite game series (barring the Broken Sword franchise) in modern gaming. And considering how innovative both the second and third installment of the franchise were (the first game was an increasingly frustrating slog through a multitude of fire fights and a jet ski mission I would prefer we never discuss again), I couldn’t wait to download the fourth and “possibly” final game in the series and forget my own mundane existence as I joined Nathan, Sully, Elena (why no Chloe???), and Nathan’s long-lost brother Sam on the pirate adventure of a lifetime.
But does the game hold up? Was it worth stealing it from trucks (something fans must have learned from previous games) and do you really get to drive a car as an armored vehicle loaded with machine guns follows you through a crowded city? Let’s find out!
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (PS4)
There is no way to overstate how beautiful this game is. While the opening didn’t impress visually (it was way too busy and I couldn’t tell where I was looking or going), there were many moments in the game that I had to stop in the middle of the action and take a picture of how impressive the graphics were. Explosions and “dazzling views from high places” have always been a staple of the franchise, but this installment’s precision-crafted incidental art — birds flocking away from you as you walked past them, trees actually looking like their leaves were swaying in the hot jungle air — definitely contributed to the 16 hours of playtime I logged due to how often I stopped to say “holy shit” and demand that everyone currently in my vicinity come by and marvel at exactly what the PS4 could do.
This was especially evident during flashback scenes. Young Nathan’s facial expressions greatly contributed to the feelings I had for him. While Sully (and Elena, to a lesser degree) felt like they could have been done a little better, Drake and Sam were exceptionally rendered, almost as if they were characters appearing in a movie rather than digital images in a video game. While I wasn’t particularly impressed with Nadine, a semi-villain who felt a little bit like an afterthought both visually and script-wise, the game’s ultimate villain, Raif, looked as if someone had taken Jake Gyllenhaal’s creepy character from Nightcrawler and brought him back to life in digital form. I actually checked the IMDb credits to make sure we hadn’t all been missing the vital bit of news that Gyllenhaal had signed on to the game without any media fanfare.
The game also flourishes musically, with the soundtrack subtly enhancing the experience even during the more mundane portions of the game. The only time it felt like it was a little forced was during scenes that were emotional rather than exploration or fighting-based. In a scene where Nate and Elena are driving along in a car (which you control!) and discussing their life, the tunes calculated to tug at your heart-strings felt more ham-fisted than character-building. And yet, all that can be forgiven due to the fact that for almost the entire game, the music and the environment feel like more of a character than some of the actual characters do.
Unfortunately, the game truly lost me on the story. While each of the 22 chapters is jam-packed, the reasons for why and how Nate is doing what he’s doing seemed pretty muddled. Finding a pirate city and scaling a clock tower as it collapsed beneath you? Cool. The mythology? Just a tad more dry than in previous games. It’s understandable that the game would have a different feel considering that Amy Hennig (the writer and director of previous games in the series) left during production and was replaced by the team who brought us The Last of Us, but there were way too many things that felt like they were pushed in because they would be convenient rather than realistic in the game universe (this was most evident as the game meandered towards its conclusion). Nathan felt even less sympathetic than before — despite the rich backstory the game provided to give you an understanding of what happened to him even before the flashback ins Uncharted 3 — and there were some scenes in the game that felt so incredibly unbelievable that I almost threw my controller at the screen because the writing felt a little lazy and not at all believable in respect to Nate’s character.
This was most evident during several scenes in which Nathan was described as someone who “wouldn’t take a life for no reason” only seconds after he and his brother had annihilated approximately 75,000 enemies.
“But I just killed so many people!” I yelled as I watched another cinematic that saw Nate letting the villain get away. “Why wouldn’t I just shoot you?”
It doesn’t help that the story does drag. It’s understandable (and not unwelcome) in the first few chapters as you get used to everything, but it’s sometimes painful as the game moves towards the climax while not feeling like it’s building. The climax (before the epilogue) is spectacular. It just doesn’t feel like you’ve fought your way to get there and seems like it’s coming out of nowhere.
