Welcome to the worldwide exclusive FIRST EVER review of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End single-player campaign.
Enclosed is the transcript from my video review.
SPOILER WARNING: This review does include story set-up details from the opening three chapters and (carefully selected) non-plot footage from the latter chapters, locations from later chapters and some minor details for illustrative purposes. Whilst I don’t think it will spoil your appreciation of the game, if you want to approach it totally fresh then I suggest you avoid this review altogether.
A great opportunity came to me to play this game fresh and before the herd and share my thoughts and feelings. No contract has been signed so no embargo has been broken. I have played and completed the single player campaign and have considered its merits and am sharing my critical opinion and emotional reaction in the form of a review. You may agree with it, you may disagree with it, but my objective is to give you enough information to make an informed buying decision.
Forget the hype, watch my worldwide exclusive review of Uncharted 4 to hear what I really think of it. What I will say is that I was impressed that on the moderate (default) difficulty it has a 20 hour play time through normal (non-speedrun) play. This time included me using photo mode, enjoying the scenery and just a little searching of treasures.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End – world’s first review
It’s been a long time.
Nine year ago Uncharted: A Thief’s End seemingly came out of nowhere and updated the platforming genre with a narrative-based storyline and a real-world setting. It quickly grew into the PS3’s most beloved franchise because of its clever blend of action and charismatic characters.
Sony and Developer Naughty Dog have demonstrated restraint in not churning this into a bi-annual sequel – it’s been five years since the last full Uncharted game… –but come on, five years! Gamers have been getting impatient. It’s what I’ve been waiting for, it’s what we’ve ALL been waiting for. Now finally Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is here.
So a little bit of information to show you where I am on the franchise.
Christmas Day 2007 I opened two phenomenal games. Mass Effect on 360 and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune on PS3. This what back in the days when I used to want to save games for the big day! And back when Mass Effect used to be an RPG.
I loved Uncharted. I went on to complete it and the redux on Crushing. I haven’t formally reviewed the original games but I would give Uncharted 1 a nine out of ten and Uncharted 2 a ten.
Naughty Dog lead game designer Robert Cogburn has said they are moving on from the series and this is the last game. It means you go in with certain expectations from a last chapter, such as the desire to have answers to your unresolved questions. Like… what is Nathan Drake up to now? How does he spend his days? Where does he live? Is he still in touch with Elena, Chloe and Sully? Where does he put his feet up? Answers players want to know! So in some ways it takes a behind the scenes look at this character’s real life!
With this in mind I launched the game. It’s set three years after Uncharted 3 and we do catch up with Drake. Then his brother Sam comes crashing in. He needs Drake’s help to find the long lost treasure of Pirate Captain Henry Avery otherwise a very bad man, Hector Alcazar, will kill him. They then set of on a globe trotting adventure together that involves the usual action, adventure and danger.
We meet Drake and see a close-up of his face. It’s a testament to how far the graphics have come because Drake looks subtly older. When he is offered the call to adventure he refuses! He’s put his passport away and seems happy being Joe Bloggs.
In a switch to a gentle pace, we see Drake in his attic he is surrounded by memorabilia from his past adventures, items that we will know. His notebooks from his journeys to Shambhala and the Pillars of Iram. Long-time players can view them as Drake shares his ruminations. It is a lovely celebratory look back on the previous adventures that pays homage nicely.
But then Drake picks up the belt buckle he wore in the first games (Uncharted 2 specifically) and says “It’s not really my style anymore” [IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE ME WATCH] At face value it just means that Drake finds it ostentatious. However… after having played the full game I cannot help but feel it is Naughty Dog and stand-in writer Neil Druckmann’s saying ‘We Have Outgrown Drake!’ It perfectly encapsulates this struggle in Uncharted 4 between the series that Uncharted fans love, and the post-The Last of Us, maturity that Naughty Dog want to be celebrated for. But more on this later!
