Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End video game review.

"Sic Parvis Magna." In English, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake's motto translated to "Greatness from Small Beginnings", eventually becoming a calling card for supposed descendant Nathan Drake. Once a novice fortune hunter and delinquent, the wise-cracking and lovable everyman has fought, traversed, and leaped his way through countless lost civilizations (that he would accidentally destroy), soon becoming a legend in his own time with each journey.

But the motto does more than relate solely to him. Moving away from system defining platformers like Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter in favor of an epic, pulpy adventure in the vein of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was a fantastic system seller combining the mile a minute thrills in gameplay with the great characterization and wit of a summer blockbuster, with the sequel Among Thieves raising the stakes and entertainment value while giving the characters deeper development, on its way to becoming one of the greatest video games of all time.

But following the also epic third entry, Drake's Deception, Naughty Dog were interested in more things than just treasure hunting. Taking a break from Nate's daredevilry, first time director Neil Druckmann led his team at the company through a very bleak post-apocalypse with The Last of Us, merging spectacular, subtle storytelling with deep and intense gameplay, proving that they had earned Drake's motto. Now armed with the experience of both franchises, the studio returns for one last adventure to give their star player a satisfying send-off. The result is as deeply affecting as it is heart-pounding, with Uncharted 4: A Thief's End combining the best of both worlds, while cementing Naughty Dog as the best game developer currently working.

Three years since the discovery of Iram of the Pillars, Nathan Drake (Nolan North) has sworn off the life of dangerous adventure in favor of a simple life. He now works at a respectable marine recovery business, and spends his days enjoying the quality time with his journalist wife Elena Fisher (Emily Rose). But just when Nate thought he was out, he gets pulled back in when his once presumably dead older brother Sam (Troy Baker) turns up after fifteen years, desperately seeking Nate's help to track down the lost treasure of Henry Avery to pay off a fatal debt. Joined once again by mentor Victor Sullivan (Richard McGonagle), the two brothers journey the world looking for clues to Avery's loot and the fabled pirate colony Libertalia, while also fending off the hired guns employed by their wealthy and ruthless former partner Rafe Adler (Warren Kole).

First of all, it's important to note that while the final product can be called nothing less than fantastic, it hasn't been one without a rocky schedule. Originally intended for release in late 2014, the final entry of Uncharted faced a number of production bumps, including the exit of former series mastermind Amy Hennig, and a number of attached actors that included Todd Stashwick and Alan Tudyk. Her exit resulted in all of the previously shot footage being scrapped, and led the studio to have The Last of Us directors Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley step in and rework the game. The fact that the game manages to come together without any obvious behind the scenes fumbles coming to the forefront is a miracle in and of itself, but also pushes the series to its absolute limits. So much so that, and while this may be obvious, do not start with this game if you're a newcomer to the series, as it'll make the spectacular predecessors look retrograde by comparison. With that said, let's begin.

From the opening menu screen of a skeleton eerily hanging in a gibet while jungle noises play in the background, it's clear that Druckmann's creative fingerprints are everywhere in this game, bringing the same deep and thoughtful characterization that he made a name for himself with in The Last of Us, and adapting it seamlessly to the Uncharted universe. All of his stamps are present in this game, from optional conversations that expand on the feelings of each character, cinematic gameplay sequences intended to give the player overwhelming emotional responses, and even sequences of the lost city of Libertalia feeling reminiscent of Pittsburgh from The Last of Us. While it has always felt high in stakes, Uncharted has never been a particularly dark series, and while this has usually been a charm for the games, they essentially end up hitting a reset button for each new entry. Here, Druckmann hits no such resets, expanding on character relationships and seeing how the turn of events effect their established lives, and rather than try to top the epic "how did you survive that" stunts and potentially world ending MacGuffins, instead shifts the high stakes to a more personal and intimate level.

