Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review – A Gorgeous and Emotional Love Song

on May 5, 2016 3:01 AM

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End has been a long time coming, and I’m sure that you already glimpsed at the score, so let’s cut the chase and say it: this game is the perfect example on why we shouldn’t be too disappointed when a game gets delayed.

Looking at the game compared with earlier footage, it’s almost possible to visualize the myriads of layers of polish added to each scene, one after the other, day after day, night after night, with love and dedication.

And that is ultimately what I feel is the secret of this game: every frame of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End makes me feel like I’m looking at a portrait in which the artist really loved the beautiful lady smiling from the canvas.

I won’t say much about the story: I know most of you don’t want to read a single mild spoiler anyway: let’s just say that Nathan Drake has finally found peace, but as many men who have made of adventure and living on the edge their primary lovers, it’s hard for him to find the right balance.

That’s why the return of his supposedly dead brother finds easy purchase to throw that balance completely out of whack, like a gust of wind that causes an avalanche that has already almost completely detached from a cliff.

city_06

The essence of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End‘s story moves away from the bombastic, adventurous offspring of the post-Indiana Jones generation — even if there is still plenty of adventure — and into the realm of a deep and emotional story of a man trying his hardest to make all the pieces of the puzzle of his life (including those that he had misplaced under his bed years before) match with each other and form a semi-coherent picture. Good luck with that, Nate.

What makes the story work so well aren’t the jaw-dropping set pieces and the breath-taking action scenes, but the incredible work of a cast and development team that have not only brought performance capture to the state of the art, but also deeply connected with their characters on a human level over the years.

From the tutorial onward, the fantastic cast of this game managed with undeniable natural charm to drag me into their world. Maybe for the first time, I felt like the “uncanny valley” has been crossed.

I’m not talking about graphics. We’re close there, but perfection is still just out of reach because hardware is hardware. I’m talking about the combination between acting and writing, that really made me feel like the characters I was looking at could very well be real people.

One of the most powerful aspect of the narration is that Nate and his friends almost never stop talking: besides the moments in which the story dictates silence, they behave exactly like old mates going in an adventure together would. They talk of what is happening, they talk about the past, they tell each other funny stories to keep their fears at bay… The more lines they say, the more the player believes in them and loves them.

ope_01

And all of those thousands of lines aren’t just idle banter, at least not in essence: they’re like small bricks that contribute to build an extremely deep connection that — at least for me — is unprecedented in gaming. It surely did not exist to this level in the previous games of the series.

They’re also extremely natural: the system that determines when characters start and stop talking is just a stroke of genius. When something happens, they’ll interrupt what they’re chatting about, and focus on the matter at hand, only to resume the discourse afterwards.

The only small flaw I noticed in the whole performance is that in the less scripted and more open sections of the game, the sub-lines used to resume a previous topic will occasionally repeat, but I guess that’s pretty much inevitable, and it’s a very small stain on a system that is otherwise really amazing.

The acting itself is absolutely top-notch, and it merges with the expressions of each primary character in a way that I can easily define enthralling. If I had to find a reason to move the game some criticism in this field, is that it appears that they picked quite a few Italian Americans (as usual) to play the part of native Italians in the English track, with the result that they don’t really sound as they should.

Of course this is an extremely small flaw, and unless you’re a native Italian like I am, you most probably won’t notice at all.

Interestingly, the game is quite unique in a way that I did not expect. This kind of title often sees large chunks of content cut during development in order to make deadlines, to stay within the budget, or to keep the pacing of the game consistent.

dive_05

While playing Uncharted 4, I very distinctively felt that some of its parts would have been chopped away if it was another game, but the development team decided instead to indulge, and kept them alive out of love.

In many cases this would result in the disruption of the pacing of an action-adventure, but with Naughty Dog’s latest game they mysteriously just work, falling in place perfectly, probably thanks to the fact that Uncharted 4 is not only a grand adventure, but also in part a deeply emotional trip down the memory lane that masterfully plays with the hearts of the series’ fans.

There is a particular location right at the beginning of the game, that those who love Uncharted will probably spend an inordinate amount of time into, exploring every nook and cranny, interacting with every object available, and probably humping repeatedly those that aren’t really interactable. I won’t tell you what it is, because I don’t want to spoil it, but I can guarantee that when you’ll visit it you’ll feel it: whoever made it, loves Nathan Drake (and someone else who I won’t name) with the deep and unconditional love of a parent for his or her children.

Since we already talked about acting, and that includes the absolutely fantastic voice acting (Italians excluded), let’s talk about audio, which is pretty much on par with the voices. The score is incredible, underlining the action most of the times subtly but masterfully.

