Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016)

After the less-than-innovative Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, I feel like the Uncharted series needed something more inventive. Luckily, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End enhances the adventure with some new tools to be used in a variety of scenarios. Moreover, despite being 3 years old, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is one of the most graphically impressive games that I have ever played. This is all of course complimented by the tenets of the Uncharted series: insane action, lovable yet realistic characters, phenomenal writing, and a sense of adventure.

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This entry is without a doubt the best story in the series. The game still follows Nathan Drake and his companions, yet it has a more somber tone as Drake realizes how his lust for adventure is damaging his relationships. After being contacted by his sketchy brother, Drake decides to go on one last treasure hunt to find the lost stash left by the infamous pirate Henry Avery. There are plenty of character-building sequences in this game, including flashbacks from when Nathan and his brother were kids and how they became addicted to treasure hunting. Throughout the entire series, Nathan rarely thinks of how his actions effect his wife Elena and his mentor Sully. In Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, we get a more personal look at the characters and Nathan finally realizes how poorly he is treating those around him.

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Naughty Dog has made some major additions to gameplay of Uncharted. Three new mechanics are introduced: a grappling hook, sliding, and a climbing spike. The climbing spike is given to the player late in the game and does not see much use, but it is a welcome addition nonetheless. It requires the player to dig the spike into certain walls to create something for Nate to hold onto while climbing. It isn’t a revolutionary new tool, but it does make climbing at least a little more interesting than just jumping from ledge to ledge. The two far more important additions are the grappling hook and sliding.

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There are branches throughout the game which Nathan can grapple onto, allowing him to swing across crevices. These branches can be found in climbing sections and combat arenas alike. The same can be said for sliding ramps. These steep ramps have the player slide down them, often times jumping off at the very end to carry momentum into a long jump across a gap. Both the grappling hook and the sliding mechanic were a fantastic way to make climbing sections more interesting. You can actually mistime or misalign jumps from the grappling hook or from sliding. This alone makes climbing sections more engaging, as there is way that you can die if you screw up. The issue is that the grappling hook and sliding ramps are not nearly used frequently enough throughout the course of the game. For the most part, climbing is the same old noninteractive and boring button mashing as you watch Nathan leap from handhold to handhold. And there is more of it than ever.

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I am a proponent for games to include what I categorize as “downtime”. Things like cutscenes, exposition, walking, or the puzzles and climbing in the case of Uncharted. Having some downtime between difficult sections can give the player a break from action. If a game is constant action, then players quickly accrue mental fatigue and will need to take breaks from the game more frequently. While I appreciate that Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End does have plenty of downtime between its intense shootouts, it does feel a little bloated at times. Climbing in particular should be a means to an end, not a core gameplay mechanic. It should serve as a method to traverse terrain, to view the gorgeous locales and set pieces, and to provide small breaks between action. Instead, climbing is frequent and often goes on for too long. The developers try to make it exciting by having the things you are climbing on crumble or fall, but it is pretty much impossible to fail a climbing section without blatantly hitting the wrong buttons.

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Climbing is just one way that the grappling hook and sliding are utilized. They can also be utilized during combat to quickly traverse an arena. Without a doubt, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End has the best level design of the series in this regard. The combat sections usually have multiple buildings and a plethora of ways to traverse the arena. This was mostly done to accommodate the new emphasis on stealth. While stealth did exist in previous entries, it was never a viable option other than taking out a single enemy at the beginning of a fight. Now, you can hide in tall grass to take out adversaries, climb up a building to sneak up behind a sniper at the top, and there are far more walls so that you can navigate a battlefield without being spotted. Even if you are spotted, you can often run away and hide so that enemies lose track of you.

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The levels were obviously designed with that stress on stealth in mind. The developers wanted the player to have many options to sneak about an arena.  Each encounter feels more contained, as you can glance over it before engaging the enemy. You can see where the enemies are located, how many there are, which ones you want to prioritize, and you can begin to plan a route to stealthily take out as many as possible. Of course, the option to go in with guns blazing is always available if the player so desires. The new stealth mechanic adds a new dynamic to combat encounters, and that paired with the level design makes for the most enjoyable combat in the series to date. It feels like guerilla warfare as I constantly dipped in and out of stealth to take out a couple of unsuspected enemies. It is a shame however that once an all-out shootout begins, the gameplay reverts back to the dated systems of its ancestors.

