Originally published on GameInformer.com May 18, 2016, at 11:00 AM.
Selected for Blog Herding -- The Best Blogs of the Community, 5/19/16.
Selected for Game Informer Newsletter, 5/21/16.
7,321 views as of June 4, 2018.
Update 6/4/18: Select screenshots from this pictorial appear at bottom.
That Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is a solid game should come as no surprise a week after it's release. What surprised me, however, was how I spent nearly as much time tinkering with its photo mode as I did immersed in its gameplay. Of course, I might have posted more phlogs on this site than just about anyone, but still the distraction of such a mode in a game as entertaining as this speaks to the quality of the overall production as much as it does to my obsession with taking screenshots.
As I've done with other new releases, I will chronicle my impressions of the game's first few hours. But this time, I'll document the experience using screenshots that were mostly created within the game's photo mode. Such a feature is best suited to event releases like Uncharted 4, as a carefully staged image can better demonstrate the elements that help set the game apart. No, the game isn't perfect, but so far in my experience it comes close. I'll avoid major story spoilers, though the images might betray some info such as characters and locations.
Developer Naughty Dog is known not only for its skillful gameplay but also for its storytelling prowess, and A Thief's End continues that tradition with a prologue that serves both as tutorial as well as flashback. Like The Last of Us, the beginning provides an emotional foundation for the story that follows; but unlike that title, this sequence has the added heft of revelation related to an already firmly established video game icon. The extra layers of character development benefit from Naughty Dog's trademark subtle facial animations, lifelike body language, authentic dialog and expert voice acting.
Noteworthy in these sequences are the facial expressions and earnest conversation of characters that, either due to youth or genuine concern, wear their emotions on their sleeves. A standout moment for me is when one character is being scolded. On the verge of a kind of confession, his face alternates between resignation, contemplation, confidence and possibly even defiance, while his counterpart turns from expectation to frustration, anger and disappointment. As with the best scenes from this studio, there is an entire unspoken dialog that complements what is actually said.
Before establishing its reputation for story telling with The Last of Us and the Uncharted franchise, Naughty Dog was renowned for creating some of the best platformers in the industry. From Crash Bandicoot to Jak and Daxter, the studio carved its own niche with fun, entertaining gameplay that engaged players with creative level design, solid execution and fast, fluid action. The Uncharted series always has benefited from this legacy, and A Thief's End continues the successful franchise formula of balancing a strong narrative with solid platforming elements.
The game's beginning seamlessly blends both in its story prologue and gameplay tutorial. Between cut scenes, players navigate the virtual world by creeping, ducking, running, jumping and climbing, sometimes with a scripted assist from an ally (above, top). As with its predecessors, movement is fluid and the controls are intuitive, including when using the grappling hook (above, bottom), which relies on L1 (deploying or up/down) and the left stick (swinging). Besides varying gameplay and level design, it heightens tension by adding another consideration to hazardous platforming segments.
Different time periods not only vary the narrative, but also allow for other tutorial opportunities. Melee combat is introduced relatively early and mainly provides a defensive option in close quarters scenarios. Without a block option (that I could figure out), players are forced to spam the attack button, though depending on the opponent, that won't always suffice. At least there is a move to escape grappling with a foe. Melee increases player options, though only slightly so. However, there are a few context-sensitive moves related to melee combat that enhance the repertoire. More on those later.
Cut scenes alternate with the action in a way that so far maintains a satisfying pace. It helps that no moment or conversation feels superfluous. Every character and their relationship to others helps flesh out our understanding of each one, deepens our comprehension of the story, and enhances the drama playing out. Though admittedly there are seemingly mundane moments, I enjoyed the added insights these interludes provided. In lesser hands, such moments can grate (as I felt they did in L.A. Noire, for instance -- feed a baby and cook breakfast, really?). But Naughty Dog's skill can make even these seem revelatory.
With regard to the context-sensitive moves I mentioned, some involve combat with a nearby ally and can prove satisfying. During melee combat, for example, you and a comrade can initiate takedowns of common foes. Such moves can involve shoving them against walls or lifting them off their feet and body-slamming them to the ground (above). Thankfully, these happen organically without any related button presses. Likewise, in later firefights, an ally might momentarily subdue an enemy from behind, even exhorting them to "Hold still!" This is an invitation for you to shoot them. Such cooperative play in a single player campaign is a welcome gameplay mechanic.
