Few companies have the pedigree and respect that Naughty Dog has acquired over the last decade. A company so in tune and focused that, even with the impressive collection of titles released already, they continue to get better. Pixar would really be the only comparison that could be made. When you see the Pixar logo, you already know you're going to see the film, and chances are, it'll be fantastic. But, even Pixar can't quite live up to what Naughty Dog has been able to accomplish.
Naughty Dog hasn't always been "Naughty Dog" though. Their early (early to mid 90's) games weren't groundbreaking by any means. But with the release of Crash Bandicoot, that changed. They didn't invent the genre, but they arguably perfected it. When the PlayStation 2 was released, Naughty Dog left Crash and moved onto a new IP (Intellectual Property) in Jak & Daxter. Again, nothing inherently new, but they perfected the genre they were in. Then the PlayStation 3 was released and the Uncharted series was born. Cinematic Storytelling in gaming has always been around, but again, Naughty Dog perfected it. Uncharted and it's protagonist Nathan Drake are synonymous in the gaming industry for storytelling. I bought the first Uncharted (subtitled Drake's Fortune), because it looked like a really good Indiana Jones game. I bought the second Uncharted (subtitled Among Thieves), because I loved the characters. That's what truly sets Naughty Dog apart from every other studio, they make you genuinely love the characters. In the third Uncharted (Drake's Deception) we learn a bit more about Nathan Drake and how he became this fabled treasure hunter. We learn about his deep relationship with Victor Sullivan (Sully), which makes a character we already loved even more meaningful to us.
With the knowledge that Uncharted 4: A Thief's End would be the last Uncharted (at least the last featuring Nathan Drake), it's a bittersweet feeling. I do love these characters, so knowing there won't be another adventure to go on is a bit of a bummer. On the other hand, we get a chance to see Drake off on his last adventure and with his long lost brother.
Uncharted 4 shows a Nathan Drake living a boring, normal life. He's traded in his guns and passports for a desk job where he signs off on permits and occasionally gets to dive for sunken cargo but not treasure, which is where his heart still obviously is. He and Elena are now married and living happily in New Orleans, safe from Indonesian pirates or blue sap that turns people crazy (looking at you Lazarovic). They play video games together, take turns doing the dishes; they live a normal, boring life until Sam, Nathan's brother, shows up at his door. Nathan believed Sam to be dead for the last 15 years, but instead he's been in the prison Nate was in when they were first on the trails of Henry Avery's treasure. Sam tells him about how he escaped prison when drug-lord Hector Alcazar breaks him out for half of Avery's treasure. He has 3 months to find the treasure, or Alcazar will kill Sam. Nate reluctantly agrees to help Sam find the treasure, setting up Nate's farewell tour across the globe.
This iteration of Uncharted has a somberness to it that the first 3 didn't have, which is fitting considering we know this will be the last one. There's still a lot of humor, but not nearly as much as the rest of the collection. Instead, we're given a tight, grounded, and realistic story of humanity: a story that questions who we are, and what's most important to us in life. Uncharted has always done a fantastic job of being relatable: the characters are so brilliantly written and acted that they feel real. Uncharted 4 takes that relatability up a notch. Gone are the supernatural twists and gone are the hundreds of henchmen that Nate mows down without a second thought. Instead we're given a story about two brothers trying to figure out what they want in life.
This brings up a couple of issues. I love Sam as a character and it was fascinating to get to know Nate's backstory more and what drives him, but Sam isn't Sully. Sam isn't Elena. I've spent three games and countless hours getting to know these characters and falling in love with these characters. Uncharted is as much Sully's story or Elena's story as it is Nathan's in my view. There wasn't near enough time spent with Sully and Elena, especially knowing this will be the last opportunities we get with these characters. I understand the decision to focus on Sam, especially considering the time limits. This is the longest of the Uncharted games at roughly 15 hours, and these aren't the type of games that need to be dragged out any longer. If the game were longer, you run the risk of boring the audience or overstaying your welcome. Naughty Dog balances this well, but I wish they had found a way to utilize Sully and Elena a bit more.
