One thing that has grown fundamentally clear throughout PlayStation’s life-cycle is that Naughty Dog is a cut above the rest. The team’s knack for storytelling, character, world-building and third-person action gameplay has continually developed, as it becomes a paramount beacon for others in the gaming industry; visible to all, and yet unreachable. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End continues this streak of unrivalled excellence. It is a momentous feat from every angle, and concludes Nathan Drake’s story with levels of both pathos and fun. It is a more mature Uncharted through and through. The series has grown from pulp adventure to deep reflection on the human experience as well as the action genre itself. Running and gunning and quipping are still ever-present features, but the overall tone of the game produces an ultimately thoughtful, poignant and beautiful experience.
Nathan Drake has grown up, and his life consists of the mundane: diving for salvage, making small talk after work, and eating takeaway dinner. The glittering promise of El Dorado this is not. However, after his stint of home living, his long-presumed dead brother, Sam, returns to bring Nate back into the fray as a treasure hunter once more. While each character brings a certain amount of levity to the proceedings (and these moments do come thick and fast), an essence of solemnity coats the game from start to finish. No one feels safe from injury or death, giving every character’s action the weight of consequence, something that was never truly apparent in the preceding three games. Suspense is then crafted throughout, which in turn heightens Uncharted 4’s emotional cadence. You may have always laughed and empathised with Nate, Elena and Sully, but their lives and experiences have become more real and affecting.
Nate’s previous world of gun-toting and temple-skulking is constantly scrutinised, as his marriage and other relationships become strained under the force of exuberance. These ideas had been eluded to in previous games, with Drake’s Deception providing the most overt challenge to pirate-hood, but was always packaged as carefree and forgettable. A Thief’s End continually stresses the mental instability of Nathan Drake as an obsessive; his foray towards riches and greatness has provoked insincerity, delusion and even slight hints of dejection. Uncharted 4 has established Nathan Drake as a real man with real conflict; nothing is frivolous or high concept during his final tale.
The emotional impact of this journey is created through some fantastic character moments, in the form of mature conversations had either before or after the shit hits the fan, or through small lines of dialogue enunciated during instances of quiet exploration. Further sentimental manipulation (and I mean that in the best way possible) is produced through the technique of leitmotif: themes generated through musical score, which underlines action and character. A particularly stirring moment between Nate and Elena, in the latter half of the game, is given instant, soul-stirring power through the use of subtle piano and strings.
While Elena and Sully are both returning figures, A Thief’s End also introduces a slew of new characters in the form of the aforementioned Sam, Rafe and Nadine. Sam is very much his brother’s brother: a joking history savant struggling with that obsession and a desire for greatness. His portrayal, delivered by the brilliant Troy Baker, fits expertly into the Uncharted mythos, as he not only provides a competitive foil for Nathan but also discloses snippets of back-story regarding the Drake lineage. While Nadine may be a more simplistic villain, akin to Zoran Lazarević from Among Thieves, Rafe is a truly unsettling presence. His past connections to both Drakes makes his motivation personal and realistic, and his character development is also one of the game’s most interesting. His struggle with an extreme inferiority complex chips away at his calm exterior, inciting madness through compelling outward action.
That isn’t to say Naughty Dog has solely placed focus on the new, as A Thief’s End is deeply ingrained in what has come before. To get a sense of Nathan Drake’s transformation from jungle swashbuckler to domestic pirate and back again, cues through both dialogue and visual means interpret nostalgia as a driving force behind the character and story. From subtle lines (“This is the second biggest cistern I’ve ever seen”), to larger set pieces, almost every facet of the game evocates past events. While this may seem derivative, it contextualises Drake’s loss of lifestyle and, more importantly, gives Uncharted fans an opportunity to look back at the series, and to see how far it has come through its updated emotional gloss. It is both a hello to something new, and a goodbye to the old times.