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Being able to stealthily takedown enemies is a great way to make combat more strategic. However, it can be a bit slow as you have to constantly wait for opportunities where enemies are not looking. My bigger issue however is with the standard gunfights. While levels were designed to be easier to navigate without getting pelted by bullets, there still is little reason to ever risk leaving cover. Trailers of the game have Nathan swinging from a rope while shooting, or sliding down a slope to wallop enemies waiting at the bottom. The problem is these tactics are wildly ineffective in the actual game.

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Unless you are playing on the easier difficulty levels, then you are going to get absolutely torn apart by swinging, sliding, or running around during a gunfight. I don’t think the game needs to approach DOOM levels of run-and-gun action, but I wish you were a bit safer when performing action hero maneuvers. Perhaps have the player take reduced damage while moving quickly. That way, if you are swinging or sliding you won’t get killed before you can finish. It makes sense too; a moving target is harder to hit than a stationary one.

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The Uncharted series is known for its elaborate set pieces and action sequences, and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is no different. There are some extremely fun chase sequences and scenes where Drake is hopping from car to car to take out a convoy. This is all displayed beautifully as this game is an absolute visual masterpiece. The moments of over-the-top action is what I have come to expect out of the series, and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End delivers in spades.

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Now that I have played through the entire series, I feel like I should include my general thoughts on these games. The Uncharted games are technically revolutionary due to their high-fidelity graphics. They drive the industry forward in that regard. Moreover, the well-written characters, witty dialogue, and spectacular acting performances are some of the best in any game. Personally, I felt like the gameplay across all four games was underwhelming. Third-person cover based shooters are pretty ubiquitous, and the Uncharted series does nothing to stand out among an abundance of similar games. The puzzles are similarly simplistic, and the climbing is downright noninteractive.

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I equate the Uncharted series to high-budget action flicks, they focus on spectacle and want to appeal to as many people as possible. They probably wanted gameplay to be simplistic, so that players of all types could enjoy the series. Any sort of innovative gameplay always runs the risk of driving players away. I’m not the biggest fan of the series as I place a lot of value into games being creative and pioneering. I think that the games are fine for what they are, and a lot of people definitely enjoy them. Uncharted is the video game equivalent of movies like Indiana Jones or The Avengers. They are enjoyable movies where you can turn your brain off, listen to the witty dialogue, and watch some entertaining action.

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Overall, I think Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is debatably the best in the series. While it has the best combat, visuals, and story in the series it is too bloated with an overabundance of climbing sequences. You could go for hours at a time without any significant gameplay happening. It’s a shame because the gameplay is by far the most refined it has ever been. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End are without a doubt the pinnacle of the series. It is for these reasons that I give Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End a 7/10. While it doesn’t do anything innovative in the gameplay department, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End still has fun combat and insane action.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception (2011)

While Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was a huge leap forward in all aspects, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception did not make any noticeable improvements to the formula. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception plays remarkably similar to its predecessor, so much so that it barely feels like its own game. Since they are so similar, you should read my review on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves to understand my thoughts on that game. My thoughts on Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception are nearly identical barring a few minor changes.

One place of improvement that could be attributed to Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is its overall story. While the story follows the same basic format of seeking treasure in a lost city, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception does focus a bit more on the relationship between characters. This entry into the series finally recounts how Nathan and Sully met, and how Sully became a father figure to the young vagabond. During these flashbacks, a young Nathan is attempting to steal a ring from a museum when he encounters Sully. Many years later, the game takes place when Nathan and Sully utilize the ring to unearth a path to Iram of the Pillars. From there, the story follows the same general plot points as its predecessors as Nathan and company follow a clue laden trail.

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Despite Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception being a nearly identical experience to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, it still deserves credit for being an impressive adventure in its own right. The game mostly takes place in France, Syria, and Yemen, as well as a few chapters on the ocean. There are plenty of bombastic set pieces and action sequences which Uncharted is known for. From crashing a plane to escaping the clutches of modern-day pirates by sinking their ships, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is certainly not lacking on action.

