Review: ‘Uncharted 4: A Thief's End’ (2016) | Pop Culture Crossing

            Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the latest installment and alleged end to the well-known action-adventure video game series Uncharted.[1] The game, developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment, centers around Nathan Drake, a treasure hunter, who, for film fans, serves as an Indiana Jones-styled character. Drake’s adventures takes him to exotic locations throughout the world that are replete with enemies vying for the same artifacts. Additionally, there are typically super-natural beings guarding the treasure being sought. A Thief’s End does not pick up directly where Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception ended. Rather A Thief’s End starts with Drake and his on-again-off-again love interest-turned-wife, Elena, living a modest life removed from their previous globe-trotting escapades.

            Drake, however, cannot help but feel an emptiness in his current lifestyle and a wanderlust for one last adventure. Things change when Sam, Drake’s long-lost brother, contacts Drake and tries to convince him to go on a final adventure seeking pirate treasure so he can pay back a debt; an adventure that, if based on fact, could be the most rewarding one yet. Drake agrees to help Sam, but does not inform Elena of the situation, a move that could damage their already fickle relationship.

Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment | Naughty Dog

Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment | Naughty Dog

            The Uncharted series is known for being one of the best narrative experiences available in the video game format. A Thief’s End is no exception to Naughty Dog’s story-telling pedigree. A Thief’s End’s story is superb, immersive, and unpredictable – something I appreciate after finding the first three PlayStation installments of the series to be especially predictable for someone who enjoys action-adventure movies. Story and visuals are where A Thief’s End really shines. The little things in the game help augment the overall story and its pacing. For example, the journal entries, particularly the historical accounts and the items in a mansion, and companion conversations help provide necessary exposition that was enjoyable to read and hear. I really relished these moments and the way in which they helped the narrative progress and tried to utilize the information to connect the story’s dots.

            I thought Naughty Dog did a good job in introducing Sam and making him a sympathetic character. This is a testament to the game’s pacing, in that Sam’s mere existence in the game and his time with Drake did not feel shoehorned, but had a natural feel. I liked him right off the bat in the “introduction” section, which utilized flashbacks effectively and prevented Sam from feeling like an interloper.

Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment | Naughty Dog

Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment | Naughty Dog

            I do not want to spoil anything so I will be relatively brief here. In terms of character interactions, the same excellent chemistry between Drake, Elena, and Victor “Sully” Sullivan (and now Sam as well) are still present. It was nice to see this memorable element of the previous games continue in the fourth installment.

            A Thief’s End’s gameplay had both good and bad elements. In terms of the good parts, the climbing feels the most fluid of the four games. It features great subtle animations with Drake reaching and jumping. This makes it feel like it is a real climbing situation, where you wonder whether or not you can or should reach for a specific point; it was not binary where you can either reach something or you cannot  and have to choose another location, something I really appreciated in this game. It shows how the climbing mechanics have evolved throughout the franchise. Other examples include: Drake’s “speed boost” when running up a road or stairs and the stumble animations which feel and look true-to-life. These things make the climbing and movement feel especially realistic, seamless, and a joy to play.

            Some of the climbing actually reminded me of the Assassin’s Creed series, especially the set piece in King’s Bay. This connection to Assassin’s Creed is a good thing since the climbing in those games is so free and open, unlike the restrictive feel of the previous Uncharted games where only certain things could be scaled. Granted, A Thief’s End is not as open as Assassin’s Creed, but it is a strong improvement over previous Uncharted games.

            The grappling hook is a pretty solid addition overall. Though it feels a bit cheesy and tawdry having convenient grappling branches jutting out of odd places. It would have been nice if other natural elements, such as rocks or boulders, could have been used as grappling points as well. This would have made it more realistic and less contrived.

Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment | Naughty Dog

Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment | Naughty Dog

            My primary gameplay critique is the removal of the ability to throw grenades back at enemies. This mechanic was a brilliant addition to Drake’s Deception and its absence in A Thief’s End makes the combat system feel like it is taking a major step back. In the island environs, when I found myself pinned down, low on ammunition, and getting pummeled by grenades, it made the gameplay’s lack of this ability feel particularly regressive and negatively reminiscent of the series’ first entry, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. To me, the combat in Drake’s Deception was far superior and I was disappointed that Naughty Dog did not continue improving its combat, but devolved it. Perhaps they thought the grappling hook was innovative for combat, but I did not think that was the case, particularly when compared to the ability to throw grenades back at your foes.

            Another criticism surrounding gameplay was the over-reliance on crates. These crates are not just any crates, but modern styled crates with casters. Why have crates with modern casters in random, centuries-old ruins? It would be one thing if they were only present in locations where the antagonists arrived before Drake, but that was often not the case. There were a few instances in select ruins where the same mechanic was utilized with rotting carts or casks. Why were these not used with greater variety throughout the game? These items are more appropriate and have greater continuity to the settings. The choice to have these modern looking crates outfitted with casters really took me out of the game, and, sadly, occurred more than once.

Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment | Naughty Dog

Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment | Naughty Dog

            The primary “muscle” antagonist is a mercenary firm known as Shoreline. They and their leader, Nadine Ross, are evocative of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves’ Lazarevic and his mercenary army. Because A Thief’s End’s combat was weak, but its story was strong, I found myself getting annoyed when Shoreline would randomly appear. This would break up the narrative and exploratory flow of the game and take me out of the immersive story and environments. I was exceptionally disappointed when this happened in the third act. The presence of mercenaries and their gameplay usage of conveniently appearing, actually doubles as a slight negative in terms of story. The simple use of mercenaries already adheres to a bit of a treasure hunting story cliché and it did not help that Naughty Dog recycled this portion from Among Thieves. However, I was significantly more pleased with how this story element concluded than I was with the end of Among Thieves.

            The visuals in Uncharted 4 are, not surprisingly, gorgeous and one of the main highlights of this game experience. The environments and set pieces are immersive. I spent a lot of time simply wandering around and exploring the nooks and crannies of the locations. Naughty Dog gave amazing attention to detail – from the rays of sunlight breaking through the jungle to bright African vistas, to autumnal Scottish Highlands, the diversity of the locales was refreshing and it was clear how much care went into constructing them. The water effects were also remarkable and compounded game’s the authenticity.

Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment | Naughty Dog

Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment | Naughty Dog

            A Thief’s End, like the other Uncharted games, features strong voice acting and motion capture. Nolan North’s Drake still has a light and whimsical feel, though his dialogue adds realism to the situations and character himself. It is clear that this is not Drake’s first venture and he is no longer a wide-eyed and mystified explorer. Rather he relies on realistic interpretations of the sources and facts and approaches the situations with tempered expectations. This clearly illustrates both the maturation of the characters as well as Naughty Dog’s storytelling abilities.

Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment | Naughty Dog

Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment | Naughty Dog

            North also conveys Drake’s emotional and personal struggle in an expert manner. The player really feels the tug-of-war Drake experiences between Sam and the lure of a final adventure on the one hand, and his relationship and more steady and aboveboard life with Elena on the other. This is very apropos to Uncharted 4’s tone and mood and increases its sense of agency. By the same token, Emily Rose’s portrayal of Elena maintains the familiar tone that made the character popular in the franchise’s earlier games. Rose, like North, communicates this vis-à-vis the ups-and-downs of the Drake-Elena relationship, and it is done in a very believable way.

Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment | Naughty Dog

Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment | Naughty Dog

            Troy Baker’s Sam is a fresh addition to the series. In the first few hours of the game, it felt like I had known the character from series’ past. This made the Drake-Sam relationship feel genuine. The brother chemistry was also great and fun to experience.

            Richard McGonagle’s Sully, like Drake and Elena, is familiar yet fresh. You can see Sully’s wisdom and realistic perspective reflected through Drake now that he is older. In past adventures, Sully was the level-headed character and Drake was the bushy-tailed adventurer. Here you can see that Sully has had a strong influence on Drake over the years. Now Drake adopts the realistic approach and Sam is the energetic explorer.

            Laura Bailey’s Nadine Ross and Warren Kole’s Rafe Adler, Ross’ employer and fellow treasure hunter, deliver strong performances. Aside from the aforementioned mercenary cliché, the characters are solid antagonists and are not as predictable as previous adversaries in the series. This helped keep the story progression feeling fresh and variable.

Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment | Naughty Dog

Image courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment | Naughty Dog

            A Thief’s End features one of the best epilogues (no spoilers) I have experienced in video games. The way the game concludes shows Naughty Dog’s deep understanding of the Uncharted franchise and what it means to its fans. The great, satisfying coda was a bit unexpected, but was unmatched in terms of tone, delivery and presentation, and the way in which Drake’s adventure concludes.

            Overall, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is my favorite game in the series. I wish the combat was better, but the memorable story, the characters and their development arcs (both in game and in terms of growth since Drake’s Deception), the impressive visual fidelity, and rich environments create a balance and help A Thief’s End stand as one of the best narrative and overall gaming experiences I have played. I highly recommend it to fans of the series and recommend newcomers to the series to play the previous installments before venturing into this game. Regardless, A Thief’s End deserves its place in the game library of any PlayStation 4 owner.

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Rating: T; Descriptors: Blood, language, use of alcohol and tobacco, violence.[2]

Note and Bibliography: 

[1] Note that when I talk of the Uncharted series or previous games, I am referring to the main flagship PlayStation games, not Uncharted: Golden Abyss, which I have not played. Additionally, this review only assesses Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End’s single-player experience.

[2] http://www.esrb.org/ratings/search.aspx?from=home&titleOrPublisher=uncharted%204