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Editor’s note: This post has some story spoilers, though we’ve avoided the biggest spoilers. Check out our official review of Uncharted 4 here.
Sic Parvis Magna. That was the Latin inscription on the ring of Sir Francis Drake. It means “greatness, from small beginnings.” And it’s an apt description of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, the new PlayStation 4 video game from developer Naughty Dog.
This is the fourth and final installment in the tale of Nathan Drake, an adventurer who named himself after the great English explorer from the Elizabethan era. And it is one of most beautiful and thrilling video games ever created, both visually and in the depth of its story and characters. I have a little issue with the actual ending, but it’s not enough to hurt my overall impression of the game. A Thief’s End, an action-adventure shooter that debuts today as an incredibly important exclusive for Sony, is one of the best games that Naughty Dog has ever made.
I completed the full campaign on the hard difficulty mode in 18.17 hours, according to the stats in the game. There are 22 chapters and an epilogue. The game is a big leap above Uncharted 3, which had some annoying repetition. And I find it hard to believe that the silly, almost juvenile story of the original Uncharted — a thinly disguised male version of Tomb Raider and a clear rip-off of Raiders of the Lost Ark — has moved from its small beginnings to such a great and compelling final installment in Uncharted 4. At last, in this final masterpiece of a game, we get to discover whether it’s all just escapist fun or if there’s some kind of moving message behind it all.
Incredible ‘Uncharted’ moments
The graphics of Uncharted 4 are great on the grand level; you can see breathtaking tropical landscapes for miles from atop high mountains. Then there’s the ultra-realistic human faces of the characters such as Nathan, Sam, Elena Fisher, and Sully — four of the most interesting and beloved video game characters ever. Viewed up close, you can read their emotions in their facial expressions — like the look of disgust on Elena’s face when she finds that Nathan has told her another one of his fibs. Elena is the opposite of the sexy vixen characters from video game history, and, as a fairly regular person, she’s one of the most memorable female game characters ever created.
There are plenty of set pieces, or cinematic moments where Drake gets into unbelievable situations. In Uncharted 2, Drake was hanging off the edge of a caboose in a derailed train that was dangling over a cliff. In Uncharted 3, Drake fell out of a flaming airplane. In this game, Drake has a lot of these insane moments.
The greatest of these is one that everyone has seen — the previewed level in King’s Bay, a city in Madagascar, when Sully and Nathan have to evade an armored car chasing them through city streets and then Nathan has to dispatch the motorcycle and jeep riders chasing Sam. But there are plenty more surprising set pieces that take place in crowded parties or a Scottish castle.
Not all of these big moments are well-executed, though. Uncharted 4 starts with Nathan Drake and his brother Sam navigating a storm in a boat while evading other speed boats chasing them. The waves looked good and the storm graphics were awesome, but it was a little silly playing demolition derby with the boats.
A story with choices and clashing characters
The story then flashes back to a moment when Nathan and his older brother escape from an orphanage when they are young boys. They climb on the rooftops and make some harrowing jumps. This is just a little training for the serious climbing and jumping that they’ll do later in the game.
Sam is clearly a mischievous influence on Nathan, and he’s always willing to be more of a criminal than his younger brother. Sam’s motto, articulated by one of his companions early in the game, really fits: “I am a man of fortune, and I must seek my fortune.” Sam has a darker side, but he truly believes that he and Nathan are “meant to do this” — that is, find hidden cities and ancient treasures.
The story flashes forward to a prison in Mexico, where an adult Nathan is in a fight with a gang leader in the prison yard. He is rescued by a Mexican guard, who then escorts Nathan outside the prison and asks him to fetch a treasure from a tower. Nathan does so. The guard gathers Nathan, Sam, and their partner Rafe in an office. They have stumbled upon a clue on the whereabouts of the treasure of pirate Henry Avery, who amassed a fortune worth an estimated $400 million more than 300 years ago. Rather than share the promise of finding this treasure with the guard, Rafe chooses to deal with the guard in a ruthless way, and then they all try to escape.
The escape is a chase full of shooting and daredevil moments, but Sam is wounded and falls off a building. Nathan wants to go back for him, but Rafe convinces Nathan to join him in their last chance for freedom. Nathan is racked with guilt and sadness. Rafe clearly is willing to sacrifice others in his quest for treasure while Nathan cares more about the people he is with.
