— The following post contains spoilers.
Drake’s Fortune. Among Thieves. Drake’s Deception. A Thief’s End.
One of these things is not like the others.
The first two Uncharted games were action-packed adventures elevated to greatness by well-told stories and fantastic characters given life by equally fantastic acting. They were fun, engaging, and made you fall in love with Nate, Elena, Sully, and their cast of cohorts. Then, in 2011, Uncharted 3 came along and revealed that there was depth to the tale. Things weren’t quite as they seemed — our hero hadn’t led a charmed life. He had a past, secrets. Even his relationship with Elena wasn’t as perfect as it might have appeared when the credits rolled on his previous adventure.
But, despite this depth, Uncharted 3 was a game still very much in the vein of its predecessors, still the over-the-top adventure players had come to expect from PlayStation’s leading man.
Uncharted 4, however, takes things down a notch. Those over-the-top moments are still to be found, but the context around them has shifted. Nate’s latest — and final — outing feels, to use that most overused of overused descriptions, more grounded than those that came before.
It’s this tonal shift that sets A Thief’s End apart — and that makes it my favourite of the lot.
I realise that statement might cause eyes to roll, that some might think I’m jumping the gun, seeing A Thief’s End through rose-tinted glasses because it’s something new and fresh. But that’s just not the case. I’ve written before about how it usually takes time for me to warm up to new entries in series I love, about how there’s usually a period of uncertainty before I can decide if I like the new as much as the old.
Just as that wasn’t the case with the game I was writing about then, so too was it not the case with Uncharted 4. First time through, I knew exactly how I felt about A Thief’s End — and subsequent playthroughs have done nothing to change that.
I’m not, however, going to tell you that it’s a perfect game. I do have my issues with it, and some of them are quite significant.
One of those issues is the models for returning characters. We should recognise them, feel like we’re being reunited with old friends when they appear on the screen; with Uncharted 4, we don’t.
The worst offender — purely because she’s the returning character we spend the most time with — is Elena. Between Drake’s Fortune and Among Thieves, the fidelity of Elena’s model noticeably improved, but she still looked like Elena. Then Uncharted 3 came along and rendered her unrecognisable, and somehow less realistic-looking than before.
In Uncharted 4, Elena looks incredibly realistic, but loses almost all visual familiarity. Sully, too, suffers the same unfortunate fate — and young Nate will have to go through one hell of a transformation in a very short space of time if he’s to look anything like the boy we met in Uncharted 3.
It’s worth noting, of course, that Uncharted 4 is in no way the only game guilty of this — I’m looking at you, Rise of the Tomb Raider — but I can’t deny that its differences affected me more than others. I’m of the opinion that there’s a lot to be said for continuity — not just from a purely logical perspective, but from a storytelling one, too. Feeling like you’re on an adventure with the same people lends a certain weight to proceedings. Weight isn’t a department in which A Thief’s End was lacking — not in the slightest — but I couldn’t shake that nagging sense of unfamiliarity as I played, that sense of something approaching disappointment during some of the game’s best scenes. Admittedly, this is nowhere near the most important issue in the world, but I find overhauling characters just because you can to be incredibly poor form.
And speaking of continuity…
There’s a Trophy in Uncharted 4 called Ludonarrative Dissonance. It’s a great Trophy — Naughty Dog really knocked it out of the park with some of the Trophies this time around (Stage Fright is another standout) — awarded for killing a thousand enemies. It pokes fun at the countless articles pointing out that Nathan Drake, all ’round nice guy, has murdered infinitely more people than most of us are likely to meet in our lifetimes.
That’s not, however, why I bring it up. I do so because there happens to be a fairly glaring instance of said dissonance outside of all the killing: the grappling hook.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the grappling hook. It’s a great addition to the gameplay, and incredibly satisfying to use — the notoriously poor rope-swinging mechanics from previous games have, thankfully, been given an overhaul — but almost every time I did use it, I couldn’t help but wonder where the hell it had been on Nate’s previous adventures. Seems like something that could’ve come in handy on, oh… several hundred occasions before.
Part of me does feel somewhat conflicted about making this point. After all, I have no problem with things like Nate’s climbing abilities changing from game-to-game, but the grappling hook is set up as being such an important element of his early exploits that I find it hard to believe that he just suddenly stopped using it. Narratively speaking, you might argue that he did so because it reminded him of Sam, but given that much of his early style was so obviously inspired by that of his brother, said argument is about as thin as the hair on Charlie Cutter’s head.
This all seems very negative, eh? Fear not, I’m almost done with the main problems I had with the game. There are little things, here and there, that I’ll get to later, but there’s just one more of the serious ones — and it’s perhaps my personal biggest let-down of all.
Before May 10, if there was one thing I thought there was no way I would come away from Uncharted 4 feeling disappointed about, it’s this: the soundtrack.
I’m cringing even as I type it, but I can’t pretend I wasn’t thoroughly underwhelmed by that soundtrack. The obvious reason would be that it was composed by someone other than Greg Edmonson — who provided the music for the other three games — but that’s not it. Neither is it because the game’s music is objectively bad — it’s not. There’s just something about it, however.
