Whenever I, and I'm sure many others, regularly think back on the first three Uncharted games, it's the set pieces that immediately spring to the forefront of my mind. Drake's Fortune's zombie escape, Among Thieves' suspended train, the plane crash of Drake's Deception; these memories are etched onto my brain as if they were my very own, yet I can't say the same for Uncharted 4.
While I could certainly describe to you, in detail, the game's peaks of jaw dropping mayhem and pulpy, playful action, they're not the moments I subconsciously associate with Naughty Dog's panegyric send-off to its titular thief. Instead, the series' familiar sights and sounds of rattling gunfire and raucous explosions are replaced by scenes of a much quieter, subdued nature, yet no less powerful in their resonance.
I think of Drake in his attic, fondly reminiscing on the life he left behind via a fake shootout amongst a treasure trove of priceless artefacts (which, by the way, really ought to belong in a museum). I think of the look on Elena's face as she realises her spouse's addiction to adventure will always be a part of who he is. And, of course, I can't help but reminisce on that quietly mind-blowing ending, one which beautifully closes the books on this PlayStation icon's life within the space of fifteen minutes.
Like that of Naughty Dog's other unexpected mid-franchise pivot, Jak 2, Uncharted 4 is so radically different from its predecessors in tone, structure, and agenda, that the resulting experience can feel somewhat jarring. Perhaps that’s because the more easily identifiable flaws in Uncharted 4 are symptoms of a studio caught at a fork in the road, forced to make a decision about the kind of storyteller it wanted to become.
But, like Drake himself, those flaws are an integral part of what makes A Thief's End so special; it couldn't be the game that it is without them. For all its contradictions, Uncharted 4 is an extraordinarily raw expression of Naughty Dog's own identity, and – resultantly – the most human game it's ever made, for better, for worse, and for somewhere in the middle.
Old dog, new tricks
When Nathan Drake's final adventure launched in 2016, reviews were predictably encomiastic. Now, with the game landing on PS Plus during a season where everyone suddenly has a lot more time on their hands, it's an experience well worth the revisit, each replay providing new morsels of insight into Naughty Dog, the franchise, and the industry at large.
That's because Uncharted 4 is more effective as a self-portrait of its creator than it is an Uncharted game. It's one of the most self-reflective works of interactive entertainment I've ever played, in fact, perhaps surpassed only by the introspective resonance of That Dragon, Cancer and The Beginner's Guide.
It's not hard to understand why. Forged in the fires and brimstone of corporate turmoil and excessive crunch, Uncharted is a labour of love in every sense of the phrase, and a peek into its development history suggests we were only a few branching paths away from the sequel's complete cancellation.
The project famously underwent a significant reboot midway through development, following the departure of its creative director Amy Hennig and game director Justin Richmond in 2014. The reasons for the pair's exit from Naughty Dog are still unclear, but it was from this point on that The Last of Us creators Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley came aboard to rework the story and push it through to the finish line.
Fresh off the back of releasing the most important game of the last decade, Druckmann and Straley aimed to apply their desire to tell "meaningful human stories with complex relationships" into a more lighthearted series that wasn't necessarily equipped for it. Drake's previous adventures had remained fairly breezy and high spirited even amidst a backdrop of great peril, but Uncharted 4 was to do something different.
Under its reshuffled creative team, this character's life, legacy, and traits were brought into critical focus, and the results were genuinely astonishing. For starters, Nathan Drake in Uncharted 4 isn't always as affable as we're used to. He often comes across as downright pathetic, in fact, lying to his wife, pushing away his closest friends, and almost behaving like the villain of his own story. It's a bold character choice for a famously magnetic PlayStation hero, presenting his opportunist lifestyle as a harmful addiction, revealing darker shades to the treasure hunter in a manner that can, at times, feel painfully uncomfortable.
Naughty Dog's advancements in facial animation and motion capture also bring a renewed sense of photorealism to Drake's PS4 debut. Previous games always looked impressive, of course, but their pulp adventure heritage endowed them with a phantasmal glaze that emphasized the mythical qualities of each story. That sheen is gone in Uncharted 4, instead adopting a hyperreal focus that shifts the spotlight away from the operatic tapestries of its action choreography and firmly onto the wrinkles of Drake's brow.
In looking back on the legacy of Drake, and the franchise, Naughty Dog also developed Uncharted 4 as a commentary on its own history. You can't help but interpret Drake's growing pains – his reluctance to put his past behind him – as a reflection of the studio's own struggles with what it means to evolve, mature, and escape your heritage, especially during a time of such upheaval and change within its own halls.
And, just as Drake moves on from the only lifestyle he knew, so too does the studio; putting to bed a franchise that cemented its status as a household name, and with it the kind of storytelling pillars it was getting too comfortable clinging on to. The entire sequence with Cassie, Drake's daughter, can thus easily be read as a passing of the torch for both Drake and Naughty Dog, laying the groundwork for more Uncharted stories to be told from the perspective of both a new hero and, potentially, a new studio. It's a powerful symmetry of creation and creator, and something which undoubtedly elevates A Thief's End above its contemporaries.
Of course, this isn't the only way that Uncharted 4 can be held up as a mirror to Naughty Dog's history. After suffering from a number of internal and public delays, the studio's pressure to get the game out of the door by May 2016 led to a period of intense crunch, and you can almost see exactly where and when compromises were made as a result.
The final half of the story takes place entirely on the same island, leading to a poorly paced climax that begins too early and thus feels bloated and overdrawn by its end. The game also repeats the mistakes of its predecessor, Uncharted 3, asking questions about the costs of Drake's adventures, yet failing to follow through on them. And while Sam just about earns his stripes as a character worth investing in, it's hard to ignore the glaring "secret brother" cliche that typically surfaces during the later instalments of any long running franchise.
And the less said about those dialogue options, the better.
Returning to the game with years of hindsight, however, and a better understanding of the context in which it was conceived, has helped me appreciate Uncharted 4 for what it truly is. It was never going to be my favourite Uncharted game, but it's the one I continue to be the most fascinated by.
This feels especially prescient as we near the release of Naughty Dog's next major sequel, The Last of Us 2, another difficult follow up that's arguably been beset by even more behind-the-scenes controversy. The finished product could be ugly, uncomfortable, and even at odds with its own lineage, but given those are precisely the reasons I'm still thinking about Uncharted 4, I can't wait to greedily consume the entire thing.