The return of charismatic, adventuring mass-murderer Nathan Drake has been long awaited. It’s four-and-a-half years since Drake’s Deception – an age in a video game culture more accustomed to annual release cycles. No doubt aware of this (and prompted by the number of people who’ve gravitated to PlayStation 4 from the Xbox 360), Sony released a remastered version of the previous three games last year — part stop gap, but also part education. Uncharted is the brand’s flagship franchise and this game needs to deliver.
Given that, it initially seems oddly slow to get started for a franchise that once started a game with its protagonist waking up in a wrecked train hanging precariously over a Himalayan gorge. Post tutorial, the game begins with Nathan as a kid, breaking out of his Catholic orphanage with his newly-introduced older brother, Sam, before showing them as young adults for a mission that ends in Sam’s “death”. Skip forward 15 years (past the events of Uncharteds one through three), Nathan’s in scuba gear and the adventure proper is ready to begin. Except it isn’t. He’s working for a salvage company. At the end of the day, he goes home, reminisces about his adventures with a toy gun in his attic, eats dinner, plays Crash Bandicoot. Seriously — you tackle level four, ‘Boulders’.
In lesser hands, this would play as enormous self-indulgence, but under the stewardship of directors Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley (fresh from The Last Of Us) it’s a masterstroke. These sections add powerful emotional weight to what follows. And finally, scene set, Sam is revealed to not actually be dead and the adventure starts for real. And what an adventure it is — first presenting you with a heist to execute in an Italian coastal mansion, then sending you to Scotland to excavate (or loot, depending on your point of view) the grave of a long dead pirate that’s under the guard of a private military company, and so on, across the world.
That world is still mostly linear in its waypoints (and not averse to deciding a small drop would kill you if it takes you too far off path) but that isn’t a negative — there’s a lot to be said for a series that plays to its strengths, while attempting to refine them. A Thief’s End succeeds in that goal. It still delivers spectacular action set pieces (including a plunge over a waterfall and a knuckle-whitening bike chase) but its emotionally engaging tale is a clear leap forward in interactive storytelling. Nathan Drake — it’s good to have you back.