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This is how to end a series. Not a stream of progressively more disappointing sequels or a lazy final chapter clumsily tying up all the loose ends. No, A Thief’s End delivers everything you could ask from an Uncharted finale. It’s also everything you could hope for from the series’ debut on PS4.
Things could have been different. To drag an aged Nathan Drake from retirement Naughty Dog had to introduce a brand new character, Nathan’s older Brother, Sam, concocting a shared history on top of Uncharted 3's lore. It’s also had to construct a twist on the underlying mythology, with a new narrative based around the exploits of 17th Century pirate, Henry Avery, and his legendary pirate colony of Libertalia.
With Uncharted 3 wrapping up the original trilogy in a neat little bow, there was a danger that we were headed for another Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – an unnecessary add-on that embarrasses the series rather than enhance it. Instead, we have Drake’s Last Crusade, halfway between a non-stop thrill ride and a last hurrah for one of gaming’s most beloved series.
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Everything you love about Uncharted is here. The core remains the mix of high-stakes platforming and traversal with third-person shooting, as Drake clambers up crumbling ruins and leaps from ledge to ledge, pausing to hide behind low walls and exchange fire with bad guys.
On top of that we get the set-pieces – the chase sequences, the battles, the narrow escapes from collapsing buildings – and the puzzles, where you use your wits and Drake’s ever-helpful journal to deduce which switch or lever need to be pulled and in what order. And A Thief’s End still finds time to be a tale of friendship, family and love, where almost constant dialogue makes every moment part of the story, while the cut-scenes hammer home the big moments every time.
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Technically, it’s another Naughty Dog tour de force, demonstrating exactly how far you can push the PS4. Viewed close-up, Drake, Sully, Sam, Elena and the other major characters demonstrate incredible levels of detail, helped by superb motion-captured animation and what might be the most realistic skin effects we’ve seen in a video game to date.
The scenery is even more impressive, setting new benchmarks for lush, swaying vegetation, weather-beaten ruins, surging waterfalls and all the rest. If Uncharted 4 doesn’t leave you slack-jawed at least once every half hour, then you’re not really paying attention. And when the big moments hit, masonry shattering and crumbling as the world collapses all around you, you can bet that they topple even the biggest moments of the previous three. The phrase ‘eye candy’ doesn’t do it justice: this might be the most visually impressive game I’ve ever played.
Yet there’s more to A Thief’s End than another Uncharted with prettier graphics. Naughty Dog has worked to update the gameplay in ways that count. For a start, those old traversal systems have seen serious renovation, with a new, more flexible approach where you’re no longer following just one trail of obvious handhelds, but using a range of intuitive looking and reaching cues to work out how and when Drake can move on to the next spot. What’s more, new tools – a grappling line and, later on, a piton – add new ways to get from A to B by the skin of your teeth.
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In theory, this removes some of the feeling that there’s only one route through each area and gives players more control over Drake’s jumping and clambering. In practice, while some levels offer a choice of vertiginous paths, many still restrict you to one with minor variations. All the same, that doesn’t make the new system any less responsive or involving – or any less heart-stopping when the ground slides away from under you or something gives way just as you’re trying to reach the next ledge.
Meanwhile, A Thief’s End embraces larger, more open sections than ever before. It’s going a bit far to say that Uncharted 4 ever goes open-world. While you may be driving a jeep around or exploring an island cluster in a boat, the game uses natural obstacles to push you along certain routes and funnel you towards key objectives, and you’re still doing the same things in roughly the same order as other players, with a few variations and optional discoveries along the way.
The first such sequence relies a little too heavily on your jeep’s winch as a puzzle solution, though subsequent efforts show more imagination in making the vehicles feel part of the whole experience. Yet these sequences give a series that has sometimes felt too heavily orchestrated a little breathing room. You wouldn’t want a whole Uncharted game made in this style, but a little freedom goes a long way.
Naughty Dog has also freshened up the stealth and close combat options, with more opportunities to sneak and stealth-attack your way through hostile areas and a slightly more flexible take on Uncharted 3’s brawling. It’s rare to find a situation in A Thief’s End that doesn’t end with bullets flying and grenades being flung, but a little thought and a quiet approach can whittle down enemy numbers that might otherwise be overwhelming. More importantly, sneaking and clambering is a lot more stylish than ducking behind a wall and plugging away – and often more effective.
Will any of this do anything to silence Uncharted’s harshest critics? Maybe not. The haters have always focused on the series’ linearity and on Naughty Dog’s tendency to script everything so tightly that the player can’t do much more than follow what’s been storyboarded. Uncharted 4 doesn’t entirely break that mould, though the new systems and more open settings definitely help. But maybe freedom is the price you pay for a thrill-ride this exciting. Uncharted 4 looks like a blockbuster – and feels like one too.
It’s a game full of great moments that I really don’t want to spoil for you, packing in arguably the strongest gun battles, chase sequences and puzzle trials of the whole series, and some of the most astounding ‘I can’t believe they actually went and did that’ gobsmackers too. Just the final act on Libertalia contains a game’s worth of astonishing set-pieces. Yet A Thief’s End seems to have learnt something from The Last of Us and its Left Behind add-on: knowing when to slow the pace down, give the characters some space and the player time to sit back and enjoy the moment.
