Uncharted 4: A Thief's End Review
Upon completing Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, I felt sad.
It wasn't because we wouldn't see this masterful IP for a while nor was it because the climax left me unsatisfied. It was a singular sensation, one I hadn't experienced in gaming before; simply put, I didn't want to let go. I would miss Nathan Drake and Elena and Sully. More than anything, I'd miss these characters that have been part of my gaming life for the past nine years. How often can we say that about a video game, even when we're talking about story-driven experiences? This feeling was a testament to what Naughty Dog had achieved and why Uncharted is a cut above.
Prior to the release of A Thief's End, I would say The Order: 1886 was the most impressive game of the generation from a visual standpoint. Driveclub is up there, too. But once again, Uncharted sets a new graphical bar. The set pieces are beautifully designed from top to bottom and everything, from the bombastic action sequences to the slower sections that really let us appreciate the mind-boggling level of visual beauty, is gorgeous. Try to find a flaw or inconsistency; you'll have a devil of a time. Any why bother desperately trying to find pinpricks of negativity when the production is this overwhelmingly incredible?
Look at a character's face when he or she speaks. See the slight pull of the lips, the narrowing of the eyes. These fictional individuals come to life in ways we never could've imagined decades ago and once again, Naughty Dog's motion-capture experts are front-and-center. The special effects will blow you away; the scenery is filled with endless beauty as the eye thirstily seeks another impressive detail. Appreciate the wide variety of exotic and compelling locales you're allowed to explore, and revel in the tiniest detail. There's no shortage of visual excellence here and in fact, there is no game that comes even remotely close in terms of technical prowess. Repeat: Not close.
Lifted by typically fantastic voice performances and driven forward by wonderfully selected orchestral pieces that punctuate every scene, the sound in Uncharted 4 is the cherry on the parfait. Actually, it's more like the cherry and this special sweet sauce poured all over it to make every bite that much more exquisite. Nolan North (Drake), Troy Baker (Sam), Emily Rose (Elena) and Richard McGonagle (Sully) lead the way, while Warren Kole (Rafe) and Laura Bailey (Nadine) pitch in with excellent performances. The sound effects are second-to-none, keeping the player riveted in every firefight and pushing us back in our seats when the action really heats up. Amazing the whole way ‘round.
One could argue that our genre labels are becoming increasingly insufficient. As most major games today contain elements of multiple genres, it seems just about everything could theoretically fit into the "action/adventure" category. And what separates straight "action" from "action/adventure," anyway? Then there's the whole role-playing debate, which is thornier than ever for the same reasons, and the pure platformers and adventure games are starting to disappear. It used to be easy to categorize games; hell, there was even a separate stealth, category, remember? But Uncharted 4 has just about everything (with the exception of RPG elements). There's platforming, third-person shooting, puzzles and even stealth.
Let's address the latter element first, because while there were a few opportunities to be stealthy in previous entries, it really wasn't a primary feature. But it is in the latest entry and wonder of wonders, it's fantastically done. The developers had to walk a mighty fine line here— they couldn't go too far down the Hitman path because it would turn off long-time Uncharted fans and in fact, anyone expecting an action/adventure title. They needed to make it a legit and worthwhile addition without making it too intricate and, as a result, restrictive. Well, they succeeded: While it's not essential, stealth is definitely encouraged and players are rewarded for their efforts. And no, it's not that hard.
You can hide in tall grass and underbrush and the enemy won't see you; you can also hang from ledges and rip foes from their perches. Coming up behind an enemy lets you perform a quick stealth takedown and if you're near one of those tall grass patches, Drake is smart enough to pull the downed foe into the covering vegetation. An indicator will appear over an opponent's head if he spots you; it goes from white to yellow to red. If you disappear again while the gauge is still in white or yellow, all guards won't be alerted, though if it gets to yellow they'll start to search. It's simple, straightforward, and works exceedingly well throughout. They react to sound and movement and of course, firing a weapon will just piss them all off.
All this time, your ally (or allies) scurry around with you and they can't mess things up. In other words, an enemy can't see Sam or Elena at all when you haven't alerted the guards, so you never have to worry about your partner. This brings me to the friendly AI, which is also great: They'll tackle guys who get too close, help you when a foe grabs you, and yup, Sam and Elena will even take out the occasional enemy with their weapons. They're actually useful but, at the same time, they never make you feel unimportant; you can't just sit and watch and expect them to handle everything for you. Then there are the super cool teammate takedowns; when a guard grabs an ally and you're close, you can tag-team and bring him down. Your allies will help you in kind as well.
The game just keeps surprising you, despite the fact that you think you know exactly what to expect. For instance, you can use the environment to your advantage more than ever. It's not just that the areas are bigger and more open (I'll get to that in a minute), but you can also use your surroundings to inflict pain. For instance, ramming a dude's head into a nearby wall is always effective, and those treacherous ledges can be deadly for your opponents if they get too close, and you just happen to be hanging around underneath. Toss in the grappling hook and you've got a hugely dynamic game that never seems to slow or stall. This title may have the best pacing of any piece of interactive entertainment in history and that's nothing to sneeze at.
