Brawling with armed goons. Swinging over canyons on a rope. Getting riddled with bullets. Uncovering ancient cities. Clambering up sheer cliffs. Getting riddled with even more bullets. High speed chases. So many bullets. Solving complex puzzles. Christ, I’m like 80% lead by now, please stop shooting me. Snipers now. All I wanted was to do an adventure. More bullets. Falling into a pit while my wife screams in horror at my death. Woe is the life of Nathan Drake.
For those who haven’t played Naughty Dog’s innovative series, Uncharted seeks to portray the pulpy action adventure genre of the Indiana Jones films and the works of Edgar Rice Burrows to the medium of the video game. First released in 2007 with Drake’s Fortune, Uncharted was at the forefront of motion capture, animation and ‘wowthatlookssoreal’ism in the games industry. Uncharted 4: A Theif’s End continues this trend with more detailed animations, more glorious vistas, and more action-packed set-pieces.
It is where these set-pieces come into play that A Theif’s End is at its most engaging. At the midway point of the game’s plot, what starts off as a shoot-out in the crowded market streets of Madagascar evolves into a high speed downhill car-chase and which once more seamlessly changes into fisticuffs on the back of a moving convoy, and it is a thrill from start to finish.
The exploration is fun too. The end goal more often clear than not and there’s a good chance that there are multiple routes to find your way across there. It holds a similar joy to ambling, to look down from a high cliff and see clearly where you were only minutes prior, to choose a path at random and stumble upon something interesting. I should add that navigation in this game is less like the branching paths of a tree and more akin to the swirling caramel strands of a Cadbury’s Curly-Wurly, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. No matter which path you choose you will find yourself at the next plot beat. So, despite being linear in nature, quite often your own route to that next beat would be unique to you (or at least some of the time).
Gameplay-wise however, these traversal sections consist of choosing a direction then pressing X or L1 where appropriate. The same can be said of the climbing sections of numerous other games (eg Assassins Creed series, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Shadow of Mordor), however climbing easily takes up at least half of the run time of this game, and so it’s a little shame it’s not more in-depth. Though doors do exist in the world of Uncharted they are mostly obsolete, being either locked or blocked. Instead, to get from A to B you will have to climb up C, swing off E, slide down R and then leap onto G, only for it to crumble under your weight dropping you onto M, where you then must sidle around U to find S placed perfectly so that you can push it off of D, onto A, giving you a platform to climb over and finally end up at B. All of this takes little to no figuring out or skill to achieve. While I can hear the characters call out ‘We can probably get to the roof from that window up there’ ‘I’d say you’re right, but it’s too high to jump’ ‘Well, let’s see if there’s anything we can climb on’ all the thought process that’s going through my head is wHerE nExt cAn pResS X!?
There’s a missed opportunity here. Bouldering is as much a puzzle as it is a sport already. Your positioning; your stamina; your reach; which limb to move next; swinging to gain momentum at the risk of losing your grip; all these factors could have been made into a mechanic here. There is already treacherous terrain in the Uncharted series, but it is all a false threat: Whenever Nate loses his grip or a ledge crumbles it is either to block of the previous area, direct you away from a dead-end in the Cadbury’s Curly-Wurly, or to add some minor tension to an otherwise uneventful climb. Why not make it part of the mechanic?
For arguments sake, let us say there’s an invisible stamina meter here. Before you, a cliff face looms, too high to climb in one go. You can spot the ledges and footholds you may be able to use, however some are further apart than others. There is a plateau a short climb up where you would be able to restore some stamina from the climb. You pick out a good route that curves around the corner towards this plateau. You would best remember it, or else you may end up off track on a path that requires some of those longer, riskier leaps. Halfway up you find a comfortable hold to stay for a moment and pick your next route. Your stamina goes down slower here, but it has not stopped. An error you made earlier has limited how much longer your route can be. Your only choice now is that slippery looking branch sticking out the wall. Better secure a handhold within the next swing or else it is down the rocky canyon you go.
It would make those gut-wrenching leaps and arse clenching leaps actually mean something. As it is currently 50% of the action-adventuring in an action-adventure game is completely trivial. The animation is there for this. There are hundreds of individual movements constructed that have been blended together seamlessly. You can see Nate shift his weight, you hand see him change his holds, you can hear the effort it takes to complete those bigger jumps, and all of this is done far better than it was in the previous instalments. But all of it means nothing to the gameplay. You can’t feel satisfied after completing a climb as you barely influenced the outcome in any way.
