What an emotional journey it has been. During quarantine I have played through the entire Uncharted series (excluding Lost Legacy, here’s to hoping that becomes a PS+ freebie next month,) and I almost hate myself for rushing through the series and not spending more time with it.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the pinnacle of gaming. The Uncharted Series has been covering behind one of those fallen pillars while criticisms on gameplay mechanics get hurled at it like grenades ever since the original’s release; the gun fights are average, it’s repetitive, and to an extent I agree with most of those. But Uncharted 4 changed that. The most obvious change is the ability to choose if you want to take down armies of assassins stealthily or if you want run in guns-blazing. It brings variety to gameplay that had gotten stale in later Uncharted games and it massively improves the stealth system, which was always barebones in the franchise. I always chose to do stealth. The battle arenas are created to accompany either option, and using the environment, things like grappling hooks, mud-slides, and tall grass, to silently navigate your way around is massively satisfying. The level design is second to none.
The grappling hook, mudslides, and a piton are new additions too, which add variety to the climbing, something that again was becoming a snooze-fest by the time it came to Uncharted 3, though it’s still just jumping without any stakes. All they have to do is add a time limit for how long you can cling on to each ledge, and it would add stakes and excitement.
The biggest surprise when playing through Uncharted 4 were the lack of set-pieces. They are few and far between, and they’re much subtler than, say, falling out of a plane, or climbing up a train wreckage. There’s the car chase, which is peak Uncharted, as you speed down streets in Madagascar avoiding gunfire, then shooting down a convoy and climbing on to the back of trucks. Though great, I wasn’t as excited by this Chapter, but that’s a testament to how much I love this new subtler version of the series. The clock tower is the closest it comes to a set piece, and it is incredibly memorable as giant cogs are crashing around you, but the most memorable moments of A Thief’s End aren’t the set pieces, it’s the story.
To begin with, I found the story worryingly beat for beat the same as every other Uncharted game. The game begins mid-action (Uncharted 2,) then there’s a flashback (Uncharted 3,) then it’s revealed that the adventure Drake is about to embark on has been a life-long project of his (Uncharted 1 & 3.) Because of this, the first few chapters felt a little boring and unoriginal. Even the prison guard at the beginning, being Drake’s inside man, was familiar of Cutter’s role at the beginning of Uncharted 3. But then the story gets going, and it goes in to completely uncharted territory (pun not intended.)
There are so many twists and turns, but not so much that it’s confusing. There’s one particular reveal that makes perfect sense and explains why the prison escape level was so strange and out of place. There’s so much environmental story telling going on too. There are several occasions in houses and mansions where the player could walk around for hours looking at ornaments, books, posters, whatever, that would be a reference to the past or even the future. It’s told really beautifully and it isn’t a game to rush through otherwise you’d miss out on so many moments that make the game so memorable. Between the character development and the search for a legendary Pirate utopia hidden off the coast of a Madagascar, the game is addictive as hell. And surprisingly, there are no supernatural twists, which is so refreshing.
However, sometimes the story frustratingly ruins the gameplay. Several fist fights in the game require you to lose, and that purpose is clear from the beginning, so the player is engaging in these fist fights that go on forever, actively losing. But you can die, and that’s bad, you just have to last long enough until a cut scene is triggered that shows Drake getting thrown out of a window or something like that. This is the worst feature of the game.
Another feature that has grown tiresome is the treasure hunting. In a game where the levels are so huge, there are tiny, almost invisible treasures hidden around that could be sitting next to any single blade of grass. The maps are so huge that it makes finding the treasures impossible, and if you do walk over every square inch of the map it would become so tedious. But it makes for replay value, I guess.
The writers have done a slight disservice to the secondary characters in the series. The new character, Nate’s long lost brother, Sam, is interesting, but it’s Sam and Nate show for the whole game. The most disappointing snub is Cutter, who was introduced in Uncharted 3, Cutter was a great addition to the gang, I loved his cockney charm and his fear of small spaces. Cutter gets a couple of mentions in the game, but nothing more, which is disappointing as, in the grand scheme of the series, we’ve had such few moments in the game.
A Thief’s End is a much longer game than any other Uncharted, and I spent longer than the average player completing the game due to wanting to explore every inch of the maps. It reminded me of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, spending so much time on the one Island, and spending that time with Elena, it was a nice nod to the series’ beginnings.
I have become so connected to this series and its characters. I must have spent about 50 hours with them. The dialogue, their actions, and the choices of the characters make them feel so real and unique. Sure, you have more time to create these moments in a video-game than in a movie, but the Uncharted series is as great as most movies, and what other video-game has achieved that? I am not exaggerating. It isn’t just the deep, well-written, well acted characters that makes this game what it is, but the adventures too. I have found myself researching Henry Avery, diving back in to my fascination with T.E. Lawrence, and finding out how much truth there is to Sir Francis’ Drake’s history. I wish there were more games that could encapsulate interesting nods to alternative historical figures. Learning about this stuff makes games so much more interesting.