THERE are a lot of ‘X’s in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. You press ‘X’ to jump, for example. And ‘X’ marks the spot, because you’re searching for pirate treasure.
But the most important ‘X’ of all is Samuel Drake, the brother of series lead Nathan Drake. Once thought lost, Sam returns from the dead to take Nathan on a final adventure.
Naughty Dog finally nailed it, after three attempts, they have made Uncharted the game it always promised to be — an emotionally involving epic that also gets the balance right on gameplay. The designers narrowed the story to one of brotherly love, but broadened the gameplay to include more choice and fluidity. The result is gaming at its cinematic best.
In previous games, Drake was full of quips and one-liners, Indiana Jones by way of Terry Wogan. When Uncharted tried to add depth in the past, our affection for Drake was built on those quips and little else. More than that, it was hard to see gravitas when Drake was mowing down hundreds of faceless minions every 20 minutes.
This time around, we are introduced to Drake’s upbringing in an American orphanage, punctuated by visits from his big brother Sam, who we previously knew nothing about. From there a picture is built of brotherly connection and dependency — it’s Sam and Nathan against the world — which culminates in a treasure hunt, years later, that goes horribly wrong. Sam appears to die, and Nathan moves on without him.
Fifteen years later, Drake has retired after the events of Uncharted 3 and is happily married to Chloe. He does salvage dives for a living and spends his evenings planning vacations and living in a three-bedroom house. Then Sam returns from the dead, and one last adventure begins.
It’s a fantastic premise that Naughty Dog handle beautifully. Both Nathan and Sam feel like fully fleshed out characters, thrown together again after years of separation, with only the player knowing that things, surely, can’t end well. More than that, however, you can see what Naughty Dog learned from The Last of Us. They have made Uncharted 4 a more intimate story by partnering Sam and Nathan together for some of the journey and letting us play out important parts of their past, without hindering the epic blockbuster scale of the previous games.
Just as importantly, the gameplay has been given a stretch too. The cocktail remains a mixture of climbing sections and shooting, but both have been improved upon. The climbing, in particular, feels far less stiff and prescribed. This is partly down to the addition of a grappling hook and ‘slopes’ that you can slide down, which give a broader sense of movement, but Naughty Dog have also made the locations more attractive to explore. The grappling hook, especially, allowed them to create bigger spaces that aren’t navigated solely by rock-climbing, which makes for much more interesting level of design and discovery.
Meanwhile, the shooting hasn’t changed much, but the enemy animations are — much like the game’s title — off the charts. Rarely before has a game captured that sense of ‘action movie death scene’ for each of the hundreds of henchmen you will face. It’s the first time Uncharted has made the shooting feel fun but superfluous to the story, an addition that doesn’t distract from the plot’s momentum.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a real triumph for Naughty Dog. Much like The Force Awakens and Toy Story 3, it plays beautifully on both the history of the characters involved and the audience’s relationship with the series. And while cinematic comparisons have always been unavoidable with Uncharted, this may be the first time the series leaves those comparisons behind and stands out on its own as a work of superior entertainment. The previous games were missing something — but this one has the X factor.
FORTUNES OF REVERSAL
Another way of respecting history is through backwards compatibility, something Microsoft are working hard to implement on Xbox One. As it stands, more than 170 games are listed as backwards compatible, with Call of Duty: Black Ops the latest game added to the list. Black Ops was one of the system’s most requested titles, with 110,000 online votes before being announced. Other top-requested titles are Skate and Bioshock Infinite. This is a rare occasion where getting things backwards pays off.
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