It's telling that one of my favorite moments in Uncharted 4 thus far is also one of those "mundane" interludes I alluded to. The interaction between two characters sitting on a coach, sharing a meal and horsing around is so far from contrived, so effortlessly natural, that it verges on bewitching in a series, and a game, renowned for awe-inspiring action, level design and set-piece moments. In particular, the body language and facial expressions of Elena when savoring Nathan's gaming ineptitude (assuming the player failed at Crash Bandicoot like I did) is so richly demonstrative, authentic and beguiling that I watched it repeatedly.
I doubt I can add anything new to what's been written about the presentation in Uncharted 4. But among my early impressions, I have to note that of course it's top notch. The game is replete with detailed textures, a rich color palette, a long draw distance, creative and beautiful level design, varied locales, fluid animations, dynamic particle effects, deep ambient sounds, brilliantly conceived and executed cut scenes, well-staged scripted moments, and even an accessible menu interface. Only nit-picky distractions exist, the worst being a thoroughly irredeemable partner who inexplicably shouts "Oh, God! Nate!" if your character dies.
At this point in the game, platforming begins in earnest. Responsive controls and quick movements help navigate ledges and handholds, while physical markings, contextual icons, character gestures and ally comments help propel the action forward without gratuitous hand-holding. Genre mainstays such as ladders and crates/carts introduce other platforming elements. Classic scripted moments created by breakaway objects or steep slides can force quick reactions, including welcome options such as steering in a slide or using the grappling hook. Platforming, of course, is a forte of Naughty Dog, and A Thief's End appears to be another feather in its genre cap.
My only issue in this regard is the camera. Of course, complaining about camera issues in platformers is like criticizing stupid decisions in horror movies: It's somewhat moot given that they're practically a necessary evil, at least if you want to ratchet up the suspense and fun. The problem in games like Uncharted 4 is that varied perspectives help provide needed context for your movements, but camera swings also alter controller input thereby changing character direction. Consider how traversing poles along a wall (like monkey bars; above) can switch player perspective and, correspondingly, character direction when pressing one direction on a stick.
There is an option to change the camera setting, however, I hesitate to alter it for fear of losing the context provided by alternate camera perspectives. Indeed, the process of scaling the lofty environments that Naughty Dog has so meticulously crafted, both natural and artificial, would suffer if deprived of the different viewpoints a shifting camera allows. Sure, some camera fatigue is bound to set in, and it might be more annoying in a title less well executed, but given the excellent platforming mechanic and level design this series is known for and that this game delivers early on, the overall impact is relatively minor.
Noteworthy among the platforming sequences is a moment that likely will pass unnoticed by most gamers but for me exemplified the care and attention to detail that the studio has lavished on this title in general and its platforming in particular. It's my "Aha!" moment, akin to one reviewer's obsession with how realistically carpet was rendered. It occurs when Nathan is traversing a horizontal pipe while hanging from it by his hands. Instead of remaining stiff, or bending/breaking in a scripted moment, the pipe bent ever so slightly to bear his weight whenever shifting his hands. It's subtle, but effective
It's a credit to the developers of A Thief's End that cut scenes can prove every bit as entertaining and rewarding as player controlled action sequences. There's not a lot more that I can add regarding the stellar animation, dialog and voice acting. However, it is also worth noting that character models are impressively rendered, contributing to the authenticity of each scene; the art design, specifically wardrobes and settings, shows creativity and attention to detail; and character interactions are well conceived, adding layers of mystery, tension and drama. All these elements complement each other and help ground the entire game in a cohesive, believable world.
Shooting is introduced early in a fun, playful manner, but when it starts for real in the game world. the application of this element is as satisfying as in prior Uncharted games. Though predominantly a platformer, the series' shooter mechanic employs precision targeting, reliable hit detection and a generally effective cover system for entertaining firefights that have become a hallmark of the franchise. The only blemish is the occasional hiccup in the cover system, whether foes that easily shoot through iron-lattice barriers that are a challenge to shoot through yourself, objects that you can seek cover behind only from a particular position, or cover that your character sticks to inconsistently.
Cover does degrade. So in a firefight among concrete buildings, planters, fountains and statues, the player is relatively safe seeking shelter behind objects. However, in a gunfight at an outdoor encampment dotted with wooden crates and pallets, regular movement becomes an essential strategy to avoid getting picked off behind deteriorating cover. Of course, it works both ways, so scouting opportunities to get the upper hand in these scenarios is important. That includes keeping an eye out for pickups like dropped guns/ammo, gas canisters or boxes of dynamite.
