June 23, 2016

That's A Wrap: Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

warning: may contain spoilers

The time has finally - FINALLY - come. Even though I'm publishing this weeks after its release, I've been waiting for this game for many years and many delays, not only because I'm a die hard Uncharted fan, but because I've been waiting for this title to come out before I bought a PS4. Now armed with both, I venture into this bittersweet journey with high hopes. It's kinda funny… I really can't win: if it's a great game, I have to go on living with the understanding that this is, in fact, the last Uncharted game I'll have the pleasure of playing (so says developer Naughty Dog). And if it sucks? I'm going to be bloody pissed! Regardless, I haven't been this excited for a new game in a long time, and I'm going into this with massive hype!

My first thoughts on U4 were, it looks like an Uncharted, it sounds like an Uncharted, it's written like an Uncharted, it plays exactly like an Uncharted… this is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the next installment in the Uncharted series. But we knew that… my point is: Naughty Dog didn't make the same mistake as so many other developers and take this opportunity to completely ruin their flagship franchise by switching everything up and adding loads of unnecessary crap. The beauty of Uncharted has always been the way it looks and the story it tells, and while U4 is highly polished, experienced Uncharted players will not even need the tutorials. The game feels right at home in the dog house. Several chapters into the game, I still had a great big smile on my face, and was still cursing like a mad man when I couldn't make a jump or died a cheap death. It's Drake's Fortune on PS3 all over again, just… prettier.
If I had to sum up the graphics in this game in one phrase, "holy shit" would be it. There were moments in U4 where I had a great deal of difficulty reminding myself that these are computer generated graphics. And the thing is: Naughty Dog isn't the first to develop insane backgrounds and realistic water, but FACES? Granted, this is the first PS4 title I've played, so it could just be me, but there are definitely shots in this game where you will find yourself in disbelief over the realism of the faces. The only things I could pinpoint as bothersome were the eyes and some lighting passes. I know developers often deliberately cheat their capabilities when it comes to eyes, but in some shots, Drake didn't even appear to be looking at the person he was talking to, and it just made the whole scene... awkward. And occasionally the light would catch them in a way that made them glassy in an especially unrealistic way or catch some textures that faulted them, but other than that, zero complaints from me in this department! This game is freaking gorgeous!
Scratch that, I have one last complaint. The Madagascar headache. But I'll get to that later.

I found the soundtrack to be rather underwhelming. Not bad, just not outstanding. The moment when the music stuck out most was actually a throwback to the first game's "battle" music, which brought a smile to my face. That said, the combat tune in this title went barely noticed by me most times. I don't really know what to make of that, it really could just be me. One can still use such a soundtrack to gauge the scenario, however; like the previous titles, the music cuts once the threat(s) has been eliminated, helping to indicate that it's safe to move on or continue exploring. One of Uncharted's many fine features!
I don't have much else to report to you for sound. The effects were believable and blended in well, and the voice acting was out of this world, save for minor inconsistencies in the portrayal of Sam. Maybe it's an "east coast" thing…

So the story of our fourth and final adventure begins with Drake trying desperately to embrace his tame, "normal" life. He's given up treasure hunting and settled into a salvaging job where he's home for dinner every night. Just then, Drake's boss makes him an offer he can't refuse! Actually, he can, and does. It's not until Nate discovers his thought-dead brother Sam is still alive that he's drawn back into the game, and not for his usual selfish purposes, but for the benefit of his older brother.
One of the coolest levels in the game is the one in which you get to explore Drake's "normal life," with an attic full of adventure trinkets and typical domestic life beneath. There are a ton of throwbacks to the previous games - really all throughout U4, but especially in this moment - and a much talked about Naughty Dog easter egg is tossed in as well.

