In some ways, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the Uncharted series’ finest outing. It’s the most technically impressive, which, coupled with Naughty Dog’s famed art direction, has resulted in one of the best-looking games ever made. The systems at the core of Uncharted, and combat in particular, have received some much-needed improvement, and some fantastic new elements have been introduced to make this a game that is interesting and exciting to play in its own right, and not just as a way to progress the story.
But therein lies the rub. Uncharted – one of my favourite game franchises of all time – has never been something I played for the gunplay or even the traversal; those were just means to an end. That end has typically been fantastic storytelling, supported by some of gaming’s most interesting and vibrant characters. It’s a shame, then, that for all its improvements in nice-to-have aspects like “fun” gameplay, Uncharted 4 has dropped the ball on the core of what’s always made the series great: story and character.
As I said, this is the best Uncharted game in so many ways. It’s absolutely gorgeous, and never misses a chance to let you take in the sights. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about Uncharted was the sense of digital tourism; it’s thanks to this franchise that I have a yearning to visit Tibet, Yemen, Syria, and so many other places. With Uncharted 4, you can add Madagascar and Scotland to that list.
This breathtaking quality trickles all the way down from grand, sweeping vistas to tiny, almost insignificant points like the texturing on the myriad of rock surfaces that you’ll climb. This is all underscored by an impressive attention to detail, like the way Nate now stops to write in his journal, rather than having his notes just magically appear. Character models are eerily lifelike, but somehow manage to avoid a trip into uncanny valley. There’s even a point where a lemur climbs on Nate’s shoulder, and he loses his mind over how cute it is – much to the dismay of Sully.
Combat is a breath of fresh air compared to the tedious shooting galleries of earlier games. In most cases, fights take place in open, arena-like settings where there’s plenty of opportunity to maneuver, scope out the situation, and set up stealth kills. Even when you’re seen, you can use the environment to your advantage, as enemies now look for you at the last place they saw you instead of just magically knowing where you are at all times. You can go full ghost, you can be a hit-and-run predator, or you can run in, guns blazing, but even then, the fragility of anything you might use as cover means you have to keep moving.
Traversal hasn’t changed quite so dramatically, with a small additions to the established formula rather than a ground-up makeover. In addition to the usual climbing and jumping, Nate now has a grappling hook that he can use to swing from across gaps too wide even for someone of his quadricipital fortitude, and to rappel down walls and cliffs. In keeping with Uncharted’s generally linear design, the grappling hook can only be used at prescribed points, which is a bit of a shame given how neat of a mechanic it is. It would have been great to see it come into play more often as part of an alternative means to reach a goal, a way of reaching a treasure, or even just with a few red herrings – grappling points that lead nowhere, just to keep players on their toes.
Another new tool is a climbing pick that is functionally identical to that of the Tomb Raider reboot series, right down to the pockmarked cliff faces used to signpost pick-suitable terrain. I have no issue whatsoever with games “stealing” ideas from competitors – after all, everything is derivative, and this is how ideas grow – but where Tomb Raider had its pick as a core mechanic with plenty of interesting puzzles built around it, Uncharted 4’s feels pointless and tacked on. It’s almost the opposite of the grappling hook; the pick is introduced late in the game, is rarely used, and can almost always be avoided. It serves little purpose, and probably doesn’t need to be there.
The new driving systems, on the hand, are absolutely vital. Previous Uncharted games had set pieces that placed you in an AI-driven vehicle, shooting bad guys in what was essentially a rail shooter; Uncharted 4, in a few key moments, gives you the keys to the jeep. This isn’t an open-world game, and the zones in which you can drive aren’t exactly massive, but there’s something exhilarating about taking the wheel and just hooning around the Madagascan wilderness.
Even more impressive is how Naughty Dog have worked Uncharted-like traversal sequences into the driving. You’ll be navigating the winding paths of cliff faces, trying to bypass momentum-stopping mud pools, using the winch when the 4×4 alone isn’t enough, and making death-defying jumps over chasms. These vehicular takes on Nathan Drake’s antics are definitely some of the highlights of the game.