Getting back to the grappling hook, this is another thing that concerned me. It's a great idea but if it's overused, the game starts to feel like something else, and the good idea becomes a gimmick. If it's underused, you just wonder why it was included at all. If it's poorly implemented, it taints the entire experience and again, we ask, "Why is it there?" Well, another set of stumbling blocks expertly cleared by Naughty Dog, because the grappling hook feels exactly right. It's not overused or underused, it never feels gimmicky at all, and it adds depth to the gameplay. It gives platforming a more action-oriented feel as we spend more time in the air, and being able to leap off the hook and slam down on unsuspecting enemies just never gets old. This thing works flawlessly and, like everything else in the game, it's wildly intuitive.
As for the more open spaces, I was concerned Naughty Dog would open them up too much, to the point where the narrative takes a back seat to the exploration. But that didn't happen; actually, it felt more like The Last Of Us, though not quite that expansive. You still have one goal; one spot in the area you need to reach, but you can tackle different paths to get there. They don't change the game much in terms of standard progression, but it really does change the combat. The areas are much wider, allowing you to approach from just about any angle you please. If you want to try and flank, you can do so; if you think it's a better idea to go over or under, that's often an option as well. It's simply the logical progression of the genre without actually altering the genre...other designers should take notes.
Lastly, the story. As most know, I'm a stickler for a decent script and great characters, both of which remain woefully lacking in video games, despite the obvious strides we've taken. I'm not here to tell you Uncharted 4 is our industry's "Citizen Kane." But I'm here to say it wasn't trying to be and for what it was trying to be, it's possibly one of the best stories ever. Everyone is quick to point to Uncharted 2 but that story had a few minor issues and I never though the whole supernatural beings/monsters thing fit the theme very well. That felt a trifle forced. The first Uncharted just didn't take enough storytelling risks and was too straightforward, while Uncharted 3 felt slightly disjointed.
Uncharted 4 is just about perfect because of two things: The aforementioned pacing and the layering. These characters are better defined this time around, with clearer and more identifiable motives. They're more human due to this layering because all humans have numerous reasons for doing what they do, and outside influences can only change who we are to a certain extent. As for the pacing, just about the time you start to tire of one particular segment, whether it's a partially scripted and massively satisfying chase sequence, a not-too-challenging but still rewarding puzzle, or a harrowing platforming sequence, the game switches gears. And whenever we see a piece of the story, we delve a little deeper into each character's mindset.
I finally did tackle the multiplayer, too, which I just love. It's a little weird playing against clones of the characters you've come to know so well, but it all works out in the end. Once again, the developers outdo themselves by shaking things up a bit; the Mysticals - special attacks that make use of those artifacts we find - are fantastic and add a whole new dimension to the action. Plus, we've got expertly designed levels and that rock solid control that never wavers. Playing with others is constantly rewarding and despite what you might think, this doesn't really play like any other online multiplayer out there. The Division is a third-person multiplayer shooter, of course, but these two games are eons apart. Toss in some AI snipers and medics, and a robust progression system, and you're good to go for months.
That being said, the multiplayer is hardly a focal point. The campaign, which should take you 16-18 hours to complete, is arguably the greatest single adventure a gamer will ever take. And when you're done, after you've viewed the epilogue (which features an older Nathan and Elena, though I won't spoil it further), you will likely feel it. You might feel what I felt: Saddened that it was over, that these characters are going off into the sunset, and that you will, wonder of wonders, miss them. This is the first game I've played in an extremely long time that made me want to restart the instant it was over, partly because I know there's nothing else in existence that can compete, and partly because I just didn't want to say goodbye.
I suppose some people are still hung up on the concept of a "perfect score." Of course, it doesn't mean "perfect" because no game is flawless. In this case, I suppose I could cite the ungodly precision of enemies with grenade launchers, or the fact that the camera can go just a tad loopy in certain parts. But I say a perfect score goes to the game that is, upon release, better than all the competition. If nothing on store shelves can compete, if you rack your brains and can't think of a better game to come along in the past year or so, it deserves the maximum score. I also believe in the subjective aspect, in that if the game didn't make an impact on a personal level, the critic shouldn't hand out the 10. I've almost never done it because clearly, my requirements are steep. But here, I can't imagine giving out anything less.
Side note: Though, with 36 perfect scores counted so far according to Metacritic (more than 1/3 of all 102 counted reviews), I'm hardly the only one to come to this conclusion.
No matter where Uncharted goes from here, this will go down in history as one of the finest achievements ever seen, not merely due to its obvious technical and creative merits, but because it can magically connect the player to this endlessly immersive world and its inhabitants. When you're done, Nathan Drake could feel more real to you than any fictional character you've encountered in games or movies. For me, that's what I'll miss most.
The Good: Industry-leading visual achievement, with some of the best design, animation and effects you'll ever see. Excellent voice performances on all fronts. Top-notch audio with a painfully gorgeous soundtrack. Expertly paced and produced throughout. Fluid, intuitive control that never fails. A wonderful and likable cast of characters. Refreshing, well-designed multiplayer.
The Bad: N/A
The Ugly: "Only that it's over for Nathan Drake. Tough to swallow, especially after this epic swan song."
5/28/2016 Ben Dutka