Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series has certainly made its mark in modern gaming, with cinematic storytelling, beautiful set pieces, and a huge sense of adventure. Playstation enthusiasts have developed a sense of identity with the franchise, which has created a compelling argument for the quality of the platform as a whole. Contrary to popular opinion, I found little satisfaction with Uncharted in general, dismissing it as overly campy and repetitive. I couldn’t identify with any of the annoying characters and I found the story to be too ridiculous to have any lasting value. Even with my personal distaste for the series, I recognized it as a landmark gaming franchise and decided to give Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End a dedicated playthrough. Please note that there will be some massive spoilers from here on out.
If there is one thing that sets Uncharted 4 apart from the previous entries it is the sense of maturity. The wild adventure is still there in full form, but the circumstances have changed. Nathan Drake is now retired from treasure hunting and working in the salvage industry, where he gets only brief glimpses of his previous adventurer lifestyle. We see a new Drake here, who is clearly content with his new life, but still dreaming of danger and thrill. The diving sequence is a great representation of this, where we see him attempting to “live on the edge” during one of his more interesting days at a mundane job.
Uncharted 4 takes the series into a new direction, feeling far more melancholy and grounded than the previous Hollywood-inspired action adventures. An early chapter sees a flashback of Nate living at an orphanage, only to be rescued by his older brother Sam. Together they evade the caretakers, scaling building and hopping rooftops only to ride away on Sam’s motorcycle. This short scene tells us everything we need to know about Nate’s lonely childhood. Adventure books clutter his room, giving the impression that he yearns for a greater life. Sam’s introduction to the series is one that could have easily felt like a forced gimmick, but it is executed in such a heartfelt and believable way. This is partly due to the fantastic chemistry between veteran voice actors Nolan North and Troy Baker, who do an excellent job of selling the dynamic between the two characters.
With his brother’s life on the line, Nate has no choice but to take a deep dive back into the adventurer lifestyle. The two of them embark on a quest for pirate Captain Henry Avery’s treasure, which they have dreamed about since their early teenage years. Lying straight to his wife Elena’s face begins what will be the darkest and grittiest Uncharted journey yet. The influence from Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is certainly apparent in this game, as it is full of moral ambiguity, difficult decisions, and dire circumstances.
The hunt for Avery’s treasure is not wholly different from other Uncharted premises, but it is built on something more than greed and glory. Nate is embarking on the adventure in order to save his brother’s life, but also in hopes of fulfilling a lifelong dream. Fifteen years in prison has given Sam the time he needs to learn everything about Avery and his pirate companions, which proves to be incredibly fascinating. As the mystery of Avery and his crew is continuously uncovered throughout the game, it never ceases to be intriguing. It’s an adventure in the greatest sense of the word, equally bathed in lore as it is in sense of discovery and wonder. I found the political and social aspects of Avery’s society to be every bit as interesting as the internal conflicts between each of Uncharted 4’s central characters. In my mind, I could perfectly piece together the sequence of events that led to Avery’s frustration and downfall, as if reading non-fiction.
Though Uncharted 4 generally excels in tone, providing a wonderful conclusion for a beloved franchise, it also features much-improved gameplay elements. The platforming has been perfected, feeling more free and nonlinear than ever, despite actually being quite scripted. Each environment and landscape is a beautiful portrait and it is difficult not to stop and look at the set pieces. Unnecessary crate puzzles are as tedious as ever and I can’t help but roll my eyes when Drake finds a wooden crate with wheels in the middle of a valley.
Combat, though much improved from previous games, still feels like a frequent roadblock to progressing through the wonderful narrative. However, a revitalized stealth system has made these enemy waves feel more tolerable. The absence of supernatural elements is also a notable improvement, as these often felt out of place in previous games. On another note, Uncharted has come a long way since its horrendous upstream jetski sequence in the first game. The jeep segments in Madagascar are fantastic, perfectly capturing the exploration aspect of the game. Finally a vehicle stage fits in perfectly with the rest of the game.
What all of this ultimately leads up to is pleasantly surprising and completely unexpected. The final conclusion is perhaps one of the greatest in all narrative video games, as players take control of Nate and Elena’s teenage daughter, Cassie, many years after the hunt for Avery’s treasure. Magazine and newspaper articles pasted on the walls of their home tell us that Nate and Elena have taken up a career in salvage, uncovering some fantastic historical relics over the years. Exploring her parents’ house, Cassie comes across a cabinet full of secret relics that players will recognize from previous games in the series, from El Dorado onward. Thus, she discovers that her parents have been hiding their previous life from her. Caught red-handed, Nate and Elena are forced to explain all of this to the young Cassie, who clearly has a knack for adventure herself.
With this final sequence, it seems that Uncharted wraps up in a far more peaceful manner than the title of the game might imply. Despite only spending a few minutes with Cassie, she is a fantastic addition to the franchise and could perhaps continue her parents’ legacy in the future. An early chapter sees Nate and Elena sitting down on their couch playing Naughty Dog’s early Playstation title, Crash Bandicoot. Players actually get to control Crash as he escapes a rolling boulder by running and hopping across gaps. It offers the realization that the two franchises feature similar elements of adventure, platforming, and forbidden treasures. It paints a perfect picture of just how far Naughty Dog have come in their 20+ year history, growing from mascot platformers to beautifully cinematic narrative-driven experiences.
I don’t think anyone could have predicted the final outcome for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, but there’s no question that it concludes the series in a strong and glorious manner. Its mature story makes me look back on the previous games in a new light, adding even more weight to their adventures. Uncharted 4 is a must-play game for anyone interested in the artistic merit of video games or simply intrigued by fantastic narratives.