As far as video game characters go, Nathan Drake has always been one of the most likeable. He’s funny, he’s well-acted (thanks to a stellar motion capture and voice performance by Nolan North), and he always seems to have his heart in the right place.
But Uncharted 4: A Thief's End feels like the best opportunity we’ve had to really get to know him.
Note: This review is based primarily on the single-player experience of Uncharted 4.
We’ve seen him as a smart-ass adult treasure hunter. We’ve gone back and seen him as a pocket-picking kid. A Thief’s End introduces us to a Nathan Drake who's retired. He’s settled down and married Elena, the journalist he met in the original game. The two have jobs that are far less risky than their previous lines of work, giving them time to relax on the couch, eating dinner and even playing video games together.
But there’s trouble in paradise. Nathan clearly misses his old life (though he won’t admit it, even to himself), and it’s putting a strain on his marriage. That all gets a lot worse when Nathan's long-lost brother Sam Drake (played by Troy Baker), presumed dead for the last 15 years, shows up at his door wanting to go searching for an elusive pirate treasure.
This doesn’t sound like the explosive, high-octane Uncharted adventure you might expect, but it’s some of the most interesting stuff in A Thief’s End. That’s not a slight against the action (which is at least slightly better than it’s ever been. We’ll get to that). It’s a complement to the storytelling.
One of my favorite moments in the game didn't involve collapsing bridges or a high-speed chase. It involved Nathan Drake in his attic. Alone. With nothing but his thoughts and some mementos from the past.
The quiet moments make you care about Nathan Drake beyond his quips and one-liners. Yeah, he’s still an action hero that kills somewhat mercilessly and endures more physical damage than might be possible, but he seems human. Instead of just being a guy you’d like to have by your side in a firefight, he’s the kind of guy you’d like to take out for a drink because he’s got problems at home and just needs to get away for a night.
Optional conversations add to this even further. You can keep pressing forward in order to get to the next big action set piece, or you can sit down in a chair for a few minutes and have a meaningful conversation between the Drake brothers about how their life might have been different if they had made different choices when they were younger.
This is Uncharted by way of The Last of Us, developer Naughty Dog’s most recent game. That end-of-the-world story won awards not because it was fun to play (though it was), but because it was able to emotionally resonate with its players.
A Thief’s End might not make the same impact, nor is it’s plot anything groundbreaking. But it will make you care about the people in it. And that's not something you get enough of in big-budget action games.
Speaking of action...
I personally came to the Uncharted series late, not playing Uncharted 2 until long after it had won several Game of the Year awards from various outlets. In that context, the original trilogy of games is good, but clearly flawed. Other games -- notably the new Tomb Raider games, which seek to accomplish similar things to Uncharted -- have outdone this series in terms of gunplay. Enemies in the earlier games were bullet sponges, soaking up tons of damage and contributing to a feeling that something was off when it came to the overall shooting. There was some fun climbing, some cool puzzles and impressive scenery, but whenever you had to solve a problem with bullets, things tended to get frustrating.
A Thief's End is better.
It's not perfect. The selection of guns feels a bit limited, enemies can still sometimes take more hits than it seems like they should and on occasion you might find yourself bumping into the environment when you meant to take cover. But overall the action in this fourth Uncharted is better than all of its predecessors. Gunfights aren't suddenly the highlight of the experience, but you'll be far less likely to hate them.
Part of this is thanks to level design. A lot of the combat-heavy scenes in Uncharted 4 take place in big, open areas that give you a lot of options about how to approach your enemies. There are fewer bottlenecks for you to get cramped in and more opportunities to get creative.
Some of the environments are so big that you get a car with which to explore them. Not only is your vehicle fun to drive, but it also gives the game an impressive sense of scale. The many locales you'll visit over the course of the adventure feel grand.
And the whole thing looks really, really good. Uncharted 4 is easily one of the best-looking PlayStation 4 games yet, whether you're looking at characters' facial animation, explosion effects, the appearance of water on the ground, the detail in scenery (both indoors and outdoors) or even just things like reflections on picture frames.
But at the end of the day, everything comes back to the adventure itself. Yes, it's pretty. Yes, it's a lot of fun to play. But Nathan Drake's newest adventure could rival anything Indiana Jones would throw on the big screen, which is no easy feat.
Naughty Dog has said that this will be the final Uncharted game that they develop. If that holds true, they saved the best for last. A Thief's End shows that the studio has been learning all the right lessons from their previous projects, and when looked at next to The Last of Us, it offers hope for the future of storytelling in major action video games.