Before I even knew that the team responsible for The Last of Us was responsible for A Thief’s End, it was clear that the game had been influenced by the mechanics that made Joel and Ellie’s adventure so enjoyable. Discovery and exploration are a key component of this game — especially as it’s been seen as a farewell — and there is no lack of things to click the triangle button or X on to take a closer look. My favorite scene actually occurred during the game’s second hour, when Nate explored his home office, looked back on his adventures, and then wandered through his house (lots of things to explore and get emotional over!) to play Crash Bandicoot (yep, in the game!) with Elena. Another scene — when Nate and Sam explored an old house — allowed Nate to try on different hats and helmets as he spent nearly half an hour looking through old pictures and journal entries in search of something that would give him some information about what to do next. This was a welcome respite from jumping from one crumbling brick to another and gave the game the feel of a point-and-click from the ’90s that was very enjoyable (if a little too drawn-out).
The game also introduced several new mechanics we haven’t seen before. Nate’s grappling hook, for instance, was a major tool in his arsenal this time around. Instead of relying on vines and centuries-old ropes to climb around, Nate could swing his hook at a post and BAM he was flying! This was especially fun during battle scenes, where using the hook could get you out of a hairy situation much quicker than rolling and ducking for cover. Flying over the heads of your enemies as they tried to shoot you dead? Pretty fun!
In addition to the exploration and grappling aspects, the game also introduced driving into the mix, allowing you to get your off-roading on in both structured (there’s only one way to go) and unstructured environments where you could happily drive off a waterfall to your heart’s content just to see what exactly would happen. The game really shines in scenes from the trailer — I was surprised that the car chase from the trailer was a playable area and not a cinematic — and those who enjoy exploring on wheels will likely also welcome how deep and frequent this mode of gameplay is. The game even introduces a winch with your vehicle, allowing you to pull stuff down or pull the vehicle up steep cliffs and uneven terrain Nate would never have the hope of climbing with his bare hands.
One more thing: This is the first time the series allows you to play — however briefly — as another character. While this eventually turns out to be frustrating story-wise, it was a pleasant surprise to (no spoilers) play as someone else for even a few moments, and were this series to continue (and it very well might, because the ending is pretty open-ended, despite all shouts to the contrary) it would be great to have the stories told from viewpoints other than just Nate’s.
If there’s no denying that the game is beautiful, sprawling, and full of new things to try, there’s also no denying that it feels entirely too bloated a great deal of the time. While the new mechanics are fun, they also make it difficult to tell exactly what this game is trying to be. Is it adventure? Is it a shooter? Is it all about the driving? The reality is that it could be all three, but it tries to be all three so often that it feels like little thought is actually placed on whether it truly fits with the story or how frustrating it might be to the player.
Take the driving, for example: In scenes where Nate’s jumping from truck to truck and/or being pulled behind one on a rope like a jet-ski, the effect is awe-inspiring. It is so, so fun. Trying to maneuver an off-road vehicle around Madagascar, however, was sometimes so frustrating that I just kind of wanted it to be over and done with. Because I generally don’t play driving games, I handed the controller over to my husband (who plays GTA and Need for Speed regularly) to get his take on it. While he definitely didn’t have as hard a time as I did, he also agreed that the driving felt like it was a “look at us now” addition than anything else; fun for a few seconds, but clearly not developed enough to make it anything more than a display of exactly how far the game can stretch its capabilities. I did enjoy the puzzles, which felt organic and and weren’t so hard that they slowed me down, quite a bit. Not only were they reasonable, but they were complex enough that finishing them was usually very rewarding.
The level design, too, feels like it’s suffered since Uncharted 3. The ability to swing around and fight in a bigger play area during intense battle scenes is enjoyable, but having a bigger play space during scenes of exploration isn’t as fun as you’d hope for it to be. That’s because despite the fact that Uncharted 4 tries to give you the illusion that you have many paths to take, it’s still very much a linear game with only one path forward. Sure, you can explore dead ends all you want (and it’s actually kind of interesting the first couple of times), but it quickly becomes tiring when you recognize that the only reason they’re there is to be dead ends and not a way for you to move forward. Once or twice? Fine. Over and over throughout the game? It’s like Naughty Dog is just trying to rack up more hours in playtime.
