Are they going to kill off Drake? Is this the last in the series? Is the multiplayer going to be any good? These questions and more have been doing the rounds endlessly since Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End was confirmed.
You know the question that wasn’t being asked? “Is it going to be any good?” Such is Naughty Dog’s track record, the assumption has always been that Uncharted 4 will be great.
A small part of me wishes I could tell you that it isn’t. That despite all the odds and all the anticipation, Naughty Dog has somehow screwed the pooch. It would just be nice to be able to surprise everyone with a revelation like that.
Bad news on that front: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is ace.
One last job
That’s not to say that everything the game does is perfect. The basic premise, that Drake is drawn out of retirement for one last job by his imperiled long-lost brother, is a cliche as old as cinema itself.
Brother? Why yes; despite having never been mentioned in four other Uncharted games. You see, it turns out that Nathan Drake has an older brother called Sam, who he witnessed being shot and apparently killed during a prison break 15 years before the events of Uncharted 4. Considering how dramatic this whole episode turns out to have been (you get to play it) and the apparent guilt Nathan has been carrying ever since, it seems ludicrous that it hasn’t come up before. Especially as Nate’s sidekick Sully also knew him.
Even putting the rewriting of series history to one side, suddenly introducing Sam Drake and making him such a key part of the new game means a lot of backstory needs to be crammed in, and while much of this is playable, it’s not all brilliant. Controlling a young Nathan as he and his teenaged brother break into and explore a house full of archeological treasures feels especially long-winded. What’s more, despite the efforts Naughty Dog has gone to in padding out the brothers’ relationship, I never found myself particularly caring what happened to Sam.
The good news is that Nathan Drake and his wife, Elena, more than make up for Sam in the empathetic stakes. Their relationship feels very real, and because she’s been in the games since the very start, there’s a history between them that doesn’t need explaining. The scenes at home where we get to see the pair enjoying a normal life simply add texture and context to that.
It’s clear that Nathan’s pretty bored with retired life, but it’s also clear why he’s hung up his holster for a peaceful life with the woman he loves. And also why he doesn’t tell her the truth when he leaves town to help Sam hunt down the legendary lost treasure of pirate Henry Avery.
It takes quite a while for the adventure proper to begin, but once it does all thoughts of the sluggish build-up drift away.
You begin by attempting to steal an artefact said to contain a clue as to the whereabouts of Avery’s treasure from a glamorous auction, and here you meet the game’s two main antagonists, Rafe Adler and Nadine Ross. The first is a vicious, deep-pocketed ex-partner of Sam and Nathan, while the second is the tough head of a private military organisation, and the two of them have partnered up to hunt for Avery’s treasure. The race is on, then, and no punches are pulled in either side’s attempts to take the lead - Nadine boots Nathan out of a window during a nasty fist-fight during the very first chapter that we meet her.
This chapter also serves as a great introduction to the extra stealthiness in Uncharted 4. It’s always been possible to creep up and silently take down an enemy, but here stealth is given more emphasis through the setting and level design.
For a start, stealth is made more tempting by the sheer number of enemies you face. You can go all guns blazing pretty much whenever you like, but at many times you’ll find yourself too heavily outnumbered to survive, which makes the sneaky approach far more tempting.
Areas are designed with greater width and height, so moving around, above or below enemies is much more feasible. Naughty Dog has also introduced areas of long grass that you can use to hide yourself in before you pounce on an unsuspecting enemy and take him down with a stomach-churning crack of the neck.
Some firefights can be avoided altogether with a few sneaky takedowns and creative ledge-shuffles, but you’ll still get spotted by a guard frequently, at which point all hell tends to break loose. Thankfully, the gunplay here is more enjoyable than ever before in the series. Combat feels faster, tighter and more fluid than before. It’s more visceral, too, with the weapons having a greater sense of weight and punch. What’s most noticeable, though, is how much you have to quickly adapt to your enemies and situations.
All guns blazing
Staying behind cover is rarely an option for long: enemy soldiers love a good flank and are more than a little liberal with their grenades which, along with heavy fire, can make mincemeat of whatever you’re hiding behind. All of which means you’re forced to move around a lot more, and retreating often puts you in a dangerous dead-end.
The best way to defend, then, is to attack. You’ll find yourself blind-firing from behind a fence while you scan the area for a route around your attackers. Is there a ledge you can use to get above the bad guys? Some long grass you can get to without being seen? Hmm, perhaps you could use that grapple point to swing right onto the head of that annoying bloke with the machinegun…
The game forces you to think quick and improvise, all while bullets whizz around you and chunks of masonry get ripped from walls, and it’s absolutely brilliant while also being decidedly tough at times.
While the combat in Uncharted 4 is undeniably great, the series hasn’t done away with the climbing and puzzle-solving for which it’s so well known. Right after the auction it’s off to Scotland for some literal tomb raiding.
