Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End feels more like a sequel to the original Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune than it does an evolution of the formula solidified in the second and third game in the series. Massive, astonishing set-piece scenarios take a back seat to exploration, and Uncharted 4 feels less like an elaborate series of exciting disasters and more like a true adventure as a result. That’s not to say the spectacle’s gone. While there’s no shortage of extravagant action, the scope this time around comes from sprawling landscapes, smaller, more intense encounters, and more engaging relationships and mysteries than the series has ever achieved. It may sound paradoxical to describe an Uncharted game as ‘grounded’, but A Thief’s End manages to feel much less silly than its precursors, yet every bit as fun.
Nathan Drake and now wife Elena Fisher enjoy a simple life, these days. A happy, safe life, as dull as it may be, must have sounded more responsible for the pair after all they’ve been through. Nate, of course, can’t help but long for adventure, so when long-lost brother Sam Drake shows up needing help with a treasure hunt – the stakes of which are his life – Nathan jumps right back on the saddle. Sam and Nate’s relationship is at the forefront of A Thief’s End’s narrative, providing valuable insight into how Nathan Drake became the reckless adventurer we’ve come to know.
Elena and, of course, Victor Sullivan, are equally important. Relationships between each of these now beloved characters are explored and expanded on to a much deeper level than ever before. Uncharted 4 can be serious and emotional, and each characters motivations are always relatable. It’s a meaningful, thoughtful story that never feels unsuitably dark for the series, albeit the most emotionally genuine.
Much of this depth of character is catalysed by A Thief’s End’s open approach to linear environments. Each area starts you at Point A expecting you to reach Point B. Rather than offering a meticulously detailed, specific path by which to arrive, though, Uncharted 4 provides explorable, spacious environments to navigate. Optional, contextual dialogue means you’re always getting to know Drake and pals better, regardless of how you choose to play.
The cardinal impact of this approach to design, though, is the rich, rewarding gameplay that comes from encouraging player choice. No longer is Nate’s task to find the path set before him, but to find and choose his own. On several occasions I found myself looking around the environment, trying to find a solution to the puzzle the traversal has been crafted as. The game is always very clear about where you’re headed, and never leaves you feeling lost or confused, but forces you to figure out a way to get there. It feels good scale precarious landscapes knowing you found your way, rather than jumping from predetermined point-to-point.
This philosophy carries into combat, resulting in rewarding, engaging encounters. Shooting feels much better than ever before, especially thanks to a minimal but helpful reticle, letting you know when you’ve hit and/or downed a foe. Stealth is a completely viable option here, rather than a means to take out a couple of guys before things really kick off. Grass and bushes provide effective hiding spots, and enemies can be marked to keep track of. Once spotted, Drake can evade enemies and become hidden again. The AI isn’t as refined as a Metal Gear – the second one enemy hears you, everyone knows exactly where you are – but it provides a much more strategic, varied combat suite. Most encounters can be largely dealt with sneakily, and a lot can be avoided entirely.
Puzzles are similarly thoughtful, cleansing the palette with some more traditional problem solving, without slowing things down too much. They’re tricky enough to stop you to think, but never complicated enough to become frustrating. As with exploring, it feels good to have to stop and think to progress. Less captivating push-the-box, hit-the-switch type puzzles become increasingly common through the adventure, but always feel like a way to draw your attention to a setting or conversation between characters. It helps a great deal that the pirate theme and backstory being uncovered is exceedingly interesting, feeling far more mysterious yet entirely more grounded than Nate’s previous discoveries. Unravelling the history here is just as interesting as Drake’s story.
It goes without saying that Uncharted 4 is an absolutely stunning game. The level of photo-realism in A Thief’s End is unrivalled. Beautiful, sprawling landscapes had me engulfed, with each environment having a distinct, authentic atmosphere and presence. The facial animation and character performances, in particular, are the most advanced and believable I’ve ever experienced by a wide margin. Characters interact naturally, engagingly, and suitably emotionally. An excellent score featuring a slightly darker take on the Uncharted theme and a consistent reverence to the pirate motif sits lovingly over the commendable aesthetic. I’d be remiss not to mention that I encountered a couple of very minor bugs while playing. In a brilliantly polished Uncharted title, flaws that would traditionally go unnoticed are particularly jarring.
As if the quality of the experience wasn’t enough to warrant multiple playthroughs, ATE features some fun render filters, gameplay modifiers and cheats unlocked after completing story mode. The cel-shaded filter in particular really impressed me, looking just as good as any game built to look such a way from the ground up. Using any weapons you like or relying on infinite ammo might come off as a little cheap, but it’s nice to be able to play by your own rules. Also notable are the game’s options for less experienced players. Explorer difficulty takes pressure off the player to aim by locking on to enemies who are taken down with just a couple of shots. Anybody could play and enjoy Uncharted 4.
Multiplayer provides plenty more chances to enjoy more great cover-based shooting. The climbing and swinging of Uncharted continue to offer a multiplayer suite like no other – a really fun one. Map and game mode options are pretty limited, but all of the highest quality. Maps are memorable and balance strategy and intensity nicely. Progression in multiplayer is disappointingly sluggish, though. There’s plenty to unlock and customised, but they’re a grind to work towards without spending any money. With promises of free multiplayer DLC down the line, it’s hard to fault what isn’t even the main attraction of the package.
Uncharted 4 isn’t a perfect game, but it’s about as close as it gets. A Thief’s End feels like a true adventure, developing believable characters and relationships, offering gorgeous environments to explore, and encouraging and necessitating thoughtful gameplay. I couldn’t help but be invested in the pirate B-story while things wrap up in a fitting, satisfying way for Nathan Drake and pals, all presented in the highest quality the industry has achieved. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is an astonishing, captivating experience.