TL; DR(eview) - Naughty Dog continues their streak of big, beautiful games with some of the best storytelling in gaming. The game is not without its flaws - gunplay and pacing come to mind - but it's still one of the finest examples of overall quality the medium has to offer.
We Live in a Beautiful World
Until Tuesday, I have viewed Photo Mode as one of the most useless features to include in a game. But throughout my time with Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, I found myself in repeated awe over the beauty of the world's Naughty Dog crafted and actually took time throughout my adventure to hop in and craft some beautiful shots. Each location feels unique and, for the most part, like a real place instead of just a level design. There are still probably a few too many hand-holds and miraculously scalable cliffs to fully sell the realism of the environments but it is leaps and bounds above the previous installments which were all phenomenal in their own right.
Masters of Storytelling
The real star of the show, though, is the exquisite combination of story, writing, direction, and performances on display. Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley carry over the incredible work they delivered with The Last of Us into this closing chapter for Nathan Drake. As the credited writers, Druckmann and Josh Scherr (Uncharted 2: Among Thieves) masterfully introduce and integrate the here-to-fore unknown character of Nate's brother Sam Drake into the lore of the series. And the real-life friendship between two of the most prolific voices in gaming for the past few years - Nolan North and Troy Baker - adds to the intimate familial relationship between the game's two leads.
Without going into story spoilers, the game follows Nate as he goes on "one last job" with his long-lost brother in the search of the treasure of 17th-century pirate Henry Avery. The way the game manages to weave Avery's story with that of Nate and company might be one of my new favorite stories in general, let alone in a video game. The thematic mirroring of stories told centuries apart is incredibly-well done and an excellent use alternative storytelling methods like environmental and through collectible notes and artifacts found throughout the game world.
The game's villainous duo struck me as two of the strongest villains the franchise has seen. Their motivations are expertly fleshed out over the course of the campaign. They have a history with our heroes, which makes the game feel that much more personal than previous entries where the closest we got was Marlowe in Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception loose connection to Nate and Sully years earlier.
The only bit of criticism that I can levy against the story is that its pacing feels off at times. While I greatly appreciate that Naughty Dog chose to make this final installment with Drake his longest, the gameplay loop doesn't completely support the extra time for the sendoff. Platforming and vehicle traversal sections go on a bit too long as a result of the level design being so much more vast than previous games and combat sections repeat themselves a bit too much over the course of the campaign.
That Familiar Feeling (With a Hint of Something New)
Having replayed through the first three games last year in the Nathan Drake Collection, the combat of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End wound up feeling very familiar, for better and worse. While the game does a good job cutting down on the multi-wave battle arenas in favor of toned-down engagements that occasionally might feature reinforcements, the cover mechanics feels as rough around the edges as they always have. During my initial playthrough, I found myself dying as much because I got caught on the wrong side of cover due to sticky controls as I did because I was reckless or the AI outflanked me.
The game does often allow for a more stealthy approach though, which helps counteract these frustrations but also comes with it own set of challenges. Allowing Nate to hide in tall grass and slowly work through a scenario, dwindling the enemies numbers, is great. But the fact that Nate can't grab a loose brick or rock and throw it as a distraction to move a guard out of his predefined path or sentry point seems like a missed opportunity, especially since it was such a prevalent feature in The Last of Us.
The other new feature of the combat involves the game;s new grappling hook tool. Most often used in the platforming sections of the game, the hook can also occasionally come into play in combat, turning these combat arenas into a much more vertical space than in any of the previous games. Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to marry the two new ideas as swinging around on a rope pretty much throws stealth out the window. Additionally, precision aiming is particularly challenging while swinging from a tree branch and being shot at so I found it mostly ineffective and wound up only occasionally using it as a way to melee the final enemy in an area from above and end the fight on a high note.
Ultimately, if you've had issues with the Uncharted combat in the past, you'll probably walk away with those same frustrations here. But I found the story and the rest of the game well worth these occasional pain points. If anything, they made getting back to the story that much more rewarding.
On a final note, as a fan of the series, I greatly appreciated all of the love and care that went into honoring the games that came before it. There are some very direct and rewarding bits of content to find if you've spent the last decade enjoying the Uncharted franchise and the quiet moments between characters, both in cutscenes and while exploring the world, build upon the hours we've spent with them in a way that is rich in its simplicity.
"Greatness from small beginnings," if you will.
For additional thoughts on some of the game's more spoiler-filled elements, feel free to check out my review addendum.