Uncharted 4: A Thief's End Review

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is an immensely cinematic game, but that’s both its blessing and its curse.

For decades now, game makers have been promising us “movie realism” with our games. For a long time, the technology simply wasn’t up to the task, leaving the player/viewer to fill in the gaps between the pixels. That had its charm in forcing us to make up the missing bits ourselves, but it wasn’t quite the real deal.

Uncharted 4: I will talk, and Hollywood will listen

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End comes as close as I suspect we can to realising that dream of a “cinematic” game, because there are sections of the game that are simply jaw dropping, not only in terms of the art direction, which is gorgeous, but also the way it tries to develop character, narrative and emotional response in the player. It’s a testament to the fine work that Naughty Dog has put into the series as a whole, and as a developer too.
There’s a not-very-subtle nod to one of their earlier titles sequestered away in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End as well that brought a definite smile to my face, as well as pointing out quite how far we’ve come in gaming technology terms.
(Yes, I’m a shameless retro gamer. For more on this, start reading through my current challenge, where I’m playing a different retro game each week for a year. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End has essentially been a diversion to this.)
For a game that relies strongly on narrative, not to mention a few callbacks to previous games in the series it’s not fair in a review to spoil too much, but I’m happy to say that Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End revels in exactly the kinds of clichés you’d want out of an adventure romp. Nathan Drake is still the illegitimate lovechild of Indiana Jones and Nathan Fillion. Don’t ask me how they did it, but it’s just as true here as it ever has been, to the extent that my better half walked in on me during one cutscene and explicitly asked if Naughty Dog had licensed Fillion’s likeness rights. That speaks both to the quality of the rendering engine and the inspirations behind it, really.
If I’m going to push that idea (and clearly I am), then Nathan’s older brother, Sam Drake is pretty clearly a wizened Luke Perry. Something tells me his likeness rights probably aren’t all that pricey these days.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End features spectacular firefights, climbing and puzzle sections to overcome as you weave your way through what is ultimately a hefty store of tropes and clichés towards the game’s final act. All good clean, healthy fun, with a hero who can take a lot of punishment and often come out of it with little more than a bleeding lip.
That’s probably a trope too. Let me check… yep, there it is.

Uncharted 4: S/he shoots, s/he scores!

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a game that’s been mired in some review controversy, and I’ve addressed that elsewhere, but it’s also left me with a curious reviewer’s mindset. I’ve no problem with saying that my review is mine and not particularly objective, because no good review ever is. My own thoughts on that whole particular brouhaha are here, if you care.
If you don’t like that, it’s a big Internet, and I’m sure there’s a murky corner to accomodate your own tastes if you must.

Uncharted 4: Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Still, how do you criticise a game with such exceptional production values? As it turns out, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End makes this all too easy, because while it’s a stunningly beautiful game, it’s not without its gameplay flaws.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End wants to present itself as a pure open world challenge, but this isn’t actually the case, and the more you prod around the edges, the more you realise how true this is. The most glaring example that hit me was in an early level that (without wanting to spoil anything particular) sees you escaping a lush mansion. It looks like there’s a multitude of pathways to take and emergent gameplay to enjoy, but in fact you’re actually funnelled down a rather strict set of encounters. They’re fun for what they are, although Uncharted’s trademark rather light gunplay is still a factor in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, but when you try to veer off course, you all too quickly fall to your grey screened death, even if all you’re doing is dropping down a ledge that’s half your body height. You only have to do that once or twice and the value of immersion in the game is significantly lessened.
There’s also an issue with a game that relies on strongly scripted set pieces, and it’s one of return enjoyment. They’re well balanced, and for the most part don’t hugely overstay their welcome — I could easily see most gamers ploughing through the core game in a weekend — but like the cheesy Hollywood blockbusters that Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End emulates, once you’ve had the thrill once, it’s nowhere near as effective the second time around. This also somewhat affects the later parts of the game where you’ve pretty much mastered the essentials of combat, jumping and the very simple puzzles that Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End employs, and you’re somewhat going through the motions at that stage. It’s obviously a hard balancing act to manage, because if you slice them back a portion of the audience will complain simply about short play time, but if you extend them too much it becomes a trudge. For me, I’m not too sure that Naughty Dog’s nailed it in this context, and a shorter, more focused game might have worked just a tiny bit better.

Uncharted 4: Fat Duck Verdict

So how to judge Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End? It’s a tough one. On the one hand, it’s about as close as I reckon we’ll get to a “cinematic” experience with current technology and game budgets, and that’s entirely commendable. When it grabs you, and if you’re playing it the way it wants to be played, it’s very engaging indeed, just like the Hollywood blockbusters it’s pretending to be. Sit, back, enjoy the ride and press X to climb the precarious cliff face, and all that.
On the other hand, it’s far less flexible a title than it pretends to be in real terms, and that can shatter the illusion of immersion it strives so hard for. Like the films it’s trying to be it’s great fun the first time around, but once you know the narrative twists and turns, not to mention where the setpieces are and how they resolve, it loses significant momentum.
It’s worth noting that i’m judging based on the single player experience. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End has a multiplayer component that I’ve largely left untested, primarily for timing reasons, but also because while the multiplayer might be crowded now, like Star Wars: Battlefront, it could be that some months down the track it’s a barren wasteland. The single player part of the game will still be there at that time.
With all that in mind, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is an easy recommendation for PS4 owners, because it’s still quite a good, fun, playable game and that’s what matters the most. The hype is I think overstated, and if I did score games I’d be giving the kind of score that seems to make certain murky corners of the Internet explode with outrage, because while it’s good, it’s not quite great.

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