It has been a long and rocky road for half-tuck adventurer Nathan Drake since he first leapt from a precarious precipice in 2007.
Since then we’ve voyaged together across the world – seeking out lost and ancient cities in South America, Nepal and amid the shifting sands of Arabia in search of fame and fortune.
This dangerous road couldn’t go on forever, and it’s time to find out what happens in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.
Nate has settled into something like a normal life, working salvage and going home to his journalist wife Elena Fisher. The lure of adventure is still strong and he mostly manages to resist, until the shocking return of his supposedly dead brother.
Sam needs his brother’s help to seek out a famed pirate treasure in order to pay off a debt to a very dangerous man and this combination of family and fortune draws Nate back into a very dangerous world.
That’s the set up for Uncharted 4, the final game in the series from developers Naughty Dog. And it might just be the best in the series.
I’m going to avoid plot spoilers as much as possible (though honestly a lot has been revealed in trailers so far) but the story is the real star here.
The history we have with these characters makes their internal drama feel very real, especially when it comes to the fierce connection between Elena and Nate. There are classical themes at work here – family, friendship, love and obsession, all brought together through a tale of treasure and treachery that takes us across the globe.
It’s easily the best story in the series so far because of those complexities and the driving momentum of loyalty and guilt which keeps our hero moving forward no matter how intense the situation becomes.
There’s another weak and overly familiar villain (white, rich, arrogant) but in many ways the true conflict here is inside Drake himself, as he wars with the different aspects of his personality and tries to resolve his past to look forward to a possible future.
In gameplay terms little has changed from the formula set in place over recent entries – there’s a mix of exploration, combat and puzzles with most of your time spent clambering and trying not to die.
These elements are incredibly slick by now, which leaves room for little in the way of refinement. There’s a pleasantly tactile element to climbing now as you can grasp for a handhold with Nate’s outstretched hand, and Naughty Dog seems to have become obsessed with sliding down surfaces – as though they just discovered the mechanic.
Much has been made of the more open levels and they do provide some choices in how you explore. But the areas themselves are still mostly linear, with the developers doing an impressive job of leading the player by the nose while making it feel like they have freedom.
The new rope tool also gets a lot of use and adds plenty of dynamism to the climbing. It’s also useful in combat, letting you fling yourself over large distances to hopefully land on an enemy.
Fighting has seen some changes, thanks to plenty of large open areas full of enemies. They will likely kill you in a full on assault so it’s highly suggested you take out a few silently first.
The stealth stuff feels better than before and there are always plenty of vertical options to get the drop on enemies. You can also run away and hide if you’re spotted, which feels as unrealistic as in any game but remains pretty necessary.
Inevitably it will devolve into a pitched battle (though some fights can be avoided entirely) and you’ll probably die more than a few times. Enemies are tough and your allies are useless - taking out bullet sponge foes makes for some of the least interesting moments in the game.
The puzzling is finely tuned, taking up a minimum of time and effort and often with extremely obvious solutions. It’s an excuse to tour some gorgeous looking locations and poke around in your journal like a real adventurer, and these moments mostly feel great.
Speaking of gorgeous, Uncharted 4 might be the best looking game ever made.
That doesn’t just apply to the high quality textures and terrific motion capture but also the incredible work put into each and every detail. Naughty Dog is a huge company with a blockbuster budget to work with and every cent is on the screen.
Each location is layered with production design, desks littered with artefacts, crumbling skeletons in long lost pirate caves, motes of dust in creepy old houses and glowing embers from another flaming conflagration.
And the character work is just as impressive, with Drake aging gracefully but perceptibly and stunning detail in the faces. An early dinner scene between Nate and Elena showed off facial animation and lifelike movements which I’ve never seen before, making for a moment that’s both a technical marvel and an important piece of storytelling.
It doesn’t hurt that the performances behind these characters are truly peerless, from old pros Nolan North and Emily Rose – she might have the most convincing digital avatar I’ve ever seen and the back and forth between these two actors is a true highlight of the series.
Popular voice actor Troy Baker (The Last of Us) makes his Uncharted debut as Sam and builds up the important character quickly. Sam appears at different ages and the work at aging up the character is breathtaking, with the voice work following suit.
The Uncharted series has long been about moments and this entry continues that trend to some degree – like an epic chase through the streets of a Madagascar city or touring around an open(ish) world in a jeep that’s almost as nimble as Nate, carving out some personal time in an attic office or just having a beer with a long lost brother.
But this is also about the entire adventure, with each moment adding to the texture of a game that’s partly an exciting experience in its own right but also a well-rounded farewell to one of the best characters ever created.
And it is a fitting finale for Drake, delving into his past in a series of emotional and revealing flashbacks, resolving the present crisis and looking forward to an idea of the future. There’s plenty of nostalgia for fans too – from the references to the other games in the opening titles to Nate’s collection of memorabilia.
As for the actual ending itself (which I reached after around 14 hours), there are elements I like a lot and others which I found less satisfying – but I won’t discuss details here. Suffice to say that it’s a classic story which could have been a little braver but the actual conclusion works wonderfully without feeling forced by the demands of setting up potential sequels.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a showcase for the storytelling talents of the master craftsmen at Naughty Dog, a confluence of peerless work in narrative, design and characterisation to bring Nathan Drake’s tale to a fitting conclusion. It’s a must play for fans and destined to be one of the best games of the year.
[Uncharted 4’s multiplayer was inaccessible during review, I’ll update with impressions at a later date]