Sic parvis magna. Greatness from small beginnings. This wasn’t exactly a phrase that meant a big deal to me as I readied myself for my fifth adventure in Nathan Drake’s grave robbing gear (including the Vita-only Uncharted: Golden Abyss). Initially, it appeared nothing more than some, albeit pretty, wording adorning the special edition Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End PS4 console. Perhaps it was simply another hint towards another by-the-numbers plot with a handsome everyman attempting to claim his fortune against insurmountable odds.
Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series has been consistently good since its inception in 2007 with Drake’s Fortune, but it has also matured and improved with time. Yet, the whole has always been greater than the sum of its parts. The combat has always felt a touch limited and the platforming can be frustrating. Each story has been a little safe and repetitive, never getting as much as a sniff at their post-apocalyptic chums from The Last of Us. Never bad by any stretch, but each piece of the action-adventure puzzle was functional, serviceable, always tied in a neat bow with the cinema-quality art direction.
But, that was then. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is now. With Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann at the helm, Uncharted 4 is a triumphant love letter to both the series and the third person action-adventure genre. The characters are more real and believable than ever, the platforming and puzzling have become even more inventive and rich, and the combat is the most varied and satisfying.
Uncharted’s first outing on PS4 sees an older Nathan, now a man settled down with his wife Elena, and with noticeably more grey flecks in his hair. However, new cast member and brother of Nathan, Sam, is the man to tempt Nathan out of retirement to grab the elusive treasure of famous Devonian pirate Henry Avery.
So, it all sounds rather familiar, and in many ways it is. The ‘main’ plot is typical Uncharted; where the treasure narrative is concerned, everything does feel a little safe, acting as essentially a plot device to kickstart your globetrotting travels from Scotland to Malaysia and Madagascar.
But, the real story is a family drama. Druckmann and Straley have given Drake and co. the Joel and Ellie treatment; the Drakes, Sully and Elena all feel remarkably real with subtle and nuanced characterisation. The casual banter, optional conversations and thoughtfully-paced story go the extra mile in terms of character development. The central twist strains the relationships of the main characters to their limit, giving the overall story a far greater personal weight than any other game in the series. Steering clear of spoilers, let’s just say there’s plenty of fan service to round off the single player. That said, it is a shame that villains Nadine Ross and Rafe Adler are not so developed and relegated to the story’s background.
A Triumphant Love Letter to both the series and the genre
Where previous games in the series were strictly linear, Uncharted 4 deepens the scope and complexity of its environments. Druckmann defines the game as ‘wide-linear’. The end point will always be the same, but each location is larger, with different routes and ways of reaching your goal. Levels are more explorable than ever, and your optional searches are rewarded with collectibles and background story info for your journal. Combat areas have been improved in a similar way; there are now countless ways to deal with your enemies that include stealthy approaches through long grass and climbing, to aerial assaults using the new rope swing. With its extra story beats, meaningful exploration and gameplay choice, Uncharted 4 feels like an actual adventure. Discovering the secrets of treasure hunters past feel special, like they are my own.
This isn’t a perfect game, though. Melee is imprecise, the climbing can be unintuitive and the vast majority of the collectibles serve no purpose other than to push you to explore each environment further. The hundred-odd treasures that don’t provide extra story suffer from a bad case of The Order 1886-itis. The multiplayer that featured for the first time in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves makes a return, but is little more than a passable distraction. The levels based on those from the single player feel watered down in their complexity and variety.
But, you didn’t come here for the multiplayer. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, despite some inconsequential flaws, is a concise, 16 hour set of reasons as to why I play video games. It has inventive gunplay, platforming that encourages true adventuring and immersion in another world, and whole, layered characters that develop complex relationships between each other and the player. It’s a game that, when you finally lay down your controller as the credits roll, will fill you with nothing but heartache that you’ll never experience it and its characters’ exploits for the first time ever again. It’s the action-adventure event of the decade, a “Where were you when you played it”, experience. Not bad for a game dismissed as simply ‘Dude Raider’ by many gamers in 2007. Sic parvis magna indeed.