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Uncharted 4 finally learns to pace itself

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I finished Uncharted 4: A Thief's End in just under 13 hours spread across four sessions. That required me to sit on my sofa doing the same thing for several hours on end, which I almost never do with games or TV shows — I don't tend to have the patience. But Uncharted 4 made it easy. As you've no doubt read by now, Naughty Dog has crafted a gorgeous, fantastically likable finale to Nathan Drake's saga, and for me its success comes down to one thing above all else: pacing.

This is something the series has never quite gotten right before. The original title, 2007's Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, was a product of its time; it's easy to forget how fresh it felt back then to play a major game with a wisecracking dude in a T-shirt for the main character, but its endless scores of unimaginative enemies to shoot undermined the whimsy. The stunning Uncharted 2: Among Thieves had a similar combat-heavy formula, but got by largely on the back of spectacle and smart encounter design. And while Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception upped the dramatic action even further, its levels felt rushed compared to its predecessor, making the game's latter shootouts a draining slog.

Warning: mild spoilers for Uncharted 4 follow.

Uncharted 4 fixes this, and then some. You'll be three hours into the game before you even get into an extended firefight. The focus is far more heavily weighted toward exploration and platforming levels this time around, usually with a character along for the ride to help tell the story as you play. New vehicular sections work well and provide further variety, while the game itself is often willing to take its foot off the gas altogether and throw extended sequences at you in which nothing explodes at all.

There are often extended sequences in which nothing explodes at all

Uncharted 2 and 3 had the occasional moment like this, where you'd be walking through a Nepali village or trekking through a desert to take a breather from the combat. But while these sequences were well received, they stood out because they were exceptional — a rare oasis of calm in a raging desert of bloodshed. Uncharted 4 pushes similar moments to the fore, however, making them primary vectors for the storytelling and often the elements that carry the most emotional weight. Whether Drake is exploring the gorgeous plains of Madagascar in a Jeep, reminiscing on his past at home, or simply trying to hold his marriage together while navigating a jungle, Uncharted 4 is confident enough it can keep players engaged without constantly falling back on its guns.

Uncharted is far from the only series to have faced criticism over the disconnect between its combat-heavy structure and nuanced characters. Games like Bioshock Infinite and Grand Theft Auto V similarly saw their lofty exposition undermined by the huge trail of bodies you had to leave in your wake to progress. The term "ludonarrative dissonance" is a cliché by now, and one knowingly addressed in Uncharted 4 with a titular achievement for killing over 1,000 enemies. I only got to around 400 myself, which is obviously a lot of people for a chill bro like Nathan Drake to shoot under normal circumstances, but it still felt like far less than earlier games would have demanded.

What makes this structural balance particularly brave on the part of Naughty Dog is that Uncharted 4 has by far the best combat ever seen in the series. Most of the encounters take place in spaces with clever design filled with nooks and crannies to exploit, and there's little of the magical reinforcements that artificially extended the previous games' running times. I would actually have been fine with slightly more combat in Uncharted 4, which is the last thing I expected to say about it.

But I'm glad Uncharted 4 left me wanting more there, because it's a huge step in the right direction for blockbuster video games. I've long thought the likes of Gone Home and Firewatch — subdued experiences that drive the player forward simply by placing them in a world of intrigue — held far more potential for mainstream storytelling than the standard action-game formula of shootouts broken up by non-interactive cutscenes, and it feels like Uncharted 4 has taken inspiration from how indie games have learned to hold the player's interest.

This is still an 'Uncharted' game

Don't get me wrong” — this is still an Uncharted game. I still did shoot over 400 people, and I still solved way too many puzzles by boosting buddies up to higher ground and waiting for them to find a conveniently placed box for me to stand on. And it's probably not realistic to expect many other games to spend as much time crafting their narratives with such verve and attention to detail; Uncharted 4 is as big as it gets in terms of video game development, and yet the single-player adventure feels increasingly anachronistic.

But if the game's rapturous initial reception is anything to go by, there's an appetite for action games with more to offer than action. Wherever the series and the genre goes from here, Uncharted 4 proves that the pen can be as mighty as the sword.