One thing that remains consistent with the previous three entries is the hectic nature of Uncharted’s combat, as Drake can use a variety of weapons, from assault rifles to shotguns, to haphazardly gun down mercenaries throughout his adventure. Each gun may feel slightly imprecise in terms of aiming, but all have a significant weight behind them; sound effects, coupled with controller rumble, add satisfaction and realism to Nate’s bent at blasting enemies left, right and centre. Dashing betwixt and amongst markets stalls and temples is forever fun, regardless of combat efficiency; and general movements, such dashing in and out of cover retains function and fluidity.
If, for you, Uncharted’s combat has always been a turnoff, then A Thief’s End may never change your mind. Fortunately, a number of gameplay systems have been implemented to avoid it altogether. Larger areas now permit greater enemy observance, while their positions can also be marked easily by aiming and then clicking in the right thumbstick. Stealth mechanics are therefore thoroughly encouraged, as patches of long grass allow for camouflage and evasion to be used as primary tactics. These mechanics are just as rewarding as those found in any other stealth game, as Nate can isolate and then pick off enemies one by one with finesse, and are particularly useful when dealing with groups of adversaries on higher difficulty settings.
A Thief’s End also does a fantastic job at interspersing these combat scenarios amongst other moments of play. In past games, Drake would stumble upon a suspiciously arena-like area, only to be bombarded with waves of pirates until the monster closet emptied. Now, they are woven sparsely throughout each environment, making enemy encounters less burdensome, and more memorable as a result. Combat highs are integrated with peaceful lulls, allowing the frantic action to exist naturally alongside quieter sections.
Similarly to The Last of Us, Uncharted 4 posits tranquillity and exploration as a central motif. Certain areas, such the plains of Madagascar, as well as groups of tropical islands, are completely open, allowing Nate to scour their every corner in search of historic notes, journal entries and the series’ signature hidden treasures. The latter two collectibles allow history to step into the forefront of the action, as they present far-removed figures as emotionally relatable, and add life to the long-since eroded locales. Furthermore, these more open areas, along with just about every other inch of A Thief’s End, are outstandingly beautiful. Directing Nate towards slopes of tangible mud, crystalline blue waters and dense yet thriving foliage, just for the sheer joy of looking, is simply magical.
With every vista viewed, every trinket collected, and every tear shed, you may want to venture into Uncharted 4’s multiplayer for some last minute fun. Over the course of multiple modes – Team Deathmatch, Command and Plunder – you can battle alongside/against friends or random players using signature characters from the Uncharted series. Playing as well-known heroes and villains, like Chloe Frazer and Charlie Cutter, gives each match personality, as they spout character-correct observations, insults and jokes throughout. It provides an opportunity to say a fond farewell to those that didn’t quite make it into the singleplayer campaign, and celebrates the series’ trademark humour and charm.
Each mode is fairly standard, with Team Deathmatch having you kill enemy team members; Command requiring you to capture points across the map; and Plunder is basically capture-the-flag. While these cookie-cutter play types may appear derivative, Uncharted 4’s multiplayer does a great job of differentiating itself in other significant ways. For example, Relics, mystical items from the previous games, can be spawned in order to thwart your enemies or to heal your teammates. These are visually interesting, with the Spirit of Djinn turning you into a flame-headed pumpkin man; and are also structurally alterative. One of the most useful, Indra’s Eternity, can slow down enemies once they step into its area of effect. Customisation is another huge facet of A Thief’s End multiplayer, as a number of entertaining costumes, taunts and dances can be applied, making characters more distinct. Matches are always lively as a result.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a masterpiece, plain and simple. Naughty Dog’s knack for storytelling and character, world-building and evolving systems is once again unrivalled. Saying goodbye to Nathan Drake and his band of merry pirates is no meagre feat, however, as emotionally resonant moments and maturity hold up his final tale with equal measures of danger and poignancy. While it may be the end, this journey and its lasting effects will live on, forever in our minds and hearts.
Naughty Dog has continued its streak as an exemplary developer, creating a fitting finale to Nathan Drake's adventures. Beauty, nostalgia and poignancy prevail throughout this joyous tale.