‘Uncharted 4’ Review: How Naughty Dog Redeemed A Lackluster Ending With A Heartwarming Epilogue

NOTE: This article is a contribution and do not necessarily represent the views of Player One.
'Uncharted 4' delivers a wonderful end for the franchise, despite a mediocre end to Libertalia.
'Uncharted 4' delivers a wonderful end for the franchise, despite a mediocre end to Libertalia. Naughty Dog

Well, it's Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, the final installment of Naughty Dog's highly acclaimed franchise. Did you ever doubt Uncharted 4 would be anything less than brilliant?

If one were to measure Uncharted at face value, its recipe wouldn't fly. Sure, as a PlayStation exclusive title, the franchise pushed technical envelopes and demonstrated the limits of graphical performance of Sony's flagship gaming console. However, Uncharted doesn't offer the staggering open-world freedom that Grand Theft Auto is known for, nor does it boast a multiplayer following as big as Call of Duty. Instead, Naughty Dog devoted every ounce of sweat into delivering a single-player experience like you've never seen before.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is our beloved "everyman" hero Nathan Drake's first appearance on the current-generation PlayStation 4 console and boy does Drake know how to make a grand entrance. A Thief’s End wastes no time to show off the PS4’s processing power— we’re talking about the unreal motion capture of Nathan and Sam as they hang on to a small boat that’s being thrown by 20-foot waves as far as the eye can see. All of this is happening while a thunderstorm rages overhead, jagged rocks loom on the horizon and enemy speedboats give chase to the brothers, firing bullets from behind.

The jaw-dropping visuals never ceased. Spectacularly explosive scenes right out of a Michael Bay movie include the tremendous bell tower collapse in the King’s Bay market place followed by a ridiculously destructive car chase. An RPG bombardment from work-for-hire mercs topple a Libertalia tower Nate and his brother Sam had just climbed. Finally, moments in between the action were accented with vast, panoramic natural landscapes straight out of a viral GoPro video. Of course, these moments of tranquility are often cut short by gunfire.

This is a true in-game 'Uncharted 4' Libertalia sequence. Note the ammo HUD on the bottom left and the dire black & white effect to lets us know Drake is getting shot up pretty bad.
This is a true in-game 'Uncharted 4' Libertalia sequence. Note the ammo HUD on the bottom left and the dire black & white effect to lets us know Drake is getting shot up pretty bad. Naughty Dog

Visuals continued to stun even when we’re introduced to Nathan Drake’s boring and mundane married life at home. Unreal motion capturing brought the characters to life and injected “soul” akin to Pixar magic. One of the early chapters titled ‘A Normal Life’ created an intimate look at Nate and Elena. Nathan’s vow to Elena was to leave the life-threatening career of treasure hunting behind. But his office in the attic is still full of souvenirs from their past exploits (If you’ve played through the PS3 trilogy, then you’ll appreciate the sentimental trip down memory lane).

In between the couple’s casual conversation and slow banter over dinner, Nate looks over a fireplace and gets lost in a photograph of an exotic island. The glimmer in his digitally rendered eyes really tell us that he misses all the adventures from his past. Elena can tell. I felt all the feels when Elena looked into Nathan Drake’s eyes and asked, “Hey, are you happy?”

Hey, are you happy?
Hey, are you happy? Naughty Dog

Of course, Nate’s peaceful, dull life was eventually interrupted by his brother Sam, who returns after being thought dead for 15 years.

Normally, it would be jarring to introduce a character that is so close to Nathan in the fourth and final Uncharted, but it’s another opportunity for Naughty Dog to manifest its artful storytelling. Uncharted 4’s prologue showed us a young and defiant orphan Nathan in Saint Francis Boys’ Home and the teenaged Samuel who helps him escape. Later, a flashback also reveals Nate and Sam’s mother, Cassandra Morgan, who was a historian and the root of the brothers’ obsession of Henry Avery’s lost treasure. Cassandra also believed that Sir Francis Drake had heirs, which consequently inspired the brothers to change their names.

