Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End / Naughty Dog / PS4 Exclusive
(This short review will avoid spoilers as much as humanly possible, because I realize it hasn’t even been a week since the game’s release and most people wouldn’t have finished it yet. Put this down as my good deed for the week.)
The standout set-piece in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End for me was, and still is, the chase scene in Madagascar originally featured in an early preview of the game released by Naughty Dog some months ago at E3. Nate and Sully get attacked by Nadine’s goons in the capital, and a running gun battle and vehicular chase ensues. To spectacular results. You’ve probably seen that preview; it’s fantastic, to say the least. It made me more antsy to get the game, which was released just last Tuesday.
But playing it yourself in real life is something entirely different, and entirely more complicated and involved and wonderful. Uncharted 4 may be a linear game and you are prodded and poked to follow one basic path, but it certainly doesn’t seem that way.
In a 15-minute sequence in Chapter 11, you are surrounded and shot at by endless waves of goons, hounded by an APC as you (variously) zoom around Madagascar’s winding streets in your stolen jeep; dragged through mud as you try to hang on a rope dragged by an enemy vehicle; hop, jump and skip among trucks, jeeps and bikes knocking and shooting goons down as you do; zip along on a motorcycle riding shotgun behind your brother Sam trying to avoid that deadly, pesky APC hell-bent on killing you… it’s like no other video game I’ve seen.
Uncharted 4 is like that in its entire 22 chapters, in differing degrees. The action is immersive and involving to the extent that you often forget you’re just playing a video game. The stunning thing is that all throughout, it is rendered beautifully, intricately and realistically in a manner afforded by the PS4’s advanced technology. Attention to detail is paramount in this, the last, and arguably the best chapter of the adventures of Nathan Drake.
The game engine and graphical effects are phenomenal, from the shadow rendering and light manipulation to the water simulations, the realistic smoke and explosions, the inclement weather effects and the stunning tableaus and vistas of jungles, islands and mountains. The creators even modeled the fabric of the character’s clothes with seeming weight and texture, and when mud and grime get on them, or if they get wet, you can see the changes immediately, and the effects last for a realistic amount of time.
The animation and rendering of the characters are also so lifelike and realistic to a degree that it approaches photo-realism—you can see every wrinkle in Sully’s craggy face and count the hairs in Nate’s stubble, and these features respond to external stimuli—the hair ruffles in the breeze and the flesh contracts and bruises and bleeds when hit by a gun butt. It’s that realistic.
The eneny AI has improved dramatically too. The Shoreline goons don’t normally see you when you’re hiding from them (particularly nice is how you can now hide in the long tall grass, sometimes directly under their noses) but when they see you, they don’t ever forget you’re there. You have to keep moving and shooting, lest the destructible covers you try to find protection behind is shot up and you’re suddenly exposed. And they’d equally stomp on your fingers if they catch you clinging to a ledge beneath them as just plain shoot you.
The physics of gameplay in the game are realistic and as true to life as they could make it—save for Nathan’s climbing and rope hijinks. You can make Nate climb a tall, sheer cliff face and make it seem like a piece of cake, or jump high precipices and abysses with his rope and grappling hook; no way you can really do that, man! My fingers would break and my arms scream with agony on the second ledge I’d jump up and cling to. This is one of the few times you’re reminded that this is, after all, just a video game.
It doesn’t hurt that Uncharted 4 is a Who’s Who of talented voice actors doing the roles. It features Nolan North as Nathan, Troy Baker as his brother Sam, Richard McGonagle as Sully, Emily Rose as wife Elena, and as the heavies, Warren Kole as Rafe and Laura Bailey as Nadine. They all do a wonderful, nuanced job that gives the game a natural, realistic dimension.
Something has to be said about working lengthy, complicated exposition into the story: Uncharted 4 thoughtfully does away with pre-rendered cut scenes and instead creates them in-game, on the fly, and in so doing removes loading times, resulting in a seamless, fluid, continuous experience. There is no waiting in this game (at least in the first run-through).
And in its downtime—the fallow, usually boring moments like when you’re just driving around the countryside or walking in the jungle or climbing up a mountain—the characters’ conversations sometimes continue in the background and manage to work in some related material you’d like to know about, the light banter interspersed with humor. It’s pretty entertaining. And if the patter is interrupted by some event, the conversation continues when the event is over—as it would in real life.
But more importantly, Uncharted 4 has a wonderful, human story, and that story is told beautifully by the writers. It’s about family, relationships, loyalty and betrayal. It’s about how you want to be remembered, what’s worth keeping and what’s worth letting go, and how to live your life when all this is over. The storytelling sets the game apart from any others, and I daresay it would just be as effective if the game was made in 8-bit mode for the original Playstation 1.
Speaking of which, there is an interesting Easter Egg—well, you can’t really miss it—in Chapter 4 and the Epilogue where the developers worked in a playable version of the old PS1 game Crash Bandicoot. You can actually play a portion of the old game, if only for a short while. It’s amazing to realize you can actually incorporate an old 8-bit game in a fancy new 64-bit one!
I have to admire the game’s rhythm and pacing though, doling out the action set-pieces at just the right time, and interspersing these encounters with flashbacks to Nate and Sam’s orphaned childhood, their time as young adults in a Panamian prison, or Nate and Elena’s domestic life in the present. All the moments are well-timed, and dealt out when they’re precisely needed.
I’ve played all the previous Uncharteds, including the Golden Abyss one for the PS Vita—so, that makes this new one technically the fifth in the series—and I’ve noticed that it’s a bit… relaxed and laid back for a modern Triple A game. Don’t get me wrong, the game is as action-packed and tense as the previous ones, but somehow the pace isn’t as forced, and there is an unhurried vibe to the game, as if Nate knows it’s his last adventure and is taking things nice and slow.
The Naughty Dog people also advises players to also take it easy and not hurry, that you should stop and smell the roses, and not rush to get to the end to find out what ultimately happens as gamers normally do. The end will come when it comes. Meanwhile there’s the scenery to take in, moments to savor, surroundings to poke and prod, mountains to climb and islands to explore.
I tried to take their advice but honestly, try as I might, I couldn’t stop playing. I finished Uncharted 4 early Saturday night. I checked the stats after I finished, and saw that I played for a total of 20 hours, spread out over four and a half days. Such restraint.
And it looks as if the Uncharted 4 Hype Machine is finally winding down and being turned off. I haven’t seen much new UC4 pieces on any of the usual websites in a couple of days, and that’s usually a sign that max hype has been reached and is slowly receding back to normal pre-hype levels. It used to be you couldn’t avoid an Uncharted 4 review, walkthrough, best-of, or additional or new features item online.
As the game wrapped for me last Saturday night, I saw a nice, lengthy and satisfying Epilogue set years later, which, for a change, featured Nate and Elena’s pre-teen daughter Cassie (voiced by Kaitlyn Dever) as the main character (yes, yes, it’s basically a happy ending, sheesh). As the Nathan Drake theme music swells and the picture fades, you realize you’re watching the end of an era, and you won’t be seeing these guys you’ve grown to care for over the years ever again.
Oh, but what a ride its been, hasn’t it?
Well, there’s always replaying the game at harder levels, and there’s still multiplayer to explore and enjoy. There’s that. And you can always go back to the old games and re-experience them again.
All I can say is, its going to be hard to dethrone my candidate for Game of The Year.