The big reveal of the first full Uncharted 4 trailer was that Nathan Drake has a brother, Sam Drake. There was no mention of Nate’s brother in the first three games so it’s necessary to show their relationship to us, illustrate it naturally so it’s believable so it doesn’t appear shoehorned in.
What we get to do is play a flashback as young Nathan Drake, an orphan in a Catholic orphanage. His life isn’t easy. He is reprimanded by a Sister for fighting and he has a bruised eye and a dejected look about him.
His brother comes to temporarily break him out and they take off an escapade. It’s here where we first get to see and understand the dynamic between the two brothers. Nate, a sad kid and Sam a streetwise teenager. Both have nothing except each other.
Sam says “Nothing in our lives has been fair – we make it work” Their relationship is neatly contrasted to present day and you still see that same dynamic. Of little brother looking to his older brother – only Drake is older and wiser.
Adult Drake might at times appear to be a cocky jackass but he has good reason – his childhood hasn’t been easy.
We also get to experience the game in a couple of flashbacks and there is very much an Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade vibe as we get to explore how the boy grew up to become the man.
Gameplay is traditional Uncharted, only refined. If you’ve played the previous titles then you know exactly what to expect.
Developers of sequels face a big decision… Fans want more of the same, but if they are given it there are complaints that it is too similar, and if they are given something different devs are criticised for not messing with a winning formula. I think Naughty Dog have done well to iterate, and polish, and not innovate.
At it’s heart it’s a platformer. Drake walks, runs, climbs and jumps from one high cliff to another. Careful timing is required but once you know how to do it there is not much danger of you missing. In fact to make things easier for you in this game, whilst trying to swing between two spots, Drake will reach out his arm if it is safe to make a jump, to give the player a visual signpost of when a jump will succeed.
The new standout item is the Grapple Rope. Sure Drake has used them before to scale locations but now he has it on him all the time. It’s very helpful in the more open combat arenas as you can use it to quickly escape from danger spots. I did struggle with it in the multiplayer beta, but I now feel suitably comfortable using that I’m ready to use it in multiplayer matches.
Other gameplay cornerstones include sliding down a cliff at a dangerous speed and you having to make a jump just as you reach a gap.
Also, Not being able to reach a ledge and searching for a crate to push into position to boost you up. (It’s amazing how many times Drake wants to get to a higher lever and there is always a crate nearby. Never anything else!)
There is the climb something formula that you are used to climbing, it crumbles, and you have to quickly press buttons to get a grip and not fall.
There are also the puzzles. Perhaps reaction has been negative towards these as they seem fewer, and in this game, simpler. I’m not a natural at puzzles, The Witness has me stumped. But these I could solve. The only one that was tricky was one where I wasn’t sure exactly what I had to do, then when I realised I had wasted half an hour on it I spammed my own forehead. Needless to say that having a bit of common sense and 20 minutes should mean you solve them – but they are irksome for the impatient.
Uncharted 4 also has take a cue from the Assassin’s Creed franchise with an enemy alert timer. You can try and take down guards whilst hidden but if you draw their attention your enemies will be looking for you until the timer runs down. Additionally you have a Batman Arkham Asylum/ Last of Us Echolation mode, so you see a white outline of enemies through walls. Yes it’s nice to have but it takes away some of the tension, why (apart from making it easy for the player) should Drake be able to see around and through walls?
For much of the time whilst playing you are accompanied by another character so their AI control is important because it can either aid or ruin the immersion. That’s why those pesky escort missions in GTA and AC are so hated.
On the whole it is fine. In battles characters shoot, and in default difficulty I never worried that they would be shot dead and they are impervious to the grenades I threw at them! Partner gunplay battle is fine and you don’t have to worry about them dying and you dying because of it.
With jumping, you would have moments where you are waiting for Sam to perform a jump that you have just done, but he won’t do it because he has been programmed to keep a certain distance from you which just looked odd.