The other major boon in A Thief’s End is just how much of a love letter it is to the previous games, and to Naughty Dog’s history as a whole. There are some lovely Easter eggs going all the way back to the first Crash Bandicoot, and the way certain scenes early on look back on the first three Uncharted games with Nate’s nostalgia mirroring the player’s (assuming it’s there) and, no doubt, the developers themselves in a way that is just so delightful. There are more subtle throwbacks, too, like a major chain of events playing out in a Panamanian jail (“You obviously haven’t been in a Panamanian jail!” – Nathan Drake, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune) and the way some of the environments pay a clear and deliberate homage to those of earlier games, like Uncharted’s weathered jungle forts, Uncharted 2’s Tibetan monastery, and Uncharted 3’s Yemeni marketplace.
If only the story and character writing had the same level of respect for what’s come before. Uncharted has always been about silly, over-the-top, Indiana Jones-like pulp adventures, the rich, empathetic characters that populate them, and the effortlessly natural, typically hilarious banter that accompanies your running, climbing, and shooting. In Elena Fisher, Chloe Frazer, Victor Sullivan, Charlie Cutter, and, of course, Nathan Drake, Uncharted through Uncharted 3 created some of the most memorable characters in the history of gaming.
Uncharted 4 throws that all aside in an attempt to, ironically, tell a more “human”, “believable”, and “dramatic” tale. The previous games were already all of these things (did you know that over-the-top, action-adventure fun and deep, captivating character drama aren’t mutually exclusive?), while Uncharted 4 tells a trite, dull story of an emotionally-stunted manchild taking a Feelings 101 class and tries to pass that off as something introspective and profound.
The major culprit here is one Sam Drake, Nate’s believed-dead brother who suddenly shows up seeking Drake’s help in finding the lost treasure of the “King of Pirates”, Henry Avery. Uncharted is the kind of franchise where such a hackneyed trope as the “long-lost relative” could actually work wonderfully, but that would require a degree of character that Sam just doesn’t have. The only time he shows anything resembling a personality is in his childlike gushing over pirate treasure, but that doesn’t happen nearly as often as you’d expect in a game that’s literally about treasure hunters tracking down pirate booty.
Most of the time, Sam has about as much sense of character as a wet paper bag. The banter between him and Nate – such an important aspect of Uncharted – is frustratingly banal, a problem made worse by how much of the game is spent with Sam as your only companion. You’d think two brothers who have reconvened after 15 years apart would have more catching up to do, instead of just aimlessly commenting on the pretty view (we get it, the game is beautiful and the art team did an amazing job). In flashbacks, Sam’s love for his kid brother is clear as day, but as adults, he’s kind of an asshole, for no apparent reason.
What makes this worse is that Uncharted’s more established characters – again, some of the most memorable in gaming’s history – are pushed into the wings to make space for this husk of a character. Elena Fisher spends the first two acts of the game relegated to the role of the shrewish wife, to whom Nate just ~has~ to lie about what he and Sam are up to because she “wouldn’t understand” – hasn’t she been on at least three adventures with Nate before now, and wasn’t she a key player in all of them?
When Elena finally gets to be the badass that we know her to be, it feels hollow because her sole purpose is to further the story of Nate and Sam. Early on, she’s made to represent the “boring” domestic life, in contrast to the fun and excitement that Sam offers, but then she conveniently shows up just when Nate is starting to question his own motives and those of Sam. Surprise, surprise, she actually is fun and she actually does understand, and – surprise, surprise – maybe Sam isn’t all he’s cracked up to be and maybe Nate was being a total douchebag… Elena Fisher, that wonderful character who has been with Nate through thick and thin is, in Uncharted 4, reduced to a special smiley-face sticker on Nate’s “These Are The Feelings I Learnded Today” chart. Good job, Nate, you did a feeling, we’re all super duper proud.
