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Uncharted 4: A Thief's End review: The last pillage

Uncharted 4 is a massive success, bursting with amazing action sequences, a stellar story and environments you'll need to see to believe.

Jeff Bakalar Editor at Large
Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
Jeff Bakalar
5 min read

If this turns out to be Nathan Drake's last hurrah, then the guy's going out on top.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

The Good

Uncharted 4 is a blockbuster adventure game with a wild and compelling story, biting characters, amazing action and jaw-dropping environments.

The Bad

The climbing and puzzles can start to feel repetitive.

The Bottom Line

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is a spectacular send-off that celebrates the franchise, all while delivering superb storytelling, acting, production values -- you name it.

Yes, things are finally going well for the luckiest (and unluckiest) adventurer in the history of the world. Every ledge he grabs breaks, every bridge he crosses collapses and every car he drives winds up exploding -- but inevitably, Nathan manages to crawl his way back up to the surface, defy gravity and look damn good in the process.

Naughty Dog

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is the PlayStation 4 exclusive you've probably been waiting for -- one of the reasons you plunked down a couple a hundred bucks on the console in the first place.

With blockbuster exclusives being what they are of late -- and by that I mean a scarce commodity -- it's natural to hold hopes high. So if you're the least bit concerned that Uncharted 4 is somehow destined to disappoint, rest assured. It does not.

Sure, there's a few things to roll your eyes at. But just know this: Uncharted 4 is a spectacle of epic proportions. It suffers from adrenaline fatigue. Meaning, you will probably -- no, definitely -- reach a point in this game where you refuse to believe there's more to it. But it just keeps going.

Naughty Dog

That's only about half the story in Uncharted 4. For as much as the game turns all its dials up to 11, there's also more downtime than I can recall in the games prior. You'll spend a generous portion climbing around, looking for the next ledge and figuring out the game's handful of puzzles. At times the excessive climbing does start growing redundant and there are a few too many puzzle cliches.

It's not all guns-blazing in Uncharted 4. Far from it. Hours at a time go by without a single shot being fired. And for me, that felt great. I've always had morality issues when it comes to these games. They're undeniably fun to play, but something in me can't quite put it out of my head that I'm globetrotting around the world in search of ancient treasure all while leaving a path of murder and destruction in my wake.

There's no skirting around it. You shoot a lot of people in Uncharted games. And the buddy-action vibe of the series just kind of makes it all OK. I think there's some recognition of that in Uncharted 4, if only how noticeably infrequent those kind of engagements seem to be.

Naughty Dog

That's not to say Uncharted 4 is without any memorable gunfights. I enjoyed the vast majority of them, because when they do show up, they are some of the best the series has had to offer. They take place in spectacular fashion -- along rooftops, off cliffs and speeding through flatlands. Shooting feels really good, as if it's been even further refined. It's the most satisfying it's ever been in an Uncharted game.

Enemy AI is also really sharp in A Thief's End. Thankfully, Drake has a number of new abilities that open up the door for stealthier approaches.

Nathan can now tag enemies from afar and can see their awareness levels through visual cues above their heads. It's possible to make your way through some areas without shooting anyone, though you'll likely have that plan foiled more often than not.

Naughty Dog

I played through the campaign on normal difficulty but was significantly challenged throughout. I got the exact amount of frustration I could handle, if that makes any sense.

There's also the introduction of a grappling hook, which by the third or fourth time I used it, I began to wonder, how on earth did previous games never have one of these?

Naughty Dog

Uncharted 4 is an evolution of the series and, in many ways, its developer Naughty Dog. The game takes a lot of the superb environmental cues and nuances from its previous game The Last of Us and meshes it with Uncharted's iconic gameplay. The result is a more mature Uncharted game, both in its technical achievements and its cinematic feel. With maybe one or two exceptions, I'm not sure there's another team in the business that does storytelling this well at such an impressive level of production value and polish.

I won't give away Uncharted 4's specific plot points, but the gist is that Drake is on the hunt for Henry Avery's long lost pirate treasure. How Avery acquired the treasure and the events that followed are the pillars for what makes the experience such a compelling one, and that much more addictive.

Where other games litter their worlds with endless amounts of collectibles and data to rummage through, Uncharted 4 surgically inserts the perfect amount of exposition to keep some of the background story relevant, and most importantly, wanted. And while the pirate lore begins to unravel, you're also exposed to Nathan's personal journey, the unpacking of his relationship with his brother Sam, appreciating his marriage to Elena, and of course, cracking wise with Sully.

Naughty Dog

Uncharted 4 feels like it has it all. But I've yet to even show my hand. If there's one thing that has stayed with me well after my time searching for Avery's gold, it's without a doubt the game's surreal environments.

A Thief's End has some of the best world design I've ever seen. You're treated to a cascade of sprawling locales in nearly every kind of terrain imaginable. Both inside and out, regardless of where you go, you'll likely stop for a few seconds just to take it all in. The word "scope" gets thrown around a lot in describing games with massive vistas. You hear it all the time, "anywhere you can see you can go." Well that's not true in Uncharted 4. Instead, it's what you can see that is frankly astonishing.

And just when you've managed to shimmy over the cliff with the bottomless drop below, you find yourself staring up at the ceiling of a gigantic observatory, with every inch decorated with gold and silver and the most ornate fabrics of its time. It makes sense that Uncharted 4's photo mode is so robust. You will want to take pictures.

Naughty Dog

There's a painstaking amount of detail etched into every corner of this game, to the point where I began to worry I wasn't seeing every last bit.

From what I gather, I probably did miss some stuff. That's because Uncharted 4 doesn't feel as linear as its predecessors. The idea was pitched to me by Naughty Dog as "wide linear," but essentially it means that there's a few branched paths to take that ultimately bottleneck you to a common end. It makes for a feeling of helplessness at times, because not everything is spoon-fed to you. On the contrary, you'll likely never be confused about where you can climb, however, as those spots are very obviously highlighted.

By design, you're more likely to accidentally explore passageways that don't continue your progress, but instead lead to a handwritten letter or a secret treasure.

Naughty Dog

When it's all said and done, Uncharted 4 delivers the fan service series loyalists will absolutely eat up. For the rest of us, Naughty Dog treats the player to an adventure that spares no expense.

If this is indeed the last Uncharted game, it's a supremely satisfying celebration of the series and an absolute must-play on PlayStation 4.