Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review (PlayStation 4)
There's a moment in the beginning chapters of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End where series hero Nathan Drake and his wife Elena sit at home on their couch and eat dinner while talking, as two normal people living normal lives in a normal house. The dissonance of this scene compared to the expected run and gun Indiana Jones-style action of the franchise is deafening, and yet this brief moment of routine sets a perfect tone for the rest of the game.
Nathan Drake is a former adventurer now, trading his life of adrenaline and treasure for the "bliss" of domestic suburbia with Elena. His brother Sam, thought dead after a botched escape from a Panamanian prison, re-emerges and asks for Nate's help finding lost pirate treasure that will save his life, rendering the transition to domestication moot. To paraphrase the great Michael Corleone: just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in.
This idea of old life versus new life is a recurring theme throughout Uncharted 4 — Drake asks Sam at one point what they're even doing in this situation — cycling these themes through scenes past and present. I learn more about Nathan and his background than I've ever known, even though I've adventured with the guy three times before. I begin to see the wear and tear of his fast-paced life take a toll on him mentally and physically, internally and with his close associates. This is the most human Nathan Drake has ever been, and his character is worlds better for it.
That's the beautiful thing about this story: despite all of the outrageous action scenes and firefights A Thief's End throws at me, all of the characters in this story are simply human. They make mistakes and bad judgment calls. They lie, cheat, and steal their way to what they want, dealing with the consequences and rolling with the punches. They constantly bicker back and forth with witty banter during gameplay, sometimes in ways that are culturally relevant in real life: at one point Drake and his companion argue over whether the word "gibbet" is pronounced with a hard G like "jiffy" or a soft G like "give." In a medium filled with larger-than-life superheroes and over-the-top personalities this is a game of people acting like ordinary people, albeit in some extraordinary situations, and the story is that much better for it.
The tale itself is not so different than what I've seen in Uncharted before — there's a hidden treasure and Drake is trying to find it — but the addition of Nathan's old vs new life inner struggle, projected perfectly by his brother's gung-ho gusto against his own uneasiness, pushes it even further up the emotional scale. Sam Drake is like looking into the past for Nathan despite Sam being the older brother, and it takes that peek through the looking glass to him to truly face this underlying issue.
If you haven't gathered already I think this story is the best Naughty Dog has ever written, but there's one more example I can give of just how well it's told: as I played in my living room and my wife watched while caring for our two week old daughter, I found her eyes regularly making their way to the screen. She's not a gamer by any stretch, so her potential interest here surprised me. When I asked her about it she flat out said, "Yes, it's a great story." She watched until the end, asking questions along the way. Even someone who has never played Uncharted can get roped in, and that's a monumental achievement.
Playing through Uncharted 4 follows the familiar third-person action formula that the previous games implemented, mixing tight, cover-based shooting mechanics with platforming that knows no boundaries, while adding in a few new wrinkles. I've scaled massive towers and hung onto falling bridges for dear life with the help of a new grappling hook accessed with a quick press of L1 whenever the symbol appears. Even when sliding down a muddy hill and falling to a dark abyss, if that hook appears on the screen, one press and Drake is on it. Shooting is crisp and clean as well, with aiming being the most responsive and effective of the four Uncharted games in my eyes. The one aspect I worried about most — the new driving sections — are no problem at all, with the driving mechanics running smoothly no matter the vehicle.
The environments that play home to Drake's new adventures are simply beautiful, with plenty of moments to just stop and take in the amazing views. In a subtle and clever nod to the older games, each of the the main environments emulates one of the settings of the previous entries; the lush jungles of the original gives way to a snowy mountain peak, which then transitions to an arid, blazing hot desert area (even though it's the red mud of Madagascar this time and not sand, but you get the idea). There's beauty in every corner of Uncharted 4, and I suspect there will be plenty of nature watching for everyone who plays.
The final major facet of the game is the online multiplayer mode, and for a game that relies so heavily on its single-player the online modes here are much more than an afterthought. Online structure follows the basic Team Deathmatch style of "first to X wins" but adds a few Uncharted elements in there to make things more interesting. First is the ability to earn money throughout a match and spend it on perks, like summoning an AI buddy in heavy armor to dole out some damage or boosting a grenade's power. There's also Mysticals, key items throughout the Uncharted franchise that adds a flair of the supernatural into a match. The Wrath of El Dorado produces a massive totem that shoots energy blasts at enemies, while the Staff of Ayar Manco briefly shows the wielder's team the enemy's position.
All of these perks as well as gun loadouts can be completely customized in the menus before a match, giving me ample time to create a set-up that I'm comfortable with before jumping into a match. Once I'm in battle the game acts just as one of the battle set pieces in the single player, with tight shooting controls and a few places to swing a grappling hook. I had a lot of fun in the matches I played, and as long as the servers perform to task when the game launches — never a sure bet in this day and age unfortunately — it'll continue to be fun for a while.
I keep wanting to go back and talk about the story, the nods to times gone by in Drake's life, the amazing development of every single face I meet,. However I think the one thing I appreciate most is what it gives when all is said and done, something that other "final" games in long-running series haven't been able to adequately provide: closure. Naughty Dog has said openly that this is the end of Nathan Drake's tale, and as the credits started to roll I'm completely on board. I'm satisfied with Naughty Dog's choices in ending this saga, I'm fine with where all of these characters end up, and most of all I'm a little sad that this story has come to a close.
Uncharted 4 is indeed A Thief's End, the type of bookend story to which other franchises should aspire. It's an emotional ride through some pretty dangerous places, not the least of which is the mind of a man who realizes he's at a major crossroad in life. Will this be the last time we see Nathan Drake? I don't know for sure, but you know what? I sure hope it is. Godspeed Uncharted, and thanks for all the memories.
This review was completed with a downloaded copy of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End provided by the publisher for PlayStation 4.