Everyone has a relative like Sam Drake — that seedy brother (or uncle, or in-law) who shows up every now and then with a bottle of bourbon, a pack of cigarettes and a fresh neck tattoo. You love the guy, but you know his appearance means there’s trouble ahead.
Sam is the older brother of Nathan Drake, the hero of “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” (Sony, for the PlayStation 4, $59.99). The twist here is that Nathan is kind of rakish himself, as we’ve seen in his three earlier adventures. But as this new chapter begins, Nathan has settled into domestic bliss with his lovely wife, Elena, and sworn off his globe-trotting, treasure-hunting ways.
Nathan gave Sam up for dead during a caper that went bad 15 years ago. So when Sam reappears with a price on his head and a tall tale of lost pirate booty, his brother feels obliged to help. And we’re off on another high-stakes, life-or-death romp around the world.
The best parts of the “Uncharted” games have always been the sequences where Nathan is exploring new vistas, whether he’s climbing mountains or descending deep underground. Your job is to guide the impossibly athletic rogue to his destination, with the most exotic settings turning into elaborate mazes. The puzzles never get too difficult; even when Nathan seems trapped, careful observation will help you find a way out.
Unfortunately, the Drakes aren’t the only ones on the trail of the treasure, and their path is often blocked by heavily armed mercenaries. The resulting firefights are far less rewarding, even if they are slickly executed.
And then there are the gonzo action sequences that are a specialty of developer Naughty Dog. “A Thief’s End” is filled with enough explosions, chases and hairsbreadth escapes to fuel a summer’s worth of Hollywood blockbusters, and one in particular — a frantic race through a seaside town — left me giggling and breathless.
All of this is presented with the most gorgeous graphics that have ever been summoned for a video game. Whether you’re lost in a jungle or perched on a lofty mountaintop, it’s worth taking a break to appreciate the gloriously detailed scenery.
Amid all the spectacle, Naughty Dog takes the time to carefully build the relationships among its four main characters — Nathan, Sam, Elena and Nathan’s old partner-in-crime, Sully. The banter between the Drake brothers (played by video-game voice all-stars Nolan North and Troy Baker) is eerily lifelike, filled with the kind of silly in-jokes, affectionate concern and genial chops-busting I share with my own brother.
And in the end, the humble concerns of these four people mesh nicely with the globe-spanning fable of greed, ambition and hubris that they uncover. “Uncharted 4” is one of the most ambitious video games ever created, and it succeeds on almost every level. But its most impressive accomplishment may be its creation of four characters I actually cared about. Four stars out of four.
Follow Lou Kesten on Twitter @lkesten
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