Disclaimer: Like all game reviews on this blog, this one assumes you’ve played the game. Therefore, it may contain spoilers for all four main-series Uncharted games. This review is only about the single-player portion of the game. I didn’t play the multiplayer at all.

Uncharted 4 made me reconsider the way I think about video games. That probably makes it sound like I’m overselling the game, but I mean it quite literally. The things that Uncharted 4 does well aren’t things that I typically say I look for in interactive entertainment. And now, having played the game and enjoyed it, I wonder if the things I say I look for are really what make for a great experience.

Back in 2013, Quantic Dream studio founder David Cage stood onstage during Sony’s PlayStation 4 unveiling to talk about how higher graphical fidelity would make it easier to portray more complex emotions with subtlety. At one point, he showed a graph with Quantic Dream’s main characters over the years, drawing attention to the increasing number of polygons in their models. Gamers and the gaming press were quick to mock his presentation, reducing his argument to “POLYGONS = EMOTIONS”; I’ll admit that I happily joined in on the mockery.

But now, having played Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4, I think there’s something to what David Cage was saying. With higher-fidelity graphics and more detailed character models, the subtleties of facial expressions and body language are easier to depict. And it’s these subtleties – often seen as ancillary or even extraneous by the gaming intelligentsia – that are a core strength of Uncharted 4. Graphical fidelity and detailed facial models are important, because they help convey the subtleties of the voice actors’ motion-captured performances. Stronger hardware allows for seamless transitions between cutscenes and gameplay, with no need for pre-rendered videos that break the player’s sense of immersion. The Uncharted series has long been known for its cinematic presentation, but A Thief’s End is the first entry in the series where the vision of making a video game that plays like a movie is truly realized.

The auction at the Italian villa

The auction at the Italian villa

That’s not only because of the PS4’s graphical capabilities, though. All the other little touches are integral to making Uncharted 4 play the way it does. Camera angles, cutscene timing, and sound editing and mixing are also important, and the game executes all those things admirably. No less important are the vocal performances, and as usual, they’re fantastic. Nolan North and Emily Rose have never been better as Nate and Elena, and Troy Baker is a welcome addition as Sam, even if his voice is a little too similar to North’s. Surprisingly, two of the game’s best vocal performances come from Britain Dalton and Chase Austin, playing young Nate and young Sam, respectively. Austin adopts Baker’s vocal mannerisms and inflections as his own; it’s a remarkable performance that will in all likelihood sadly go unrecognized, so I wanted to take the time to praise it here. The only weak spot, weirdly enough, is voice-acting veteran Laura Bailey, who noticeably struggles with the South African accent of her character, Nadine.

The presentational aspects of Uncharted 4 are definitely what make it such a worthwhile experience, because its other components are not nearly of as high a level of quality. They’re not bad on the whole, mind you, but they’re definitely a mixed bag. The plot this time around involves Nate going out for one last job in order to save the life of his long-lost brother, Sam (or so he thinks). Like Uncharted 3, it’s a fairly dark story, and one that I feel is not entirely suited to the Uncharted franchise. But this time around, the storytelling is much more coherent. The plot has the rises, falls, and twists that one would expect from a decently-written bit of interactive entertainment, and there are genuine thrills along the way. The moment when Nate discovers that Sam has been lying to him about Alcázar is fantastically well-played, for example. However, there are moments when the plot stumbles. The game essentially has three separate prologues before the plot actually gets going, and it makes the opening a drag. Moreover, the ending seems a little too pat for a game that’s ostensibly about the physical and emotional toll that adventuring takes on its characters; the epilogue in particular, while not bad, feels unnecessary, much like the infamous Harry Potter epilogue.

Elena and Nate.

Elena and Nate.

As for the gameplay, Naughty Dog has refined it greatly from the PS3 games. Stealth is now a major component of the game, and it can be used to the player’s advantage in enemy encounters. Most of them will still inevitably result in firefights, but being able to sneak around to dispatch about the half the enemies in an area cuts down on the occurrence of endless shooting galleries. Traversal has also received a few additions, the best of which is the rope and grappling hook, which allow to Nate to swing across chasms in thrilling fashion. Less welcome is the piton, which is useful only on the very few porous rock faces in the game and is lifted straight from 2013’s Tomb Raider. Nate controls better than in previous Uncharted games, and the shooting certainly feels more precise than in Uncharted 3. His movement is actually remarkably smooth, though he still has a tendency to get stuck on walls during combat.

For the most part the game is well-paced. The last third of the game sometimes drags a bit, and the section in Scotland feels interminably long and boring, but other than that, the game moves along nicely, never moving too slowly or too quickly. A bit more globetrotting (or at least varied vegetation) might have made the last third feel a little snappier, though. A couple of the setpieces, like the Scotland escape and the crumbling clock mechanism, are an absolute joy to play and are among the all-time highlights of my game-playing experiences. Even the oft-maligned puzzles of the Uncharted series are fun this time around, finally striking the right balance between trivial and completely arbitrary. Well, except for the hidden-object game in the Scottish graveyard, which is by far the worst puzzle of any Uncharted game ever, but it’s mercifully only five or six minutes of playing time.

Swinging on a rope.

Swinging on a rope. (I swear this isn’t a promotional still.)

Still, the plot, gameplay, and pacing are all merely solid. If the presentation were of the same quality, Uncharted 4 would be a middle-of-the-road action-adventure title, the kind of game that earns an instant 7/10 from Gamespot, IGN, or Destructoid. But the presentation is what elevates Uncharted 4 above the level of mere competency. It’s simply a gorgeous game, and the included photo mode is a delight to play around with. (See the above screenshot, which I took with the Inferno filter, for example.) The detailed environments and models help immerse the player in the game’s world. It’s rare to see a video game as beautiful and polished as Uncharted 4 is in this day and age. The game belies the common notion that the pursuit of higher graphical fidelity is a foolish waste of time; this level of polish simply wouldn’t have been possible on the previous generation of consoles. I don’t think much of David Cage – I gave up on Fahrenheit (a.k.a. Indigo Prophecy) halfway through – but let’s give the man credit for being right about one thing: with greater hardware capabilities come more possibilities for storytelling, and as a result, better games.