A Tale of Two Drakes: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review

Release Date: May 10, 2016
Developer: Naughty Dog
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Genre: Third Person Shooter, Platformer, Action-Adventure
System: Playstation 4
Completion Time: 15 hrs, 45 minutes (not including collectible hunting)

Ludonarrative Dissonance, a heavy word to describe the contrast experienced between gameplay design and narrative structure. It’s a concept I’ve found a problem in quite a few games I’ve played over the years (FallOut 4 having been my latest victim). Truthfully, finding a balance between gameplay design and narrative structure is very difficult due to the philosophical approach for each part. Gameplay design is about entertaining the player with gameplay that’s exciting, gripping, and immersive. Oftentimes, this conflicts with the narrative structure, which hooks viewer through its thematic exploration, atmosphere, and characters. Finding a cohesive picture after it’s all put together can be difficult, and maybe impossible.

Uncharted, Naughty Dog Studio’s perennial Playstation Exclusive franchise, is a fine example of this experience. In cutscenes, main protagonist Nathan Drake is set up a snarky, suave, but chill guy people would hang out with at parties or grab a beer with. Gameplay wise, he’s’ a cold, ruthless killing machine that mows down hundreds of people towards wherever his next destination is. The juxtaposing, dichotomous nature of Nathan Drake is jarring and fueled many conversation on forums to answer the question: who is Nathan Drake? Joking or not, Naughty Dog has never been able to overcome this issue even if they’ve been aware of this. By the time Uncharted 3 came out, Nathan Drake’s days as a thief seemed over and we never saw the ludonarrative dissonance resolved.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, the fourth and final chapter of the franchise, is a game that embraces the ludonarrative dissonance and twists it on its head. It’s a game that not only provides one more epic story, but explores themes that are both delicate and relatable. The game is at its strongest explorating of Nathan Drake’s identity, his past, and his relationships. At it’s heart is a story that’s both reflective and adventurous, intimate and epic, quiet and loud. The game also accomplishes something I think a lot of series finales fail to do; provide a closing to the story. This is a farewell that hits all the right notes to become a perfect package for fans of the series.

Overall, this is Naughty Dog at its best

A Tale of Two Drakes

Three years after Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, Nathan Drake (Nate, for short) is just your typical everyday man. He’s got a job, bills to pay, a house, and his wife Elena to come home to in the city of New Orleans. By day, he’s a wreckage salvager, and by night, a husband. For Elena, she’s still doing work on various destinations…just as a journalist and not as a TV host. However, it’s clear to both of them something isn’t right about this dynamic, that there’s an air of uncomfortableness in settling down even if they’ve agreed to settle into “normal” lives.

The next day, Nathan Drake is surprised by someone from the grave – his brother Sam Drake. Having thought him dead during a prison escape during a botched operation 15 years ago, Sam tells Nate about how the doctors kept him alive and placed him back into prison. How did he escape? A drug lord named Hector Alcarez broke him out for the promise of a share of the treasure of Pirate King Avery, the very treasure him and Nate were looking for 15 years ago. Except Sam has two problems to deal with at the same time; he has two months to get Hector Alcarez his money, and they’re racing against their partner from the botched operation, Rafe. With a little bit of reluctance, Nathan decides to take the job and lies to Elena about it, citing a job that his company got for Malaysia.

Introducing Sam Drake! Nathan Drake's brother...that was never discussed in the series before...

Introducing Sam Drake! Nathan Drake’s brother…that was never discussed in the series before…

As they begin their journey, it becomes very clear that this treasure isn’t going to be found without very heavy resistance. Rafe, the ex-partner from 15 years ago, has hired Mercenary crew Shoreline to help him find Avery’s treasure; they’ll shoot, bomb, anything and anyone to get to that treasure. It means almost every step Nate and Sam will take will involve fighting Shoreline off while staying a step ahead.

However, the bigger journey is the exploration of the dichotomy of Nathan Drake; the one who misses the danger, exploration and adrenaline versus the one pretending he’d given up that life for a normal one. This is explored through the parallel of Avery’s journey with his treasure, and the Drakes’ quest to find it.  It’s a story that not only thoroughly fleshes out Nathan Drake, but allows him to finally come to terms with who he was, is, and is becoming.