Here there are some excellent climbing sections that make your destination clear but not the route to get there, leaving you to figure out a path that involves working your way sideways or even backwards. In this Uncharted game the climbing is often a puzzle in itself.
There are more traditional puzzles, too, but while they’re often inventive and beautifully presented, they’re not particularly tricky. You’ll rarely need to spend more than a few seconds pondering before the solution becomes clear. It would be nice to have a couple of genuine head-scratchers in there, especially considering there’s a hint system available that could be used by anyone who got stuck.
The consequence of choices
If there’s one area that’s created a small amount of concern among Drake diehards, it’s Naughty Dog’s decision to open up some of the environments. That may not sound like a bad thing, but would player autonomy sacrifice the cinematic storytelling and set pieces for which the series is renowned?
Not at all, it turns out.
As mentioned above, most of the opening up has been done to facilitate opportunities to improvise in combat, but some areas go further than that. The most obvious of these is Madagascar, which you explore by jeep. Naughty Dog doesn’t make driving games and that’s clear in the car’s handling, which is rather woolly and inconsistent. It is, though, more than good enough to enjoy the hill-climbing, lake-wading, mud-sloshing action of this chapter.
And once you’ve followed the set path at its opening, you’re given a vast, beautiful plain to explore at your whim. True, there’s little tangible incentive to do so other than the collectible treasures that are useless beyond satisfying your OCD-like urge to pick up everything, but so glorious is the presentation that exploring the scenery and ruins contained within is its own reward. You’ll be occasionally treated to some extra snippets of story and dialogue, too.
A perfect picture postcard
Madagascar is far from the only gloriously presented location in the game. In fact, every inch of the game is utterly stunning. The environments are truly beautiful, whether it’s the craggy, snowy and grey Scottish mountains or the sun-drenched, paradise-like islands that you explore in a boat later in the game.
Characters have been similarly lavished with attention: the way they look and move is so incredibly detailed and natural that you essentially forget that you’re looking at computer game characters. So chuffed is Naughty Dog with the look of the game, that it’s introduced a new photo mode. Even though Sony put a block on me using my own captured shots for this review (seriously) I found myself pausing to take snaps constantly, capturing beautiful vistas and dramatic moments in equal measure.
The game really is that gorgeous, and in action it’s accompanied by a fabulously dramatic score and perhaps the finest sound effects ever to grace a game. Surround sound nerds are in for an absolute treat.
Draking around with your friends
Who buys a Naughty Dog game for the multiplayer? Very few people, I suspect, but the surprising brilliance (and subsequent popularity) of deathmatch on The Last of Us is something Sony’s clearly keen to repeat with Uncharted 4.
With the game not yet available to the public there have been only a handful of sessions populated by Sony staff and other journalists with which to test multiplayer, but it’s looking as though this could keep you playing the game for at least a little while after you’ve finished the main story. There are three main modes (which roughly translate to team deathmatch, capture the flag and king of the hill) playable over eight maps that take in a number of locations from the main story, including Scotland and Madagascar.
The movement, cover and shooting mechanics are all Uncharted through and through, but before each match you choose a loadout (assault, support, medic, sniper) and a character. The roster includes almost everyone you’re likely to remember from the entire Uncharted series, which is nice, but, because the characters are so memorable, there is something rather jarring about finding yourself on or against a whole team of Drakes.
At the most you’ll be playing a 5v5 game, and the relatively small team size makes for tight battles that reward teamwork, especially when it comes to reviving incapacitated allies. You also earn cash as you perform various in-game actions, and this can be spent while you play on extra gear, heavy weapons, special mystical attacks and even AI-controlled sidekicks. The more expensive items can have a big impact on a battle and are well worth saving for, but there’s also the issue that the players who are already performing best are able to access these first, further compounding the sense of frustration for the losing side. It may well be that these need a bit of balancing once the game is out in the wild.
It’s also fair to say that while combat is very tight and responsive for an Uncharted game, it doesn’t have the instant accuracy of really serious competitive shooters. That may actually be a bonus for those players who find games such as Call of Duty: Black Ops III far too stressful, and as gamers get used to the mechanics and maps it could turn into the creepier, more tactical affair that Naughty Dog is clearly gunning for. We’ll have to wait and see once everyone’s got their hands on the game.
Uncharted 4 verdict
Let’s put multiplayer to one side, though, because surely it’s the cinematic, single-player swashbuckling that we all look for in an Uncharted game. We want characters oozing charm and funny one-liners, an intriguing, treasure-hunting story and breathtaking set pieces, all wrapped up in the highest fidelity package imaginable.
In short, we want the moon on a stick, and Uncharted 4 delivers. This could well be the most beautiful game ever created, and as Nathan Drake’s story finally comes to a close you’ll be sad to say goodbye to this seminal gaming series, but also satisfied with its conclusion.
Farewell, Drake. Here’s to all the good times.