Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (Non-spoiler Review)

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End (PS4)
Developer: Naughty Dog 
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Released: May 10th 2016 (PS4)

Just over a week ago, Naughty Dog studios just released their final entry of their much beloved Uncharted franchise on the Playstation 4 to much critical and commercial success. Being a long time fan of Naughty Dog's impeccable titles, I personally grabbed my copy as soon as I was able to last weekend and played it four days straight to completion. After leaving a day to gather my thoughts, I can safely say that this is the most finely crafted, well-written, and technologically & artistically impressive title by Naughty Dog studios to date, even by their lofty standards.

The story picks off a few years after the events of Uncharted 3, where series protagonist Nathan Drake has left behind his turbulent (to put it mildly) life as a treasure hunter behind him to live a normal life with his journalist wife Elena Fisher. Slowly by not still quite able to settle into his new, peaceful life, he is soon forced out of retirement when he meets the brother who he thought he had lost 15 years ago. Turns out his brother now owes the people who saved him a lot of money and the only way to save him now is to find the lost treasure of famous pirate Henry Avery, which is also the very same treasure that the pair have been hunting since their early days of treasure hunting.

The premise of Uncharted 4's doesn't stray too far of from the series' proven formula, and would not be too out of place in a classic Indiana Jones flick, but it is executed with such confidence, competence, such understanding and love for the characters they made, plus an impeccable eye for detail which  makes it easily the most well-written, well-paced entry to the already much acclaimed franchise. Yet at the same time it manages to combine masterful use of all 3 aspects of presentation, cinematography, and game-play to tell an engaging and thrilling from start to finish in a way that only video games can. It may not necessarily innovate like a new IP would, but it pushes the boundary in every sense of the word at the opposite end of the spectrum, with such polish and masterful craftsmanship that is only afforded to AAA titles, and is a high watermark for the rest of the industry to strive towards.

Presentation-wise, Uncharted 4 is overall easily one of the most technically impressive titles in the market. Naughty Dog's excellent use of lighting, rendering, design, a consistent frame rate that rarely dips, stellar animation, physics, particle effects, and cinematography all combine to make a truly gorgeous game to look at and makes very good use of the varied environments from the frozen tundra to tropical rain-forests to mountainous highlands and secret subterranean coves. The studio
has also gotten good mileage out of the first use of facial motion capture, being able to bring out the most minute of facial expressions especially in the quieter character moments and serves as an excellent complement to Drake's already impressive library of animations. What personally impressed me the most was the near photo-realistic presentation of the characters while somehow avoiding the common pitfall of the Uncanny Valley effect, with an ever so slight alteration to the rendering and color-saturation that makes it look like a prettier almost-reality, and it works great, much to their credit. Also worthy of note is the excellent musical score by Henry Jackman and strong performances by the entire voice, not least of which Nolan North and Troy Baker.

In terms of game-play, Uncharted 4 doesn't stray far from previous titles, featuring a balance of platforming, puzzle-solving, stealth and third-person cover shooting. When it comes to personal feel, I thought that this entry was one of the better balanced ones alongside Uncharted 2, as action sequences or combat encounters are more interspersed between the quieter platforming and character moments, making the encounters feel more significant and less pointlessly relentless as Uncharted 3 can feel at times. The platforming parts are as great as they have ever been, the wonderful improved camera and depth-of-field effects giving a really nice sense of vertigo and excitement to Drake's many dangerous parkour and leaps of faith. The addition of the grappling hook, slippery surfaces and more creative environmental design (this time with multiple optional routes!) keeps the experience fun and fresh for much of the game's ~15 hour run time.

Combat is one of the game's biggest areas of improvement over its predecessors. Many of the game's numerous combat encounters now incorporate stealth as a bigger component, allowing Drake the option to silently dispatch enemies without ever being spotted, escape from a firefight back into stealth once detected, or even bypass patrols entirely. The much more expansive level design with great emphasis on multiple elevations and uneven natural terrain works wonders in promoting this new aspect of play. Of course, some fights are unavoidable, and one can go in guns blazing at every opportunity, but there is great incentive to make good use of the better stealth mechanics, as enemies are oftentimes numerous and quite competent. With the AI being incredibly aggressive and the trained, well-armed private military personnel always actively (and very quickly) trying to suppress, flank, and flush you out of any single piece of cover, its always a great idea to try to at least reduce their numbers before going loud. That combined with solid gun-play and wonderful weapon sound design makes combat (or lack thereof) a blast to play. Interestingly, the game also offers a new lockon-assist feature for players who are perhaps less used to aiming using a controller, and from testing I can say this feature is extremely effective and feels great, making it a great inclusion for those that opt for it. 

Overall, I can safely say that Uncharted 4 is both objectively and subjectively one of the best single-player experiences I have had in recent memory. It is a shining example of what a true AAA experience can be and I'm afraid even my words cannot do it justice. Just, play this game. Buy it, rent it, borrow a friend's console, just play it. Trust  me, it will be a worthwhile experience. I'll see you next week. 


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