Warning: Spoilers for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End contained below.
Blimey, this is a lovely game. Lovely to play, lovely to look at, lovely to hear. Just lovely. At times its loveliness is so pronounced that it makes you want to reach out and stroke your TV screen. Don’t do that, though, as you’ll get fingerprints all over it and immediately feel embarrassed.
Uncharted 4 is one of those games that, if you dissemble it to its constituent parts, doesn’t seem to add up to very much, yet somehow the finished product is spectacular. On paper it should be rather like The Order 1886: a linear, story-based romp interspersed with shooty bits. And, yes, it is that (plus some jumpy bits and car-drivey bits), but whereas The Order felt dead and leaden, this feels full of life. Maybe it’s the stunning graphics. The vistas of Scotland and Madagascar in particular are the most astonishing I’ve seen since The Witcher 3. Maybe it’s the characters. If wise-cracking Nathan Drake urked you before then, well, he won’t endear himself to you this time. But if, like me, you enjoyed the breezy, almost effortless charm of the main cast then you’ll certainly get your fair share of entertainment here. Maybe it’s the gunplay. True, it’s not best-in-class but is easy to pick up and, most importantly, fun. Most of the weapons have a satisfying heft to them, and there’s enough variety so that you feel you’re constantly finding new items throughout the length of the game.
Most likely, it’s everything together that makes this game what it is.
What’s most pleasing is that, considering this is the fourth game in the series (well, fifth if you count Vita prequel Golden Abyss), this is actually the one that differs most from the pre-set formula. There’s an increased focus on stealth which, wonderfully, never descends to the level of insta-death fails (I’m looking at you again, The Order). The pacing also seems better, with more sensible gaps between the all-out shooting sections. And whilst you never feel that you’re free to explore the world, there are multiple sections where you have more scope for moving off the beaten path. I found particularly impressive the way that the game signposts and funnels you down particular routes without ever really making you feel as if you being forced to go in a specific direction. There are no mini-maps, waypoints or HUD routes here, yet you never feel lost.
Special mention should be made of the game’s story, and if you’re really worried about spoilers you should step away now. Superficially, Uncharted 4 centres around a hunt for the lost treasure of long-dead if not long-Johned pirate Captain Avery. In actuality, the story is more concerned with the question of obsession and the notion of what we do after the adventure of youth is over. The game ends with the idea that, as life moves on, you shouldn’t give up on your dreams entirely, but perhaps you do need to adjust them and consider them in light of what else you’ve gained. The introduction of Nathan Drake’s brother Sam, whilst admittedly feeling slightly shoe-horned into the series’ continuity, provides an interesting juxtaposition. Despite Sam being the elder brother, his time spent languishing in a Spanish jail means that he essentially plays the role of Nathan in the early games: driven to find the treasure more than anything else.
It’s unusual for game series to end in a ‘planned’ way: normally they go on either forever or until the sales figures drop too much. Uncharted 4 is very much a ‘goodbye’ to the series or, at the very least, to the series as we know it. There could be more Uncharteds after this, but I think it’s fair to say – some DLC aside – Nathan Drake’s treasure-hunting days are over. That’s nothing to be sad about, though. The series definitely ends on a high and, as the game tells you, you can’t keep doing the same thing forever.
Of course, an Uncharted game wouldn’t be an Uncharted game without some amazing set-pieces. Whilst there’s nothing here that quite matches the train sequence in Uncharted 2, you’d have to be a cynical cove indeed not to be caught up in the thrills presented by the Madagascan car chase or the escape from the Scottish church. It helps that everything is presented in such a stunning way, with very few performance problems (I think I noticed maybe three or four slight frame drops throughout my time with the game). Naughty Dog have a reputation for squeezing wonders out of PlayStation hardware, and they haven’t disappointed here.
If any criticism can be levelled at U4 it’s that it is still a linear adventure at heart. This didn’t concern me – I’ve spent too much time in aimless open worlds – but if you’re coming to the game expecting something akin to an RPG then you’re not going to be happy. There are the normal Uncharted hidden treasures to uncover, though they don’t do an awful lot aside from unlock some special game modes and other ‘goodies’ in the option menu. The Vita title Golden Abyss had some interesting codex entries fleshing out the treasures, and I was a bit disappointed to find those missing here. I’m also not sure how much replay value there is here, particularly if you don’t touch the multiplayer (which I didn’t).
All of this is criticism for the sake of it, though. Uncharted 4 is one of the best games I’ve played this generation.