We’ve spent hours with Drake, Elena and Sully, hoping for the best, fearing the worst and learning more about them. At its best, A Thief’s End takes this to a whole new level, getting the best from its performers and the storyline. Even Sam, the newest addition, has some great moments, helped by another star turn from The Last of Us’s Troy Baker.
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Sure, you can pick holes with its believability. How is it that certain characters always turn up just when they’re needed? Where do the villains get their endless stream of henchmen? How come nobody spots the Drake brothers when they’re always talking so loudly? Yet this is the kind of stuff your mind glosses over if you’re enjoying a movie, and you’ll find the same thing happens here.
As with last year’s Nathan Drake Collection, I often left a big play session wondering not only why so few games do this stuff so well, but also so few recent action movies. For all the weird clash between the drama and the sky-high body count, A Thief’s End manages to be as emotionally engaging as it’s action-packed and spectacular. Where Hollywood fails, Uncharted delivers. A Thief’s End does it one more time.
Nobody would have blamed Naughty Dog had it skipped multiplayer for Uncharted 4. While it was a big plus for the third entry, it’s never been the main draw. Yet the studio has done more than throw something together for the big finale; by playing to the strengths of the single-player adventure, it’s crafted a fantastic team-based online game.
In terms of modes and big ideas, there’s nothing all that special. The most basic mode is team deathmatch, backed up by Plunder – Capture the Flag with golden idols – and Command, which is effectively your standard control mode. The latter two have distinctive wrinkles, with the idols causing the carrier to lose mobility and needing to be thrown over obstacles, while Command has an interesting system of team captains, but the basics will be familiar to pretty much anyone who’s played a multiplayer shooter since Unreal Tournament 2.
What Uncharted 4 brings to the table is a set of robust third-person cover mechanics and what’s probably the best traversal system in any shooter bar Titanfall. Nearly all the moves you use in Drake’s solo adventures – the heroic leap, grapple and swing, evasive roll and the whole range of climbing manoeuvres – all come into play. The result is a game where mobility really matters. Sure, you’ll get so far racing around the level trying to clock up headshots, but you’ll be aced by those who move faster, use evasion and know how to use the grappling points and verticals. That’s true of team deathmatch and absolute crucial in Command and Plunder.
The maps actively encourage this, each one packed with different routes and hiding places, tricky obstacles and secret shortcuts, to the extent that you’ll still be discovering new things several days into the game. There’s a real pleasure in seeing scenery from the single-player campaign repurposed for competitive play, with pirate ships, crumbling Scottish castles and tropical ruins all in play, and while other players aren’t as prone to sneak attacks or sudden rushes as the campaign’s Shoreline goons, there’s still thrills to be had in clambering up or swinging down to blindside the enemy.
The action also benefits from a smart perks system, where credits earnt in battle and through grabbing caches of treasure can be splashed out, either in-game or before a respawn, on a series of supernatural powers, buffs and sidekicks. The first enable you to summon strange forces from the previous games, with reviving powers, damage-dealing spirits and teleportation capabilities at your disposal.
The sidekicks, meanwhile, put CPU-controlled medics, machine-gunners and snipers on the battlefield. If you just want an over-powered magnum or more potent high explosives, you can have them too. Just save and spend your credits wisely.
There’s even room for camaraderie through loadouts which work a little like a class system. You always earn points for reviving downed allies or completing objectives, but the loadouts give you the gear you need to set down mines, throw automatic-revive kits or place explosive charges. Cleverly these are independent from your choice of character, so there’s no reason not to play new bad guy Rafe as a healer or Elena as a shotgun-wielding, grenade-tossing bezerker. The choice is yours.
Some online games get too obsessed with scale and numbers, but Uncharted 4’s multiplayer proves that smaller, densely-packed maps and five on five battles can still work wonders. Most of all, though, it feels like a celebration of Uncharted, bringing together favourite heroes and villains from the series, then enabling you to tart them up in an ever-expanding range of daft outfits. Tuxedos, floppy hats and diving suits are just the start.
Has it got legs? Well, there’s a pretty steady feed of new characters, weapons and customisation options, all unlocked in the store using in-game currency. You can boost this by completing daily challenges, and although there are microtransactions, they’re completely optional and hardly pay-to-win.
There’s a ranked team deathmatch mode for more competitive players, while Naughty Dog promises a stream of new maps and extra modes, both through free updates and a promised add-on pack (we’re hoping for something on the scale of The Last of Us’s Left Behind’). Nobody’s going to claim that Uncharted’s multiplayer mode has the depth of Call of Duty’s recent multiplayer offerings or Destiny’s various modes, but its future looks promising, all the same.
I can’t describe Uncharted 4 as the perfect game. The single player campaign takes a while to reach a state of near-perfection, then throws in a few too many wearying battles in its tremendously exciting final run. It’s bloody close, though, and only enhanced by its multiplayer modes. Sometimes, A Thief’s End seems like the last of the great mainstream blockbusters, made to thrill and move vast audiences on an epic scale. I hope not, and that Naughty Dog proves me wrong with its next project. Perfect or not, it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played.