Un­charted 4: A Thief’s End

PS4

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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

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