Death checkpoints are very good. If you fail a jump thankfully it puts you right back in the spot you were, or close enough, so you can try again. No need to replay for ten minutes. Also when dying in combat, if you defeat a wave of enemies you won’t have to face them again.
There is a hint system and it can be subtle. Press up button for hint. Sometimes it is with text on screen sometimes subtle with character speaking it to you.
Minor quibble of two player is partner character might be far away from you. Then Drake tries to lift or move something and then Sam suddenly appears next to you. I understand why devs do that to make it easier but ultimately it affects the immersion, would be better to hear them say “I’m coming over” and you wait for them.
Drake notebook is a cornerstone to the Uncharted games, he is constantly checking it for clues. Now You see Drake scribble to his notebook, so it is a natural Segway between character and player interface.
Uncharted has received some stick for the combat but I love it. It’s straightforward. You carry a light and heavy weapon and you shoot. You can also shoot from cover which is a terrific tactic when overpowered.
Now I played the game at the default difficulty level. I have a terrible aim and can’t make a headshot on a moving target – but on default, combat was easy with me rarely dying. Yes there were about 3 places were the area is littered in enemies and the big guys covered in armour and here I would get killed and try again, but I can’t imagine that happened more than five or six times in each.
By the game being too easy I feel you spoil it for yourself because you turn it into one big walking simulator. I have completed the first game on Crushing, and whilst I don’t recommend that soul-destroying experience. I would say try the next difficulty up as it gives you a chance to live in the levels a bit more and have to use brain power and tactics to succeed. Far better than racing through a level.
Characters are bullet sponges, and this will be magnified on harder levels. But it also makes a win more rewarding.
Also during combat when trying to jump I sometimes jumped onto wall and couldn’t get down whilst being shot. Not as bad as AC, only happened rarely.
You can search and find 100 treasures. Looking at collectibles you see it’s learnt a few tricks from PlayStation stable-mate The Order 1886 by allowing you to pick up clue items and twist them to examine them.
More open levels
Levels, on the whole, are linear. You follow an A to B path – and I don’t state that as a negative because they work best with genre and it allows the developers to control the narrative experience.
But what Naughty Dog have done different this time is create a few extra special levels. They call it ‘wide linear.’ The Jeep level and the mountain top shoot out levels, and one on rooftops. These are big open spaces which have multiple routes to reach your objectives. You are facing up to enemies but with the freedom to fight or travel the way you want. Adding open-world gameplay into a linear game. I would say go so far as to say this is a minor revolution.
About this car chase level. It really is an absurdly amazing action set piece. In terms of the sense of scope and ambition. it feels like you are covering a large part of this town in Madagascar. You see different roads and vehicles and buildings and whilst trying to stay alive during a pursuit. There is a sense of the open road, speed and danger. I found myself trying to take in all the detail. A superb technical achievement.
But there are also the quiet moments like walking through the market place. Many people it looks dense and amazing and lifelike. Probably best, most full depiction of a market place ever. I also enjoyed seeing young Drake and his brother exploring together.
There are also the little touches such as the tribute to very best video game pirate of them all and a delightful scene which goes a bit meta, I wasn’t expecting it, and it started off as a little joke which I thought was funny then totally surprised me by taking it to the next level. I genuinely laughed out loud.
Graphic & Performance
There are some gorgeous cliffs and seas that harken back to the original
Graphics are highly, detailed. Even with an untrained eye you can see there is a huge difference in character models, from The Uncharted Collection, the PS4 edition of the PS3 games. When you see the close-ups during the cutscenes the detail is breath-taking. Photo Mode shows the in-game characters faces to be very detailed.
What is somewhat noticeable is the 30fps frame rate. I don’t have Digital Foundry’s graphics measuring tools but on the whole this is a very able 30fps. There are about 4 or 5 times where graphics slow down to a choo-choo-train-chug, such as an instance when I drove the jeep in water, or when swimming in water and there is loads of action, but these are few and far between. There were also a couple of times I saw some texture pop-in in a cutscene but that was rare.