This is different in the combat, the next largest portion of game-time. You have a cover system, destructible terrain, a multitude of different guns, melee combat that changes to suit the terrain nearby and stealth mechanics on top of all of that. There are a couple of flourishes here that really add to everyman Nathan Drake’s scrappy fighting style. If Nate is out of ammo he will disarm and take the gun of his opponent. If there is a ledge nearby, he will push them off it. If there is a wall, he will smack their head into it. Now and again your allies will grapple an opponent and call on you to finish them off. Quite wonderfully, you can actually fire guns while swinging off of ropes or climbing walls and can blind-fire while running during the tenser situations.
The issue here is if you are doing half of this, you will be out of cover, which most likely means you are being shot from three to twelve different directions at once. Despite you having the option to take daring and reckless actions like brawling with an armed opponent or firing a shotgun from a rope, you will be punished for trying. Granted, you can survive for a short time while being riddled with bullets, but it is far from fun, and does not feel cool. Nathan Drake has been described to be based on such figures as Indiana Jones and John McLane, and while those characters can survive a socking to the head, crashing through windows and being dragged behind moving vehicles with little more than a couple broken ribs; multiple bullet wounds, despite being not much more fatal than the prior examples, tend to be beyond the realms of believability. These combat sections would feel far more heroic and fluid if Nate’s health were reduced with the compromise of having the enemies miss more. It shouldn’t be a shot to the side of my body that foretells a goon flanking me. Have them hit the terrain near me a little more to give me time to react. Or, have a sidekick yell ‘On your left!’ before they shoot. Nate is supposed to be an everyman, his survival should rely on his reflexes, cunning and luck, not on his inhuman power to soak projectiles like a dart board.
Strangely, though being mostly the same system as the previous instalments, I did not have this same grievance with those. Perhaps that is due to the higher fidelity of A Thief’s End compared to its predecessors. Bullets appear to be thunking into him rather than skimming past him, and the guns as a whole sound a whole lot more deadly. Maybe a higher processor means more goons in an area at once, which means more people to be shot by. It doesn’t help that all the enemies of this instalment appear to have been hired to specifically stop Nathan Drake from screwing with the operation, which inadvertently gives him more of a John Wick-esque expert assassin sort of vibe rather than a scrappy, roguish everyman feel.
Otherwise, this persona comes across wonderfully. I like the dialogue between the characters, I like how Nate trips up and makes mistakes, how he panics and shows perfect awareness of the outlandish situations he finds himself in. The characters are all likable and their chemistry is fun, highlighted well by the quality animation. The actor’s performances were captures using a variety of motion capture techniques and it works remarkable, avoiding the uncanny valley feel of previous attempts. We appear to have leaped that gulch now, thankfully.
As for the plot, well it’s there at least. There are numerous wonderful looking vistas to explore but most of the time the only reason the characters are there is because a map from the previous area pointed them there. I think I literally groaned the fourth of fifth time Nate found a wall or item directing them somewhere else. To say how much effort has been put into bringing these locations to life, it feels lazy that they didn’t come up with some more engaging and naturally formed reasons to travel to the new locations.
It also hurts the story somewhat that it lacks the same element of mysticism that the predecessors had with regards to the macguffin. If Captain Avery’s treasure had some eldritch or holy power related to it, even just speculatively, it would lend more reason for the villains to invest such a grandiose amount of funds and manpower. It’s hard for me to imagine what individual pile of treasure could be worth more than the discovery of a centuries-lost island nation for example, yet the hired goons appear more than happy to raze this wonder to find it. The characters are all unable to see the wood for the trees, or unable to see the treasure for the ancient lost ruins so to speak. This lost city is like Machu Picchu times ten and just as old, so it really takes me out of the story when its narratively implied to have little or no value when compared to the ‘treasure’ especially when details about the treasure are so vague and underwhelming.
So, gameplay-wise A Theif’s End leaves a lot to be desired but its characters and landscapes are rendered well enough that it’s still worth playing in my eyes, though I’d recommend playing the previous instalments first. There’s not too much of a connecting narrative between them aside from a few references or cameos but you get more for your money with the originals. And, if you enjoy the first, you’ll likely enjoy the rest. They can be repetitive but they’re not long enough that that becomes an issue ranging from seven to twelve hours per game. You’ll find plenty of wonderfully cinematic and action-packed set pieces to keep you engaged in between the stale parts. I seem to remember like the third game Drake’s Deception most but I honest to god can’t remember for what reason.
I give Uncharted: A Theif’s End a 4/7 for being a beautifully rendered and intensely well-made average game.