He goes on to the adventures of a lifetime, without his brother, and in the company of his mentor Victor Sullivan. Fifteen years after the events in the prison escape and after the events of Uncharted, Uncharted 2, and Uncharted 3, Nathan has settled down with Elena, the newswoman-turned-adventurer, into a job at a salvage company. The job is hilariously boring as Nathan stamps a bunch of papers. There’s a funny moment where they play a classic Sony game on the original PlayStation in their home.
Then he hears a knock on the door. Sam has returned, and he relates how he escaped from the Mexican prison in a harrowing partnership with a Mexican drug lord. The brothers sit and talk in one of the finest story cinematics of the game. Sam is shocked that Nathan has gone through so many adventures — and come back with no riches. Sam entices Nathan on a chance for one last adventure, the pursuit of Henry Avery’s treasure. The stakes for Nathan have never been higher, and the consequences for his decisions appear to be deeply personal.
The storytelling in this part of the game is unbelievably good, with beautiful graphics and seamless transitions between gameplay and story moments. It sets up the basic tug of war over Nathan’s soul. In past Uncharted games, Elena would often struggle over Nathan with another woman or with Sully. But in those moments, the attraction between Elena and Nathan was clearly always the strongest. In this case, Nathan faces a dilemma. He has to choose between a boring life with Elena or the promise of one last adventure with his long lost brother, Sam. With the exception of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, there hasn’t been a better character-driven story in video games.
There’s a moment, shown frequently in the trailers, when Elena discovers Nathan’s deception in going off with Sam. She confronts Nathan: “If you’re done lying to me, then you should stop lying to yourself.”
Blending story and gameplay
The pacing of the story is good. It stretches across many hours of gameplay, and I never got bored or fed up with the different twists. I enjoyed solving a lot of the puzzles that stood in the way of the adventurers in their pursuit of the pirates. And I could see a parallel between the story of the pirates and the story of our heroes as they try to get a to the treasure before Rafe and his evil partner, Nadine, get to it first.
Nathan is always getting into trouble. But as I pointed out in my review of Uncharted 3, he’s not a superhero martial artist who can run up walls. He is an ordinary person, thrust into impossible situations. I like him and can relate to him as he wobbles and gasps as he climbs up walls. If he charges Rambo style, he gets killed. He jokes about the fixes that he gets into, and he constantly banters with Sam. This adds levity to the repetitive parts of the gameplay and makes them more tolerable. (And while there is less repetition than in Uncharted 3, there’s still a fair amount of it across 18 hours).
This game also has more variety than Uncharted 3, where the only way to interact was to shoot somebody. In Uncharted 4, the developers introduce the ability to hide in tall vegetation. This enables Nathan to hide in the grass and sneak up on enemies. He can take them out from behind, in stealth, without alerting the rest of the armed villains. There were some very big, expansive levels where I tried to shoot everyone, only to fail every time. So I started taking out bad guys one by one, and I essentially completed the entire level without a real gunfight. This stealth gameplay goes hand-in-hand with the huge levels that are possible for the first time on the PS4.
We also get a lot of variety by driving around in vehicles. Naughty Dog makes it pretty easy to control the vehicles, but a lot of the driving isn’t that fun as you’re figuring out how to take jeeps through muddy riverbeds. You can pull the jeep up using a winch, which is a humorous but overused gag that gets tiring.
And we get variety in the form of a grappling hook, which means that we don’t have to climb and jump all of the time. There are also some well-placed melee fights that break up the shooting monotony. The enemy A.I. is also smarter than it used to be, so you have to take cover a lot more than you used to in previous games. And you have the option of findingup to 190 hidden treasures sprinkled throughout the terrain.
But at least this kind of action saves us from having to shoot a thousand enemies over the course of 18 hours. And, thankfully, Naughty Dog fixed the problem where it took a whole 11 seconds for Nathan to rotate 180 degrees when he was trying to turn and shoot someone behind him. The animations for shooting are much more fluid and natural in Uncharted 4.
There’s a few bad moments in the game. I mentioned the unrealistic boat-bumping battle. Then there’s a long sequence when Elena and Nathan go to great trouble to take their jeep up a bunch of cliffs. And there’s just no point to it. It is like the most worthless jeep in history. The winch scenes go on too long, and it’s a little too easy to get lost in some of the big levels.
An obscure reference
As Uncharted 4 inched toward its ending, I thought about the meaning behind the whole series. Warren Spector, the maker of games like Thief and Deus Ex, has criticized Uncharted for having a story that drives the player, rather than the other way around. The game is interactive to a degree, but the story often leaves you with no choice, or one ending. The player only gets so much control, and Spector believes this isn’t the right way to make a video game. The Naughty Dog crew begs to differ.
