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Review: Stunning ‘Uncharted 4’ is a swashbuckling masterpiece

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(Image: Sony)

Nothing comes easy to Nathan Drake.

But you wouldn’t know it. The affable star of Sony’s vaunted Uncharted series never seems to let the parade of unfortunate events standing between him and the treasure du jour get him down. He’s a got a snappy one-liner for every emotionally and physically scarring leap and witty repartee to lighten the mood when the bad guys beat him to the punch.

And they do, all the time. Despite grip strength that would make him the envy of every American Ninja Warrior contestant and an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient history, the poor guy routinely gets outmaneuvered by unscrupulous jerks with worse hair and better funding. While it always seems to work out in the end, it never seems to work out in the middle.

The same can be said of the path Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End took on its way to your PS4. Nathan’s latest — and, according to developer Naughty Dog, last endeavor — hit a surprising number of road bumps on its way to release, including several delays, the departure of longtime scribe Amy Henning (and, in turn, actor Alan Tudyk), and a total script rewrite. But like its indomitable star, it made it, barely, by the skin of its teeth. Was it worth all the trouble?

Yes, and then some. Uncharted 4 is a technical and artistic marvel, a platform-defining tour de force that serves as a beautiful curtain call for gaming’s most durable frontman.

It also tells us more about Nathan Drake than the other Uncharted games combined. We learn, for instance, that he has a long-lost older brother, Sam, who was largely responsible for Nathan’s questionable career path. We find him at home with perennial love interest, Elena, now his wife, bantering about the dishes and playing an old video game (in one of the most meta moments in the history of the medium). We watch him struggle to accept his newly mundane life until an endangered Sam lures him back into the treasure-seeking business. Nathan Drake has never been more down to earth … if you can call a person who can survive getting shot four times while dangling from a cliff “down to earth.”

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(Image: Sony)

So off you go, gallivanting around the globe in search of riches, just as you have for three (four, counting the PS Vita release) other Uncharteds. The core mystery here takes a nod from The Goonies, tasking Drake with following the convoluted tracks of a famous pirate. It’s a good story made great by excellent performances; series mainstay Nolan North has never been better, and the man who took most of his game industry jobs, Troy Baker, gives Sam a believable, world-weary edge.

The real star, however, is Uncharted 4’s sumptuous vistas and astounding scenery. At the risk of sounding disingenuous — new blockbuster video games are supposed to outdo older ones, graphically — Uncharted 4 simply looks incredible. Scaling the side of a sprawling Italian villa, sliding down beds of shale in the misty Scottish Highlands, driving a jeep up a perilous mountain pass in Madagascar — it’s an impossibly smooth travel brochure, each chunk of debris lovingly crafted, each snaking vine given its own special coat of paint. Uncharted 4 is a postcard generator; I can’t tell you how many times I paused to jump into the game’s Photo Mode just to chronicle each vivid moment. It looks so good, it’s almost a distraction. Naughty Dog has outdone itself (and every other game developer).

Admittedly, it’s more of an amplification than a revolution, and that goes for the gameplay too. This is in many ways the same Uncharted you’ve played before: everything Nathan touches seems to be destroyed, either by age or the explosives some enemy lobbed at his head. You cling to rocks, you jump chasms, you clamber up walls, and invariably, you leave a trail of carnage in your wake. Nathan Drake is an unwitting wrecking ball, and while you’ll still get a buzz from each narrow escape, it’s somehow a little less exciting than it was back in 2007. Nine years of derring-do sort of does that.

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(Image: Sony)

Naughty Dog breathes some extra life into it with a cool new grappling hook, believe it or not, which sounds kind of dull on paper but leads to some of the most swashbuckling bits in the franchise’s history. Leaping off a burning roof, catching your hook on a ledge and swinging across a five-story gap to safety is its own reward.

Where Naughty Dog shines brightest, however, is in its ability to make you feel like you’re discovering your way through what is essentially a linear adventure game. The path is predetermined, the outcome singular, but when you find that one handhold or fling yourself through that one open window, you own it. Uncharted 4’s level design is remarkable, simultaneously holding your hand and letting it go.

Occasionally, Uncharted 4 really lets go by introducing large playgrounds with multiple routes. You can tackle these sections however you see fit: sneak around trying to choke guys out, or pull out a rifle and go in guns a-blazin’. Either way, it’s terrific. Uncharted has always been a bit underrated as a pure action game, and the gunplay is tighter and crunchier here than in past offerings. It can be tricky, too, because the eagle-eyed enemies are plentiful and just smart enough to turn each encounter into a nail-biting firefight.

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(Image: Sony)

Uncharted has never really needed multiplayer — most players have sort of shrugged it off as an unobtrusive extra — but it’s actually pretty good, and the new game delivers another solid batch of modes and maps. There are a few currency models at work, including currency earned during play that you can spend on midmatch boosts like handy sidekicks and oddly incongruent magical abilities that can wipe out hordes of enemies or heal your teammates. It’s all good fun and gives you something to do once you’re done with the 15-hour solo campaign.

Which, like our hero himself, you’ll be sad to see go. It’s not perfect — the third act suffers from pacing problems, forcing you into some repetitive sequences before righting itself for a tremendous finale — but it’s filled with so many magnificent, electric high notes, you’ll hardly remember much else. Nathan Drake’s last hurrah is an unmissable conclusion to one of gaming’s greatest high-wire acts. Despite its rocky road, this adventure goes down easy.

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What’s Hot: Look at it; no, seriously, just look at it; wonderful acting; great writing; terrific level design; good gunplay.

What’s Not: Pacing issues; narrow escapes not quite as thrilling as they once were.

Ben Silverman is jealous of Nathan Drake’s hair. He’s on Twitter @ben_silverman.