Sound effects are another strong point of the game, and especially the foley (everyday effects like footsteps, cloth, vegetation and more) can easily be defined Hollywood-level. Naughty Dog put an amount of effort into it that you rarely see in a video game, contributing massively in building atmosphere.

Uncharted4 (10)

I have only one word to describe Uncharted 4‘s graphics, and that’s “impossible.” To be more precise, this game makes me wonder if a Sony representative snuck into my house a few nights ago and stealthily replaced my PS4 with a prototype of the rumored PS4 Neo, or 4K, or however you want to call it.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the physical demonstration of the power of crazy levels of optimization on a hardware-limited platform. It simply looks so good that I didn’t think achieving this level of visual fidelity on a PS4 was possible.

As I mentioned before, characters come just this close to crossing the uncanny valley, and only occasionally they look a bit less natural, even thanks to the fact that Naughty Dog kept its semi-realistic style with a degree of stylization that  helps conceal that effect. Art direction and technology combined do the trick beautifully almost all the time.

I could spend hours describing the incredible level of detail poured into clothing, accessories, small elements like Nathan Drake’s watch or his traditional half-tuck, all interacting dynamically with the environment, getting wet and dirty in a very natural way.

Yet, the real star of Uncharted 4‘s graphics isn’t its beautiful cast, but the absolutely stunning environments. I won’t lie: I took an inordinate amount of screenshots of some of the vistas in the game, and they’re now happily alternating as the background of all three of my PCs.

Uncharted4 (3)

As a matter of fact, there is a piece of criticism that I need to get off my chest, and that’s not towards Naughty Dog, but Sony itself. It’s very common for big publishers to demand that reviewers use only screenshots from the official press-kit in their articles, and this is the case here as well.

Normally, that is to present the game with its best looks and the best angles, on top of avoiding accidental spoilers, but spoilers aside, Naughty Dog and Sony really have nothing to hide here: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is absolutely and undeniably gorgeous.

There are so many things that I would love to show you, so many incredible vistas (including those on my desktop right now), but I’m not allowed to. And to be fully honest, I feel that the screenshots that were picked for the press kit don’t fully do justice to the game. So here’s a word of caution: see the images on this page? They’re nothing compared to what you’ll see on your screen, not much in terms of fidelity, which is consistent, but in terms of how absolutely breath-taking many scenes of the game are from a purely artistic point of view.

There are many places in Uncharted 4, where I just stopped  right at the edge of a precipice, panning the camera around, marveling on the fact that I was looking at actual 3D objects in the distance, and not at a stunning backdrop.

Animation is another element that contributes to make this game’s visuals so special. Naughty Dog evidently spent an inordinate amount of resources in creating moves that truly feel natural. Especially inverse kinematics (that area of animation that makes characters interact with the environment, like placing their hands against a low ceiling as they crawl under it) are just beautifully implemented.

mad-preview-still-08

I also need to give a shoutout to the work made by the effects team: explosions, smoke and the VFX for the interaction between characters of the and the ground are simply spectacular, even if what really takes the cake is foliage (which is, to my understanding, also partly achieved with a clever special effect), which is among the most dense and beautiful I have seen in a game.

Ultimately, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is hands-down the most beautiful game I have ever seen on consoles, and not by a little bit. It even easily rivals, and in most cases overtakes, many of the best looking titles on PC.

Does the gameplay match all this visual, audio and emotional glitz? Oh hell yeah.

This is a first for me: Uncharted 4 is the first game including shooting and stealth in which I love both in the same way. Normally, in games that offer both, I go completely the stealth way, avoiding shooting at every chance I can.

You know I’m not good at it, and usually I find well implemented stealth absolutely superior to gunplay in terms of fun and overall satisfaction. This is not to say that stealth in this game isn’t good. As a matter of fact it’s fantastic, but the shooting is just as good.

mad-preview-still-10

Bringing inordinate amounts of lead to bear on the faces of the goons that try to bar your passage is very satisfying, thanks to extremely tight aiming (even at the majoroly stable 30 FPS of the campaign) and to the well balanced and fulfilling variety of weapons.

Normally, when I get discovered in a game that involves stealth, I’m disappointed and often end up reloading to achieve that perfect sneak, but in Uncharted 4 I just go “oh screw it!” and I proceed to gleefully turn the opposition into Swiss cheese while humming Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie in my head. And yeah, that’s not a metaphor. I really do that.

