Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
The realisation hit us quickly, at the close of an early flashback sequence in which Nathan Drake, his brother Sam and their fellow treasure hunter Rafe Adler make their escape from a Panamanian prison. You hop the final fence and land in the thick of a forest. The screen is packed with countless branches, leaves and fronds, all swaying as one in the wind, everything our heroes brush past responding properly to their touch. There have been glimpses of it before – Nathan’s handcuffed stroll through a gorgeously lit prison corridor, then the first of many zoomed-out cameras to showcase the first of many breathtaking, painterly vistas – but it’s not until we careen desperately through the windblown trees, bullets hailing down around us, that we know for sure. This is the best-looking videogame we’ve ever seen.
Sure, you can’t move the camera during it, the scene’s focus on a single window on the world meaning Naughty Dog can devote all available processing power to two sprinting character models and all that foliage. But the other 14 hours and 59 minutes of Uncharted 4’ s runtime are pretty special too. This is a stunning, almost faultless marriage of technical excellence and artistic flair, a game in which you guide characters who frequently seem real through worlds that look like paintings until the moment they’re ripped apart, crumbling into rubble as the brothers Drake improbably defy death once again. The complexity of the character models, and level of detail in the world that surrounds them, may scale up and down with the demands of each individual scene, but the game is capable of stopping you in your tracks around almost every corner.
It’s a remarkable achievement, especially given that it’s delivered without loading screens, running in 1080p at a near-unbroken 30fps on a console which sees dramatically less visually ambitious games often struggle to hit either target. Our apologies to one such game, in fact (which we shan’t name out of respect), deleted to free up hard disk space for the 300 screenshots captured during our first playthrough. We think our Share button is on the way out.
We expected a technical showcase: Naughty Dog pushed PS3 harder than any other studio, and was always odds-on to do the same on PS4. But we hadn’t expected this, nor that it would be executed with such coherence and consistency – and not just in visual terms. Uncharted has always been an exercise in forgiveness: to love it is to accept the linearity of its platforming, to shrug at its woolly gunplay, to look the other way while a bombastic set-piece asks only that we hold up on the stick. We have smiled, not frowned, at the eternal disconnect between the kind-hearted, conflicted soul in the cutscenes and the wantonly headshotting mass-murderer in our hands. Uncharted 4 sees Naughty Dog polish to a sheen the bits of Uncharted that worked well while going back to the drawing board on many of the things that didn’t. It has been an ambitious, risky endeavour. In the hands it is, by and large, a stunning success. Except for the mass murderer stuff, anyway.
Traversal has been overhauled dramatically. A new analogue climbing system means you can change the angle of Nathan’s outstretched free hand, lining up the next ledge or handhold, rather than holding the stick in a vague direction and tapping X as before. The grappling hook may have felt gimmicky during our preview session for E293, but here it’s a revelation, setting free the creative whims of designers who’ve spent three games reined in by the length of the protagonist’s jump. Levels are set across much larger, more vertical spaces than in the past – all the better for zooming the camera out and showing off more of that remarkable scenery.
The guiding principle, not just for platforming but also for Uncharted 4 as a whole, is what Naughty Dog calls ‘wide linear’: you still have a destination to reach, but have much greater say over how you get there, and what you do on the way. In the case of platforming, that means there isn’t the traditional critical path but a series of critical checkpoints, many connected by multiple routes. Standing at the base of a cliff you might see a path of handholds leading off to the left, a series of ledges heading straight up, and a grapple point from which to swing to the right. All roads lead to Rome, as it were, and there are still plenty of occasions where there’s only one correct route to take, but in the context of the game’s predecessors, a little variety goes a long way.
Especially when this renewed approach to traversal, and in turn to level design, bleeds over into the combat. A greater focus on stealth – the most obvious of several imports from The Last Of Us – and a more intelligent, aggressive enemy force means you frequently need to use your platforming skills to break line of sight and reset a situation that has gone sour. When you do decide to stand and fight, enemies are quick to work the flanks, and environmental destruction means few pieces of cover offer up more than temporary sanctuary. Get it wrong, and death comes quickly, even before the series-standard onset of late-game bullet sponges (which are fewer here, but any more than none is still too much). The result is an intoxicating cocktail of patient, silent neck-snapping, urgent gunfire and, we must admit, a tremendous amount of running away, frantically scanning the environment for a handhold, grapple point or thicket of long grass. The arc of Uncharted and The Last Of Us shows a studio slowly devising a freeform, 360-degree approach to combat. This is its zenith.
It wouldn’t be Uncharted without puzzles, of course, but now they’re everywhere. While there are plenty of the standard room-scale head-scratchers, the way
You still have a destination to reach, but have much greater say over how you get there, and what you do on the way
Naughty Dog has rethought, remade and intertwined combat and traversal means there are puzzles at every turn, some of which play out in realtime while a shotgunner bears down on you, the crate you were using for cover is splintering into nothingness under machinegun fire, and a sniper’s laser settles on the bridge of your nose. The sensation of previously disparate systems being expertly blended together is further strengthened by a sequence in a bell tower that’s equal parts puzzle and set-piece, the pace picked up by the need to work with the timings of a clock mechanism. Even the setpieces themselves involve some light puzzling at times – the where-next conundrums of the jeep chase shown off at last year’s E3, for instance. The addition of vehicles to a game of running and jumping may suggest the process of getting from A to B has been simplified, but the jeep’s onboard winch, mud-slicked slopes and, later, strong water currents mean it’s never quite so simple as putting your foot on the gas and leaving your brain on the back seat. The result is a game that feels seamless, and not just for its lack of loading screens.
There is a tremendous amount to think about here, but there are also times when you simply have to leave your brain at the door and let Naughty Dog tell the captivating Saturday-matinee yarn it wants to tell: to let Uncharted be Uncharted, for better and worse. The introduction of Nathan’s long-lost brother Sam, and the process of the latter luring the now house-trained former into returning to old ways, means the game takes a while to get into its stride. There are moments where story and game are working against each other: some cracking late-game momentum comes to a shuddering halt while Naughty Dog reunites the main players for some narrative exposition set to some all-too-leisurely platforming, the studio’s admirable desire to avoid stuffing all the story into cutscenes harming the game’s pace. And in the context of all that is new and improved, the old-fashioned linear sprints away from some huge, fearsome foe feel oddly oldfashioned, despite their remarkable presentation.
Yet even when it stumbles, there’s plenty here to like, and the weaker moments are rescued by something Naughty Dog understands better than any studio on the planet: people. The dynamic between Nathan and Elena is particularly deftly handled, whether they’re arguing over who’s getting up from the sofa to do the washing-up, or contemplating the state of their relationship between very loud firefights. It’s all helped along by some simply astonishing facial animation, with every expression readable, every mistrusting sideways glance or raised eyebrow perfectly captured and conveyed. They even manage to eat believably.
This is still a game with a formula, then, but it has never been better, and there are few areas where it could be improved. Naughty Dog’s writers manage to elegantly tie things off while also leaving a couple of dangling threads in case Sony wants Uncharted to continue – though the studio has made it quite clear, both in words in the past and here in code, that it wants no part in it. Well, this is a heck of a way to bow out, as one of gaming’s most likeable faces rides off into the sunset for good, leaving all his baggage behind at the end of his best game to date, the worn-out remains of your Share button in his pocket.
The attention to detail, everywhere, is staggering. Uncharted 4’ s delay left a gaping hole in PS4’s 2015 schedule, but it looks like time well spent