Certainly many artists put a next-level of effort into the graphics, so Uncharted 4 would absolutely benefit from getting the PS4 Neo treatment with graphics running at 60fps. I will be up for it.
The water is gorgeous, as is the fauna. I did my usual thing of have Drake stand and admire the view, as I live vicariously through him. I also loved the little animated flourishes like the school of birds flying ‘out of’ the screen.
Oh and the Lip-syncing is much better than in previous games.
I love the main Uncharted theme, when playing previous games I always listen to the theme before starting a play session. So I was hoping to hear a new composition of it and I got it – but it was NOT what I was expecting!
It is quiet and has a slow tempo and almost tries to hide the melody and it probably suits the darker tone of the game. However the Uncharted music is meant to be this big epic rousing inspiring theme so without it, the game did feel, for me, awkward. Like when you get out of bed the wrong way, something isn’t right. It’s like watching Star Wars without the John Williams theme at the start or playing a Halo game without the Martin O’Donnell score.
This seems to be more than a one-off, it seems to be a full 180 switch in musical direction.
In Uncharted 4 it is clear that directors did not want anything approaching a melody. Instead there is quiet, often bleak, mood music almost too quiet to hear. It’s an approach that worked well for the desolate setting of The Last of Us but is not appropriate for this which should be loud and bombastic, and hopeful and full of adventure.
Even the combat in the old games had a hummable theme. In Uncharted 4 When Drake is goofing around remembering his action days, the old action theme comes on. This is the theme that you DON’T hear in the rest of the game. Again it’s as if Naughty Dog & Druckmann are claiming Uncharted has moved beyond that. Well it hasn’t.
It isn’t until Chapter 14 do you hear anything approaching a big theme. But considering the music is by a big time Hollywood composer, Henry Jackman, the music sounds phoned in.
Going back to the characters. We also see a young adult Drake, and the similarity with his voice & body actor, Nolan North is extraordinary – this must have been done intentionally as a big thank you.
Also special credit must be given to young Drake actor Britain Dalton. If he has had his facial performance captured, then he has done well to convey Drake’s latent emotions with his nuanced performance. You see this emotionally and physically bruised kid, and you feel for him, your heart goes out to him, and you wonder what road Life will take him…
Of course Nathan Drake is a hero and it’s good to see how he has matured since the first game.
What I found to be a clever touch where the graphics complement his characterisation. Drake is at a historical location that he is excited about, as he walks past the furniture he strokes it, caresses it. It conveys his joy for where he. Simple but brilliant.
So the majority of the story is about the relationship of these brothers and we see them treasure hunting but it badly misses the appearance of one of the female characters & the Drake interplay that was at the heart of the first three games.
We also drop in on Elena Fisher. It’s strange looking at her in this PS4 game because I don’t know if she has been remodelled to look like actress Cate Blanchett or she has started using botox.
Elena suffers from bad writing. In previous games she’s this bouncy lively go-getter woman, but here someone decided to pull out the moaning female trope and use it on her – unless Druckmann is going deep and trying to suggest that every woman is a moaning female.
I love the characters, but if it wasn’t the familiarity I have for them, the voice actors, I would classify some of the male female drama as sub-daytime soap. Regardless the deft hand of Amy Hennig is missed.
In contrast to this when you do see her involved in action she is oddly Drake’s equal in every jump and doesn’t suffer any nerves like in the previous games.
Equal doesn’t have to mean the same.
Little touches have been made to depict the world with greater realism. You hear minor guards grumbling about pay. When you leave Sam and Scully to explore you hear them engage in short chit-chat.
But whilst exploring in the jeep in Madagascar Scully and Sam are with Nate. When you leave them to explore you hear them have a short chat – which is great and really adds to the game.
