In typical Uncharted fashion, let's begin with the end first: After fourteen hours of playing Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, the supposedly last entry in PlayStation's exclusive series, I ran into a game-killing bug (which has been since been fixed in a day-one patch). I found myself in a cave with two bridges. When I jumped on one of the bridges, Nathan Drake fell through the world, where he flailed around in the void until he died. It was just a bug, but an appropriate ending for Uncharted 4, which as a whole flails around in the void for new ideas.
The story this time hinges on Drake's long-lost brother Sam, who forces Drake to come out of his treasure hunting retirement. With a bounty on his head, Sam persuades Nathan to travel across the globe in search of pirate Henry Avery's lost treasure. Uncharted 4 tries hard to explain who Sam is and how he fits into Drake's life, but it doesn't work. There's one flashback scene that explains the origin of their last name, and instead of being some revelatory moment, I couldn't help laughing from its ridiculousness. The first game in the series launched in 2007, so squeezing in a supposedly pivotal character into the story at this point feels forced, as if the only way to give the finale weight was discovering a long lost family member.
My favorite part of the game is early on, when I got to walk around Drake's home. In Uncharted,most houses Drake explores are dilapidated and usually crawling with heavily armed enemies. This time, Drake was walking through his own quiet home, packed with little trinkets and photos from his past adventures.
In many ways Uncharted 4 works like a museum dedicated to the franchise and the adventures Drake and his friends have shared. It borrows too much from previous iterations of Uncharted to really set itself as its own game, and especially not the very last Uncharted game.
Playing Uncharted 4 is extremely satisfying in typical Uncharted fashion. Swinging through the air and knocking out a baddie with sheer gravity is by far the most exciting way to knock someone out. Stopping to look at the scenic views, from the lemon trees to the tall mountains in the distance, was breathtakingly beautiful. Uncharted 4 is gorgeous, it's a wonder a game could replicate a world that looks so realistic.
Two major additions, stealth and Drake's new grappling rope, really help to add depth to exploration and combat. Taking a leap of faith in hopes of having Drake's rope catch on a nearby branch is both terrifying and exhilarating.
Stealth plays a major role in Uncharted 4's combat unlike other iterations in the series, and it absolutely works because it brings new bouts of patience to the franchise. I could avoid a few firefights if I wanted, but action-packed firefights are always available for those that prefer solving problems with bullets.
Like many big budget game series, Uncharted went from being new and exciting, to a well established and comfortable place to revisit, to recycled work. A few set pieces reminded me too much of locations in previous games. There was also a major plot point that's been used in another Uncharted game. Uncharted 2 had an explosive train ride, Uncharted 3, had an abandoned chateau set ablaze, but Uncharted 4 doesn't have a big scene or setting that outshined everything else.
This is where Uncharted 4 struggles the most. While the ideas in the game are mostly great and incredibly polished, they're also not new. Other than the grappling rope and stealth, the things I loved about this latest installment of Uncharted are the things I've already come to know and love in earlier games.
Uncharted 4 is a polished piece of Uncharted work from the tops of the mountains to the soles of Nathan's shoes. It's what you'd expect, and I'm sure many players will like that. But when set against the three other games in the main series, and two spin-offs for the PlayStation Vita, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End lacks a real identity outside of being yet another Uncharted game.
This is the fate of most AAA franchises. They start with a bang, iterate until they reach a point of perfection, but sadly overstay their welcome. Though Naughty Dog has stated that this is the final Uncharted game, there's also been talk of another developer taking over the franchise in the future. On one hand, Uncharted 4 is meant give a farewell to Nathan Drake and his companions; on the other hand, a new free-to-play puzzle Uncharted game was just released, with Nathan Drake as its mascot. Big budget games, especially ones as successful as Uncharted, are never allowed to leave on a high note. And while Uncharted 4 certainly isn't a sour note, it isn't the best note either. AAA games like Uncharted only end when people stop buying them, or long after developers exhausted the inspiration that made them popular in the first place.