The Uncharted developer has returned from a brief sojourn in the zombie-apocalypse and is once again tending to its third-person action-adventure series, in the fourth (and final?) outing of Nathan Drake. The Last of Us is, by any standard, a modern masterpiece, and so hopes have been high that some of that stardust would rub off on the studio's more established franchise. And guess what? It absolutely does.
That makes it sound like Uncharted wasn't already a likeable and polished action series. It definitely is/was. But there's also an argument that by the end of Drake's Deception, a bit of fatigue had started to set in. Big changes behind the scenes at Naughty Dog have meant that any cobwebs have well and truly been blown away, and A Thief's End brings renewed freshness and vitality to the franchise just in time for its grandstand conclusion. That's not to say that there's been a huge departure from past iterations, on the contrary, but the studio has here served up the best, most refined game in the series to date, and certainly one of the most enjoyable single-player campaigns we've ever played through.
All told it took us around 15 hours to clock through the campaign on normal, so for some it'll take longer, and no doubt others will complete it with more haste. However, for the entirety of the play-through we were enthralled, and as we were whisked around the world on a globe-trotting treasure hunt of epic proportions, we could only admire the superb pacing of the story. If there's a studio better than Naughty Dog at crafting engaging interactive adventures and drip feeding us exposition just when we need narrative nourishment, we've not played its games. The story twists and turns just enough to keep you on the edge of your seat, and while the ride is never cinematic silky smooth thanks to friction in the form of hundreds of henchman begging for bullets, we were still stuck to the screen like glue throughout.
The assembled cast of characters are a fleshed out bunch, and they're largely believable and well-rounded, even if we don't always agree with some of their decision making. Nathan and his brother Sam are a charismatic pair, and there's more friends and foes to be encountered along the way who are just as personable and/or diabolically villainous as you'd expect them to be in a story that feels like it made a daring escape from a studio somewhere in Hollywood.
The authored experience does have an impact, though, and there's no hiding from the fact that there is very little in the way freedom. While there might be a few sandbox sections that give you a little room to manoeuvre, and the odd cliff-face that offers more than one route to the top, apart from the odd exception, the rule is an extremely linear experience that guides you between breathless encounters and explosive set pieces. Those who like to impose themselves on an adventure, fans of emergent gameplay, will likely notice the rails on this particular rollercoaster, even if it does offer one hell of a ride.
At times, especially when we were sitting in our truck ready to head off into the wilderness in search of treasure and glory, we were almost convinced that there was a world out there ripe for exploration, but the illusion is quickly shattered if you stray too far away from where Naughty Dog wants you to sniff. It's prescriptive and focused, and at times we'd have liked just a little more freedom than we were given.
Elsewhere it's a largely faultless experience. For starters, it looks magnificent, with wonderfully rendered characters, stunning environments, and impressive visual effects across the board. The frame-rate kept steady too. The overall performance of the actors is, as you'd expect, top class. Once again Nolan North leads a quality cast that works together to breathe life into some of gaming's most likeable characters.
The melee combat might be a bit simplistic, but it's purposefully so. Your AI-controlled companions stay out of trouble and mostly maintain the immersion by staying in cover when they should. Stealth felt a bit lightweight in the grand scheme of things, but only because the threat of violence is lacking should you stumble out into the open. Drake is the world's most personable psycho-killer, and he takes out literally hundreds of enemies during this adventure, smothering the life out of guards, shooting snipers in the face, or blowing up patrols without a second thought. You can sneak into an area and - taking cover behind conveniently placed crates, walls and rocks, as well as slinking through tall grass and foliage - thin the enemy herd until either all are dead or someone spots you and the encounter is settled over the barrel of a gun.
The gunplay is great, which transcends nicely into the multiplayer (we'll get to that shortly), and Drake and friends get stuck into plenty of battles, blasting away from cover, lining up headshots, shooting conveniently placed red barrels, and so on and so forth. There was an occasional bug whereby we couldn't shoot from cover and had to snap in and out of hiding before we could fire, but that's our only complaint of note. There's a decent selection of firearms to suit all play-styles, and there's never a shortage of guns and ammunition lying on the ground, so you rarely - if ever - have to worry about conserving ammo.
Environmental design is consistently clever, and traversal of the world is nearly always a pleasure thanks to intuitive climbing and some great rope-based mechanics. There's a light puzzle element woven into many of the destinations, and Drake must climb high and often, and for those who suffer from digital vertigo, there's plenty of bowel clenching moments of gravity induced terror along the way to keep things interesting. Failure to grab a ledge might mean a fatal fall, but as is also the case with death by combat, the restarts are quick and checkpoints are almost always close to where you were before Nate met his grizzly end. Perhaps at times Uncharted 4 can be a little too forgiving in this respect, which can take the edge off of the tension that Naughty Dog so expertly builds up elsewhere.
Traversal and gunplay mightn't be hugely taxing in the solo campaign, but it's a different story when you venture into the online part of the game. We played on pre-launch servers, so expect a post-launch update once the game has released, but so far everything seems to be working fine. The manoeuvrability of Drake and the rest of his cohort means that matches are chaotic, with action unfolding from all around, up above, and sometimes even from down below. Across a variety of TDM and objective based modes, players will be swinging in and out of deadly encounters, taking cover in dangerous bottlenecks, and throwing down Mysticals imbued with supernatural powers on maps adapted from environments from the campaign.
All told the multiplayer left a positive impression. It's competitive fun, it seems well balanced, and there's the potential for a touch of flair. There's also an interesting tactical game bubbling away under the surface whereby you can resurrect fallen comrades, however it's a move that will often leave you exposed to a retaliatory attack. As you take out opponents and pick up treasures you earn credits that can be spent mid-game on items and upgrades, like heavily armoured Sidekicks and the aforementioned Mysticals. These perks are certainly helpful, but we didn't find them overpowering. They do help to keep the matches snappy, though. Each round is filled with characters pulled from the campaign, firing both bullets and appropriately themed one liners as Heroes line up against Villains, with new characters unlocked as you progress. You can also spend in-game currency on new cosmetic items to further differentiate yourself from the crowd. It's a neat setup, augmented by Trials that task you with completing increasingly challenging solo missions set within the multiplayer framework.
On top of the multiplayer there's a bunch of visual filters to play around with, and secrets and Easter eggs hidden here and there for completionists to unearth. All in all it's a very well rounded package that offers hours and hours of entertainment. It's fair to say that "entertainment" is the key word here. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End hits the mark because of its ability to engage, to spin an absorbing tale, and to grab hold of the player and keep them immersed from start to finish. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, our favourite current-gen first-party title on PlayStation 4, and it stands alongside The Last of Us as the work of a studio at the top of its game. Naughty Dog might not have plans to continue the story of Nathan Drake, but rather than think of this as a negative, we're looking on the bright side: we can't wait to see what the developer comes up with next.