The Uncharted series has been one of the most consistently fantastic franchises in gaming history. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune created the foundation, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves pushed the envelope and Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception polished everything to perfection.
Naughty Dog has proven time and time again that it's one of the best studios in the industry, and the entire Uncharted franchise is a testament to that fact.
It's been nearly five years since the last Uncharted game — and according to Naughty Dog, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End marks the end of Nathan Drake's time in the spotlight. Given how great the rest of the series is, A Thief's End has quite the reputation to uphold — but it's not just about living up to the earlier Uncharted games anymore.
In a lot of ways, The Last of Us represents the pinnacle of Naughty Dog's storytelling. The Uncharted franchise has always been full of lovable characters, but the studio's take on the post-apocalypse is unrivaled in the industry.
Long story short, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End won't simply be compared with the other entries in the series, but to a game that is arguably Naughty Dog's strongest work ever. Needless to say, A Thief's End has some major shoes to fill — so, can Naughty Dog possibly exceed such impossible expectations?
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End tells the story of what happens when an adventurer tries to retire. Three years after the events of Drake's Deception, Nathan Drake and Elena have gotten married, settled down and slipped into a comfortable routine — though it's clear that a part of Nate misses the dangerous life he used to lead.
When Samuel Drake, Nathan's older brother, suddenly reappears after disappearing during a botched job years earlier, our hero gets the old gang back together for a quest to find Captain Avery's legendary pirate treasure. On top of all that, there's a big focus on Nate's origin story: the game deals with the origins of the Drake family, along with his relationship with Sam and how he became a treasure hunter in the first place.
All in all, the story of A Thief's End is well-told, but it's nothing revolutionary. The game reuses many of the same story beats and moral quandaries of the rest of the series, and by the end of the game, the overarching plot can feel a bit underwhelming. The ending in particular feels like a mish-mash of different cliches, and it's easy to see the pieces falling into place from a mile away.
That being said, the characterization of A Thief's End is absolutely impeccable. It's easily Naughty Dog's best work yet: the campaign is much more slowly-paced than other games in the series, but it allows for more frequent character-driven interactions, which, in turn, leads to more emotionally-gripping moments. The Last of Us clearly had an influence on how the story of A Thief's End was told, and it definitely works out for the better — but it's a shame that the overarching plot doesn't match up to the individual, character-driven moments.
When it comes to actually playing the game, A Thief's End will be immediately familiar to fans. The single-player campaign, lasting at roughly 10 to 12 hours, will push players through 23 chapters in the search for Avery's treasure. Once a level is unlocked, you can skip right back to it for another shot at hidden treasures or optional conversations, or you can skip straight into the action by choosing an individual "Encounter" — a nice touch, especially if you just want to run-and-gun. Sadly, we weren't able to test out the multiplayer offerings during our review time, though many would consider the series' PvP offerings as more of a bonus than a focal point.
The gameplay itself is also largely unchanged. Players still control Nathan Drake, master of all things climbing and shooting, and anyone who's played another game in the series will be able to instantly pick up A Thief's End and start putting downs mercs like a pro. A few new mechanics, such as a grappling hook and climbing pick, are used to good effect throughout the adventure, though they don't do much to change the overall flow of the game. On the other hand, vehicular sections and psuedo-open-world moments are a great addition, and you'll be tempted to explore the world more in A Thief's End than any other game in the series.
Uncharted 4 is still very much about shooting, climbing, searching for clues and listening to the story — though not necessarily in that order. What has changed is the overall pacing ... and depending on your own personal tastes, said changes could be a much-needed improvement or a confusing step backward.
Ever since the second game in the series, Uncharted has been built around setpiece moments. The hotel collapse, the train, Chloe's convoy, the cruise ship, chasing Sully on horseback — these are the epic, jaw-dropping Uncharted moments that fans have come to expect from each new entry.
Unfortunately, in A Thief's End, these kinds of moments take a back seat. It's not that the "standard" gameplay isn't fun — A Thief's End has the best environmental puzzles and traversal sequences in the series — but there's really only one Uncharted 2-level moment in the entire game. It's almost as if Naughty Dog showed off the game's biggest moment during E3 2015, and no other sequence in the game can really match up to it — as a result, A Thief's End doesn't have that same wow factor, and the experience can start to blend together during longer play sessions.
This is further emphasized by the number of slower, more narratively-driven sections of the game. There are a surprising number of sections where players will find themselves quietly sneaking through a house or walking through a crowded banquet hall — again, these moments aren't bad, but the whole game feels much slower when compared with Among Thieves or Drake's Deception, and anyone hoping for a similarly fast-paced tempo may end up disappointed.
If there's anything that Uncharted 4: A Thief's End universally excels at, it's the presentation.
Seriously: screen shots and video clips simply don't do the game justice. Everything — the characters, the environments, the different particle effects, the lighting — look absolutely amazing. Save for a few infrequent frame-rate drops or wonky animations, Uncharted 4′s visual package is flawless, and the fact that the game switches seamlessly between story cinematic and gameplay makes the presentation that much more impressive. It's safe to say that Naughty Dog has created one of the most visually striking games in the industry, regardless of platform or genre.
Also, while it's not nearly as noticeable as the game's visuals, the audio design is also outstanding. The series has always featured amazing performances, and A Thief's End is no different — but what really sells the experience are the different effects. Gunshots ring out with real, noticeable weight, every little rock and pebble scratches along the ground, and even the rustle of leaves in the breeze sound amazing. The audio design in A Thief's End is the perfect complement to an already amazing presentation, and truly sells the world that Naughty Dog has created.
In all honesty, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is an amazing game. Naughty Dog's characterization and visual prowess have never been stronger, and it's clear that the studio's final Uncharted game lives up to the reputation set forth by its predecessors.
Then again, Uncharted 4 doesn't really do much to improve or change the formula. Sure, the characters are great, but the story doesn't do anything genuinely new. Yes, there are a few new gameplay mechanics, but the overall pace of the game is a step back from others in the series. A Thief's End is not a bad game — far from it — but for a huge series finale, few would have expected Naughty Dog to play it so safely.
If you're a fan of Uncharted or want to see how Nathan Drake's story comes to a close, A Thief's End is worth picking up. The campaign is long enough to warrant a $60 purchase, and the draw of unlocking extra costumes and render modes is enough to encourage a second playthrough. It's just that, for all of its good points, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End doesn't do much to shake things up — and considering this may be the last time gamers ever get to play as Nathan Drake, that may be a major disappointment to some.
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is due out on May 10.