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Is there a more charming character in video games than Nathan Drake? The dashing hero of the Uncharted franchise has been running, jumping and quipping his way through collapsing buildings and ancient ruins since 2007, but there’s always been an underlying hint of darkness beneath his wisecracking exterior. Aside from mowing down thousands of nameless bad guys, which is more a limitation of the action-adventure genre than a statement on his character, Drake can be selfish and greedy, but he always comes around in the end. Brought vividly to life by actor Nolan North, he’s three-dimensional and human, which is more than you can say for most of his gaming contemporaries.
After three games in his company, you genuinely care what happens to him, which gives Uncharted 4’s subtitle A Thief’s End such gravity. Developer Naughty Dog has stated this is their last game in the series, but is it the end of Nathan Drake, as well? Uncharted 4 is the studio’s follow-up to 2013’s moody masterpiece The Last of Us, which had a much darker tone, and it’s the first game without longtime creative director Amy Hennig, who left the studio in 2014. The Last of Us directors Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley took over the game then and reportedly scrapped much of the work that had been completed, leaving me to wonder whether the series would go too dark and lose the sense of playful adventure that helped make the series such a delight.
I won’t spoil the game’s ending, but I will say that you needn’t worry about the behind-the-scenes drama, as Uncharted 4 perfectly captures the swashbuckling action and wonderful storytelling the franchise is known for. The game picks up several years after Uncharted 3, and Nathan and wife Elena (a winsome Emily Rose) have retired from adventuring and settled down. But their peaceful, if vaguely unsatisfying, domesticity is ruptured when Nathan’ older brother Sam, long presumed dead after a botched job, reappears seeking his help. It doesn’t take much convincing for Nathan to start lying to Elena and embark on one last adventure, as the brothers Drake set out in search of the pirate Henry Avery’s long-lost treasure.
Structurally, Uncharted 4 hews pretty closely to the established formula, with platforming sections leading to enemy encounters before culminating in an edge-of-your-seat action set-piece. But the environments are larger and more open, and although still pretty linear, they provide a greater sense of freedom than the series has ever known. New swimming and driving sections add a nice dose of variety, but the greatest addition is a rope mechanic that takes the action to vertiginous new heights. Swinging around a cliff and landing on a thug, then catching his gun as he falls to the ground is immensely satisfying.
And let’s just get this out there: Uncharted 4 is the most gorgeous console game ever made. The Uncharted games have always been graphical showpieces, but the attention to detail in the characters, environments, and animation is nothing short of staggering. I found myself often pausing the action and entering the game’s photo mode to capture Instagram-worthy shots of Drake’s dramatic derring-do. If there’s ever been a case against the need for the rumored PlayStation Neo upgrade, this game is a shining example of what the current PS4 hardware is capable of, and it’s ridiculous.
I wish the game’s puzzles had received a similar upgrade, but they’re disappointingly simplistic, still relying on Drake’s journal to basically spell out the solutions. The platforming puzzles, such as a particularly memorable clocktower clamber, are more enjoyable, though they don’t offer anything particularly new. But there’s a chase sequence in Madagascar (unfortunately spoiled in its entirety at last year’s E3) that is the most thrilling action set-piece in the series’ history, almost rivaling the Captain America-Black Panther-Bucky chase in Captain America: Civil War, except you’re firmly in control of every death-defying, rope-swinging, car-hopping beat, and it’s exhilarating.
I was a tad underwhelmed with the new characters in the game, particularly the villains, who pale in comparison to Uncharted 3’s evil Helen Mirren-esque Katherine Marlowe. And as good as The Last of Us’ Troy Baker is as prodigal son Sam, he feels more like a retconned plot catalyst than a fully realized character. But when you get down to the series’ three core characters — Nathan, father figure Sully, and Elena — the game delivers satisfying character arcs for each. When A Thief’s End rolled to a close roughly 15 hours after it began, I was genuinely sad to say goodbye to these amazing characters I’ve spent nearly 10 years with. It’s a testament to Naughty Dog’s masterful storytelling; they’re simply the best in the business. And Uncharted 4 is a fitting end to gaming’s most charming thief. A-
Note: This grade applies to Uncharted 4’s single-player story mode. Check back for impressions on the game’s multiplayer mode.