The Uncharted video games are among the medium’s most cinematic experiences, and with the upgrade to the PlayStation 4, this has never been more true. I tend to find long-form video games exhausting these days, but Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is so perfectly executed that it rewards the commitment. If this is the final game in the series, it’s going out on a very high note.
The series follows the adventurous exploits of Nathan Drake (voiced brilliantly by Nolan North). Drake is a modern-day Indiana Jones with a smidge of Jack Bauer: an international treasure-hunter who travels to the ends of the Earth in search of valuable artifacts and the riches of history. Characterized by terrific voice acting, compelling narrative rife with lavish cut scenes, violent third-person shooter action, and lots and lots of jumping, the Uncharted series unfolds like an interactive TV series, each season bringing back its recurring heroes — including journalist Elena Fisher (Emily Rose) and crafty father-figure Victor Sullivan (Richard McGonagle) — for new globe-trotting adventures.
Uncharted 4 opens with Drake trying to move on from his violent, dangerous past, living a simple life as a salvager back in the United States. But he’s soon lured out of retirement when his long-lost brother Sam (Troy Baker) miraculously reappears. Long thought dead, Sam suffered for years in a Central American prison, and now that he’s out, he’s up to his ears in debt to a shady cartel criminal. To save his skin, he recruits Drake to help him track down the pirate treasure of Henry Avery, a legendary pirate of yesteryear. Motivated by guilt and the lure of new adventure, Drake soon becomes obsessed with the case, leading to an epic search for the lost pirate city of Libertalia.
Any discussion of this game has to start with the visuals, which are (as usual) gorgeous, and not just in the dramatic, movie-like cut scenes. The vistas are stunning and the worldbuilding is incredibly detailed, which only becomes more impressive when you interact with it. During gameplay, the graphics are seamlessly realistic. When Drake is in combat, he flinches convincingly from gunfire as the objects in the room shatter around him. Pushing through crowds, he displays sensible body language as he brushes up against people. When he skulks through high grass in stealth mode, it rustles in response to his passing. Uncharted has always had a first-rate third-person shooter mechanic, and it’s just as well handled here as in previous installments, but with the most responsive destructible environment I’ve ever seen. It’s an impressive spectacle, truly state of the art.
But where Uncharted 4 stands out even more is in its clever writing and stellar voice-acting. Oh, the pirate-treasure plotline is the usual heightened reality nonsense, but the characters are well defined and superbly performed. The dialogue is well written, with a deft sense of humor. Another nice touch is the way your gameplay triggers the dialogue: crash your jeep, and Sullivan criticizes your driving, for example. It takes the interactive experience of gaming to another level.
Of course, like the rest of the series, Uncharted 4 is dreadfully violent — indeed, almost sociopathically so, which is occasionally disturbing in the context of such an immersive story. And speaking of immersive, the visuals are so disorientingly vivid that at times motion sickness became a problem for me, especially when trying to drive the goddamned jeep. But those are my only real complaints about an otherwise fantastic entertainment. I don’t often have the patience or stamina to finish video games of this nature, but this is an outstanding exception.