As someone who doesn’t always mind feeling a little lost, the numerous times this happened to me did inhibit my enjoyment of the game, especially because I knew there was only one true path and I was just wasting time. It’s admirable that the developers didn’t just want you to move from set piece to set piece, but my progress sometimes felt so slow that it almost wasn’t worth it. Almost. While this hasn’t been too much of an issue in past games, I have to admit that there were at least five times that I just stopped playing and waited for whoever was with me (and Nate is rarely alone, which is nice) to give me a heads up of where to look next. You’ve seen one destroyed pirate hut, you’ve seen them all, you know? How are you going to find your way through an entire village when they all look so similar?
This isn’t to say I didn’t appreciate the changes from the first three games, but the journey was often such a mish-mash that there were many times I would breathe a sigh of relief as I came to a major set-piece I knew couldn’t help but deliver. (And they do! Let it not be said that the set pieces aren’t even more spectacular than before and definitely worth playing the game for.)
Despite the fact that I probably wouldn’t have kept on with the series if I had started with the first game (a GameStop employee helpfully talked me out of the purchase when I initially tried to buy it), I’ve played the second and third game more than once and even bought the third as a Christmas present for a friend, forcing him to play through it in my presence. And then I played them all again when the collection for PS4 came out (highly recommend). I’m not a collector of trophies, jewels, or journal entries, but the stories had me going back.
The same can’t be said for Uncharted 4. I wouldn’t tell anyone not to play it at least once, but based on my experience, neither the story nor the gameplay were rewarding enough that I’d feel a need to return. Nor do I believe that nostalgia could have me running for this game on a bad day (like 2 and 3 have). It was nice to see all the characters again (WHY NO CHLOE???), but I didn’t yelp in excitement whenever I saw an old friend introduced as I did before (once I even injured myself while flapping hello to Elena in Uncharted 3). Will I play the next game in the series if one is made? Absolutely. Did Naughty Dog create a game that pushes the limits of the series? Sure. Will I play through Uncharted 4 again before I get there? Probably not.
There’s literally nothing you’d need to spend extra money on to enjoy the full game experience. News has surfaced that a DLC chapter featuring Chloe (YAY!) and Cutter (K.) may be happening, but outside of multiplayer, there’s nothing you really need to spend your money on. And the stuff that other games might ask you to buy separately — the super fun photo mode, different filters for your gameplay experience and photos you take — are already included here. I started playing the game the week before it was released and found only two glitches, neither of which hurt my enjoyment any (one, where I stepped out into open air because I arrived at a location before I was supposed to, was actually kind of great). Sometimes it’s hard to tell where an object you need to pick up, climb on, or otherwise manipulate is, but the game does a good job of showing you what you can interact with by highlighting hot spots with circles as in The Last of Us. Very much appreciated.
Fans of the franchise should definitely give A Thief’s End a play-through, but it’s inconceivable (at least to me) that this game is being rated as almost perfect when it has some major flaws both in story and level design. This game is definitely a major effort and should be appreciated for what it is, but it’s clear that it’s taking another direction that is innovative but sometimes just doesn’t work. If you love Uncharted, you should absolutely play this game, but I suggest you wait for it to go on sale. I had a pretty good time playing the review copy I was sent, but I’d have been far more disappointed had I paid retail.
If you’re thinking of picking this game up as your first foray into Uncharted’s world, you’re likely to understand and enjoy it, but it does feature more references to the other games in the series than the others do, so you may want to play through the Uncharted Collection first. You certainly wouldn’t be wasting your time.
Final Verdict: Worth a chance.
This review was based on a digital copy of Uncharted 4 provided by Sony.