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There seems to be a new emphasis on melee combat in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. There are frequent scenarios in which Drake must punch his way through dozens of enemies. Unfortunately, this importance on melee combat is misguided due its mechanics. Melee combat is nothing but a quick-time event (QTE). Simply press the button that pops up on the screen. Not only does this take the player out of the moment, but it also removes any sort of decision making. I still feel like the gunfights in Uncharted are overly simple, but the fistfights are far worse in that regard. When the player is in a shootout, at least they are given the agency to choose what cover to get behind, what enemies they want to shoot at, what weapons to use, so on and so forth. Strategy and skill come into play during firefights. In hand-to-hand combat, you simply press a button when the game tells you to.

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One other difference that I noticed was a change in how the combat arenas were designed. In most of the shootouts in the previous games, enemies would only appear in front of the player. The arenas in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception are noticeably more open and enemies are prone to flanking the player. On one hand, I like that Naughty Dog is trying to encourage the player to move around a bit more. You cannot really sit behind one piece of cover when enemies are coming at you from multiple angles. On the other hand, there is no reasonable way to deal with these new flanking threats except targeting them before they reach you. Moving around from cover to cover is dangerous considering that getting hit a few times equates to death. And once an enemy is on top of you, they engage in melee combat, meaning that you are stuck in a QTE while getting shot at.

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It is incredibly frustrating to die while being caught in an animation which you didn’t want to do anyway. I don’t want Drake to stand up and start punching at a guy when he’s getting shot at by a dozen others. Once an enemy has successfully flanked you, you are doomed. I appreciate that the developers realize that posting up behind a wall and taking shots at enemies when it is safe grows boring after a while. However, these new rushing and flanking enemies don’t have meaningful ways to counter them other than just prioritizing killing them before other enemies.

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My biggest gripe about Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception was just how derivative it was. The climbing, puzzles, and shooting mechanics are all exactly the same as its predecessor. Even the story itself follows the same outline. I would’ve liked to see something to make the either the climbing or the shootouts more engaging. As it stands, the climbing sections are still incredibly mundane and not even remotely interactive. The combat is serviceable, but it does not match the explosive action to match the game’s bombastic set pieces. Uncharted is all about capturing the feeling of being an action movie, cowering behind cover for minutes at a time just doesn’t cut it.

Overall, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is in no way a bad game. It is just unfortunate that no strides have been made to improve any of the game’s core gameplay pillars. Instead, we got a game that seems afraid to deviate from the successful formula of its ancestors. Regardless, I think that Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is a fine game, just not one that is ever going to be regarded as influential or important.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009)

My biggest complaint about Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune was that the game aged relatively poorly. It was certainly playable, but it was obviously outdated. What’s astonishing to me is just how large of a leap was made between Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves on nearly every conceivable level. For the games only being released 2 years apart, the second game in this legendary adventure series blows its predecessor out of the water. The visuals, gameplay, level design, and overall scope of the game were so dramatically improved that I do not hesitate to recommend Uncharted 2: Among Thieves despite me not falling in love with the original Uncharted.

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The basis of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is that Nathan Drake and his companions are retracing path of Marco Polo, attempting to find the lost city of Shangri-La. This leads the player through a plethora of gorgeous locations. From dense jungles in Borneo, to a crowded city in Nepal, to a remote village overlooking the Himalayas. These striking locales are memorable not only for their views, but also for the action sequences that occur in them. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves makes phenomenal use of set pieces to make for unforgettable experiences. The game opens with Drake precariously hanging onto a train which is dangling from a cliff. Whether you are jumping from rooftop to rooftop avoiding a gunship, or employing guerilla warfare to take down a tank on a mountainside, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has some unforgettable action.

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The components of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves are identical to its predecessor, except they were vastly improved upon. The 3 pillars of gameplay remain: combat, climbing, and puzzles. Combat in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves feels far smoother to play than its predecessor. Hit registration is better and guns feel more impactful. Enemies actually react when hit, so you know when you’ve hit them. Headshots feel far more consistent. Movement in general is smoother in every regard. While the game is still a third-person shooter with no obvious additions, the gameplay was polished so that it is actually fun.

