Uncharted 4: A Thief's End - A Miss Cole Videogame Review
Spoilers. There will be spoilers. All of them. Top to bottom spoilers. If you haven't played the game, do not read this post. I'm indulging ;)
But if you want my spoiler free verdict, here it is - This game lived up to all my expectations. All of them. And in some cases, it totally surpassed them.
Okay, incoming spoilers!
I still cannot get over how I went from being extremely ugh about the original game to "OMG FEELS!" through 100% of the third and fourth games. I maintain this series is a great way for any writer to play through brilliant character development. I talked about that in my character study, but A Thief's End takes it to another level. Instead of undoing all of Nate's character development over the previous three games and having him be the same idiot he's always been, we're instead given a character torn between his brother and the family he found along the way... Well, okay, he's still kind of an idiot, but maybe for the first time ever his heart was in the right place. In a sort of midlife crisis kinda way. Or perhaps in a "Oh, crap, I am a terrible person, I should probably not be" kind of way. Eh, your mileage may vary. Either way, if you ever find yourself wondering how to take a flat character and give them life, and how to work character development into a larger than life storyline, Uncharted is the franchise for you!
...There, I have fulfilled my blog's "this is about creative writing" obligation. Now, for the fangirling. WOO HOO!
So, for the record, I have currently only played my way through the game once.... and then spent hours sinking into internet reviews and Tumblr holes :P I wanted to spew out all of my feelings before going through it again. As it stands, the fourth game is my second favourite in the series, even if I am still blown away by the plot days later. There's just something about the third game I like that little bit more. Drake's Deception feels so tailored to me in a way A Thief's End doesn't quite achieve. I think it's the fourth game's lack of abandoned Victorian train stations :P
Anyway, back to A Thief's End. I barrelled my way through it in four days. I had moments when I desperately wanted to slow down, but I just needed to know what would happen! The game's main treasure hunting plot is fairly straight-forward - Nate and his older brother are seeking the lost fortune of pirate king Henry Avery. They had to take a fifteen year break because Nate believed his brother Sam had died. But Sam comes barrelling back into his younger brother's life a few years after the events of the third game, when Nate has given up the treasure hunting lifestyle. But when he finds out Sam will die without his help, Nate breaks his promise to his wife and returns to his thieving ways. This is the first time Nate admits that's precisely what he is, rather than claiming he's some kind of treasure hunter. It's another big step for his character development. He's able to look back and see the truth. He's no dashing hero; he's a thief and a murderer, and he isn't proud of the fact. It stands in huge contrast to the child we meet early on in the game, and it's definitely the game's quieter, character driven moments I love the most. There's early tension between Sam and Sully. Sam's clearly jealous of the older man. To Nate, Sully's family. To Sam, Sully is the guy who took Sam's place in Nate's life. Sam isn't just an older brother, he's a replacement father figure... at least until Sully came along. However, it's the relationship between Nate and Elena that takes centre stage in the game, a relationship Nate has put in terrible jeopardy because he can't be honest. Or maybe won't be honest. Hmmm...
Now, while I could talk about gameplay mechanics, what I always care about in a game is the story. Every now and then you get a game like the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot that balances an excellent story with superb combat mechanics, but what I look for in a game is engaging plot, and A Thief's End gave that to me. What makes this game something special is the time it takes to tell its story. The previous games in the series are pretty bombastic. They don't really give you time to catch your breath outside the cutscenes. You're always one turn away from some kind of disaster - usually Nate falling through a ceiling onto some bad guys. But A Thief's End knows its audience cares about these characters enough to stick with them when nothing's blowing up around them. You have the time to explore environments and characters like never before. My favourite section of the game is set in the past when little Nathan and his big brother are exploring an old woman's house. She's an aged explorer, and her house is full of wonders... but she is completely alone. As you explore her house, you find letters from her estranged husband and child. In the plot's wider context, she is a stark warning to Nate and his brother about what happens when your quest for adventure costs you the things that really matter. To me, she's also a nod to Lara Croft and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. FIGHT YOU, I SAY!!!!
In all seriousness, these quieter stretches are a big step for an Uncharted game. The character development that made me care about Nathan Drake in the third game pays off, because we spend time with him at various stages of his life - childhood, early twenties and present day - without having to mow down a battalion of enemies. It was incredibly refreshing.
