Over the course of the series’ first three games, Naughty Dog continually mastered the elements. Where Drake’s Fortune boasts a lush canvas of foliage, Among Thieves and Drake’s Deception went on to tackle more arctic and desert conditions, respectively. Uncharted 4 could easily be described as a culmination of this evolving attention to detail. For the sake of spoilers we won’t go into specifics – this entire review is spoiler free – but the series’ latest outing has players explore a large variety of locales that each sport an assemblage of smart weather and environment effects.
The one that stands out most here, however, is Naughty Dog’s mastery of water. Although we’ve dipped and dived in previous adventures, Uncharted 4 is somewhat of a subterranean showcase. From downpours to waterfalls, there’s a strangely wonderful degree of wetness to behold. It isn’t contained to just oceans and rivers, either. Damp surfaces are given an authentic sheen when put under a light, as are characters. Taking a closer look at Nate, his hair will sag along with his clothes and you can almost pick out the droplets of moisture on his face.
Naughty Dog clearly doesn’t want its players to miss out on these incredible details. Although “photo mode” has become somewhat of a trend in modern gaming, no game embraces it quite like Uncharted 4. All it takes is a split second to bring up a variety of options from depth of field to frames and filters, aiding players in snapping that perfect screenshot. Whether watching a cutscene for the dozenth time or caught in a firefight, this tool will bring endless joy to fans, especially those with an eye for aesthetics.
And, here’s the thing, you’ll actually want to capture those moments. From start to finish, A Thief’s End bombards you with its visual excellence, so much so that you can’t help pausing the action in order to hammer away at the Share button. Like past entries in the series, Uncharted 4 delivers on its promise to deliver an experience that not only looks like a summer blockbuster but plays like one too.
With that said, Naughty Dog has taken a different approach to this finale. Although there is plenty explosive, over-the-top mayhem, Uncharted 4 has longer stretches of downtime in which players are left to explore and absorb their surroundings. It’s a change in pace that needs adapting to and one that was no doubt inspired by the Naughty Dog’s recent work on The Last of Us.
Previous instalments, especially the last, conditioned players into keeping a finger on the trigger. Here, however, an entire chapter can come and go without a single shot being fired. Going back to to the series’ roots, there’s a refreshing emphasis on exploration, enhanced by several traversal techniques. While many are fairly subtle, it’s hard to ignore Nate’s shiny new grappling hook.
Mapped to a single button, the grappling hook allows our favourite thief to channel his inner Spider-Man, latching onto grapple points and swinging through chasms in a daring display of athleticism. What’s great about the grappling hook is how intuitive and satisfying it feels, meshing perfectly with the series’ other platforming mechanics. Together, they enable more dynamic and thrilling ways to explore Uncharted 4’s monstrous environments.
Although some parts will nudge you down a linear path, a lot of your time can be spent roaming the game’s much broader playgrounds at your own leisure. There’s often multiple ways of getting to where you want to go, and it tears away the stabilisers in a way that will leave some players wobbling as they come out of the blocks. For a series renowned for piling on set piece after set piece, it can feel strange to be left to wander the occasional empty space with no puzzles to solve or enemies to shoot.
Those instances still occur frequently though and, much like Nate’s navigational exploits, are also bolstered by a slew of new features. Again, some stand out more than others, with Uncharted 4’s stealth system being a particular highlight.
In truth, every game in the series has featured stealth in some capacity. Drake’s first outing saw him sneaking up on the occasional foe, picking off one or two before initiating a gunfight. It’s something Naughty Dog has continued to experiment with for the past several years and is now one of the core pillars holding this franchise up as it ascends to new heights.
By tagging enemies and making use of cover, many of Uncharted 4’s encounters can be cleared without so much as a gunshot. In fact, if you want to go full-on Solid Snake, you can sometimes avoid combat altogether. Chances are you probably won’t, or at least not during your first playthrough, and breaking line of sight to your enemies lets you shift in and out of stealth and combat quite fluidly.
Whether hosing down thugs with an AK or bouncing their heads off stone walls, there’s a beautiful seamlessness in the way these encounter play out. Squatting behind cover may have been valid strategy in past instalments but here it will only get you so far. By scattering enemies across all flanks and retooling their AI, Uncharted 4’s battles are intentionally hairy. Instead of being mindlessly chaotic, they force players to improve, cycling between weapons while using Drake’s added mobility to their advantage. Again, it’s something fans may need to adjust to though turns each encounter into its own fabulous set piece.
As touched on before, these intense moments are sandwiched between bouts of exploration. Although you’ll spend plenty of time on foot, one of the game’s crowning achievements is its implementation of vehicles and, no, we’re not just talking about the amazing convoy sections. From time to time, Uncharted 4 will put you in full control of a jeep or speedboat. When it does, you’ll often have a huge area to explore, often peppered with the same kinds of branching paths and hidden corners as you’ll find on foot. At times, it can almost feel as though you’re in an open-world game, but you’ll not see any mini-maps or quest markers.
Of course, this wonderfully polished patchwork of systems is there to help drive the player from one story beat to the next. Needless to say, given all the pre-release hype, fans have been pining to discover how Naughty Dog closes the book on one of PlayStation’s best loved mascots.
Again, we want to keep this review as spoiler free as possible, so won’t go into any of the specifics – if you need a narrative trail of breadcrumbs to lead you in, there are plenty of trailers for that. What we will say is that Uncharted 4 tells a much more personal story and one that isn’t solely focused on Nathan Drake. This is yet another space in which there is an overlap with The Last of Us. Instead of watching Nate stumble from one jaw-dropping set piece to the next, the emphasis has been placed on galvanising relationships between characters.
Uncharted 4 boasts a handful of additions to the series’ cast, with each character brought to life by a world-class mix of voice and full performance capture. The PlayStation 4’s technological prowess allows for some truly uncanny facial animations. Again, there’s a level of detail here many top developers could only dream of reproducing.
Think you have A Thief’s End all sussed out? Think again. In this thrilling finale, Naughty Dog leads players down an unpredictable gauntlet of emotions. What’s particularly satisfying is how well the team cater to existing fans, tucking away throwbacks and references where it can, each one a testament to how much they care about this franchise.
Uncharted 4 is more than masterful, bearing the hallmarks of a true system seller. What struck me most as an ardent fans of the series is how much it breaks away from the original blueprint yet manages to amaze on every level. Where many studios step safely from one sequel and into the next, Naughty Dog has taken a gigantic leap, proving yet again they’re the best in the business.