Our favorites are all back for A Thief's End; Nathan Drake is nothing without his ol' pal Sully dragging him forward, and his wife Elena holding him back (or not). But there are three new additions to U4, something Uncharted has always managed to do without it seeming phony…
Of course we have the aforementioned Sam, Nate's older brother who's been in and out of his life since they were children at an orphanage.
Rafe Adler is an old partner of Nate and Sam's. After a nasty incident in Panama, Rafe and Nate seemed to part ways (Sam didn't have a thought in the matter). While Nate continued to use his smarts and brawn to carry on, Rafe fell back on his family's fortune and hired others to do the dirty work for him.
Case in point - Nadine Ross. Nadine is the sassy leader of a group of mercenaries called Shoreline. They're big fans of dynamite. But you shan't judge Nadine by her cover, she's about as tough as they come in the Uncharted universe.
And for the record, the historical figure we're chasing in U4 is legendary "pyrate" Henry Avery. Words cannot describe how happy this continues to make me. I love old pirate stories and general pirate lore. It added another special element to this game for me personally.
The last person I want to mention is Cassandra Morgan. All I'll say is, I've wanted to meet this lady for a very long time. This game has succeeded in filling so many holes I didn't even know I had in my heart. I was very pleased to finally learn about her.

Visual presentation time! Here's an earlier couple o' levels in Uncharted 4:
(It's amazing what you notice when you're watching the game and not playing it…)
As I mentioned before, this will look awfully familiar to any Uncharted fan. The game handles very much the same as the previous titles, with perhaps a tweak here and smoothing out there. I suppose the most notable additions are the grappling hook and stealth combat. As you can see, the grapple hook allows the boys to get past tricky obstacles, and is taught very early on, as is stealth combat which uses a visual alarm system of white (they're onto you), yellow (they're looking for you) and orange (they've found you) to help you manage the new system.
Other than that, the game is painfully similar to the previous entries. You spend your time exploring the land, admiring the scenery (sorry, I couldn't help it), searching for glimmery treasures, solving climbing and other puzzles and trying not to fall to your doom. I'm an expert at that one! The game plays so soundly that when you do come across an idiosyncrasy, it stands out like big, bright, throbbing, sore thumb.

And that brings me to: THE MADAGASCAR INCIDENT.
I'm sure you've gathered by now that I'm rather a fan of this game, and I consider it very good. This statement is true for all but one level: Chapter 10: The Twelve Towers which takes our trio to Madagascar. The first thing I noticed about this level is how difficult it is to look at. The entire level shares the same, bright, red/orange color palette and is frankly painful after a few minutes, and makes finding landmarks or paths (there are no clear roads and very few obvious trails) very much a chore. I actually had a headache after just a few moments with this level. Next, because of the difficulties in navigation, I ended spending more time in this horrid hellhole than I would have liked. It doesn't help that this is one of the longest chapters in the game, either. Remember, this is my first time playing the game and I had no guidance, so I found getting my bearings tricky and eventually, the game just gave up on me. This led to two annoyances: one - the game's "hint" apparatus jumped into full effect, constantly annoying me with directions when I wanted to continue exploring. (You can turn off hints at any time, but I was distracted). Two - I became aware of the game's most awful feature, forward checkpointing (I'm not sure if there's a more technically correct term for this, so I'm calling it that). Since the game could see that I was "struggling" to find my way, any time I died near a checkpoint (but not through it) the game would teleport me past the checkpoint and force me to restart there. In any other game, this would probably be a blessing, but there is so much to see and do in Uncharted and the Madagascar level is so big that I missed countless opportunities because of this feature. As an obsessive compulsive explorer, I can't even find the words to convey to you how pissed I was.
Lastly, the entire level requires the use of a 4x4 vehicle. It turns out, I'm very bad at driving*. The 4x4 was a cool addition in theory but I'm so terrible at it that I began having awful flashbacks to the mako in Mass Effect. Not cool. The good news is, you also get to handle a boat and motorcycle at other points in the game, and they're not nearly as bad, in my experience.

*Actually an exception driver in real life, thank you very much!