Key in this is how the game opts to move away from the trademark supernatural curses in favor of a more psychological curse, and the deeply hitting tolls that the never-ending need for adventure takes on a man's life. This comes to be best represented in the game's secret weapon Sam. Serving as something of a dark portrait of the kind of adventurer Nate could have become had he not been fully enlightened to the damage that the dangerous thrills inflict on him, Sam plays like a literal adrenaline-junkie, clearly showing great love and compassion for his brother and his closest friends, but blissfully unaware of how much his high-seas enterprise actually demands of them. Nate has always been similarly pushy in his endeavors, but Sam's obsessiveness of the subject frequently push that feeling to new extremes, often unintentionally allowing his deep-rooted desperation to seep through the surface, even disregarding the fact that the trip may end up costing him his life, all because he feels like this is all he has left. It also gives Troy Baker yet another amazing character to work with, distancing himself away from the morally robbed Joel, and poignantly contributing brilliant subtext to the character with every line delivery and facial tick.

The same darkness even extends into the villains of the game. Despite every game being of fantastic quality, one issue (occasionally the only real issue) that has pervaded Uncharted are its admittedly weak villains. With most of the attention on the heroes, the villains usually felt like flat archetypes that made no real impression other than to serve as foils, with the exception of memorable side villains like Flynn and Talbot. Here, that issue is completely non-existent, with the villains here undoubtedly becoming the finest the series has seen yet. A common theme in A Thief's End is the ties to Saint Dismas, the penitent thief at the Crucifixion of Jesus, and Avery using the dichotomy of Dismas, and the jokingly nicknamed "Jerk thief" Gestas to test those who prove worthy or unworthy of joining his crew. With this comparison, it seems appropriate enough to label Rafe the jerk thief, but is given much more depth than merely being a greedy jerk, and like Sam, driven by his own crippling obsessions. Despite being a wealthy man who could "buy everything on the auction block" as Sully puts it, Rafe is actually quite resentful of these things, desperate to move out of the eclipsing shadows of both his parents and "Nathan, the Legend", and feel like he has earned fame and notoriety on his own rather than feel like it's just handed to him. He makes for a ruthless, conniving, thoroughly unpredictable villain, and Warren Kole steals the show any time he's on screen. But just as much of a scene stealer is Laura Bailey as Shoreline mercenary commander Nadine, an impatient and methodical fighter who can easily overpower Nate's tricks, and who gradually grows to realize before many of the others just how destructive the lure of the gold is.

Now if that makes it seem like Uncharted 4 is a grim game, while the game is the darkest of the games, it still feels very much like the Uncharted we all came to know and love, retaining the same lightness and good-spirited adventure that has been a staple of the series. Having co-written the first two games, Druckmann and co-writer Josh Scherr are still very much respectful to the lovable snark and comedy that Amy Hennig had always defined the series with, using Druckmann's greater attention to characterization to thoughtfully enhance the laugh out loud banter and meta-jabs. Character interaction is at its finest abilities here, making further fantastic use of the cast as well. Nolan North has always been a terrific choice to ground Nate's charismatic and sarcastic presence, supplying necessary stability and an everyman-like gravity that makes us feel the weight of not only his choices, but also his actions in combat, and it's made all the better when placing him directly against Troy Baker. Emily Rose as Elena, always a subtle MVP of the games, continues to prove as much of a gem here, with the web of lies spun by her husband continually leading the two to a heavy confrontation, while as always willing to dive into the path of danger despite her caution, and like Nate is similarly torn over whether or not the two can actually lead a normal life without adventure. Then that leaves Sully, and while the character's role isn't as major as it was in the previous entry Drake's Deception, he's still there to play a wise but lovingly tormenting voice of reason to level out Nate's recklessness.

But what's undoubtedly going to divide audiences is the ending of the game. After a very poignant series of scenes, much like The Last of Us before it, A Thief's End concludes with an epilogue meant to give some closure to the game. Without giving too much away, and believe me that's very difficult to do, it's a thoughtful, but initially perplexing sequence that manages to bring Nate's story to a satisfying close, while also leaving the door open for other developers to make future spin-offs. It initially caught me completely off guard due to my own personal grim expectations (due mainly to Neil Druckmann's similarly bittersweet closing of The Last of Us), and triggers a number of interesting questions, while also leaving the player appropriately bittersweet. That said, it's not an ending that I instantly warmed up to (exactly like The Last of Us), but after much mulling over and a second playthrough, it does makes for a very bold and fitting final note for the journey of all of our favorite characters.

