In the modern PlayStation era, few franchises are spoken of with such reverence as Uncharted. Nathan Drake’s adventures have set the bar for action-adventure gaming and spawned countless pretenders, but Uncharted’s true legacy is the millions of fans who care deeply about Drake, Sully, and Elena, having followed them for three unforgettable adventures. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the final adventure, and a game about legacy--about what’s worth holding on to, how we’ll be remembered, and what remains when there’s nothing left to chase. Characters confront these questions as the game confronts the towering legacy of its predecessors. How could a game, so hyped and so shadowed by the success of its forebears, hope to leave a legacy of its own?
Having seen Nathan Drake’s adventure to the very end, the legacy of Uncharted 4 is clear to me. This is Naughty Dog’s finest creation to-date, a lovingly crafted, wholly satisfying conclusion, and a triumph that stands among the greatest games ever made.
Such words don’t come lightly, and some of the biggest names Uncharted 4 must live up to are its own predecessors. What resembles a familiar adventure on the surface quickly becomes a surprising journey, with epic discovery and intimate character moments in equal measure.
At the close of Uncharted 3, Nathan Drake turned the page on his treasure-hunting days and walked into the sunset with the loved ones worth keeping over his death-defying life. In Uncharted 4, it’s a loved one who pulls him back in. Long thought to be dead, older brother Sam appears in dire straights after 15 years of absence. He has a life debt to someone who’s eager to collect, and the only way to guarantee his safety is to find the treasure of a lifetime: pirate captain Henry Avery’s sixteenth-century hoard of gold and jewels valued at $400 million.
On paper, Sam’s entrance to the series seems like a left-field play, but with stellar writing and direction, the game’s brief opening sections are able to establish a lifelong relationship between Sam and Nathan. It isn’t long before Sam enters Nathan’s modern life and asks Nate to help save his own, but by the time he does, their emotional connection and shared past are remarkably clarified. This deepening of character is felt across the entire cast. It’s a slimmer group than in Uncharted 2 and 3, but for the better: everyone is given additional screen time to develop, and the quality of writing and performance behind them has never been better. Nuanced facial animation conveys doubt, false bravado, and unspoken love. By game’s end, all the personalities we’ve been with since the series’ beginning are fulfilled by satisfying, emotionally resonant character arcs.
Believability isn’t limited to Sam and Nathan’s relationship or the way other characters develop. In the adventure at large, great pains are taken to make the quest for Avery’s pirate treasure seem historically feasible and logical. Drake’s past quests for El Dorado, Shambhala, and Iram of the Pillars were well-explained, historically grounded affairs, but some suspension of disbelief was always required. Did ancient pioneers really construct such elaborate machinery and environmental puzzles? How have entire lost cities gone undiscovered in the modern age? A Thief’s End still asks for a few such generosities from the player, but Naughty Dog gives surprising, thorough consideration to the details. If a keen-eyed player goes looking for them, he’ll find more pieces falling into place than usual. The difference is a story that doesn’t feel impossible, merely unlikely; a fantastic adventure in the Uncharted tradition that still manages to feel believable. Perhaps more important to the game’s legacy, it’s a journey rife with interesting history and plenty of narrative movement that still manages to be easy to follow. The feelings imparted along the way (and at game’s end) are more powerful for it.
Beyond character development and believability, the adventure boasts absolutely perfect pacing and rhythm. These issues in past games were sporadic and far from deal-breakers; a few too many combat encounters here, some slow padding there. Uncharted 4 trims the fat and replaces with purposeful gameplay, addressing virtually every nitpick one could hold against its predecessors. There are slightly fewer combat encounters, evenly balanced between epic and close-quartered. Typically, there’s a narrative reason for the shootout, or a way in which the shooting pushes the characters or story forward. Combat is never used for padding, and there are fewer frustrations: the juggernaut, bullet-sponge enemies are few and far between (and more imposing for their scarcity), there are numerous ways to approach one-off threats like snipers, and the foes themselves (not their sheer numbers) present the challenge.