The only "menu" to be found outside of the game menu is Drake's journal. This is acquired early in the game and can than be called up whenever you please. Drake will add to it throughout his travels with useful information about the game or puzzles, or will just draw amazing, silly pictures.
Easily the single best piece of art Naughty Dog has ever made.
Of course, the last major component to the game is combat. I showed a little bit of this in the video, including the use of guns - once again you can carry a long gun and a hand gun, you can swap guns or pick up ammo by holding/tapping triangle; melee - when necessary, or if you're bored, you can whack enemies with your weapon or fists by tapping square; stealth - hide behind objects or in tall grass (really? They seriously can't see me?) and surprise baddies with a melee or takedown attack, but watch your alert color!
In terms of stealth - I'm not the greatest "stealth-er" that ever was, but I found the addition quite easy to pick up and adapt to in U4. I used it quite a bit, and for different purposes. In some levels I considered it a challenge - in fact I seem to recall getting a trophy for using all stealth in one level - sometimes it was seemingly mandatory and sometimes it was just convenient. I don't think you have to be good at stealth to play U4, and I don't think you'll need to rely on it much if you don't like it. It's not the most refined system in the games industry but it gets the job done, if only in a fury.
Lastly, the game will occasionally throwback to the days of tossing propane tanks into the air and blowing them up at your convenience, but this really doesn't happen much in U4.
The final boss in U4 was a touching homage to the first game. I've heard a lot of people complain about it, and I struggled with it a bit, too, but I thought it was great that they didn't try to change too much or make the final encounter some impossible feat. Bosses in Uncharted games are less about hiding and shooting - like the rest of the game - and more about a tactical, almost puzzle-like battle with little interference from anything else. I enjoyed it. Now would probably also be a good time to say that I didn't particularly love the ending. It wasn't bad, just a bit shallow for what was supposed to be a grand exit.

As for sidequests in U4, there were the usual suspects and few newer ideas. As always, the glimmer treasures are scattered throughout the massive land for you to hunt - 109 of them in fact. 3 are considered "lost relics" which are sweet little reminders of… well I'll let you find them.
There are also optional journal entries in U4. Throughout the game, Nate will pop open his handy journal and sketch something helpful, but if you look hard enough, you'll get some additional pictures or notes that he wouldn't otherwise jot down.
The game borrows a technique from its sister, The Last of Us, with optional conversations, as well. During your travels, you'll have a handful of opportunities to creep up on your companion and trigger a secondary conversation that wouldn't otherwise happen. You'll see a prompt on the character if one is available, but they're only there for a small amount of time.
Every now and then you might run into an additional quest which won't really affect the game, but it's something to do if you're mad (like the cairns challenge in Madagascar… which I missed due to the stupid checkpointing...)

The pause menu on the 'Options' button.
As per usual, the controls for U4 are relatively straight forward and very easy to pick up:
X is jump; O is dodge or take cover; Square is melee; Triangle to pick things up or reload while armed.
The left shoulder is your grapple hook and climbing control while the right is your grenade or otherwise explosive projectile toss.
The left trigger is for aiming your gun and pulling the right will fire. These also serve as your brake and accelerate buttons respectively, while driving.
L3, when prompted, will point something specific out to the player, but is otherwise used to mark enemies for stealth (I never did this); R3 is your zoom while shooting.
Pushing down the touch pad will open your journal, while Options opens the game menu. The Share button does as you command it to.
The D-pad's down button serves as your visual emergency car alarm (helps you find where you parked it), when you have a vehicle; left and right are used to switch guns, and as always, the left stick controls Drake, while the right is your camera. Exploit the hell out of the latter.

In addition to the epic single player campaign, U4 also comes armed with an online multiplayer option. I have yet to check this out, although I intend to, but I'm sure it's not unlike every other MP ever. Likely survival games or 'Capture the Flag' type knock-offs in which you play as Uncharted characters and use weapons, etc. I'll likely update this area after I've had a chance to sample it.
The multiplayer half of the game is also supported by an app! Uncharted: Fortune Hunter is a puzzle game you can download on your mobile device (it's free) and link to your PSN account. By solving the levels and unlocking loot, you gain access to accessories and boosters for your multiplayer experience. I downloaded the game just for something to do while slacking off at work, and it's quite fun if you enjoy puzzles. The 'Uncharted' element is a bit lost on me but the game itself is fun and challenging. Have a look if you're interested. Available on the App Store and Google Play!

