UNCHARTED 4: A THIEF’S END Review
In preparation for UNCHARTED 4: A THIEF’S END, I decided to watch my friend play the entire remastered NATHAN DRAKE COLLECTION. He had never previously played the series, and I wanted to objectively distance myself from the gameplay to get a better understanding of what I loved about these games so much growing up. By the time we were done, I was scratching my head, realizing that, outside of spectacle, the UNCHARTED franchise was never actually all that great at any one thing.
UNCHARTED: DRAKE’S FORTUNE was a clunky mess of a game with derivative level design and mostly flat dialogue. UNCHARTED 2: AMONG THIEVES kicked everything up to 11 with some of the best set pieces in adventure gaming at the time, but was hampered by a bland villain, and UNCHARTED 3: DRAKE’S DECEPTION — a title that still doesn’t really make any sense — relied too heavily on narrative beats directly ripped out of its prequel, but at least boasted a stronger cast and plot.
B-grade Jason Statham <3
Nonetheless, the series left an indelible mark for its entertaining, whimsical, carefree adventuring and puzzle-solving, something that gaming sorely needed after the Tomb Raider games fell off the map prior to Lara Croft’s return in her 2013 reboot. With Naughty Dog’s release of THE LAST OF US that same year, the developer polished their writing and crafted what is arguably the best game of the last generation. Level design was streamlined and emotional captivation was the name of the game. Three years down the line, UNCHARTED 4 not only marks a satisfying conclusion to the Drake quadrilogy, but an overwhelming accomplishment in transitioning a goofy adventure series into a somber finale about growing up and letting go.
“To the weenie!”
Ranking UNCHARTED 4 is difficult in respect to its predecessors purely due to how much more time has passed since the last installment. For the traditional gamer, Drake’s latest outing is quintessentially next generation. Bolstered by sharper AI, open environments, integration of controllable vehicles and a fantastic stealth component, the game is a markedly more broad than its predecessors. It’s also incredibly cinematic, compensating for its 30fps downgrade by not incorporating a single load screen for the entirety of the game, seamlessly transitioning from cutscene to action. But it’s the storytelling where UNCHARTED 4 really feels distinctly modern.
Characters no longer solely exist for the delivery of cheeky one-liners, but are now embedded deep into the storytelling. Drake is not just bland, broad brushstrokes of Indiana Jones, but feels like a realized protagonist with complex motivations. Newcomer Samuel Drake is a fantastic catalyst for the game’s explosive narrative, antagonist Rafe is cruelly empathetic and compelling, and clever twists and turns kept me guessing until the very end. As a film critic who expected to see through this video game’s narrative developments, I have to say I was genuinely impressed with how close UNCHARTED 4 gets to THE LAST OF US’s levels of maturity.
“Lower your guns, we’re all adults here.”
Broken into three distinct acts, Drake travels from the US to Italy, Scotland, and Madagascar in its first third, then takes our heroes to sea and a pirate island for the rest of the game. What’s disappointing is that the game peaks so early on. Not only are its first four locations (flashbacks included) the best in the game, the pirate island really overstays its welcome near the end, leaving a similar effect as DRAKE’S FORTUNE on the player. It’s not quite as offensive, because the game is consistently beautiful and boasts explosive action throughout, but it does cause the narrative to feel like it’s buying filler for no ostensible reason.
The fact that the entire experience is more stealth-reliant than ever will surely catch a few players off-guard, but this was ultimately a brilliant decision; if not for gameplay, then for believability. Not only do action sequences feel more complex thanks to larger arenas and the ability to approach them from various vantage points due to Drake almost always having the drop on the baddies, but they also improve the suspension of disbelief that our heroes can somehow take on a mercenary army without dying in a blaze of glory.
“That’s Nathan ‘Bloodlust’ Drake, to you, macaroon!”
It was rather bold to integrate a driving component into a game that previously never had one, and this is where UNCHARTED 4 could have used a little more polish. Drivable cars quietly sputter, never roaring through city streets, dense jungles, and African vistas. However, what stands out as a more pertinent issue is that these driving segments aren’t really particularly fun or necessary. Outside of the breathtaking Madagascar segment, driving only serves to make maps appear larger by giving you the option to go hunting for optional treasure.
This brings me to the one complaint I have always had with UNCHARTED since its first installment: optional treasures. Though these are supposed to help players unlock bonus content, they are incredibly counterintuitive to a video game that capitalizes entirely on a linear, railroaded experience. Every time I gain control after a cutscene I feel obliged to turn my camera 180 degrees and walk in the “wrong” direction in search of pointless treasure, an instinct that only serves to undermine the brilliant, propulsive narrative that should keep me running forwards. If Naughty Dog should take anything from this review, it’s “remove those goddamn treasures.”
Firefights are incredibly stimulating, and the fact that UNCHARTED 4 is equally rewarding when going in guns blazing or as a silent commando is perhaps its greatest achievement. The less restrictive level design allows for incredibly replayable set pieces, and even parkour segments have multiple paths. While this surely makes the game a tad bit easier, puzzling and navigating the wilderness felt empowering. This is balanced out in the level design, which is no longer strictly reliant on jarring color coding a la MIRROR’S EDGE to help guide the player’s eye through the maps, thanks to new mechanics like the grappling hook and sliding. The fact that players can still easily navigate through these larger maps without a waypoint makes this doubly impressive. Having said that, there are still a few trial-and-error experiences revolving around some misleading or otherwise unclear visual cues (e.g., falls that shouldn’t kill you and jumps that should seem attainable).
Why do you do this to me, Drake?
While the gameplay mostly does a fantastic job preparing gamers for upcoming set pieces by teaching new skills along the way, the game’s final boss fight tows an odd halfway point between UNCHARTED 2’s unnecessarily challenging shootout and UNCHARTED 3’s boring QuickTime battle. UNCHARTED 4 has the most emotionally captivating finale, but it relies a little too heavily on skills that the game never made you learn, namely a rhythm/directional-based melee/QuickTime battle.
From its spectacular cinematic action to its in-game photography feature, UNCHARTED 4: A THIEF’S END feels like one of the few games on the PlayStation 4 that actually deserves to be titled next generation. This is without a doubt the most beautiful game on Sony’s console, and sets the bar for what fellow developers should strive toward. While I see bright things in Naughty Dog’s future, I’m happy to see that they gave their most memorable franchise such an elegant sendoff.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4