All of this is tied down by a central theme that resonates strongly: family. No matter what adventures may lie ahead, the things that matter the most are the people that we come home to. In the end, the true treasure that we’re looking for are the people we love and care for. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is as much an interpersonal story as it is a story of exploration that by the time the epilogue had played out, I felt it had one thing a lot of games are missing: heart.

In my opinion, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the epitome of what the series was meant to be about. It’s a mature storytelling experience deftly weaving through past and present to create a cohesive, multilayered story worth telling. A narrative beats and pacing always feels just right, never going either too hard or too soft on the necessary poignant moments. When the big moments hit, they hit and stick hard on the landing. In contrast, the subtle and soft moments are often quiet but captivating, punctuated just right to linger on even when the story is moving forward. That’s because Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is smartly written, and shows both an awareness of the sins of the series’ past and the story it wants to tell now.

Notably, the meta awareness is strong in the presentation of the two Nathan Drakes through the eyes of the supporting cast. Through Sam and Sully, we see the old Nathan Drake players have gotten to know and love come back to life. We’re immersed into the journey through Nate’s historical knowledge, puzzle solving, and tracking in his obsession to solve the riddle lying ahead of him. In Rafe, the main antagonist, players witness the man Nate could have become if he allowed his obsession to consume him: alone.

However, the strongest writing is in the interaction between Nate and Elena, his on-and-off again love interest throughout the whole franchise. In her eyes, players get to meet the conflicting image of the man who wants to be able to leave the life he had behind to settle into a normal life, but can’t. Early on in the game, players are given a taste of their new, “normal” life but can tell something is off about it. There’s a silent uneasiness that makes their conversation feel strained because they’re trying to be “normal”.

As the game progresses, we also learn that Nate lied to Elena about taking on this final quest by telling her he took a salvaging job in Malaysia. When she discovers where he is, what he’s doing, and “why”, she asks the important question that’s been lingering in the whole game:

The central theme to Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

The central theme to Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Even when she hears the excuses he makes up about why he took on the adventure, both Elena and the players are aware of the fact that Nathan Drake is lying to himself. He’s not really doing this to save his brother, he’s really doing it for himself. This is the life he’s been missing, and now that he’s finally gotten it back he’s enjoying the thrill from it. It’s in this sequence do we see the point the writers are getting across and also how strong the writing is:

Elena: Who are you?

Nate: C’mon. I’m me, c’mon it’s me. (takes a step forward while Elena take a step back) It’s different this time.

Elena (disbelief): Oh my god.

Nate: I have to save him. I don’t even care about the treasure.

Pause

Elena: The look on your face when you walked into this room…If you’re done lying to me, you should stop lying to yourself. (Beat) I’ve got a plane to catch, you do what you have to do.

In this moment, we see Nate realize the truth; that this journey is really for himself and comes at the cost of losing the person he cares for the most. Towards the latter end of the journey, and after Nate has a close brush with death, Elena rescues Nate and offers to help him finish the job. As they’re making progress, we see Elena patiently waiting for Nate to admit the truth to her, and when he finally does, the uneasiness finally feels lifted:

Nate: I wasn’t trying to protect you. It’s — it’s just I — I made a promise that I was done with this life.

Elena: We both did.

Nate: Yeah, but I broke it. (Pause) I didn’t tell you because…I was afraid…

Elena: Afraid of what?

Nate: Of losing you. I guess I was protecting myself. You know?

Towards the end of the game, when there’s a choice between going for the treasure, Nate tells his brother Sam that they have to let go of it

Sam: We can do this. Nathan, c’mon, eh, look around ok? Avery scuttled every last ship on this island. You know why?

Elena: Because he was hellbent on keeping his treasure..

Sam: Exactly.

Elena: No matter the cost to the others around him.

Same: No offense to these guys, but they don’t get it…

Nate: Actually Sam, they do. They really do. Trust me, they’ve seen this…kind of obsession before. But Sam…we’re not those kids anymore. We’re not. And we’ve got nothing to prove.

All of this characterization would not have worked without the near perfect performances given by all of the actors. Nolan North (Nate) does a grab job of peeling apart the layers of Nate in one of the strongest, most vulnerable performances I’ve heard him do. Emily Rose (Elena) provides an equally vulnerable, subtle performance that elevates North’s performance. And Troy Baker (Sam) delivers yet another captivating performance as Nate’s brother. Last, but not least, Richard McGonagle (Sully) provides the right supplement to the main cast. The acting is what elevates and captures the heart of the game, providing the most immersive experience the series has offered.