The performance of Nathan’s AI companion is also mostly laudable. Unlike most AI followers, they’re actually very useful. They can hold their own in a fight, and they can execute some really nasty (in the best meaning of the word) team finishers with the player.

On the downside, they’re not as good as sneaks, often ending up walking in plain sight of the enemy, but that’s only slightly detrimental for the immersion factor, because the goons simply won’t notice them. At least in my experience, Drake is the only one who can be discovered.

Of course Uncharted 4‘s gameplay isn’t all fighting and sneaking around. There are also extensive moment of platforming and puzzles.

city_04

While platforming is still challenging, it feels a lot more natural than in previous chapters of the series. Controls are just spot-on, and in basically every situation I managed to make Nate do exactly what I wanted him to do, resulting in a lot less falls to his premature death.

The addition of elements like the rope and grappling hook also makes things a lot more fun, letting you “play with physics” with less scripted results, and adding a lot to the variety of gameplay. Yet, thanks to the near-perfect design of the levels, I almost never found myself having to wait for the hint telling me where to go.

This differs massively with the previous games of the series, in which I was often stuck and desperately looking for a ledge to move on. The contribution to the overall pacing of the game is priceless.

Puzzles aren’t overly complicated, but they’re quite clever, resulting satisfying across the board, without feeling like an impassable obstacle for those who are eager to get into the next brawl or to the following intense story moment. Continuous dialogue among characters also contributes very naturally in making the enigmas more enjoyable, with useful but not excessively invasive hints (besides one time, in which Sam basically told me the solution of a puzzle, and I resented him a lot for that), and banter to keep the ball rolling.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is also less linear than previous games of the series, providing some areas that feel a lot more open and exploration-driven. Make no mistake, though, we’re not looking at an open world game. Levels are still very much crafted, and their designers masterfully placed elements like vehicle-driven puzzles and platforming to “lead the player by the nose” where they want him to be.

sco_05

That said, the relevant fact is that it doesn’t feel like that, and there is still plenty of room for optional exploration and treasure hunting, letting us freely decide just how deeply we want to engage with this more open levels, and whether we want to just push to the next encounter or to find everything there is to find. Personally, I advise for the latter, but your mileage may vary, and the fact that you can decide so freely is awesome.

I hinted at vehicles, and that’s another lovely element of this game. As an example, the rent-a-jeep that we get to drive is one of the most satisfying vehicle experiences I ever had in a game that wasn’t a dedicated racing title. This isn’t hyperbole: drifting and sliding on the slippery mud and rocks is simply a pleasure. I love every moment of it, and I’d beg on my knees for a multiplayer mode based on it.

Speaking of multiplayer, it’s surprisingly deep for a game so strongly based on its single player story. That’s not as much due to the variety of modes, which is more or less average, but to the depth of customization.

I’m not even talking about visual customization (which is great, even if you are stuck with pre-made characters from the series and can’t create your own), but actual functional personalization. Basically everything, from weapons to mysticals, sidekicks and boosters can be customized in several ways, granting the player an enormous amount of freedom in how to fit his loadout perfectly to his style.

Uncharted4 (5)

Sidekicks are probably the best new feature, and if you played the beta or the stress test you probably know what I mean: they add another level of tactics to the gameplay, make the matches more active and crowded, and they even grant a bit of an helping hand to those players that aren’t as good at multiplayer shooters.

If aiming isn’t your forte, you can still find a lot of fun in using your sidekicks tactically to give you the edge that your hand-eye coordination lacks. You can probably imagine that I personally found that very welcome, considering that It takes me inordinate amounts of time in most games (yet less in Uncharted 4, thanks to the snappy controls and the smooth frame rate) to actually learn to hit a barn’s wall from the inside.

It’s tight, fun, fast, and it’ll give you all the variety you need to get your setup just right. Now, for that Jeep-based mode, Naughty Dog…. I will get on my knees if necessry. I’m not joking.

Ultimately, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End made me laugh, it made me cry, it made me curse and it make me shout. It made me take a break just to catch my breath, more than once. What more can I ask of a game?

This isn’t just a swan song for a beloved franchise, but a majestic and emotional symphony of love.

 /  Executive News Editor
Hailing from sunny (not as much as people think) Italy and long standing gamer since the age of Mattel Intellivision and Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Definitely a multi-platform gamer, he still holds the old dear PC nearest to his heart, while not disregarding any console on the market. RPGs (of any nationality) and MMORPGs are his daily bread, but he enjoys almost every other genre, prominently racing simulators, action and sandbox games. He is also one of the few surviving fans of the flight simulator genre on Earth.