Review: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Uncharted4_HeaderDevinRogersI’m going to do my best not to fill this review with hyperbole, but Uncharted 4 makes that a near impossible challenge.  Also, there are no spoilers in this review.

Going into this game, I was relatively indifferent to the Uncharted franchise. Its gameplay has always struck me as straight-forward with not a lot of complexity.  Polished, sure, but relatively run-of-the-mill. Uncharted 2 was far and away the standout of the first three games due to its story and flashy set pieces, but flash can only take you so far.

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That said, Uncharted 4 is overflowing with flash. Naughty Dog has raised the bar for console graphics to a height few other companies will likely hit this generation.  Though the impact is stronger in the first few hours, I found myself marveling at the spectacle and muttering phrases akin to “Wow” throughout the entire campaign.  I spent a solid hour during the early prison level just walking around taking PlayStation 4 screenshots. Without diving too much into jargon, the physically-based rendering did wonders for this game, and I think now we’re going to start seeing much more of it throughout the industry. Uncharted 4 is a technical masterpiece.

But it isn’t just the realism of the visuals that deserves credit.  The character animations – especially their facial expressions – are some of the finest you will find in a video game. There are moments when Nate and his comrades get into melee fights with a group of enemies, and watching all of the different throws, punches and tag teams will leave you in awe at how real and sincere they look.  Tender or exciting moments when the characters express love, sympathy, sadness, shock, fury… they are all feelings we can empathize with because the cast looks and feels very human.  Because Nate and the others stand out as if they were real people the game becomes all the more immersive.

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Speaking of which, Naughty Dog went out of their way to ensure near-total immersion throughout the campaign.  As you progress through a level, there is a day/night cycle, though it isn’t your typical 10-minute video game day. The speed of movement of the sun seemingly follows that of real life to add an element of realism, and it is likely triggered by level progression, which the levels themselves can be rather long.

There are many little details like a vibrating washing machine only partially visible through a half-open closet that are easy to miss.  When running through a crowded area, I was pushed aside by someone who thought I was trying to cut in front of them in a line of people waiting at a counter. I could have run in front of many different people in line, but this specific person was designed to be pissed off.  There are even subtle design touches that help characterize the cast. Without going into spoilers, after one particularly emotional moment, the characters stopped talking as I drove up a gorgeous cliff while a soft piano tune filled in the silence to add emphasis to the weight of the previous conversation.

The voice acting here is as good as you will find in the best video games.  Though there is an overarching plot about pirates that drives the adventure forward, my favorite parts of Uncharted 4’s story is in its smaller moments.  The constant banter between characters as you progress through a level is both entertaining and revealing, coloring the texture of the situation the cast is in at any given moment.  It’s very cinematic, which isn’t for everyone, but Naughty Dog does a fantastic job of blurring the line between passive and interactive storytelling.

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I really, really wanted to give this game a perfect 10 out of 10. It executes so well in the story, visual and audio departments that in those categories it puts most other games to shame.  Unfortunately, while the gameplay isn’t bad, it’s just merely good and nothing worth praising from the rooftops.  There are a couple different areas (Scotland being the first) that drag on a bit too long as you climb, jump, climb, swing, rappel, and climb some more.  Not to say that climbing is bad; when used in battle or during puzzle solving sections it’s a fun addition to the game.  But after you’ve been climbing across mountains and ravines for what seems like 30 minutes without a break, it starts to wear on the fun factor.

The third-person combat isn’t anything special.  If you’ve played previous Uncharted games, then you’ll know exactly what to expect here.  There is an added element of stealth meters not seen in previous games that adds to the fun, but the enemy encounters are typical cover shooter fare.  Uncharted 4 also comes with a multiplayer mode. It is simple but fun, and there are plenty of cosmetic items to unlock. Though I grew bored with it rather quickly, I saw it as icing on the cake, and so it didn’t have much of an effect on my overall score of the game.

I have zero doubts that Uncharted 4 will be in the nomination pool for 2016’s Game of the Year in many gaming circles.  It’s story and visuals are unrivaled so far this year and some of the best in gaming history (hyperbole… couldn’t avoid it). However, its quality-but-cookie-cutter gameplay may hold it back from the ultimate prize.

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