Chris Schulz is the deputy head of entertainment for the New Zealand Herald.

First impressions: Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

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Will Nathan Drake's final adventure be one worth taking? Chris Schulz has an early look at Uncharted 4: A Thief's End ahead of its release on May 10.
Nathan Drake gets into a bruising prison fist fight in the introduction for Uncharted 4: A Thief's End.
Nathan Drake gets into a bruising prison fist fight in the introduction for Uncharted 4: A Thief's End.

Nathan Drake is bored. He's grabbed a beer, scoffed his dinner and is relaxing on the couch next to his wife Elena after an uneventful day scavenging copper coils from the bottom of the ocean.

So what does this retired treasure hunter - who, in a past life, abseiled cliffs, searched ruins, dove for pirate treasure and dodged bullets from teams of private militia - do to while away his evenings?

He turns on his PlayStation, of course, and starts playing a 20-year-old videogame in what feels like an unexpectedly naughty in-joke from the creators of Uncharted, Naughty Dog.

It's a sign that, with one of gaming's most successful franchises to their name, and with 2013's The Last of Us widely considered the best game of the past 10 years, Naughty Dog can do whatever the hell it wants to.

But they know what they're doing. They're not about to muck up Nathan Drake's farewell. And rest assured, they don't. This is a stunning finale that sees Drake and co go out with a cinematic wallop - one that will keep you pinned to your couch for binge-style sessions.

Within the breathtaking first hour of A Thief's End, you'll be involved in a breakneck speedboat shootout, scuba dive to the bottom of the ocean to retrieve sunken goodies, get pulverised in an epic prison brawl, solve tricky riddles while searching ancient ruins, then break into a black tie dinner party, pickpocket a waiter and get beaten up in a library.

You'll also spend time playing young Nathan Drake as he takes part in a daring rooftop escape from a Catholic orphanage that expertly explains Drake's adventuring origins and sets up this outing nicely.

Elena and Nate in Uncharted 4.
Elena and Nate in Uncharted 4.

All of that's in just the introduction to Uncharted 4, the culmination of Nathan Drake's adventures since 2007's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune launched a franchise that's spawned three sequels, a rumoured movie and turned Nathan Drake into the Indiana Jones of the gaming world.

Pretty soon you'll be off on your real mission, searching for missing pirate treasure with henchman Victor Sully by your side, while trying to save Drake's brother Sam in the process. It's an adventure that skips through a freakish number of locations, from scaling jagged cliffs in Scotland to navigating a jeep through the muddy rivers of Madagascar.

If you already love Uncharted, there's nothing here that will change that. The characters and dialogue are flawless, the story feels fully fleshed out, the action is nicely balanced between action, exploring and puzzle-solving, and as for the graphics, they're never less than stunning. Take a look at these gameplay screengrabs:

A scene from Uncharted 4: A Thief's End.
A scene from Uncharted 4: A Thief's End.


A scene from Uncharted 4: A Thief's End.
A scene from Uncharted 4: A Thief's End.


A scene from Uncharted 4: A Thief's End.
A scene from Uncharted 4: A Thief's End.

The introduction of a grappling hook makes the most of the scenery too, as Drake swings from ragged cliffs across ravines and uses tree branches and overhangs to swoop through ruins. You'll muck this up a few times to start with, but it's worth mastering just to nail a spectacular flying fist to the head of some unsuspecting enemies during the game's stealth-or-shoot-out moments.

Because this is an adventure with a lot of characters, you're often joined by Sully and Sam, and it's here where the game's impressive engine slightly unravels. Crawling across Sam's back across clifftops just looks awkward, and if you're both hiding behind the same small pillar during shootouts, Sam becomes like every other big brother: an annoyance who just gets in the way.

Sam and Nate in Uncharted 4.
Sam and Nate in Uncharted 4.

If there's any real criticism to aim at Uncharted 4, it's that it's a tad too easy. This isn't an open world adventure like Far Cry, it doesn't have the more complex puzzles like Tomb Raider, and it's not a mind-numbling riddlier like The Witness. You'll rarely get stuck on the puzzles, and unless you increase the game's difficulty settings you won't struggle in shootouts. Uncharted's linear narrative and frequent action means there's a feeling you're being pulled through the game a touch too fast - even if there are a few more paths to choose between this time around.

But, even five hours into a long, late night session playing Uncharted 4, I never got bored, I didn't get sick of the characters, and I never wanted to turn it off. I'll be back, to test out the game's multiplayer modes, to check out the upcoming DLC, and to play through Drake's smashing finale one last time.

* A star rating for this game has been withheld until its multiplayer modes have been assessed. Check back after the game's release on May 10 for a full review.

- NZ Herald

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