This is still better than the treatment of Chloe Frazer, the shining star of the Uncharted franchise as a whole and the main reason that Uncharted 2 is so impossibly good. She doesn’t show up at all in Uncharted 4; she doesn’t even get to be a sticker. The salt in the wound is that she’s mentioned ever so briefly in a letter that you can, optionally, read when going through Nate’s old things – “Hey buddy, hope you’re good, hit me up if you ever need a driver” (paraphrasing) – only for her to not be seen or heard from ever again. If you’re going to erase one of your series’ best characters, at least fucking commit to it, like Rise of the Tomb Raider did with Sam Nishimura and like Uncharted 4 itself did with Charlie Cutter.
Nadine Ross could have been the saving grace as far as Uncharted 4’s treatment of women goes. She was revealed with great fanfare last year – a special trailer dedicated solely to this totally badass Black woman, with muscles that would make Sarah Connor proud and martial arts skills to match. There was some concern over the casting of a white woman to play a Black woman, when roles for voice actors of colour are so hard to come by, but when Neil Druckmann assured us that Laura Bailey was cast because she was just perfect for the role and that her character design hadn’t really been developed at that point, we believed him.
Instead, what we got was a totally badass Black woman, with muscles that would make Sarah Connor proud and martial arts skills to match, who spends the entire game being a glorified goon in servitude of the most painfully uninspired white male villain. All that hype for a character who could be removed from the plot with almost zero consequence – one or two scenes would need slight rewrites, and that’s it. This is especially depressing because the few hints dropped about Nadine’s background show so much potential.
She’s the leader of a private military organisation that she’s trying to salvage after her father ran it into the ground with a series of bad contracts in civil wars. That, right there, is the premise for a whole game of its own, but A Thief’s End just offers a glorified henchman who is supposed to be South African, but doesn’t once achieve a South African accent. Australian, British, and American, sure. Even all three cobbled together! But never South African. As much as I love Laura Bailey’s work, she was not the right fit for this part – a part that could have gone to a South African actor.
All of this – the vapid excuse for emotional growth in Nate, the void of personality in Sam, the mistreatment of Elena, Chloe, Nadine, and plenty of other minor characters – builds up to one of the most anticlimactic and forgettable endings I’ve witnessed. [Mild spoilers follow] Nate does not die, nor does Sam; the “thief’s end” alluded to in the game’s title is simply Nate’s decision that he’s outgrown the wild life of a treasure hunter and he’d rather go home and be a family man.
In a pre-release interview, director Neil Druckmann said that “with the end of this story, it will be really hard to do a sequel with Nathan Drake.” That just shows a lack of imagination more than anything else, because there is absolutely nothing in Uncharted 4’s ending that would preclude Nate from going on more adventures, other than his decision to move on from that life – which, I should point out, is more or less how Uncharted 3 ended. The conclusion to A Thief’s End is neat and tidy, with a little bow on top and no emotional payoff whatsoever. It got to the point that I was wishing someone would suddenly drop dead – Nate, Sam, Elena, anyone – just so that something would happen, but instead we’re left with the equivalent of “And they all lived happily ever after, The End.”
I know that I’ll come across as bitter here, and I guess I am, but I can’t help but think wistfully about what Uncharted 4 would have looked like with Amy Hennig at the helm, before she left and the story went back to the drawing board. From what little snippets have been revealed, we know that Alan Tudyk would have been in it; we know that Charlie Cutter would have been present and had a scene where he dressed in a disguise despite not needing it, much to the humour of friends, because of his love of amateur theatre.
The good news is that, as much as this was billed as Uncharted’s swansong, there’s hope for the franchise yet – not with Naughty Dog, because they’re ready to move on and they deserve that, but with another developer. Ideally, one who understands what made the early games – Uncharted 2 in particular – so good, and is able to capture that once again. It doesn’t even need to include Nathan Drake; this is a franchise that is so much bigger than him.
Uncharted 4 has plenty to offer in its technical achievement and mechanical innovations, it just needs the wonderful character writing of previous games to go with it. This shouldn’t be the swansong for the franchise, it should be the second coming of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune: a rough-around-the-edges game full of great ideas, that can be polished to near perfection in a sequel. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End isn’t greatness, but it’s a small beginning from which greatness can come.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony Computer Entertainment, and is available now for PlayStation 4.
A press copy was supplied by PlayStation New Zealand for this review.