(Pocket-lint) - Can you imagine a child patiently waiting for Christmas Day only to be told it's being moved to 23 February? Then again to 16 March? Well, that's how we felt about the constantly shifting release dates of the latest and purportedly last in the Uncharted series.
Originally due in 2015, the release date of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End was rescheduled to March 2016, then April and finally May. It had been pushed back more often than an onlooker at a murder scene.
This resulted in a couple of things (not just our questionable analogy above). First, it gave Naughty Dog extra time to add polish and sprinkle more magic onto the game. And second, it heightened expectation even further. After so many delays, it had better have been worth it.
Thankfully, it is. Oh boy, how it is.
Uncharted 4 review: Stealth and strategy
Uncharted 4 isn't just the result of Naughty Dog's learnings throughout the previous trilogy, it also benefits greatly from the developer's work on The Last of Us. While radically different in tone, A Thief's End undoubtedly borrows some elements from its enduring horror-based stablemate, resulting in the studio's most rounded, balanced game yet.
The madcap, humour-filled action-adventure retains everything the Uncharted series is known for, but also reflects the heart, emotion and pace established by Joel and Ellie's road story in The Last of Us.
You'll laugh, cheer and cry during Nathan Drake's greatest adventure. You'll spend a lot of time crouched in bushes too.
Stealth plays a much greater part in Uncharted 4's gameplay than ever before.
If we had a criticism of previous Uncharted games – which we've revisited lately thanks to the Nathan Drake Collection on PS4 – it's that the pacing sometimes seemed off. The climbing sections punctuated the firefights, but tackling enemies face-on was almost always the only option and there was little time for strategy.
In Uncharted 4 you get to choose how you want to take on the swarms of bad guys. You can just use duck-and-cover to blast your way through them as before or you can hide and take them out individually and silently.
Uncharted 4 review: Fresh yet familiar
For the most part, skirmish sections are in massive open areas, with plenty of undergrowth or water to hide in, or debris to duck behind. And there are many more enemies lurking around than in the previous games. Just exposing yourself and firing at one alerts all to your position and you can soon find it's possible to be overwhelmed. You can peg it and hide again, but occasionally that leads to being cornered.
That's why we found that using stealth for the first 10 or so enemies, then taking out the last few in a firefight worked best for us. You might have other plans, though, and that's the beauty of the gameplay additions. On the whole they introduce choice and variety in how you progress. So while the story and routes are linear, there is more freedom in the way you play the game.
Naughty Dog has achieved this without affecting the core values of Uncharted. The latest is steeped in familiarity, yet also contains enough that is new to make it feel fresh.
Uncharted 4 review: Co-op coin op
One of the other new elements comes in co-operative play – not with another human player but with a constant, artificially intelligent (AI) companion throughout the story. Bar one or two moments, you're always accompanied by either Sam Drake, Nathan's brother, or another of the much-loved regulars.
Not only does this provide greater depth for characterisation, dialogue and plot progression, with constant banter and interaction through every chapter, it is used to enhance the gameplay too. For example, many of the puzzles require the interaction of two characters, while during fights your AI helpers will often take out foes that are close to them.
There are odd bits, like the fact that if you poke your head up when hiding you can be spotted, while your companion can literally run in front of guards without them batting an eyelid, but we can excuse such minor quibbles. Certainly the AI is good enough to have them seek shelter in tandem with you, find climbing paths independently of yours, and generally help rather than hinder. They also provide verbal hints when you struggle to find a path to continue or suggest actions during puzzles.
Enemy AI is impressive too, with soldiers seeking cover the moment they are aware of your presence. They can even climb, leap and look for higher ground like human opponents. Playing the first Uncharted in comparison is an odd experience in that respect, no matter how good it was originally your opponents always felt on rails and utterly predictable. Not so much here.
Uncharted 4 review: Four wheels good
The final major addition to A Thief's End is driving. At several points in the game you will take control of a jeep. This in itself presents new puzzles as routes through the seemingly open-world landscapes contain obstacles and pitfalls along the way. Using a combination of your deft gamepad skills and brain power will help to overcome them. Here's a hint to get you started: there's a winch on the front of the jeep.
That's about the only spoiler we're willing to give away here as, like the fictional life of Nathan Drake, Uncharted 4's story mode is all about discovery. We'll tell you that the brothers set off to find a pirate treasure, taking in such incredible locations as Madagascar, Panama and, ahem, Scotland along the way, but any more than that will ruin surprises and mighty plot points.
Needless to say, there are more tombs than Tomb Raider has presented in its last two outings, cliffs to climb, mercenaries to vanquish, and plenty of crumbling old ruins to explore. A Thief's End is also, we feel, the most emotional in the series, with backstory and revelations aplenty. Even if this isn't the last Uncharted game, it genuinely feels like the final episode in this particular run.
Finishing the game feels like a significant achievement and there are plenty of rewards along the way. There are many nods to previous Nathan Drake adventures and even an appearance (or two) for another of the developer's enduring characters in one of the best cameos in gaming history.
Uncharted 4 review: Multi-faceted multi-player
Multiplayer, too, pays great homage to previous games. All the Uncharted favourites from the four games are playable characters. And mystical power-ups are based on artefacts plucked from the various adventures.
It has an entirely different pace to the campaign, but provides plenty of extended fun when you've wrung every drop out of the single-player action. Maps are purposely small to create frenzied matches, and the addition of sidekicks and the aforementioned powers can turn the tide even when you are being battered.
The multiplayer modes aren't really what Uncharted 4 is about though. Or, indeed, the series as a whole. The adventures of Nathan Drake have always been about Hollywood-style storytelling, wrapped around gameplay that's as intuitive and addictive as they come.
This time that's accompanied by the best graphics and character renderings we've seen on this console generation, and career highlight performances by industry stalwarts Nolan North and Troy Baker as the brothers. It is, quite simply, epic.
If this is to be the last Uncharted it goes out on a massive high. Nathan Drake has never looked better and the many additions to gameplay make it the most rounded in the series by far.
Naughty Dog has always delivered poignant, epic stories that live long in the memory and A Thief's End is right up there with The Last of Us as the developer's best. Nathan and his brother have a different dynamic to Joel and Ellie, but their relationship tells as fascinating a tale.
What most elevates Uncharted 4 above the rest in an already adored franchise, however, is its scope. Previous instalments have settled on being great duck-and-cover shooters, with plenty of platform elements along for the ride, or vice versa. A Thief's End throws in gameplay mechanics from a wider range of genres; stealth, point-and-click adventuring and even driving get in on the action to present the most balanced, extraordinary experience yet.
You might lament the 15-16 hour campaign as being too short, but that is lengthy by modern standards. And the fact you feel like racing through it in a matter of days is testament to its premium quality. You also then have the expansive, fun multiplayer to extend play time.
Uncharted 4 is not just the best Uncharted game, it can be argued that it is the best PS4 game full stop – certainly in looks, writing, acting and detail. It is Naughty Dog's love letter to fans and sets the bar by which all future current-gen games will be judged.