It’s been quite a journey for Nathan Drake, star of studio Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. From pickpocketing street urchin, to globe-trotting treasure hunter and all round history aficionado. Along the way – as he glibly quips about in this latest entry in the series – he has been punched, kicked, shot at, drugged, and well, just generally beaten up.
While the first three entries in the series proved to be massive hits, and genuine high points of the Playstation 3 era, it was easy to wonder if they really had any place amongst the front-runners of the next-gen PS4. After all, the enhanced graphic and memory capabilities meant that lengthier, open world games like the excellent Witcher 3, Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain, Batman: Arkham Knight, or Bloodborne (to name a few) were the ones setting the benchmark for the new batch. What could an action-adventure series, with strictly limited gameplay time, have to offer?
Well, the answer, quite resoundingly, is a lot. After all, it’s important to remember that Naughty Dog brought us one of, if not the zenith of PS3 games, with The Last of Us. While on its surface, it was a not wholly original zombie game, it really showed how far the studio had come. Because what we found in it was smooth gaming mechanics, a beautifully realised world and, most crucially, a deeply moving and involving story of a man struggling to come to terms with the death of his young daughter, and expending every ounce of his wits and guile to protect a girl who could represent humanity’s salvation. These felt like fleshed out, real characters, people you’d like to spend time with and get to know.
It is important to remember this because its influence is writ large upon Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. The most crucial element it brings to the table is heart. Now, before any fans out there think of getting up in arms about a suggestion that the previous three entries were somehow soulless, or that the developers didn’t sink any genuine passion into them, this is certainly not the case. The fact is that they were great slices of entertainment, expertly crafted, and huge fun to play. But the deeper layers weren’t really there. Sure, Nathan, and the other principal recurring players, Elena and Sully, were funny, ballsy, and wholly likeable. But the central romance between Drake and Elena was difficult to take seriously. It felt almost tacked on, and didn’t give any distinct sense of a couple who absolutely love each other.
A Thief’s End dives headfirst into these waters very early on, as we are shown a now married, and domesticated pair, working hard to leave their dangerous past exploits behind them. Here we are treated to a reflection on what married bliss actually is; the struggle between learning to act responsibly whilst still finding adventure amongst the mundanity of ordinary day-to-day tasks. It is as if we are being introduced for the first time to Nathan and Elena, as they are brought vividly to life with the aid of sharp writing, eerily spot-on motion capture and facial expression rendering, and fine work from Nolan North and Emily Rose in the voice acting stakes.
Of course, this life of self-imposed ordinariness can’t last. We wouldn’t have much of a game otherwise. Events are turned very much on their head by a welcome new character, Nathan’s long lost brother Sam, voiced by one of the go-to guys of the game world’s voice acting community: Troy Baker. Baker has brought to life some of the most memorable characters to grace our consoles: Booker Dewitt (Bioshock Infinite), Joel (The Last of Us), Pagan Min (Far Cry 4), and just about every Batman character, including the Dark Knight himself and his greatest foe, The Joker. He does exemplary work here too with Samuel Drake. He and Nathan verbally spar at just about every turn, and share some of A Thief’s End’s most poignant moments. Their banter feels genuine, as does the closeness of the brotherly bond between them.
The antagonists are outstanding too. Warren Kole, as Rafe Adler, is slimy and charismatic; a bad guy you’ll love to hate. Laura Bailey’s Nadine Ross is a suitably kick ass accomplice, and shows herself to be more than a match for the brothers Drake, even if her South African accent is a little hinky.
But really, the biggest stars of this show are the developers, who have given us something entirely unique and absorbing. It is difficult to do justice in words to just how immersive an experience this is; entirely like being beamed into a superb action series. It feels epic, and important. And the pacing is impressive. As each of the chapters unfold, you are propelled along with its central players toward the horizon. It’s the kind of feeling you get when reading the best books, or watching a brilliant TV boxset: the “just one more” effect. You’ll be loathed to part from it, to drag your mind kicking and screaming back into the real world. The tension ratchets up with every step on this journey, and you are left genuinely worrying for the ultimate fate of all concerned in it.
In this last factor, we return once again to the extra heart that has been invested in the story. Because, right from the start, there is ample evidence to suggest that this is a fond farewell to the series. In one early chapter, you explore, through Nathan’s eyes, mementoes of past glories. There is a real sense that the writers have drained all of their emotions and care for the characters into this wonderful, and astonishingly beautiful game. And The Last of Us clearly shows its influence throughout. You get a sense that it represented Naughty Dog coming of age, maturing, and having the confidence to be all they can be. It mirrors Nathan Drake’s own journey perfectly too, as he is transformed from a wise-cracking Lara Croft/Indiana Jones hybrid to something entirely new. Finally, here we truly meet the man, gain an insight into his self doubts and internal struggles, as he finds himself caught between his all-compelling lust for adventure, and his love for Elena. Early on, there’s a concern that Elena has been cast in the role of the worried wife, stifling our hero’s true nature. But they bring this back around, and we are left with a sweet and touching love story in the midst of it all.
Ah, but come on, we aren’t here for the romance, right? Well, not entirely. Because this is about the action and adventure. Not a problem – how absolutely brilliant it is. While you can see that the developers are toying with (whilst not fully committing to) introducing a stealth element to proceedings, the true joys emerge when it all inevitably goes pear-shaped, and gunplay ensues. It’s thrilling stuff, particularly if you dare to play on the harder gameplay settings. There’s no sitting still, or hiding behind a single protective barrier while picking off bad guys. Obstacles shatter, your enemies adapt and work to flank and outnumber you, while hiding spots are often reduced to rubble by heavy weaponry. You are forced to constantly move and embrace the action. In this, it calls to mind another fine example of how to do action/drama games: the outstanding, noir infused Max Payne 3.
The main, crucial addition to the gameplay though, is Nathan’s newfound ability to use a grappling hook. In this, there is a major continuity error, if you stop to think about it. Because apparently he has possessed this trick almost his entire life and yet not once showed any inkling to use it in previous entries. Grappling hook amnesia, linked to the apparent loss of his brother, perhaps? Never mind; best to forgive it this inconsistency, because it is such fun. Of course, Naughty Dog can’t entirely claim originality here; Far Cry 4 used it to great effect not too long ago, as have Tomb Raider and Batman previously. Regardless, it works brilliantly, opening up fresh opportunities not only for traversing rock faces, but also as a tool while engaged in battle with the enemy.
But really, there’s only so much that can be expressed verbally about A Thief’s End. Because this is something entirely extraordinary. It doesn’t merely transcend the divisions between drama show and game; it smashes gleefully through them. You need look no further than a central action set piece, as you slalom through a Madagascan city in a high-speed car chase, before grappling (quite literally) with a convoy of baddies giving chase to Sam. When you arrive at the end of this particular breathless segment, if it doesn’t make you want to jump up and punch the air, then this really isn’t for you. If, however, you are left with an outbreak of goose bumps and hairs on end, then no further explanation is required. The whole game is like this: astonishing, surprising, and an experience you won’t want to finish.
So, as we arrive at the end of this fine series, let us pause to applaud Naughty Dog, who have not only marked a new high point for them, but also slapped down a bold, inventive, and astounding marker for all who follow.