Explorer, Light, Moderate, Hard and Crushing modes are available, in ascending difficulty. Explorer mode is recommended for speed runners or newly minted gamers, while Crushing is for sociopaths. The game also has a difficulty assistance program where it dulls the difficulty slightly if you're really struggling, so you don't necessarily need to drop a mode if you suck (although you can, at any time).
I, of course, indulged in Moderate mode for my inaugural play, and frankly didn't find it difficult at all. Most of the deaths I incurred were due to my own stupidity or misjudgment. Of the dozens of deaths I racked up, I reckon only 4 or 5 of them were actually in battle. I'd definitely suggest Moderate or up for seasoned action gamers. (FYI: the video actually demonstrates Explorer mode, I switched it for the ease of recording and because there isn't a ton of combat in those levels anyway. The auto lock-on and general buffoonery of the foes are not the norm for higher modes.)

I clocked 20 hours in U4, but that is by no means the average, necessary or standard time. As I'm sure you can tell, I'm a bit of a psycho when it comes to these games, so I spent excessive time hunting treasures, goofing off or just staring. Consequently I logged many more hours than it would truly take to complete. I expect 10-15 hours would be more than enough, especially if you know what you're doing.

So how could they make Uncharted 4 better? Simple. Remove Madagascar… I might have a chip on my shoulder, guys. Jokes aside, I would have liked more grapple hook freedom. It would be nice if we could use the grapple with less linear restrictions. When they announced this feature I was really excited because I thought it would offer a completely new aspect to the game, but really it's just another linear method of getting from point A to point B in the levels. You don't get to do any extra exploring via grapple at all.
For want of that, I have to say I'm ever-so-slightly disappointed with the exploration and level size in general. U4 was really hyped for being the biggest Uncharted to date, and it is, and beautiful and consistent as well, but I was kind of counting on getting lost all over the place, and there were really only two levels that got me. Looking back, I suppose this isn't that big of a deal, but I did notice it while I played.
Of course I'll also have to mention the advance checkpointing here. By this I mean: normally when you die, you're sent backward to replay the segment. There were a few moments where I'd miss a jump or get stuck, and the game would advance me forward instead, and I'd lose the ability to explore half the stage (Madagascar) and miss a bunch of treasure, too. I'm not sure if this is related to the difficulty meter sliding but it was infuriating.
Personally, I wouldn't complain if the puzzles were a little harder. I didn't struggle with these at all. I've beat Silent Hill, for crying out loud! Challenge me, Naughty Dog!

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End retails for about $60 USD new, but the game has probably already returned to stores like GameStop for a little less. If you're not hellbent on playing it like I was, go ahead and wait a few months for the price to drop.
The limited edition Uncharted 4 PS4 that I bought (coming to a Kicking Gnomes near you!) retails for about $400 USD and comes with a matching Dualshock4 and a physical copy of the game. In my experience, limited edition consoles aren't so quick to disappear anymore, but if you're interested, I recommend jumping on that soon.
If you loved Uncharted 4, good news! There are three other official games in the series, and a fourth outside party title just waiting for you! But wait- there's more! The previous three games have been remastered and released for PS4! Yaaaa- I don't care. Frankly they don't seem to look or play much better than they do on PS3, but maybe ask someone who checked… haha. They are Drake's Fortune, Among Thieves; Drake's Deception and Golden Abyss, respectively. Naughty Dog developed the first 3 for PS3 and had Golden Abyss developed elsewhere with their supervision for the PSVita. I've written about it, it's not awful. Check it out if you love Uncharted.

If you're as bad as me at driving, a couple of tips:
  • Don't hold the accelerator down, tap or squeeze gently to get the most control.
  • Conversely, don't hold the left stick either. In fact, don't touch it. Just give it a tap in the appropriate direction when coming into curves as needed. This helped me a lot.
  • The game does not let you move backwards, so if you're a completionist, or are following a guide, move VERY SLOWLY.
  • Read the journal. You're welcome.
  • If you're unsure if Nate can make a jump/climb, check to see if he reaches out. This is your indicator that he's ready and able!
  • Feel free to uh… revisit Crash Bandicoot, when you get the chance. 
  • Be prepared for quick time events. Yeah, I know...
  • Don't spend too much time under water.

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