He’s back! They said he was out but he’s back, Nathan Drake, here for another globe-trotting, rock climbing, murder-filled adventure with the gang.
The game opens with the timeline hopping antics we’ve come to expect. After an Among Thieves-esque snapshot of dramatics events to come, followed immediately by a Drake’s Deception-esque flashback to Nate’s childhood which seques into an unprecented variety of flashback to Nate’s mid-twenties, the story catches up with Nate in the present day.
He’s retired from the adventurer lifestyle but is still able to indulge his love of the thrill of discovery by recovering… stockpiles of copper from a riverbed. Not quite the lost city of Shambala. As an early scene in Nate’s home-office/attic o’ memories gradually makes clear, despite the cosy home life and easy rapport shared by Nate and his *spoilers idk* wife Elena, Nate feels that there’s something missing.
The opportunity to change all that comes in the form of Sam Drake, Nate’s long lost and hitherto unmentioned older brother who arrives suddenly, hot on the trail of the vast haul of legendary pirate Henry Avery and on the run from some very dangerous men. This treasure has been a fixation for the Drakes for some time, although, once again, this has never been mentioned previously.
On paper, these retcons and drastic bolting on of new characters and events onto what seemed to be a well-developed backstory may read poorly. However, in practice, the game manages to make it work, mostly by realistically playing out these implausible elements as much as possible. Never speaking of large swathes of your life is a little strange to say the least and the game is willing to run with it. Appropriate focus is given to the consequences of keeping such massive secrets.
These kinds of deconstructions are at the core of the game’s story. After years of op-eds, think pieces and Takes with a capital T about how Nate is in many ways a weird man, this story takes the time to really explore this angle. We see how someone so accustomed to globe trotting adventures and lost cities would adjust to a day job in the very much found city of New Orleans (how he got the paperwork in order for a legitimate job with p60s and everything given his complex personal history is not discussed). Nate’s ever-accumulating exploits are at this point legendary in-universe and this also factors into the story. We get a brief window into what Sully does when he’s not in life or death shootouts, though admittedly, both he and Elena are side-lined for most of the adventure. Odd details that one might take for granted as there to move things along reveal themselves to be clues to a larger reveal. It’s all good stuff.
It’s tempting to close things out here. After all, mechanically, it’s largely the same beast as before. The biggest change is the addition of a grappling hook which proves surprisingly versatile. Later in the game, Drake finds a piton which adds another mechanic to the climbing sections, although why he doesn’t always carry such a thing is beyond me. There are also sections in which you slide down cliff faces with control of forward momentum taken away. I mention this last addition in the name of thoroughness, they’re such a generic sort of gaming moment that I had to check that they weren’t in the previous instalments.
There’s an overall attempt to lessen the sense of linearity that has characterised the series. This is most apparent in the “Lads On Tour” section in Madagascar in which both Drakes and Sully (surely on honourary Drake) drive around in a 4×4 looking for the next clue in Avery’s ancient treasure hunt. This isn’t Uncharted 4: Breath Of The Wild admittedly, there are too many points-of-no-return for that, but it’s interesting all the same. Elsewhere, in the on-foot navigation sections you are given a number of different paths to reach the same goal, aided by the increased maneuverability provided by the grappling hook.
Collectable items make a return. They’re something I’ve never been a fan of in the series. For a series so otherwise well-paced and fast moving it can frustrating to waste time deviating from the path to collect these for fear of missing out on the post-game content they’re used to unlock. It’s a relief when you find one purely because it means you can stop looking. The developers also include optional conversations triggered by walking up to non-player characters. This seems to me to be an odd decision, to essentially hide some of the character interactions that the series is often praised for, but there doesn’t appear to be that many of them.
There seem to be fewer setpieces this time around, or at the very least, fewer sections in which you’re not in control of the camera. I counted few, possibly just one, of the textbook run towards the camera bits and those “Nate, quick, grab my hand moments” which felt constant in 3 are few and far in between. Puzzles too, that is those of the ancient-riddles-built-by-rich-eccentrics-with-too-much-time-on-their-hands-in-an-age-before-the-internet variety seem slightly rarer this time around and those that are present are possibly the easiest in the series.
The game’s combat has also been tweaked to provide a greater degree of choice to proceedings. Most encounters, particularly those prior to the final act can be approached from multiple angles. There’s a greater focus on stealth and clearing out locations, with the run and gun action setpieces saved for the end game and usually the end of a particular chapter. Long grass now acts as useful cover from which silent strikes can be launched and in which bodies can be hidden. This feels like the most combat-lite of all the titles, which in my opinion is no bad thing. Combat has never really been the strong suit of these games. The bullet sponge enemies are can be quite frustrating to take on and the frequent tank-like heavy weapons guys often feel like a threat that you’re not adequately prepared to deal with — at least not in a way that’s dynamic and that doesn’t involve rinse and repeat shots taken from cover.
“Nathan Drake: Cold-blooded Killer” is one of the only aspects of the character that the story never really engages with, despite solid character stuff elsewhere. We’re encouraged to like Nate, the rogue-ish everyman who’s grown a lot since the first game, so it’s always jarring when you remember that the adventurer lifestyle he always feels drawn to is also one where he’s put in a position where he has to kill people. Instead, we once again have the confusing state of affairs where once a cutscene starts, Nate adopts a respect for any and all human life. This attitude promptly evaporates once the camera moves into that spot, you know, that spot, that spot that tells you the cutscene is over. The one exception to this is after an exciting chase through a densely packed city in which some pedestrian could, and realistically did, get hurt or killed, Nate and Sam just sort of laugh and drive away. Given that the danger Nate puts himself and his immediate circle in is one of the core themes, it’s strange to see the danger he poses to the average Joe on the street be casually laughed off.
Said setpiece is one of the standout sequences of the game visually speaking, but across the board, A Thief’s End is a technical masterpiece. As is always the case for the series; it’s modern console tech pushed to its furthest. Everything looks and reacts as it should. The transition between in game action and cinematics is, as ever, seamless and, loading screens at the start of a session aside, loading is kept far from the player’s view. The game remains perhaps a little too eager to show off its “when near a wall, Nate puts out an arm to steady himself” technology, making the poor man appear to have an inner ear infection but you can forgive them a little pride in their accomplishments.
As mentioned earlier, this to me seems to have the least combat and puzzle sections in the series, with instead quite a lot of navigation and climbing challenges, which leads me to wonder about where the series might go in some imagined future installment (no, not Uncharted 5). At the risk of going full “If only you could talk to the mercenaries”, this was the game where I frequently found myself wondering whether the public would ever get behind “Uncharted 6: Fun Time Archaeology Adventure Climbing Road Trip Game With Nate And The Pals”. Picture it, lose the half-hearted gun fights that at times jam the pace to a halt and make the protagonist look kind of monstrous, but keep the vistas, the exploration, the characters and life-or-death jumps and the sense of discovery and adventure that characterises the series.
Writing now with the benefit of a whole two years of history, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End does appear to be the last hurrah for Drake and it’s a fine send off. It brings both new ideas and iterations on old ones to the table and ties them together in a story that sees Drake, as well as the players and developers deal with moving forward with their lives.