Naughty Dog are arguably Sony’s most important development studio. Even before they were owned by Sony, they quickly became the unofficial mascot bearer for the Playstation brand with a little title by the name of Crash Bandicoot, showing the in-house studios up with their technical expertise and grasp of not only shifting from 2D to 3D gaming but by creating characters that audiences fell in love with. Naughty Dog helped to shape those early years of Playstation and followed it up with Jak and Daxter for the next generation on Playstation 2 and yet again with the Uncharted series for Playstation 3. This is a studio that not only creates successful franchises but manages to create gaming icons that becomes synonymous with Playstation.
When the Playstation 4 was announced it would be safe to say that all eyes were looking, wondering and hoping at just what this studio could do with all that extra power considering what they had already achieved on the platform with Uncharted 3: Drakes Deception and The Last of Us.
Now, finally, after years in development and over 2 years in to the lifespan of the PS4, Sony’s most important exclusive title, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, has just launched. So how is it? Have Naughty Dog given our beloved heroes Nathan Drake, Victor Sullivan and Elena Fisher the send off they deserve, or have they buckled under the weight of expectation and ambition?
Seriously, as if they were ever going to blow it! Uncharted 4 is without doubt the finest game on the Playstation 4. There I said it. It’s that good. Now let me try and qualify that gushing statement somewhat for you.
“Visually, Uncharted 4 is way beyond anything else on the system right now.”
Uncharted has always given gamers the most cinematic of experiences, whether it’s THAT train wreck opening from Among Thieves, the airplane scene from Drakes Deception, or just the superb character interactions with their banter back and forth. Uncharted 4 opens with the same amount of bombast the series is known for and keeps you riveted throughout the 14 hours it takes to get to the end credits. Provided you don’t try and rush it. And you absolutely shouldn’t. After 3 main games and 10 years with these characters, for most fans they are like family, and family is the key driver this time around. Whether it is the family we are born with or the family we choose, at it’s core Uncharted 4 is about what we are willing to do to keep them safe.
The newest addition to the roster of Uncharted’s cast of characters is Nate’s long lost brother Sam, voiced brilliantly by Troy Baker (Joel in The Last of Us and just about everyone else in gaming that isn’t Nolan North). Sam appears out of the blue to drag baby brother off on one last rollicking adventure. Nate doesn’t need too much arm twisting of course, following his inability to adjust to the normal life after leaving all the treasure-hunting behind. And as quick as that, we’re off on another continent-spanning adventure with a treasure trove of twists and turns. The less you know going in the better.
Visually, Uncharted 4 is way beyond anything else on the system right now. The detail in the characters alone is so impressive that you’d swear you were watching a proper CGI movie. The subtleties of the animation too, whether in the facial expressions or the way Nate shifts his bodyweight whilst shimmying up a crevice, puts to shame Naughty Dog’s own achievements in these areas with previous entries. There are vistas with such clear depth and fidelity that you’ll find yourself just standing there looking out to the horizon with eyes wide and mouth agape knowing that all of this isn’t just a pre-rendered cinematic, but all game engine and playable. Lighting and environment art also take full advantage of all that extra horsepower under the hood of the PS4. Everything is so well polished that moving from cover to clambering obstacles to combat feels so fluid and the best it has ever been.
“…the environments are much larger multi-tiered maps allowing for multiple approaches.”
Speaking of combat, this is an area that has arguably seen the biggest improvement. In previous titles it has always been solid. Shooting was satisfying, the cover system worked well (if not quite to the level of Gears of War), and the melee combat was downright fantastic and often hilarious, especially in UC3 (Remember that first time you pulled the pin from an enemy’s grenade whilst it was still on his belt?). What never worked so well was the enemy always knowing where you were in the map, therefore every encounter always led into a massive fire fight with stealth possible but a rarity.
Uncharted 4 overhauls this entirely. Now the environments are much larger multi-tiered maps allowing for multiple approaches. We’re not talking Hitman levels of improvisation here, but instead there’s far more flexibility for going loud or sneaking when you feel like it. Enemy AI is much smarter this time around, borrowing heavily from the systems implemented in The Last of Us. Fire fights are no longer stop-and-pop affairs. Enemies will actively hunt you if they loose line of sight, which allows for some creativity as you can really mix up your tactics. Combine this with the new grapple hook mechanic and you’ve got the makings of some intense and downright fun set-pieces that always feel dynamic and fun.
That grapple hook isn’t overused either, allowing Nate more traversal options at various points in the map. It can’t be used directly as a combat option like, say, Batman’s take downs, but an ideal form of escape to disorient the enemy, thus allowing for a change of tactics to get the drop on them.
“By the time the end credits roll you will have experienced the pinnacle of one of the most satisfying and dazzling games ever released…”
You don’t come to an Uncharted game for the combat though. Here story is king and A Thief’s End is the strongest yet of all 3. Previous games might have the better set pieces and tighter pace overall, but this right here is not only the crescendo of all that has come before, but is also the most human. The writing is yet again spot on, with the acting bringing real life to these charming bunch of polygons. Exploration has always been a key driver for our heroes but with Naughty Dog’s last hurrah with this world, they not only point the camera toward exquisite new horizons, but also inward to the relationships and motivations these characters have. The storytelling techniques are just perfect. Here is where much has been learned from development on The Last of Us (TLoU) to the point where I was very surprised just how much of an influence it has had here. For me this is where the game falters slightly by feeling a little less like Uncharted and more like TLoU. If you’ve played that game as much as I have, you will recognise instantly giving your companion a “boost-up” or moving containers in to position to reach higher ledges. This happens a bit too often for my liking. At times the pace can slow right down to allow for character interaction and this in turn will halt that roller-coaster style forward momentum.
These are minor nit-pickings though. The reason we have these quieter moments of course is to allow more time with the characters we have loved for 10 years.
By the time the end credits roll you will have experienced the pinnacle of one of the most satisfying and dazzling games ever released from a studio that seems to be able to not only do no wrong but continually hone their craft in all departments. This is required gaming and the reason many will own a Playstation 4.