Amy Hennig, the former creative director at Naughty Dog and the writer behind the first three games, received a special thanks in the credits of the game. At a recent talk in Montreal, she talked about the Uncharted series as a “love letter to the classic pulp adventure genre.” The aim was to recapture the fun, charm, adventure, and romance of the genre of movies, books, and comics. They drew from a lot of sources, as if the Uncharted series was a puzzle unto itself.
One of her obscure references was a 1942 film, Sullivan’s Travels. It’s about a Hollywood director who is fed up with churning out lightweight comedies and yearns to make a socially relevant film about the sorrows of humanity. It’s no coincidence that Victor Sullivan, one of the key figures in the Uncharted series, shares a last name with John Sullivan from the old film. Preston Sturges, the director of the film, wrote the film’s story as a plea to fellow movie makers “not to abandon the fun in favor of the message.” In the midst of World War II, he was saying the directors were getting a little too “deep dish and they ought to leave the preaching to the preachers,” Hennig said.
In the film, Sullivan has one comic misadventure after another. Then the film takes a dark turn. Bit by bit, Sullivan loses everything except his ability to laugh. He realizes his greatest gift as a film maker is to make people laugh. The film was criticized as a comedy that got too serious and as a tragedy that was too funny.
“This is the subversive thing about Sturges’ movie,” Hennig said. “He made a message film arguing about message films.” The film had a message embedded in a story with escapist fun.
Hennig said that games are being criticized in a similar way.
“There is so much dogma about what games should and should not be,” Hennig said. “And we want so badly to be taken seriously, my fear is that in the face of this criticism, we start to take ourselves too seriously and will abandon the fun in favor of the message. And forget that above all, our goal is to entertain.
“That is why Sullivan’s Travels is an important touchstone for me. It’s a reminder that there is nothing wrong with escapist fun. It’s OK to just entertain. In fact, maybe that ought to be our primary goal. Our games have the power to transport people out of their daily lives. So even in the midst of all the gunslinging and two-fisted combat, stunts, and spectacle, we can still tell a story about beauty, despair, compassion, fear, loss, regret, and grace, with a little sex in it.”
For the most part, Uncharted 4 lives up to this ambition. But it does a lot more than just entertain.
So many things come together in Uncharted 4. It has better gameplay, graphics that push the power of the platform, a signature story that is worthy of Naughty Dog, diverting puzzles that aren’t annoyingly over-complicated, adventures in faraway jungles and cities, and a certain finality in knowing that the series is coming to its end. In the later part of the game, I was overwhelmed by a fear that one of the major good characters was going to die. Rarely has any video game moved me that way to care about its characters. It’s clearly a work of art that is far greater than its humble start.
My fellow GamesBeat colleague Mike Minotti wrote our official review of Uncharted 4 last week. He gave it a rating of 98 out of 100. On Metacritic, a review aggregator, the game has a rating of 94 out of 100. I previously rated Quantum Break at a 90. I rated Tomb Raider at 91 out of 100, and I rated Call of Duty: Black Ops III at 92. And I rated Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception at 91 out of 100. But clearly, this Uncharted game is more fun to play. I rate it at 97 out of 100.
I docked it the one point because I disagree with the ending. I’ll leave it at that in this article, but I’m tempted to write about it separately. I expected something different, in part because I was thinking very hard about what Naughty Dog meant by “A Thief’s End.” I expect only the best endings from Naughty Dog, in part because of the great endings for games such as The Last of Us.
The ending does a good job of taking us full circle. But there’s one missing element that I thought was coming. All I mean here is that the choices that we make in life should have consequences, and there’s a moment here where Naughty Dog should carry its story to its logical conclusion — and then doesn’t. This is one of the times when I wished I had more agency as a player. It is an interactive video game, after all, and I want to make my story end the way that I want it to end. Rather than have the story happen to me, I wanted at this moment to seize control the story and its outcome. Instead, Naughty Dog, as always, controls what happens in the ending.
I can’t dock much more than one point for this part of the story, because, in a contradiction of contradictions, I do like the way Naughty Dog winds up the whole series in the story ending that it has chosen. I think I understand why Naughty Dog chose this ending, mainly because of the message that Hennig delivered in her talk. Uncharted 4 takes care of the final moments of its beloved characters in a satisfying way. Nathan Drake is perhaps Naughty Dog’s greatest creation. He has been the source of an enormous amount of fun, and, in the end, Naughty Dog has has taken care to end his story well.
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