Friday, 10 June 2016

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End - Review

Developer: Naughty Dog 
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PS4

More than anything else, Uncharted 4 provides a satisfying conclusion to one of gaming's most likeable Everyman. When most games have you playing as roided up space marines or growling hunks of murder muscle, Uncharted has the temerity to simply have you play as a guy. An unbelievably lucky and incredibly skilled guy, but an ordinary man nevertheless.

A Thief's End starts with a fitting and somewhat subversive sequence that goes on to underline the entire game. The player controls Drake, clad in scuba diving gear, as he begins to dredge up a huge cargo container from the bottom of the ocean. Several minutes later however, we find that the cargo isn't some priceless treasure from some lost civilization but rather junk salvaged from the bottom of the New Jersey river.

It's a stark opening. We find Drake completely out of his element. He's left to work a humdrum nine 'til five job before going home to his wife Elena and engaging in polite dinner conversation. It's the exact opposite of everything that the previous games have built Drake up as. It's Indiana Jones: The Off Days; deliberately unexciting but also strangely fascinating, and not just because it ends with Drake sat playing Crash Bandicoot on an original PlayStation.

It's a testament to Naughty Dog's confidence that they're willing to have a sequence like this so early on. Above all else the game understands its characters and it's something that's permeated every instalment of this series. This final instalment is no different.

Likewise, each game in turn has focused on a different character. If the first game was about establishing Drake's personality and character, then each sequel has shone the spotlight on the different people around him. For Uncharted 2 that was Elena, in Uncharted 3 it was Sully, and for this game it's Drake's brother, Sam.

Yes, it turns out that Drake has a long lost brother who he thought had been dead for years. Sam however, voiced by Troy Baker, is very much alive and kicking and on the hunt for Captain Avery's legendary pirate treasure. It doesn't take long for Drake to get dragged along for the ride, and so the two brothers are off on a great big treasure hunt.

In terms of the minute to minute gameplay, Uncharted 4 tries to avoid adding anything too new to the tried and tested formula. Just as each of the previous three games had a primary environment to play around with; sea, snow and sand respectively, Uncharted 4 goes one step further by incorporating all three into its grand globe-trotting adventure, as the game takes you to the Scottish Highlands, Panama and Madagascar, amongst other locations, through its fairly hefty runtime.

Naughty Dog also take advantage of the PS4 to expand upon their “wide linear” approach. Rarely is there just one way through an area, as paths fork off in different directions, or roads take multiple paths to the same location. Uncharted 4 is 100% a linear adventure but Naughty Dog do their best to make sure it doesn't feel like quite the A to B corridor chute that it actually is.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the vehicle segments. At several points throughout the story Drake is able to drive a car to navigate larger environments. It's a nice change of pace, and opens up the already substantial locations even more. The collectibles page is proof of how wider this game is, I found less than half of the game's little treasures and nick-nacks during my first playthrough, significantly less than I picked up in previous instalments.

Combat, likewise, has undergone minor alterations rather than a dramatic overhaul. Drake seems softer to gunfire now, shockingly so in fact. Just a few moments out of cover and you'll have the screen sapped of colour and soon be out cold. Stealth seems less of a strategic option now and more of a necessity, if only to take down some of the enemies numbers before the bullets start flying.

This is perhaps intentional considering the stealth mechanics have undergone the most substantial changes. It's now much clearer to work out whether or not enemies have detected Drake, with a simple white, yellow, red detection ring indicating how soon you're about to be spotted. Likewise, the larger combat areas mean that enemies can spot you, only to lose you again if you run away far enough and dive into some foliage or behind a wall.

The game seems keen to ensure that fights aren't simply you and the enemy hunkered behind cover trading shots like you're in the trenches. For starters, the AI is much more aggressive now, shotgun-toting baddies will have no qualms about charging straight into fire if it means taking a few shots at you, whilst their friends scurry around the flanks. Meanwhile, almost all foes seem to be packing an arsenal of grenades should you spend more than a few moments behind the same piece of cover.

It makes for a lively, multi-dimensional feel to third-person cover combat, with multiple avenues and heights to attack and defend from. Which is just as well. Combat, as solid as it is, still seems like the weakest element in Uncharted 4, not because its bad, but because there's so much else going on and there's the sense that the developers don't want to devote too much attention to it. There's only a handful of enemy types to battle throughout the game, all from the (rather bland) Shoreline Private Military Company, and after several hours of battling them, there's the sense that there's nothing new being done here.

In fact, antagonists in general are Uncharted 4's biggest weakness. The villains this time are snotty billionaire Rafe Adler and Nadine Ross, a cool and collected mercenary leader. By the game's end, both characters are thinly sketched and lacking in motivation, Nadine Ross in particular. Granted, there is some attempt to contrast Adler's wealthy upbringing with the Drake brothers humble start in an orphanage, but it doesn't change the fact that he's a lame villain of the month. This is always an element that the Uncharted series has struggled with; it's so focused on developing its main characters successfully that those that oppose them pale by comparison, but it's still disappointing that this final instalment comes coupled with possibly the weakest villains.

Yet, despite this, because it's so focused on its main character, Uncharted 4 does give Drake a well deserved, and genuinely affectionate, send-off. Tonally the game suffers from a few issues, its darker and more portentous elements are interesting, especially when they seem to be peeling back Drake's motivations. Yet, occasionally, it's as if the game is at risk of becoming a nod more to The Last of Us than it is its own series, losing some of the pulpy carefree attitude of the earlier titles. There are some pacing issues here. Uncharted 4 is something of a slow game, which is fine, but some of its weaker moments would have benefited from a sharper bit of editing. It might seem outrageous to say, but Uncharted 4 could have done with being a little shorter, in order for its later action beats to carry a bit more impact.

Make no mistake, Uncharted 4 won't change sceptic minds. For those that feel the series is barely a step above an interactive movie, this final part of the series makes no attempt to rectify that view. It's a solid and safe sequel, and one that's more concerned with giving a fond farewell to its leading man. And on balance that's enough, just. It's a well designed, carefully crafted final part to Drake's story that, even if it's slightly underwhelming, gets by on its strong performances and attention to character writing, even if the gameplay is a slight disappointment by comparison.

Now bring on that Crash Bandicoot reboot. We all know it's coming.


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