When taken as a whole, A Thief’s End’s score is greater than its individual parts. There are some wonderful moments in there. I really like the new, three-note motif that, you could argue, is the main theme of the game, and I can’t overstate how much I love the whistling notes heard every now and then — featured prominently about a minute and-a-half before the end of the track Lure of Adventure, and again during Epilogue. To my thoroughly overactive imagination, those notes — and similar ones in other soundtracks — speak of eternity, of time gone by, and yet to come. I like them quite a bit, and I more than like the fact that One Last Time finally gives us an official, and hugely satisfying, rendition of Nate’s theme on piano.
However, and even if it hadn’t come at the beginning of the sentence, that one would get a capital H, none of that changes the fact that I was disappointed with the soundtrack.
By far its biggest crime — and I use that word absolutely intentionally — is that there’s no Nate’s Theme 4.0. The admittedly fantastic track that plays over the game’s stellar opening credits doesn’t count — Nate’s theme has always been the same piece of music, with subtle differences making it specific to each particular game. I absolutely get that the new composer might’ve wanted to set his score apart from the others, but that the final Uncharted game doesn’t feature something that was such a staple of the others is baffling to me. Baffling, and, honestly, pretty unforgivable.
I’ve come across the argument that it wasn’t included because A Thief’s End is a more sombre affair, and such an upbeat track playing over the main menu would’ve have had quite the same impact as the silence in its place. Nonsense. Take the tune, and give it a makeover. Make it specific to A Thief’s End. Who says it has to be upbeat? I get the impact of that silent menu screen — I really do — but a softer, more contemplative take on Nate’s theme would’ve worked just as well. I think it might even have been better, because that silence takes something away from the Uncharted experience, takes away that sense of exhilaration over being about to set out on another adventure with Nate.
Something else that could’ve been better, I feel, is how the soundtrack was used in-game. It’s incredibly repetitive. The same music plays over a number of battles, and, similarly, tender moments often feature the same section of score. On the surface, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but I found that, after a while, it made the soundtrack feel stale. Been there, heard that.
This also isn’t helped by the fact that some of the music isn’t all that original. Various moments feel as though they could have been lifted straight from any of the Pirates of the Caribbean scores, and there was one particular instance — during a huge firefight in Avery’s Libertalia mansion — that I could’ve sworn I was listening to something from the Captain America films. Not surprising, perhaps, given that Henry Jackman — who provided Uncharted 4’s music — also scored the last two Cap’ instalments, but I found it distracting all the same.
Hard to believe, after all that, that I consider A Thief’s End my favourite of the Uncharted games, eh? Still, though, it is. Even with all of the above, it is. I adored it. I can’t help but feel a twinge of guilt saying it, given the unfortunate business with Amy Hennig, (whose contributions I was glad to see acknowledges in the game’s credits, even if said acknowledgement should’ve come much earlier on) —
— but I can’t pretend otherwise. I loved the shift in tone from the previous games. That shift is nowhere near as drastic as it might sound, but Uncharted 4 felt quieter than those that came before, the story more muted, reflective. Breaks in the action were both longer and more frequent. I absolutely understand why this might’ve turned some people off, but given that I’m a sucker for nostalgia, and am more than happy to sit back and enjoy some fantastic performances, it really, really appealed to me.
And those performances… what is there to add that hasn’t already been said? Those of the previous Uncharted games were fantastic, but the huge improvement in visual fidelity A Thief’s End packs well and truly lets its cast’s work shine through, making the game not just a pleasure to play, but a pleasure to watch, too. The sole complaint I have on the performance side is that Nadine’s accent can be somewhat questionable at times — but that is, quite literally, it. The rest of her actor’s performance is excellent. She and Rafe are easily the best villains of the series. Rafe’s descent from having at least some small semblance of control, to blank-eyed psychopath in particular is fantastic.
As for the nostalgia: if A Thief’s End wasn’t already there, Naughty Dog could’ve gotten away with subtitling this one Nostalgia Done Right. From the tremendous opening credits, to the wonderful scene in Nate’s attic — and accompanying musical cameos — to reminiscing about previous exploits… every little callback is handled beautifully. Even the very environments evoke adventures past.
Some of the later stages with Elena feel like they could’ve come straight out of Drake’s Fortune, the pirate caves in Scotland are dripping with visual throwbacks to Among Thieves, and the market in King’s Bay recalls a certain spot of historical research from Drake’s Deception.
Among all the nostalgia, however, A Thief’s End brings plenty of new stuff to the Uncharted table. A word or two of caution, though: its revelations are best discovered for yourself, at your own pace, so I’m going to go ahead and warn you, reader, that this is where the real spoilers begin. I’ve done my best to be as vague as possible about certain events and plot points thus far, but from here on out, I’m throwing caution to the wind. Read on if you wish — but turn back if you must.
Uncharted 4’s secrets can only be discovered once, and this review — should you care to finish it — will be there when you’re done.
Still here? Great. Here we go.
