Indiana Jones does impossible things. With a whip, a fedora, and an impressive grasp of ancient history, he faces down hordes of Nazis and terrifying supernatural forces on a regular basis. That’s part of his appeal, but that’s not all of his appeal, nor is it the reason he has lasted through a film series with considerable diminishing returns. Harrison Ford’s most consistent emotional response in the role is a mixture of unflagging determination and perpetual bewilderment. He’s like a golden retriever who somehow won World War II. The result is a hero with all the benefits narrative fiction can allow but who still remains human. He’ll survive getting shot, stabbed, drowned, and exploded, but because he winces, it’s easy to relate.
Uncharted’s Nathan Drake, the hero of Naughty Dog’s National Treasure-meets-Rambo adventure series, is not a direct copy of Indiana Jones. He never wears a hat, for one, and the grappling hook he carries around for most of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is a poor excuse for a whip. But he does have Indy’s love of antiquities and knack for getting into trouble in pursuit of said relics—and he does kill a surprising number of nameless thugs on his adventures. Most importantly, he shares Henry Jones Jr.’s ability to appear vulnerable no matter how much danger he survives. Whether hanging from a cliff a thousand feet up or holding off an army with a handgun, Nate always seems surprised that he’s still breathing.
That vulnerability helps build personality for what is, at heart, a standard pulp story about lost treasures, pirates, and a pair of brothers who love them both. The basics of Uncharted 4’s story should be familiar to anyone who’s played the previous games. There’s a hunt for untold riches; a lot of clues that lead to still more clues; booby traps; a menacing, wealthy villain whose deep pockets allow for a seemingly endless supply of disposable henchmen; and gorgeous locations to host all the mayhem and crate pushing. That last facet is especially striking. Uncharted 4 makes the most of the PlayStation 4 hardware, taking players to some of the most stunningly beautiful vistas in this series or any other.
A Thief’s End isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, it’s just trying to make a really great one. In addition to upgraded visuals, the storytelling has expanded outward in ambition and emotional depth, allowing characters room to breathe in ways that were unthinkable in earlier installments. The structure is the same as it’s always been (jumping puzzle, stealth combat, cut scene, jumping puzzle, cut scene, stealth combat, etc.), but segments within that structure are often startling in their humanity and warmth. Naughty Dog’s last creation, The Last Of Us, won critical plaudits for its ambitious, morally complex writing, and the step forward it represented is evident here. A Thief’s End isn’t nearly as grim or ambiguous as The Last Of Us, but dividing time between wandering ruins, picking up contextual clues, and having heartfelt conversations with your companions has clearly become the house style.
That’s something to be praised, especially when it’s done this well. Nate is as charming as ever, and the expected but welcome returns of Elena, his co-adventurer (and now wife), and best friend Victor “Sully” Sullivan allows the writing to play off an emotional investment that’s been building since 2007. These are archetypal figures, well worn and distinctive like the heroes of a long-running TV show. They’re likable in part because of their familiarity. Uncharted 4 also introduces a long-lost brother, Sam Drake, and spends a considerable amount of time building up his and Nate’s relationship to positive effect. At its best, A Thief’s End is a world worth spending time in, and the various dramas that arise can be unexpectedly powerful.
The game offers the same mix of exploration and action that makes up every Uncharted, and while those fundamentals aren’t as strong as its storytelling, no one who’s enjoyed the rest of the series is going to find anything here to turn them off. Climbing and exploring remains as pleasurable as ever, with the addition of new tools, like that aforementioned grappling hook, that adds extra wrinkles. Drake’s movement still lacks fluidity, but there’s a heft and momentum to leaps and swings that makes every inch of progress feel tangible. A Thief’s End adds driving sections to the mix, but their variation between speed and exploration is gratifying, with off-roading sequences that manage the neat trick of being open-ended without ever getting frustratingly vague. Similarly, the puzzles are clear and straightforward; this isn’t a series built on conundrums. Altogether, the game effortlessly flows without feeling rushed.
A Thief’s End encourages stealthiness in combat, but it’s possible (and in some cases necessary) to brute force your way through most fights. The cover system is never going to rival a more dedicated third-person shooter, and the last quarter of the game has an unfortunate tendency to get bogged down in the same fight over and over again: Walk into a new space, see some boxes, face off against dozens and dozens of disposable creeps. The cognitive dissonance between Nate’s cheerful, self-deprecating character and the literal hundreds of humans he kills has been with the series since the beginning, and this final installment doesn’t bother trying to resolve it, which is probably for the best.
Aside from the occasionally tedious firefights, Uncharted 4 has a few other flaws. Intended as the conclusion to Nate’s story, the game pushes a little too hard in its final chapters to provide definitive closure, including an epilogue that rivals J.K. Rowling for unnecessary (if endearing) sentiment. While the major villains are decently drawn, they’re never all that threatening, and the final boss fight is a decent concept undone by some sloppy control decisions. But these issues are easy to overlook in favor of the game’s pleasures: its grasp of narrative, its pacing, its sense of scope, and the charm of its heroes. They squabble and suffer and feel real in a way that makes every jump, dodge, and victory count.