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One of the issues that I attribute to the gameplay is that even through the newfound shine of modernization, it is still a relatively rudimentary third-person shooter. The vast majority of gunfights revolve around the player posting up behind a piece of cover, popping their head out for a second or two to kill an enemy, and then hiding back behind the cover to recover health. Occasionally enemies will flank or throw grenades, but this just equates to swapping to a different piece of cover. While it can be engaging for short bursts, it is not innovative or creative in any way. Moreover, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves occasionally has pacing issues.

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The pacing of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is one of the games greatest triumphs as well as one of the games biggest flaws. For the majority of the game, Naughty Dog masterfully divides all of the different components that define Uncharted. Cutscenes, action sequences, combat, climbing, and puzzles are all represented frequently. They are split into small, digestible chunks so that the player does not get bored. When each component is only 10-15 minutes at a time before switching gears and doing something else, then their individual basicness can often be overlooked. For the vast majority of the game, that is the case. Even though the climbing, puzzles, and combat are all individually simple, they worked well together in small chunks. Unfortunately, for some sections, the beginning and end of the game in particular, the same cannot be said. When I have to spend hours in gunfights with no reprieve, I start to get exhausted.

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The combat of the Uncharted series can be thoroughly enjoyed in brief sections. When punctuated by cutscenes, set pieces, and action sequences the shootouts can be rather fun. And after a few minutes of relaxing climbing or puzzles, there is an allure of getting into a firefight. Still, the combat is absolutely rudimentary. Sitting behind a wall and popping out to take a couple shots at a time is not exhilarating. Especially when a gunfight goes on for too long and you are stuck behind the same piece of cover for what feels like an eternity. It can get stressful and frustrating as you just want this particular fight to be over, but sticking your head out for a second too long results in death. Again, this basic third-person shooter gameplay is not offensive, but there are a couple of combat sections in the game that drag on for way too long.

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I would be remiss to not comment on the increased frequency of climbing in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The first game in the series certainly had climbing, but was not nearly utilized as much as it is in this entry. I think this is a bit worrying, as the climbing in these games is completely brainless. You simply hit a button and hold the stick in the general direction of a ledge and Nathan will magically snap to it. There is no fail state. There is no way to lose. It is completely devoid of player input. The developers try to make it seem exciting by creating spectacle around the player, but it doesn’t sufficiently mask how boring climbing is. The climbing is necessary downtime between intense gunfights. It serves as a breather and an opportunity to take in the environment around you. I just hope that future games in the series do not continue this trend of adding more and more climbing sections. It was mostly tolerable in this game, but there was definitely more of it than there was in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.

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Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, like its predecessor, does not have a particularly memorable or hard-hitting story. Instead, the story is the vehicle to deliver the player to all sorts of interesting locations, as well as giving the characters plenty of interaction. I do think this game had a better overall narrative than the original game, but it remains of the realm of an action B movie. Still, the series shines because of its characters. Nathan, Sully, Elena, and the newly introduced Chloe all feel like living, breathing, characters. Their interactions, dialogue, and motivations are incredibly well written. This is complimented by the performances of the actors that voice these characters.

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Overall, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves significantly polished the base left by its predecessor. There was a large graphical leap, controls were tighter, gameplay more crisp, better use of set pieces, and a more intriguing story. I wrote most of the flaws of the original game off due to its age, but I feel like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is modern enough that I cannot dismiss the shortcomings of the series thus far. The combat can get dull after a while, and climbing is entirely unengaging. Despite this, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is a solid action-adventure game. Especially if you like tons of spectacle and well-written characters.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007)

The trend of cinematic games can be traced back to Naughty Dog’s adventurous series: Uncharted. These third-person shooters have a heavy emphasis on writing, storytelling, and cinematic aspects. If you were to transform Indiana Jones into a video game, Uncharted would be the result. The series follows Nathan Drake, a charismatic treasure hunter who is addicted to the thrill of unraveling century-old mysteries and claiming their bounties. The first game in the series, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, sets the tone and formula for its successors.