When platforming, your hands are the best tool at your disposal though, thankfully, the grappling hook is a nice addition. I suppose this leaves more room in one's inventory for the varied arsenal available to you in the game. Standard weapons include pistols, SMGs, assault rifles and shotguns. The inventory has room for your pistol and one other weapon, as well as the aforementioned dynamite sticks (more might be introduced later in the game). This is more than enough, at least early on. Though making sure your ammo is fully stocked is wise.
Keeping locked and loaded is imperative given that foes attack en masse and exhibit decent AI. Of course, there is an option for stealth attack to limit lethal encounters, and this works reasonably well. While I'm accustomed to being prompted for stealth takedowns, hitting the correct button when behind enemies will incapacitate them. The problem is, I'm not especially skilled at staying undetected, including in the copious tall grass that dots even urban settings. My default combat mode is therefore assault, which is a solid challenge against swarming foes.
Gunmen will advance from cover to cover, firing when in transition or behind cover. If you stay too long in one spot, they'll flush you out with grenades or flanking maneuvers. One annoying outcome is how, when hanging from a ledge, perfectly tossed grenades will land right on the edge instead of falling short or over the side, though I can appreciate how this keeps players from getting too comfortable in one spot. Also, one thing I so far haven't figured out is how to dispose of bodies from lines of sight despite the game's encouragement to do so.
All in all, gunplay in Uncharted 4 is well implemented as can be expected given the studio's prowess as demonstrated by prior entries in the series. Also on vivid display even during such frenetic sequences is the game's superb production values. The screenshots above, all taken in photo mode, highlight the level of detail achieved by Naughty Dog not only in the game's quieter moments but in its more intense action scenes as well. For both the action and presentation to be firing on all cylinders at the same time is a feat that is a joy to experience.
Platforming likewise is a source of constant inspiration, whether the enjoyment of an activity well-implemented or the satisfaction of a well-designed environment. The combination plays out like well-conceived puzzles, though some are more straightforward than others. Speaking of puzzles, the couple I've come across also vary in complexity. Involving analysis and trial and error gameplay, their use of markings, objects, devices and elements was alternately easy and clever, and presumably will increase in complexity as the game progresses.
The above screenshot demonstrates how fluid action sequences can change on the fly. One moment I'm engaged in a gunfight with the enemy at a distance in the top left of the image, the next I'm attacked from behind by a foe who took advantage of the distraction to seize an opportunity. In this case, as in others, grappling can be overcome to get the upper hand in melee combat. But it also demonstrates how constant awareness of one's surroundings can be a big benefit, or how neglecting it can be at your peril. Watch your six, as they say.
In this phlog you might have noticed how I have not used all the photo mode options at my disposal. Indeed, there are a variety of filters, frames and other elements that can be used to manipulate every image. However, I preferred mostly using the Vibrant filter with a higher than average Saturation, spending most of my time adjusting camera angles (Offset, Orbit, Dolly, Roll, Field of View) for dramatic effect. In the above screenshots, I think I added a Blue hue, maybe Film Grain, adjusted Brightness (top), used Noir, perhaps Vignette, and added a Sand frame (bottom).
The above sequence of screenshots show off different camera angles used to get various perspectives on the same action move. To add insult to injury, the second from top image applies the Depth of Field effect as well as Vignette to focus on the action and peril, and maybe instill a sense of vertigo. To judge by the bottom shot, yes, I did camp on that ledge awhile, letting foes approach their own doom at the hands of a patient Nathan Drake. This pull down move is a guaranteed winner, as it effectively disposes of enemies in a fun, if brutal, way.
Of course, hanging on ledges is a kind of pastime in the Uncharted series. Whether platforming, including using the grappling hook to cross perilous gaps (above, top), or seeking cover from gunfire and foes that your ally dispensed with (above, bottom), ledges are ubiquitous and necessary. Thankfully, they also can create powerful perspectives to gawk at in game or in photo mode, and as demonstrated earlier are quite effective at showing off the varied settings, creative design and high production values.
The piece de resistance in photo mode is capturing things that go boom! (Until I came across an enemy encampment with those lovely red barrels/crates, my opportunities were limited, especially in the middle of a firefight.) The above images, as with others here, hopefully show off Uncharted 4's top-quality action and presentation to full effect. Combined with a compelling story, dynamic characters, clever writing and all-around care and dedication to a top-tier game and franchise, Naughty Dog appears to have crafted another iconic game experience, if the first few hours are any indication.
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