As I mentioned earlier, there is far less fighting in this game. There are large sections of the game that are littered with enemies, and you don't even have to fight any of them if you choose. Instead, Naughty Dog has incorporated stealth aspects to the game, which is refreshing to see. Especially since Nate is older now; sneaking around the literal army would be the logical choice to make. The sneaking mechanics are excellent, if not a bit distracting. Nathan can hide very well and believably, his partners on the other hand can not. Large chunks of the game have Nathan partnered with someone, whether that's Sam, Sully, or Elena, and they're essentially invisible to the enemies. Which is fine, nothing would be more frustrating than to sneak all the way past the enemies only to have someone you can't control pop up and get spotted, but it does break the immersion drastically. Sam never stays in one spot and instead employs the sneaking tactics of a child. He jumps from cover to cover, oftentimes running right beside an enemy without anyone ever noticing. Again, I'm glad they chose to not let your partner give away your position, but it does pull you out of the experience. When you do have to fight, the level design gives you (and the enemies) plenty of options for cover but only for a bit. Most of the cover is destructible, meaning you can't just find a spot you like and sit there. You have to constantly be on the move if you want to survive. Especially in the games famous "Crushing" mode. The AI in this game is vastly improved. Enemies will now flank your position, making you have to constantly be aware of your surroundings. If you attempt to hide by hanging from the side of a cliff, someone will come over and stomp on your fingers. It's a smarter AI that makes the combat even more enjoyable.
Some of the other new mechanics in the game are just as frustrating. Naughty Dog's last game, The Last of Us, is a masterpiece. But, some of its flaws unfortunately made their way over to the Uncharted franchise. The sheer amount of time spent in the game moving boxes (all of which are somehow on wheels... in a cave... which hasn't been touched in hundreds of years...) to ledges so you can reach a slab of rock to climb on is frustrating. It was the only part of The Last of Us that I didn't enjoy, and it's made this game suffer as well. The same goes for the new "Sliding" mechanism in the game. The first few times were fun and brought something new to the franchise, but by the end of the game where I've slid down perfectly walkable hill after perfectly walkable hill, it became monotonous. The glaring culprit in this situation is a section where Nate and Sam literally slide sideways across to the other platform. Sideways, in a straight line... that's not how gravity works.
The other notable new mechanism that was introduced is the rope/grapple that Nathan and Sam have. It's a feature that I wish had been in the first three games because it's so much fun. Leaping off a cliff and throwing that rope up to a ledge in order swing and jump on top of an enemy without them ever seeing me was some of the most fun I've had in any game so far this generation. It, unfortunately was used to move boxes as well, so they can't all be winners.
The gunplay in the Uncharted series has always been a source of criticism for Naughty Dog. I've never had an issue with it, but can recognize that it hasn't always been the best. Uncharted 4 doesn't have that problem. Using the varied guns you find throughout the campaign all feel unique and the player no longer feels like they're just aimlessly shooting or that they're pointing the gun right at someone, only to have the bullet end up 15 feet in the wrong direction (slight exaggeration there). It's something that is obvious Naughty Dog has worked on.
Visually, this is the best looking game I've ever played. The set pieces are immaculately detailed. Walking down a bustling city in Madagascar feels alive, driving through the vast wilderness feels suitably huge. Scaling a castle in Scotland while the vast expanse of land surrounds you is genuinely a sight to see. It's something they are clearly proud of (as they should be) as Sam will often make remarks like "check out the view, absolutely stunning". But where this game (and Naughty Dog) truly shine is in the facial animations. The subtle displays of emotion on the faces is incredible. There's a specific scene where Nate is talking to Elena, but more to himself; the look on Elena's face is incredible, because you know exactly what she's feeling without her saying a single word. It's remarkable how far games have come in just a few short years. The quieter moments in the game (and there are myriad of quiet moments) show off the engine behind the game. These tender moments have more story than most games entire campaign. Couple the incredible visuals with the stellar voice acting from Nolan North (Nathan Drake), Richard McGonagle (Sully), Emily Rose (Elena) and Troy Baker (Sam) and you have the recipe for a masterpiece.
The third act slows down a bit, dragging the story to a halt at the worst possible time. I understand the decision to place that specific chapter where they did, but the overall story suffers because of it. That doesn't change the fact that the story told here is one of the better stories in any medium. It's engaging, heartfelt, exciting and somber all at the same time. The music drives these points home. From the giant orchestra during its faster paced action scenes or the soft piano during its tender moments. Uncharted's music has always been a notch above what everyone else is doing, and this is up there with some of the best gaming scores.
The Uncharted series are the games you want to show off to people who don't play games. They're essentially very long, interactive movies. With Uncharted 4, Naughty Dog has, once again, raised the bar. The beautifully crafted sweeping vistas are a joy to sit and stare at. The subtle animations on the faces of characters (like the way Elena's nose crinkles when she laughs, or Nathan Drake's smirk when he's said something he thinks was witty) make the characters have more life than any other entry. Not only did Naughty Dog nail the grand, but also the subdued that very few people will notice. Uncharted 4: A Thief End is a fitting end to a legacy that will endure throughout the gaming industries history.