But there are long periods where you are driving and nobody is saying anything. Naughty Dog knew this game would be played by millions of people, why couldn’t they have got their writers to spend two days scripting 15 minutes of conversation? This wasn’t an issue with previous games because every section of the player experience was controlled. In Uncharted 4 this is just the result of the switch to wide linear. It’s certainly not a problem in open world games – I just didn’t expect in this narrative-led game.
We also get to meet the main antagonists. Rafe Adler a sleazy and psychotic rich boy who lacks real menace and Nadine Ross a black South African woman, who Naughty Dog made the controversial decision to cast white voice actress Laura Bailey. Leaving ethnic politics aside I personally think an actor is best able to depict a character if they share some of the same life experience. But in truth, the portrayal of Bailey was fine and I’m not sure I would have noticed the white voice if I hadn’t read about it first. There were moments where she veered to being a three dimensional character.
The game opens in medias res, thrusting you right into the heart of the action.
But some of the story is told via a flashback and the game constantly plays with time to illustrate different parts of Drake’s story and I see it’s necessary to explain his relationship with Sam. However it makes it difficult to get your feet under the table and settle into this game.
Druckmann & Story
So the previous games were written and directed by Amy Hennig- Uncharted is her baby. However there is an undisclosed story somewhere of how she came to leave Naughty Dog. The Last of Us writer Neil Druckmann and Josh Scherr have taken over and written this latest adventure.
This does change things. They seem to have been going for a more realistic world as depicted by the story, the music and the characters. The franchise started off with a supernatural element and has pulled away from that more and more with every game.
The Last of Us is the story of an ordinary man in an extraordinary world. But Uncharted 4 is an extraordinary man in a very ordinary world. It is realistic and sober and subdued. So the writers have to try and switch the excitement of the supernatural with the excitement of treasure hunting, and whilst the characters are happy about what they see I’m not sure all players will and the game loses some of its charm because of it. However the discoveries of the climatic section had me very impressed.
More realistic, sober, subdued, but loses some of the magic. Near the end of the game there is a bit of, possible, retcon which actually subtracts something from the magic of Drake. But Druckmann didn’t create these characters and it wasn’t his place to do this.
But it is extraordinariness, and epicness that make Uncharted great and I can’t help but feel that Naughty Dog have turned their nose up at it.
Uncharted 4 is built on the shoulders of the first three games. Naughty Dog have at least demonstrated the good manners to pay tribute to Amy Hennig’s contribution in the game credits.
This is a game where the emotional beats build on the player’s experience from the previous games. A person coming to Uncharted 4 will still be fine, and not worry that they are missing half the story, it’s just that a long time player will have that invested relationship with the characters.
Overall the new writing team have done many things right. Early in the game when we Sam and Drake reunited I almost had a tear in my eye, and that is testament to their story being set up so well so quickly. If anything I think the sentimentality could have been ramped up but maybe that would have made it too cloying.
There is a plot question that I don’t think was explained well, it was clearly added to add plot razzmatazz.
At times I felt the interplay between the characters didn’t have that sparkle, and there were large parts of the game where there was game progression but no story progression. However just as I began to experience fatigue in the never ending pace towards the finale- the game took control of the reins and brought everything together.
In the long term I’m sure that the majority of gamers that enjoy this game will hold Uncharted 2 more fondly in their heart.
Very slight rumble beats at story beats, clever as it adds to unsettling feeling.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, is an ambitious, dazzling, phenomenal trip of an action adventure game that takes all the elements of the genre and refines them all to near-perfection. The whole development team should be proud of their exemplary achievement in game design. A truly unparalleled experience.
The great test will be after the hullaballoo of launch, if gamers come to regard this as superior to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
There comes a time when a story has to end. Friends never want to say ‘goodbye’. but I think Naughty Dog have been brave in deciding when to hang up their Uncharted boots. There is a grittiness about this tale, seeing the wounded boy Drake, that contrasts strongly with the previous games. But there are also some wonderful human moments filled with warmth and love and it is these that I will hold on to
Looking at a picture of Tenzin from Uncharted he says “I miss you” – I know what he means.