Other than finding out how the story ends, of course, the thing I was most eager to learn from A Thief’s End was the resolution to Uncharted 3’s bombshell, ‘Of course, that’s not your real name, is it?’ scene — and I felt said resolution more than delivered. If ‘chills’ were a literal thing, I would’ve gotten some severe frostbite as Sam held out his hand to his brother, as the music swelled, and Nathan Morgan became Nathan Drake.
However, with the question answered, I can’t help but feel something of a sense of loss. I loved the revelation, I really did, but I can’t help but mourn, as ridiculous as it might seem, the mystery that was. And there is, of course, the issue of Nate and Sam’s mother. In Uncharted 3, it’s explicitly stated that she committed suicide — yet, here, we’re told that Cassandra Morgan’s demise was brought about by illness. What said illness was, exactly, is never disclosed, so there is the possibility that it might have been so severe that she took her life to escape it — depression, perhaps — but, still, I would’ve liked a little more clarity on this.
And speaking of death… I went into Uncharted 4 thoroughly expecting that not everyone would make it to the end. First time through, I spent almost every second of the game filled with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, eager to find out what happened next, but frightened of what the cost of doing so might be. Now that I’m finished, I can’t tell you how much I adore the fact that no one died. Well, none of the good guys or gals, anyway.
I know I’m not the only one who went into A Thief’s End expecting death, and to have that expectation subverted so completely was really, really great. HOWEVER — and this particular instance of the word gets each and every letter capitalised — before those expectations are subverted, they’re played with. Horrifically.
The scene in which Elena fakes her death is terrifying as it is — eventually — satisfying. When I first happened upon it, I wasn’t alone, and when I noticed, before Nate, that Elena wasn’t moving, I smashed my thumb into the pause button and waited until my company had vacated the room before continuing. If Elena hadn’t made it, my reaction would’ve been one I wanted to keep to myself. I would’ve had to set down the controller, walk away for a while.
Thankfully, though, no walking away was required, and I was able to continue my journey towards the end.
When I first reached it, when the camera first settled upon Cassie Drake, I didn’t quite know what to feel. I couldn’t decide whether I liked this particular turn of events or not. The whole thing felt a little off to me, a little at odds with the rest of the game. That changed, however, when Cassie unlocked a certain wardrobe, and her parents were forced to divulge their secrets.
I sat back, watched, and felt content.
However, having had some time to think about it, I’ve realised what it was that felt off about the ending: I think it would’ve been a little more effective if Nate and Elena had had a son rather than a daughter — or, at least, if Cassie’s part had been that of a son (no reason Cassie herself couldn’t have been a toddler, or a steadily growing resident of Elena’s womb).
Imagine if the camera had panned around to reveal young Nate — or someone who looked a lot like him — sitting on that bed. Given the context of the rest of the game, it would’ve created a nice moment of wondering whether we were seeing another flashback before the truth of the situation was slowly revealed — would’ve, I think, given the thing a nicer feeling of having come full circle. Not that that’s something the ending is without, of course, because — son or daughter — it works.
There are, however, some elements of the story that I feel don’t work — or, at least, not as well as I would’ve liked. There are a few of these elements, but easily the most notable of them is Elena’s realisation that she, too, misses the life of adventure.
I wouldn’t have a problem with this… if it weren’t for Uncharted 3.
In Drake’s Deception, Elena not only appears to be doing perfectly fine living a ‘normal’ life, but she states outright that she no longer likes ‘all this’ as much as Nate, which makes her post-Libertalia revelation seem a little too convenient. Not quite as convenient as Sully having spent the majority of the story flying around in his plane, but convenient all the same.
It works within the story of A Thief’s End, though, which brings me to my overarching point about the game’s narrative: standing alone, Uncharted 4’s story is stellar. It really is. I consider it far and away the best of the series — but just as certain elements of it are given weight and resonance by Nate’s previous adventures, that same context robs others of both, renders questionable developments that should have been nothing but satisfying.
Nathan Drake’s final adventure isn’t perfect. There are wrinkles to be found, kinks — but, then, is anything really without them? And those that are there pale in comparison to the sheer magnificence of the rest of the game. Uncharted 4 didn’t deliver the conclusion I thought — even feared — it might, but I found the closure it did bring more than satisfying.
Not a single one of Nate’s adventures ended with him getting what he set out to get. Not one — except for this. In A Thief’s End, Drake finally finds his fortune.
So long, guys. I’ll miss you.
Given that this is a review, the most important of those things, probably, are how the game looks and how it plays. The first I felt comfortable not dwelling too much on, because it’s pretty much a given that A Thief’s End is gorgeous. It is. It’s the best-looking game I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing — and to do so feels great, too. Exploration feels as natural as ever, and the shooting — while I did find that it took some getting used to initially — is great, too. I love the fact that the developers included the headshot indicator from The Last of Us. It’s tremendously satisfying.
There we have it. I have infinitely more thoughts on Uncharted 4 than made it into this review, or this little box at the end. My mind is practically buzzing with them, but I think I’ve said everything I need to for now. So, until next time — whenever that may be.