A greater share of the journey is given to platforming and exploration. The latter is perfectly executed at both macro and micro levels. A few massive spaces beg to be explored, and one could add a couple hours to the journey scouring them for treasures and optional conversations. But clever world design, dialogue, and mini-objectives nudge you forward in a way that makes these huge areas feel focused, like natural parts of a linear adventure. At the smaller scale of climbing and platforming, uncertainty makes for more interesting gameplay. There are dozens of small sections where it’s not entirely clear where you should head, or what the proper way to reach that destination is. Some climbing paths are dead ends. Others just exist as a natural part of the world. With this slight degree of mystery, I approached new sections wanting to get a feel for the space and understand it instead of immediately leaping for the nearest handhold.
The inability to fall into a low-effort rhythm of automatic platforming keeps the non-combat hours interesting and engaging, and just when the game threatens to feel quiet or same-y, a dramatic shift in setting or action maintains the compelling flow. Despite being nearly twice as long as any prior game (my final clock: 15 hours), Uncharted 4 never drags. Without exception, the entire adventure is entertaining and engaging.
An exploratory sense of adventure isn’t the only thing working toward a surprising, entertaining adventure. Uncharted 4 owes a lot to additions, both large and small, that expand gameplay in purposeful ways. Drake’s rope, for example, adds new maneuvers to climbing and combat. By tossing your line and grappling hook at pre-determined latch points, you can swing around that point. A lot of your swinging is used to cross gaps and make death-defying leaps, but many combat environments have at least a couple beams to swing from. The physics of swinging are easy to grasp, and momentum can be creatively redirected to send you (for example) toward other handholds than the obvious ones, or over enemy heads for a melee strike from above. Some sections even task you with using rope physics to solve puzzles or navigate a particularly treacherous climb, showcasing the versatility of the tool. It’s even tempting to use in stealth sections. You might need the speed of a rope swing to cross a large open space quickly, but you’re extremely visible while doing so.
Stealth has been toyed with by the series before, but here, Naughty Dog beefs it up to be a meaty gameplay portion in its own right. The sensible appearance of combat encounters lends itself to several fights that start with Drake hidden from enemy eyes. The mechanics of stealth include marking enemies to track positions, tall grass to conceal Drake’s movement and enemy bodies, and Drake’s familiar moveset of stealth kills from behind, above, and below. Furthering the cause of believability, there is no dedicated whistle button for luring enemies into the safety of tall grass, and a grenade thrown from hiding won’t necessarily alert enemies to Drake’s exact position. Your rope even plays into the acrobatics of avoidance. You could theoretically scale a ruined tower, undetected by enemies inside, take out the sniper perched on top, swing away from the structure to kill an outside guard from above, and toss a few grenades back inside to finish the job. Success comes from creatively using the environment to avoid or exploit enemy sight lines and reacting quickly to unexpected movement.
While a couple goofball enemies seemed to miss me in plain sight, this sneaking is tense and immersive. Split-second decisions create moments of badass flow, making stealth and combat enthralling and highly replayable. But if your split-second decisions are the wrong ones, all hell will break loose with raucous gunfire. The importance of stealth in the broader context of combat is tuned perfectly. On Moderate difficulty, no combat encounter is so difficult or overwhelming that a skilled, decisive player can’t manage the onslaught, but every stealth kill managed on your way to better positions and weapons is truly felt in the subsequent shootout.
The elegance of stealth is matched only by the smoothness of gunplay. Uncharted 4’s shooting is sublime--a return to form after Uncharted 3’s somewhat sluggish aiming. Gunshots crack with mechanical impact as your aiming reticle widens and narrows in response to movement and recoil. Guns feel powerful and unwieldy, but tameable. Controlled, short bursts pay off with deadly accuracy, but even sustained automatic fire isn’t useless. Hip-firing is valid up close, as covering fire while moving to a new position, and while swinging to close the distance. Smooth animation and responsive movement tie these elements together to elevate the series’ mobile, acrobatic, cover-based shooting to a place of distinction. Whether climbing, sneaking, shooting, or swinging, Uncharted 4 is an unbridled joy simply to play.