Sam’s return kickstarts Uncharted 4 in earnest, which also introduces us to the foes we’re up against - Rafe Adler, a shady former associate of the Drake brothers, and Nadine Ross, his hired gun and a commander of a South African private military outfit known as Shoreline. For the veteran Uncharted gamers, the race to locate the treasure and the combat in between is all too familiar. It’s what makes an Uncharted game an Uncharted game after all. What’s more, gameplay mechanics feel familiar despite almost five years since Uncharted 3.

Uncharted 4 does make some tweaks, like significant updates to its climbing and melee mechanics and new elements like driving the rental Jeep (and its winch), a handy grappling hook and stealth attacks. Of course, Nathan climbs with superb fluidity and refined thumbstick controls intuitively move Drake’s arms to the next grip like the hands of a clock. But that’s hardly a party trick. The real game-changer in the platforming aesthetic is the use of the grappling hook, which Nathan uses to reach far off cliffs, swing around obstacles, or to pull down cargo boxes to climb out of caves. The grappling hook added a new dynamic to combat as well. Flashy swings towards enemies create a satisfying combo setup for quick takedowns. For times that require more discretion, Nadine’s Shoreline thugs aren’t particularly attentive to swaying shrubbery, which makes stealth play pretty fun and effective.

The grappling hook is one of the most significant gameplay elements Added to 'Uncharted 4.'
The grappling hook is one of the most significant gameplay elements Added to 'Uncharted 4.' Naughty Dog

Not all changes are good ones. Namely, the melee mechanics in Uncharted 3 featured a variety of counters that made Drake a really capable hand-to-hand fighter. Perhaps married life caused Nathan to lose his edge, but grab attacks and counters are gone. Instead, the mechanics are replaced with ‘Circle’ to evade punches, and ‘Triangle’ to break away from grabs or arm locks. NPC characters (Sam, Sully and Elena) are capable of performing terrific tag-team takedowns as well as grabs and holds too, which are invitations for a free knockout punch.

Still, it feels like Nathan is no longer the scrappy fighter he once was and looks to his friends for assists. I’m not a fan of the former, but the latter is an awesome demonstration of how well the player and NPCs can now interact. The tag teaming works really well to complement the camaraderie we find in the witty banter and cut scene dialogue and it also strengthens how indispensable Elena, Sully and yes, even Sam, are to Nathan.

But perhaps Naughty Dog intended to make Nate look rusty. After all, his retirement from a renowned treasure-hunting career is a strong secondary theme in Uncharted 4. Hell, Nate turned down a Malaysia job, a seemingly harmless diving trip to bring back some cargo, because his business partner Jameson couldn’t get the permits for the trip. Nate wants to go legit - this final installment is called A Thief’s End, after all. More importantly, we no longer sense Nathan’s desire for fortune and fame. Instead, it’s the older brother Sam who is desperately willing to risk it all for legendary Captain Avery’s lost gold. After 15 years obsessing about untold riches while stuck in a Panama jail, can you really blame the guy?

Reports of Samuel Drake's death have been greatly exaggerated.
Reports of Samuel Drake's death have been greatly exaggerated. Naughty Dog

Sam definitely did not spend his 15 years idly, either. His vital knowledge of the Penitent Thief, Henry Avery and Avery’s peer of pirate captains came in handy numerous times in the story. In fact, Nathan even had to phone his brother when he and Sully encountered a number of pirate sigils that he couldn’t identify. Again, these subtle elements in the story reinforce the idea that Nathan has been out of the game.

As Uncharted 4 approached its climax in the final chapters of Libertalia, Naughty Dog bit off a little more than it could chew. Both the main Libertalia and the secondary Nate and Sam elements fell short. At one point, Sam joked about a pirate’s curse when the brothers investigated the ruins of Libertalia and the battle between pirates in the colony. Given Uncharted’s history, I definitely expected some sort of supernatural element to reveal itself and test Nathan just as it tested Avery. What if a curse caused Nathan and Sam to turn against one another? What if Nathan and Elena’s marriage was tested even further?