In fact, this might be the first game where I find no issues with its story. Overall, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a near perfect example of how to write a series’ concluding chapter.

Uncharted 4 is a testament to the power of the Playstation 4

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a beautiful game and deserves to be called the best looking game on the Playstation 4. From the jaw-dropping background, to the insanely detailed level design, it’s hard not to take a moment to stop and enjoy the scenery. All of the levels are vibrant and gorgeous, perfectly showcasing what the Playstation 4 is capable of doing. Characters are incredibly detailed, and their motion captured animation is well-done. Facial expressions, demeanor, and body language are captured in meticulous detail that other games have yet to match. Complementing the visuals of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the perfect choice of the musical composition and sound design.  Overall, the careful attention to detail to the whole product makes Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End one of the best (if not best) game on the Playstation 4.

Seriously this game is beautiful

Seriously this game is beautiful

All Aboard the Glitch Train

Admittedly, like most games in this console cycle, the heart of its problems lies in the gameplay design and performance. Platforming feels slower than it should, as if it’s limited to a constant speed that doesn’t feel natural at times. The enemies, while no longer the super absorbent bullet sponges they were before, still feel like they take more bullets than they should to die. I can’t count how many headshots I pulled off and how the enemies seems to shrug it off like it’s nothing.

Maneuvering can also feel hit or miss when it comes to controlling either Nate. Trying to turn Nate feels slower than natural, resulting in gunfights that felt far more challenging than should be. Boats also feel awkward to maneuver as well, even with knowing that the larger body frame of the boat will mean adjusting turning times. The only thing that felt natural controlling were the jeeps being driven throughout a few levels.

Uncharted-4_-A-Thief’s-End™_20160523015427-1024x576

The grappling hook is a new feature to something familiar for Uncharted fans.

Yet the biggest issue with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End involves the countless framerate dips and the momentary freezes during active gameplay. There were more than a couple times I’d die due to momentary dips in framerate or the game freezing at the most inopportune time. While a minor gripe, it would also make animation stutter and lost its fluidity.

However, when the game is running at 100%, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a lot of fun. The grappling hook and rope adds a new element to the platforming that gives the game a refreshing element. The openness of the levels allows for multiple ways to explore and plenty of hidden treasures to find. Most of the levels are actually pretty fun to explore, especially thanks to how beautiful this game is.

Best of all, skirmishes also have a variety of ways to be handled; stealthily, guns blazing, or both. A lot of levels set up for skirmishing have a variety of levels to fight offering plenty of places to pick off enemies. Or, given the exuberant amount of cover ranging from walls to bushes, players can slowly pick off enemies and hide their bodies without alerting enemies. The best option I found was a mix of the two, picking off a number of enemies before settling into a comfortable spot to pick off the rest with bullets.

The final boss showdown

The final boss showdown

Essentially, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is what players should expect from any Uncharted series but with a few minor tweaks to make gameplay feel refreshing. It’s enough to keep fans of the series satisfied and to pull in new fans wondering what the series is like.

An End to a New Beginning

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a rare breed of a game in that it’s a near perfect game. Nate’s final journey has heart with a lot of depth and layers to it. Thematically, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End handles its topics with delicacy. Storytelling and gameplay can be disconnected due to the design approach to either; and while Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End has some moments of ludonarrative dissonance, the two elements seem to marry this time around. Overall, the storyline feels maturely and smartly written, and gives Nathan Drake’s journey both a internal and external exploration.

It also helps that the game’s visuals and overall design are at their best, providing a glimpse into what the Playstation 4 is capable of doing. However, it also shows the problem the current console generation has been having overall; momentary frame rate dips and the occasional active game freeze state. The enemies are still bullet sponges, but Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End isn’t as problematic with it as its predecessors.

This is a game worth having in your Playstation 4 library, and yet another solid entry from Naughty Dog Studios.

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About

The moment he was born, Terry Randolph knew he would play video games. Okay....not the exact moment he was born, but definitely at an early age. His affinity for video games was cemented in the multiple tantrums he threw while being dragged away from playing Sonic the Hedgehod at his daycare when his parents came to pick him up. Since then, Terry continues to enjoy all the experiences gaming provides. He also loves to write short stories and ambitious novel projects. Last Token Gaming was born from both his love of writing and video games. Twitter: @wanderinganbu Email: terry.r@lasttokengaming.com

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