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‘Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End’ Review: The Greatest Treasure Yet

The capstone to Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series is a master class in game development on every conceivable level.

Few games in the modern day have the sort of magic that immortalizes them in the way that classics like Super Mario Bros. or Final Fantasy have. These days, games try to check so many boxes of features that they begin to blend together, and it becomes difficult to pick out a memorable experience from even a couple of years past.

Uncharted 4 bucks that trend toward a bland pastiche of focus-grouped features, and in doing so not only creates a heroic final act for one of gaming’s most beloved characters, but establishes itself as the sort of game that people will fondly remember for years to come.

Uncharted 4 doesn’t redefine the action-adventure platformer in any real way. It doesn’t achieve its greatness by being utterly different than what has come before. Rather, the spectacle of Nathan Drake’s ride into the sunset is couched in gameplay mechanics that have been honed as close to perfection as may be possible with modern technology. Everything works in a way that can make you forget you’re holding a controller, as your intent is translated through intuitive controls to the action on screen.

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If this sounds like hyperbole, please understand that it is not. Rarely does a game accomplish things so simple as movement with the attention to inertia and detail seen in Uncharted 4. Even The Last of Us is clumsy by comparison. Prior to this, Uncharted 2 was the undisputed pinnacle of Naughty Dog’s now-legendary franchise. Uncharted 4 supersedes it in every way.

The environments you traverse in search of treasure are more beautifully realized than anything seen anywhere else in gaming. Early in the game, there is a scuba diving section that was so enjoyable in and of itself that I abandoned the story to merely enjoy the illusion of exploring the subaquatic environment.

To my surprise and delight, most of my actions had reaction in dialogue, and the order in which I accomplished multiple small sub-objectives received its own touches of exposition. No matter what I did, it was part of the story that I was crafting. The experience was so vivid as to leave my wife — who frequently observes my gameplay during reviews — and I talking about it for a good chunk of the evening.

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The level design is impeccable, whether trekking through the Savannah, scaling the faces of storm-blasted cliffs, or spelunking into ancient pirate lairs. In many platformers, there are unnatural contrivances clearly there for the purpose of traversal. Even in previous Uncharted games, architectural integrity sometimes gave way to “gamey” choices in design.

In Uncharted 4, those elements are almost nonexistent. The result is an experience that feels like a day in the life of Indiana Jones far more than an artificially crafted obstacle course. Because of that, I found myself “role-playing” what I felt Nathan Drake would do in a way that frequently surprised me.

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As a dyed in the wool PC gamer, I’ve always found console shooting controls to be clumsy and imprecise. The previous Uncharted games were often guilty of feeling extremely “floaty” during gunplay segments, turning your dashing rogue into a drunken cowboy whenever he was faced with the legions of thugs that inevitably attempted to bar his progress. Uncharted 4 has tightened up the controls considerably, converting even my gamepad-resistant impulses into competent action. For those still unable to deal with the dual thumbsticks, they’ve also added an aim-lock feature a la Grand Theft Auto.

All of this mechanical prowess is tied together with graphical and auditory fidelity that is, quite simply, stunning. Characters squint and avert their eyes should your flashlight turn toward their faces, while animation is smooth and so natural as to edge toward the Uncanny Valley without ever tipping over the precipice. The voice work isn’t just “Hollywood caliber,” because it’s better acted than a lot of what you can see in theaters.

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Uncharted 4 would already be brilliant, even if only as a device for telling the story within it. Just about everyone from the series makes a return in some form or another, and franchise veterans will appreciate the closure not just for Nathan, but for the rest of his allies and nemeses.

Your time with Uncharted could easily stretch between 15 and 30 hours with the single player campaign, depending on your devotion to the innumerable collectibles, optional conversations, and approach to the encounters. Playing stealthily is rewarded with advantages in linked scenarios, and shooting up the place will create situations in which even more gunplay is necessary. In that way, Uncharted 4 tailors itself to you, and makes you feel as if you’re playing the “right” way regardless of your actions.

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Once you’ve had your fill of the single player experience, Uncharted 4 introduces its most robust multiplayer yet. There are dozens of characters, optional outfits and accessories for each, multiple customizable weapon loadouts, and maps that mix platforming with shooting, stealth, and swinging about on grappling hooks like some sort of Rambo-Tarzan lovechild. All told, it’s a great experience on its own. To have it attached to one of the best single player experiences in video games feels as if you’re getting more for your money than any time in modern gaming history.

If I sound effusive, it’s because very few games are still capable of reducing me to the childlike wonder that Uncharted 4 inspires. It is a game that is an absolute joy on every level, and the most effortless recommendation I’ve ever made.

The thing is, if you like video games, you’ll love Uncharted 4. No qualifiers necessary.

Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.

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