However, there was no curse or test. The big finale in the belly of Avery’s ship was merely a QTE (quick time event) style sword fight against Rafe while Nathan pleas the lunatic antagonist to drop the blade and let him save his brother from being crushed under a fallen beam. I was never a fan of QTE gameplay, nor do I know anyone that particularly enjoys it, so Naughty Dog’s tendency to use QTE in boss fights have always been an irritating thorn in an otherwise brilliant game.

At the very least, the final boss fight brought closure between the brothers as Drake frees Sam, but ending Rafe in a clumsy sword duel was a somewhat anticlimactic end to Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. And if this is truly the final game of Uncharted, then it’s a shame to see Naughty Dog squander what should have been an unforgettable end to a beautiful and iconic franchise.

Yup. Rafe is officially insane.
Yup. Rafe is officially insane. Naughty Dog

… But that isn’t the end. An epilogue takes us a couple years into the future and greets us with an adorable Labrador and Nate and Elena’s daughter, Cassie (named after Nathan’s mom, Cassandra). Cassie and her canine sidekick Vicky is what makes this Uncharted ending so wonderful. Firstly, the romantic in me couldn’t help but feel deeply invested in the characters and the idea that Nathan and Elena are meant for one another after all the impossible odds the duo has faced. The epilogue introduces us to their daughter and delivers a sort of closure that we never experience from action genre video games.

Secondly, Naughty Dog’s cinematic and story driven style could have just presented us with an extended cutscene. Instead, we are handed back the controls as Cassie and get to explore the home that Nate and Elena built. It’s very reminiscent to the first scene of The Last of Us, but obviously under more optimistic circumstances.

Most pleasant surprise of 'Uncharted 4.'
Most pleasant surprise of 'Uncharted 4.' Naughty Dog

The whole Uncharted family is in a really good place. The beach house looks as awesome as any dream home I ever wanted, and all the picture albums, letters, and newspaper clippings hung on the wall all point to a fulfilling life post-Libertalia. Nathan and Elena now run a salvage business and yet still managed to become famous explorers on the cover of Adventure Life magazine. Meanwhile, Sam and Sully are off on their own adventures, yet regularly make time to come back for get-togethers with Nate, Elena and Cassie. The epilogue is heartwarming and it’s an immense relief to see a hero that many gamers grew up with end his story with a really happy ending.

Finally, we, er Cassie, stumble upon the keys to her parents’ locked closet and it’s full of all the treasures and memories of the Uncharted family’s thrilling past. Naughty Dog is showing off here, but how cool is it to relive the journey of the franchise through the curious eyes of a little kid?

Of course, Nate would be that protective dad who’s worried that his little girl isn’t ready to learn about all the “crazy shit” and literal skeletons that’s locked locked inside the closet. But of course, Nate eventually spills everything, beginning with Sir Francis Drake’s empty coffin and the map to El Dorado.

Naughty Dog called Uncharted 4 Nathan Drake’s last adventure: “But with the end of this story, it will be really hard to do a sequel with Nathan Drake,” said Creative Director Neil Druckmann. But who can really be sure?

Nathan Drake, and by extension voice actor Nolan North, is the heart of Uncharted. And with the character being in such a great place, it would almost feel wrong to drag Nate back into folly just for an Uncharted 5. Nolan North announced on Tuesday that he’s completely down for it though.

Author’s Note: Sadly, iDigitalTimes did not get to enjoy a review copy of Uncharted 4 so I had to wait until May 10 to purchase the game with everyone else. Since we're almost a week behind and most Uncharted fans have already picked up a copy of the game, it feels almost unnecessary to give out a review now. That said, if I denied this chance, I'll never get to write about Nathan Drake again. Just humor me.

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