Uncharted bases its adventures in myths from reality, which provides an interesting alternate history spin on most of Drake’s travels. For example, in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Drake and company are hunting for El Dorado. Drake deciphers a series of clues to lead him to the lost city of gold. There is an air of mystery of why the city has never been found and why its treasures have been undiscovered for so long. The trail of clues leads the player across the globe, from remote jungles to abandoned citadels to dilapidated cities. While the overarching story is nothing spectacular or groundbreaking, it serves as a backdrop to the characters themselves.

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The quality of writing in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is shockingly good, especially for a game that came out in 2007. Video games have always had an issue with campy writing, but are usually excused as writing is not nearly as important in games as it is in film. Luckily, games in the past few years have done a much better job at hiring professional writers to create natural and flowing dialogue. The Uncharted series may have been the start of this trend, as the emphasis on quality dialogue is apparent. The characters banter and rib each other like friends would in real life. They have obvious motivations and flaws which shape their personalities. Drake’s drive to discover lost treasure is one of his greatest strengths as it makes him remarkably persistent. Yet his single-mindedness in this regard often thrusts himself and his companions into danger. All of the characters of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune feel like real humans, with tangible desires and personalities, and this is all due to the natural dialogue and writing.

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The gameplay of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune revolves around three pillars: gunfights, puzzles, and climbing. The game attempts to strike a balance between these vastly different styles of interaction. These components have strikingly variation in player interactivity. Gunfights require the player’s full attention, you need to constantly search for cover, aim and shoot, keep track of where enemies are, rotate through different weapons, and so on and so forth. Puzzles in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune do not necessitate much thought or input from the player. The vast majority of them have the player open up Drake’s notebook and decipher a clue on how to progress. Most of the time, this means hitting switches or levers in a certain order. Not exactly cerebral or engaging. Climbing is the least interesting element of all. Simply hitting a button to jump from ledge to ledge is a far cry from strategically making your way through a gunfight.

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What I consider to be the core gameplay of the Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune series are its gunfights. These games are third-person shooters which utilize a cover system. Hitting a button will duck the player behind nearby cover, and clicking your aim button will pop your head out to take a few shots at open enemies. Generally, this iteration of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune feels a bit like a shooting gallery. You pop up for a couple of seconds to blast at an enemy or two, and then duck back down to avoid taking too much damage. Rinse and repeat until all enemies are eliminated. Occasionally, enemies will try to run up to you or use grenades to flush you out of cover, but for the most part you can just sit behind a single wall to dispatch of most foes. Its not nearly as exciting as it could be.

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Moreover, the gunplay just feels off to me. Bullets don’t feel like they have significant impact. Enemies don’t really recoil when they are hit, so its hard to gauge if you are even landing your shots. This is not helped by the fact that some enemies have massive health pools and take loads of shots to take down. Furthermore, hit registration feels very off. Headshots in particular seem to miss way more often than they should. All in all, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune definitely feels a bit dated in its gunplay mechanics, which is not surprising for a game that I am playing 12 years after its initial release.

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What Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune does best is cultivate the feeling of adventure and discovery. The prospect of playing as a globetrotting treasure hunter is one of the most appealing aspects of the series. Drake travels the world, picking up breadcrumbs left by historic adventurers. This idea lands the player in a variety of locales, exploring tight caverns and catacombs as well as climbing to peaks of mountains to view scenic vistas. Every game needs an intriguing concept, and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune nails that.

Overall, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune felt dated in a lot of its design. The stiff gunplay and occasionally cumbersome controls cannot be ignored. Additionally, a huge draw of the series is just soaking in the scenic horizons of the game’s various locales. This is far less attractive when the game is 12 years old and is far removed from being graphically impressive. Its hard to fault the game for me playing it so late, but its undeniable that Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune suffers from its age. Regardless, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune did a great job in many aspects such as capturing the sense of adventure and having well written characters. That is why I am excited to play the later entries in the series, as I hope that some modernization is all that Uncharted needs.