Before the events of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End conspire to lure Nathan Drake back into his treasure-hunting ways, he appears happy. The toy gun he plays around with in his artifact-stuffed attic indicates that he misses his adventuring days, but his lived-in house, filled with mementoes of the life he’s built with his wife, equally suggests that he’s at peace with his new line of work as a deep-sea salvager. To relax, he indulges a casual game of Crash Bandicoot (developer Naughty Dog’s first title), and players take control of this game-within-a-game in which Crash flees from a boulder. Much later, Nate finds himself in a similar situation as he flees from a light tank. The stakes are higher, and the graphics are far more refined, but the basic gameplay is the same. What’s changed in the 20 years between Crash Bandicoot and A Thief’s End, and what makes the latter such an outstanding, must-play title, is the way in which the gameplay is wrapped within an immersive story.
Nate isn’t just some colorful bandicoot racing through an obstacle course, but what appears to be a living, suffering human (thanks in no small part to the voice work by Nolan North). His quest successfully bridges the uncanny valley between adventure game, action movie, and real-world exploration, in the process becoming something more than the sum of what is, at its most basic level, a series of mashed buttons and adrenaline-charged gunfights. Players will probably die more than once on account of failing to realize that they’re actually still in control of Nathan: That’s how cinematic the game can get.
At its absolute best, A Thief’s End plays it true to its title, setting Nathan loose in semi-open regions of Madagascar. Whereas previous entries in the series hemmed the hero within tight corridors, the linear paths cutting off anything more than the briefest of exploratory tangents, these two sequences allow Nathan to pilot vehicles (an off-road jeep and motorboat) and to wander about some impressively large environments. More intuitive controls for climbing, as well as an acrobatic grappling hook and piton with which to improvise handholds, also help to expand on this newly found freedom.
All of this helps to ensure that A Thief’s End never feels like a retread of its preceding installments, even though there’s another snow-swept cemetery and a desperate sea battle in the midst of a horrendous storm. One particularly flooded ruin, now overrun with greenery, calls another Naughty Dog title, The Last of Us, to mind, but only in the superficially flattering sense, for what’s beneath all the homages to the rollicking romps of Indiana Jones or the familiar ruins are a wide variety of innovative death-traps and puzzles.
A Thief’s End is a sprawling conclusion to the Uncharted series, accommodating Panamanian jails, an Italian manor, snowy Scottish peaks, bustling streets in modern King’s Bay, and the lost pirate city of Libertalia throughout its campaign. And, still, it feels more focused than previous entries, thanks in large part to the story: Nate isn’t just trying to track down the lost treasure of pirate king Henry Avery; he’s attempting to save his older brother, Sam. And the villainous Rafe isn’t just a rival fortune hunter, as he’s got 15 years of smoldering history with the Drakes.
Only Rafe’s business partner, Nadine, gets short shrift: She’s tough and independent, with her own military company, but has no real identity. Given how much banter is packed into each level, her lack of characterization is extremely apparent. Whereas everyone else—from Nate’s accomplished wife, Elena, to his wisecracking mentor, Sully—has some sort of parallel between their modern treasure-hunting obsessions and the ones that drove Henry Avery mad back in the 1600s, Nadine is just there to provide an army for Nate to kill by hook or crook or, most often, a combination of stealth and guns.
Combat is better here than in previous Uncharted iterations, thanks to the more expansive areas in which they occur. There are now many paths from which to engage enemies, and both the grappling hook and refined stealth system (which now includes an ability to sneak through tall grass) make it easier to maneuver into position. The best encounters with enemies play out like puzzles, with Nate attempting to find a route across the rooftops of an Italian villa to flank his foes, or clambering around the edges of a giant wooden elevator and the surrounding outcroppings to avoid an ambush.
The worst encounters, though, are one-directional, like the mindless two-button mashing of melee combat in a Panamanian prison, or lean too heavily on outdated cover mechanics and loose, clunky aiming. The more linear the gunfight, the more obvious the similarities are between weapons, which border on the dull, especially against all the other inventiveness of the environments and death traps. Some might argue that the larger, action-packed set pieces help to distract from the mechanical gunplay, but more realistically, it’s the shooting that pulls focus from the chaotic, wondrous environments. On the whole, however, A Thief’s End is a more than satisfying finale to the series, a lovingly designed treasure that’s more than worth the rare scuffs and obstacles encountered along the way.