Okay, big spoilers coming up! Last chance to back out.
At the game's midpoint, I should think all of my neighbours wondered what the hell I was shouting at. Nate, after his lies have been uncovered by his wife, discovers he's been lied to by the older brother he's idolised since childhood. Sam's life isn't being threatened at all, and he's actually working for the main villain. OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOH!!!!! And this twist works so well because you've spent the previous half of the game getting to know their relationship, and all the fallout it causes for Nate. Despite not being honest with Elena, Nate's having fun going back to that adventurous way of life. He knows it's wrong to lie, but he doesn't care. Not the way he should. He thinks he can have it both ways - save his brother and solve the mystery and his wife will never be any the wiser. It weighs on him, but not properly. Not until Elena finds him and reveals the extent of her devastation. After that, there's no joy left in any of it for Nate anymore. The whole treasure hunting thing doesn't compare to the happiness he has with her. And yet he can't stop because of the danger he believes his brother's in. It's part love for his brother, part guilt for leaving him in jail for fifteen years driving Nate. Lying to Elena isn't a decision he made lightly. He thinks he can get away with it, but he required some pretty heft motivation. So for him to find out Sam's been lying to him? Predictable, yes, but amazing.
So, we've got a family drama set against a treasure hunting expedition, and man did I love those little hints of what had happened to the pirates hundreds of years previously. The ghosts of the past hang over the current day action, and there are parts of the game that are genuinely creepy. The opening screen will give you a taste of that. Something about being left in a gibbet to die unnerved me. Actually, that's not strong enough. It really, deeply disturbed me, especially after I decided to read up on the practice after I'd finished the game. The gibbet cages certainly gave the game a great atmosphere which, with its quieter tone overall, worked really well.
So, after big brother's betrayal, Nate has to try and patch things up with his wife. This happens while you're playing. Nate will try and apologise to her, or thank her, or compliment her, and she's just not ready to hear it yet. Normally, these two break up off screen between games, so for us to play through Nate desperately trying to fix what he has broken is, again, another big step for the franchise. And it's only really at the very, very end of the game in the epilogue that we see they work through everything and stay together.
So yeah, about that epilogue...
Honestly, going into this game, I was convinced that Sully would die. I was prepared. I had tissues. And then, in the final gameplay section with Nate, I was convinced he would die. In fact, I was convinced he had died until, during the epilogue with his daughter, she talked about him in present tense. I cannot tell you how glad I am this franchise had an excellent, and very happy, ending. I suppose, with this game coming from the people who made The Last of Us, I was prepared for tragedy. When we didn't get it, it was the relief that made me weepy. Nate and Elena carry on with what they love, they have a child together who has grown up happy, and Sully's alive! Oh, and Sam, he's there, too, forgiven and reformed. It was perfect. And, again, the slow pace to it made it so much more fun. I can't wait to play through it again. And for me, that's the sign of a great game - a need to go back and replay the story immediately.
There were so many tiny details I loved in this game, too. One of my favourite additions was the more organic approach to Nate's journal - it's up to you find all the entries. They don't just appear there as needed like before. Nate will actually grab a pencil and sketch in-game. His brother even comments on it. I missed a few entries, which is another reason I have to play it again - more to do and see! I loved playing Crash Bandicoot again for the first time in nearly twenty (O_O) years... I think I was better at it as a kid :P I loved the banter between the characters (especially Elena and Nate's gibbet pronunciation debate ha-ha-ha, I see what you did there, Naughty Dog). I loved the fact that Sam was the only person to call Nate Nathan. I love that Sully is still Nate's voice of reason. I loved that Nate couldn't hold his own against Nadine. I loved how beautiful this game was, and how lifelike the animation is. There was one tiny moment - Nate's sitting next to Sully on a plane and he rubs his nose, and I forgot I was playing a game. Simple little things, tiny things, revealed such an amazing level of detail. It was phenomenal. Oh, and the soundtrack! Guess I'll have to give it a proper review another day ;)
So, yes, A Thief's End was brilliant. I got a far happier ending than I expected, and I loved how the story took a little extra time than before. And, having just replayed the original, it's fun to go back and see how Nathan Drake develops over time.
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah. Happy fangirl.