Midway through Uncharted 4, in-between numerous acts of casual death defiance, Nathan Drake and his long-lost brother Sam engage in a particularly on-the-nose piece of banter. “So tell me”, Sam asks, “how does this adventure stack up against all the others?” Nathan chuckles, before responding “ask me again when it’s over!”
Uncharted 4 is peppered with references like this to previous Uncharted games, but also borrows from other past Naughty Dog successes. Mechanically and artistically, the influence of The Last of Us is profound. The game very directly winks at its Crash Bandicoot origins through both Easter eggs and sequences that update Crash’s running-into-the-screen set-pieces with the sort of bombast only possible on the latest console generation. There’s even (what I’m reading as) a tremendously cheeky wink at the first game’s irritating motion controlled segments late in one of the later chapters. Uncharted 4 feels like the product of a tremendously confident team, a team that knows that many players will look back at the experience when it’s over and decide that, yes, this was the best one. The Uncharted series finished on top.
Uncharted 4 starts in unfamiliar waters, literally and figuratively — the in media res opening sequence has you piloting a boat (which is a huge improvement over the first game’s jetski) while your previously unseen brother deals with surrounding goons. This prologue operates similarly to the opening of previous series high-point Uncharted 2, showing Drake in a bad situation and letting you know that, before the game’s conclusion, you’ll know how he got there. The very next chapter jumps all the way back to Drake’s childhood, a technique cribbed from Uncharted 3, to delve into this mysterious brother who features so heavily in the plot. This is indicative of how much thought Naughty Dog has put into what makes the Uncharted games work. There aren’t many original ideas in A Thief’s End, in either the plot or gameplay, but everything has been polished and sharpened.
That’s not to say that nothing has changed. There’s a maturity to Uncharted 4’s storytelling that wasn’t there before, and not in the usual grim-dark way games try to be “mature” — in some ways the game’s sense of real adventure is actually quite subversive. The developers have learned a lot, it seems, from how beloved The Last of Us’s opening sequence and ‘giraffe scene’ were — Uncharted 4 makes better use of peace and quiet than any Uncharted before it. The overarching plot about pirate treasure is neat, but it’s really just there to give the characters something to react to.
The reappearance of Nathan’s brother — who he had assumed was dead, for reasons unfurled in the first few chapters — may be a massive cliché, but the writers and actors work hard to make everything believable within the context of the game. This is one of those rare coming-of-age stories that doesn’t focus on teenagers; Nathan (who must be at least 40) and the supporting cast each come to terms with their own personal concepts of adult life and responsibility in different ways. This reflection and personal assessment feels honest and earned, particularly between Nathan and his wife Elena, thanks to the game’s pacing and performances. The genuine human drama may be a little at odds with how ballistic the action and climbing sequences are, but it still works.
Uncharted 4 features most of the series staples: cliffs to climb, jumps that will just barely be made, bridges that will crumble at inopportune times, and goons who will pop up en masse in areas with convenient cover and unexplained explosive canisters lying around. But this final Uncharted doesn’t make the same mistakes previous games did.
Hand-to-hand combat is never essential, heavily armored bullet sponges are now very rare, and there are several stealth options that allow you to bypass some combat encounters entirely, if you’re careful. Combat has always been Uncharted’s weak point, but there was only one combat encounter in the entire game that I found irritating (without spoiling anything, it’s right at the very end). This is, in fact, the first game in the series where I relished the opportunity to face off against waves of generic enemies. The level design encourages and facilitates constant movement during battle, which is smart because Uncharted has always been, at its core, about the joys of moving an impossibly athletic body through interesting environments.
Uncharted 4 improves on that front too. The worlds Naughty Dog cooks up for these games are always a joy to explore, but their latest effort might be — and I say this without hyperbole — the most technically accomplished, visually impressive game I’ve ever played. A lot of that is down to technology, of course — this is the new benchmark for what the PS4 can do — but Uncharted 4 is an artistic achievement as well.
It’s not just the way the camera pans out to encompass the gorgeous vistas in the game, either: Naughty Dog’s artistry extends to the game’s ‘big’ moments, where you’re driving an SUV through a crowded market, or running and jumping through a collapsing building, or swinging from a rope (one of a few tricks the game blatantly lifts from the Tomb Raider reboot) as bullets whiz around you. The game guides you through its huge levels and major setpieces with enough subtlety to make it feel like each decision of what to do and where to go next when things get rough was entirely your own, which is a rare feat.
In quieter moments, the more open level design means that the way forward isn’t always obvious, which is a nice change from Uncharted 3’s ‘hold forward and press X a lot’ approach to exploration. You have a much greater degree of control over Drake’s arms when you’re climbing than you did before, making the experience much more tactile. Reaching out and grabbing a distant outcropping is surprisingly rewarding, and it makes even the most basic climbs more enjoyable than they would have been otherwise. It’s still a bit difficult, at times, to gauge exactly what Drake can and can’t do; he’s superhuman, but his superhumanity is elastic. A fall he would normally survive may kill him under certain circumstances, or his jump distance might stretch out just a bit too far past plausibility. But these are inherently ludicrous games, and for the most part the internal logic of Drake’s physicality holds up well.
Uncharted 4 is a technological benchmark — silky smooth even without the Day 1 patch, utterly gorgeous, and clearly impossible without tremendous time and money invested by its creators. But it’s more than that — beyond the showboating and the celebration of technical mastery, Uncharted 4 is tremendously, dizzyingly fun. Every last minute of it is enjoyable on some level, right down to the silly puzzles. It also presents a very clear and logical end-point for the Uncharted series, and it does so without tearing down the world or making anything short of a reboot impossible. To say too much more would spoil it, but this is framed definitively as a finale. This is, Naughty Dog seem to be saying, as good as Uncharted gets. It’s hard to disagree.
James O’Connor is an Australian games journalist and critic. He did not like Uncharted 3 at all. He can be followed on Twitter here: @Jickle.