But much like the previous games, Uncharted 4 wouldn't be half the game it is if the gameplay weren't satisfying. Having already established his talents with the exciting staging of the action in the second game Among Thieves, Bruce Straley returns ready to rework and refine all of the core gameplay elements of Uncharted, while also bringing with him the experience of The Last of Us. All of the classic elements are here in A Thief's End, but have been completely overhauled and perfected in the leap from PS3 to PS4. Traversing along mountain cliffs and leaping from great heights continue to feel as satisfying as ever, gunplay (both cover-based and running) and melee attacks continue to feel intense and in the moment, treasure hunting is given greater scope and leaves a greater reward value and sense of discovery, and the intricate puzzles require as much careful and clever thought and attention to Nate's journal as ever. But whenever the complicated traversal isn't taking up time, the game is also wise to let the gameplay generate more subtle emotional responses and let the power of the onscreen images do the storytelling, particularly in Nate and Elena's silent and scenic mountainside drive as Henry Jackman's beautiful score plays in the background.

While still a very linear game driving you from point A to B as in previous games, much like The Last of Us, it offers you a greater feeling of open-exploration to scope the world out at your own pace, and makes the game feel like this is what Uncharted should have been all along. The environments in the game are *huge*, packed with spectacular detail and sweeping vistas, and consistently appearing almost photo-realistic with only the occasional bug. The same great detail also applies to the many character models within the game, progressively making new innovations to the motion-capture technology, and every character's facial and body animations are realistically designed. The graphics push the PS4 to its absolute limits in processing, so much so that the game unfortunately is forced to revert to 30 frames per second as opposed to the usual 60, but at least the addicting multiplayer runs at a higher pace.

But more importantly, because the environments are so massive, it offers you a greater feeling of exploration with the many potential routes you can take (especially when driving in various vehicles like the jeep), and offers you greater opportunity to flank your enemies. However, this means that your enemies can also take advantage of the space to flank you, so new stealth mechanics have had to be built from the ground up, allowing you an always satisfying array of weaponry, but much like The Last of Us, encourages you to use more subdued and sneaky methods of dispatching in favor of head on attacks, or just avoiding contact altogether. This is where the use of tall grass and enemy marking (the latter turned off in Crushing mode) come into play, allowing you to hide yourself from enemies and emerge only as needed, and to keep track of their movement as you wander around them. That's not the only way you can sneak your way around them, as you also have other new gameplay mechanics for use in battle and traversal, with Nate being able to slide down steep slopes to get to lower ground in a hurry, and acquiring a grappling hook that allows him to swing from platform to platform like Spider-Man (Oh, I'm so glad this is in my life), and even leap through the air and crash onto enemies below, all of which are further put to stellar use in the multiplayer.

But like any Uncharted game, it wouldn't be complete without the set-pieces. They continue to be as thrilling as ever, but unlike the more epic moments in games like Drake's Deception, the use of action sequences here are much more subtle by comparison, going along with the similarly intimate and personal stakes of all the characters. They're usually more reserved in scope and staging, building their emotional responses from the ground up to allow for greater character moments, but there are still those wonderful sparing moments when the game does get to embrace the gargantuan absurdity and enthusiastic adrenaline that's become a staple of the series, including the always moving and fast-paced convoy chase in Madagascar. Even the climax of the game is a significant turnaround from the massive save-the-world stakes and civilization annihilation, but refreshingly so. I'd rather have a personal face-off with a fully established character with real threat than have a big tussle with no built up investment with the villain.

I'm pretty sure it goes without saying at this point, but when all is said and done, I absolutely loved Uncharted 4: A Thief's End. Not only does it satisfyingly close off one of the greatest franchises of this or any generation, not only does it make me fully satisfied to have bought a PS4, not only does it set a new benchmark for Uncharted and action games in general, but it now ranks among my absolute favorite games of all time. It's the perfect culmination of all of the best elements of the series, blending the experience and deeper storytelling that it's directors' picked up during production of The Last of Us with the mile a minute adrenaline and laughs that we've come to love the games for, and actually puts most cinematic blockbusters to shame in the meantime. It easily ranks Naughty Dog as my favorite developer currently working, and I cannot wait to find out what they'll be making next. For all those reasons and more, A Thief's End unsurprisingly earns my highest accolades...

***** / *****

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