Backlogged: Uncharted 4 A Thief’s End (2016) review

Backlogged is a series where we visit (or revisit) older games to see how they’ve held up since release.

Considering its remarkable legacy as the harbinger of action-adventure epics on the PlayStation 3, my expectations for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End were quietly antsy. I was eagerly awaiting a robust demonstration for how much a five-year development gap and generational leap can evolve a series that was already celebrated for its impressive attention to detail and expansive worlds.

Uncharted 4 features the return of series protagonist Nathan Drake as it offers a look into his life married with Elena after their three thunderous adventures in the previous titles. Now retired from treasure hunting, he enjoys a moderately comfortable life in suburban New Orleans no longer spending his days under gunfire or running from booby-trapped puzzle rooms. Instead, he’s seeing enough excitement paying a mortgage and trying to beat his wife’s Crash Bandicoot high score. 

This naturally all falls apart when Nate’s brother Sam shows up after his supposed death years before, who convinces him to chase after a treasure they began searching for in their youth in the hopes of paying back a debt that Sam owes.

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The duo’s adventure takes them to many locations across the world, including the likes of Italy, Panama and Madagascar. While Uncharted has always featured exotic locations as part of its core identity, it is only here with the power of the PlayStation 4 can the scale and detail of these locations be represented accurately. The levels of Uncharted 4 are much larger, bookended by larger chapters that escort you through these locations in excessive detail. This just wouldn’t have been possible on hardware from the previous generation, in which I remember levels from Drake’s Fortune to be very linear and often quite narrow in scale.

But Uncharted 4 actually features a few open-ended areas where you can explore an expansive location at your own freedom, allowing you to find hidden treasures and secret puzzles away from the beaten track, as well as discovering unique story moments that are completely optional but add extra depth to building up the world and the character who inhabit it.

While that in itself is a new feature added to the Uncharted concept, the whole game still retains its identity for featuring three key components: puzzles, platforming and combat. 

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The puzzles in Uncharted 4 are no less complicated than those seen in previous entries, but there are many in this game that are amongst my favourites in the series. There’s one involving ringing a series of clock tower bells in a certain sequence, combining both logical thinking and platforming into one petrifying set piece, while there’s another where you need to navigate a maze of platforms with both safe and dangerous tiles, a bit like that one moment from the end of the third Indy film.

Overall, Naughty Dog knows the best puzzle design comes in the ones that don’t have you opening the notebook every five seconds. And while the Hints system returns, I found that I was relying on it much less in this game thanks to better communication of how I needed to find the solution for each puzzle.

Platforming is another feature to receive a big improvement. Every shimmy, vault and jump you take has so much more weight behind it compared to previous entries, in large part thanks to Naughty Dog’s impressive animation design. While climbing along the side of a cliff or scaling a large building, the environment crumbles against the force of Nate’s movement, while every handhold and ledge is disguised better within the environment to create locations that feel much more realistic to traverse.

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As for the combat in Uncharted 4, it feels like a natural evolution of the cover shooter format that the series has carefully maintained over its history. While Uncharted 3 introduced the ability to toss back grenades that were thrown at your feet, its sequel axes this feature to encourage moving around a lot more while under fire. This is amplified with the addition of destructible scenery, in which your cover might get blown to shreds forcing you to find a new spot to hide. As a result, you’re constantly darting between different points, carefully taking out enemies as they come at you and creating a never-ending feeling of danger as you watch every spot around you.

Stealth is also a key component of enemy encounters now, which is something the Uncharted series only dabbled in briefly before, but it’s not a critical feature. Nate can use long grass, large bodies of water and platforming sections to hide from enemies, either in the hopes of sneaking past them or taking them out silently.

Unfortunately this implementation isn’t very creative, with the stealth feeling very out of place due to the lack of options it gives you. There are no silenced weapons, no ways to hide bodies and the enemy AI is not smart at all. Many action games are guilty of adopting optional stealth gameplay under the guise of “giving the player more options”, but it almost always comes across as a boring addition that feels more tacked-on than anything else just to appease stealth fans.

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But the thing about Uncharted is there are games that have already done puzzles, platforming and combat much better than this series could ever hope to. What you’re really signing up for when getting into Uncharted 4 is its characters and story, which includes a lot of pay off if you’ve also been sworn into this series since the very first game. Over the course of the 15-20 hour play time, you become invested in each character; the relationship between Nate and Elena, the relationship between Nate and Sam, and how these relationships are put to the test the further they inch towards their end goal.

While it’s been a tremendous task to unshackle the series beyond expectations set by the previous generation titles, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is one of the finest PlayStation 4 exclusives to exist and is a key reminder of how far that hardware can be pushed. As we shift our eyes onto the power of the PlayStation 5, we can only wait in anticipating to see what Naughty Dog will do with the forthcoming generation.

Tested on PS4 Pro
Also available on N/A
Developer Naughty Dog
Publisher Sony Computer Entertainment
Price £15.99

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