Uncharted 4 is an acknowledgement of the end, for players and Naughty Dog alike. Both step into the series finale with begrudging maturity, reminiscent of its spectacular past, and taking the first real steps away from thrilling adventure. Slipping into the shoes of Nathan Drake for the final time feels more profound than ever before, because he is haunted by these same thoughts.
Years since his last outing, Nathan is suffering from an uncomfortably pedestrian life — a crowded attic, a day job, a dinner on the couch with Elena. We pull a beer out of the fridge. It tastes nothing like a deadly escape from ancient ruins.
It’s not long before everyone’s hope arrives: Samuel Drake, Nathan’s long-lost brother, has returned and needs a partner in crime. Players, much like Nate, wrestle with the opportunity to indulge in just one more escapade, with the fear that it may cost the life of someone dear, and the nagging sadness of believing the best may be behind us.
We, of course, agree to chase after a pirate stash, the historic fortune of Captain Henry Avery. At every crumbling ledge and hesitation, Sam proves to be the brasher version of Nathan, just now discovering the siren song of treasure alongside a brother that is trying to forget it. He revels at picturesque caverns and gasps in the wake of explosions, all while Nathan shrugs his shoulders and moves along, even commenting on his own jadedness. Our hero has never felt more storied than when stood beside a picture of of himself had he never grown beyond his burning childhood ambitions.
These youthful dreams, the ones that fueled all our memories with Nathan, finally see a spotlight in Uncharted 4. Nathan’s origin story comes at his curtain call, bringing the series to a beautiful full circle. Sam’s arrival drags these flashbacks to the player and back into Nathan’s life, and they dare us to walk away from such a defining history.
The thoughtful script and expert cast performances are rife with self reflection and double entendres. For the first time in the series, the most impressionable moments are delivered in subtle words and glances rather than self-destructing set pieces. Uncharted 4, in all this, holds a mirror up to what has always been an unquestioned and unquestioning hero. What fate ultimately comes for a man built by the grandeur of adventure?
For the very pirates these brothers pursue, the answer was a grisly, lonely death. They pillaged and sailed until the world moved on without them. Following their trail, we learn their losses: families, limbs, and oftentimes their own purpose. “I am a man of fortune, and I must seek my fortune,” Captain Avery’s words ring across generations and like everything else, sound less heroic and more dire with time.
All this thematic strength is supported by technical marvels accrued through Naughty Dog’s time with Uncharted. Facial animations are stirringly human, maps are open and gorgeous, yet level design always points you towards your goal. For the first time, combat mechanics don’t feel antiquated against the smooth traversal system, and stealthy approaches to enemy encounters are satisfyingly viable. Bombastic set pieces return with the familiarity of an old friend, yet burn less brightly than they did in the past, and notably less than the intimate moments shared by characters between gunfire. Naughty Dog has learned that those moments are what matter most of all, and urges the player and cast to feel the same.
The entire journey is a lesson in greatness. An impeccable farewell to an iconic adventure series, Uncharted 4’s brilliant direction and unmitigated reflection will be remembered for years to come, and is bravely worthy of 2016’s game of the year.