Uncharted 4: A Thief's End sits as one of the most hotly anticipated games of 2016. I'd go as far to say that some gamers, myself included, see this as one of the biggest titles this generation of consoles will offer.

That's a lot to pin on a developer, and one has to wonder how much more Naughty Dog can really do with this franchise to keep it as fun and interesting as it's been in the past.

There's no doubt that the game is gorgeous, but how does it play? How does the story move? How well is it paced? I'll answer all of that, of course, but I'm happy to say that I really loved my time with Uncharted 4. It's one of the longer games in the series, but I found almost every moment to be wonderful.

Two things before we roll on with this review:

  1. I will not touch the multiplayer here. I simply didn't play enough of it to offer a real opinion, and I want to see how it performs with real players in the wild before covering it.
  2. I won't spoil a single thing. You might think I don't talk enough about the plot, but I simply refuse to. Uncharted has always offered compelling stories and twists, and I don't want to tamper with that experience for you.

Cool? Cool. How's Uncharted 4, then?

This is one very pretty game.

Uncharted 4, in my mind, strikes a pitch-perfect balance between pacing and beauty. Two odd things to oscillate between, I know, but the game regularly slows down for players to take in the scenery. Whether it's an aging mansion, the rocks of an island or the beauty of a crumbling ruin, Uncharted 4 is astonishingly pretty.

The game offers a variety of locales and environments to take in, and it approaches each with that same reverence for detail. The graphics dictate the mechanics, too, as the jeep you drive slips and slides in the obviously sloppy mud. The visual textures serve as physical traction, and the driving segments are beautifully informed by the environmental details.

The plant life blows in the wind, buildings crumble beautifully and Nate's clothes react dynamically, and it all works together in conjunction to make Uncharted 4 feel more tangible. Naughty Dog plays with this as they jump around in time at fairly regular intervals, introducing players to new areas and physical rules constantly.

These locales all feature climbing, of course. The rule that demands Nate almost falls to his death as handholds crumble dramtically is still in place, but the climbing feels a little less narrow than usual. The paths are wider, more open for multiple approaches, and that also works towards making the game feel more real.

Naughty Dog has introduced a grappling hook mechanic to this game, too. In the pure climbing sections, the grappling hook works to make areas more accessible and interesting to climb and swing to. The mechanic is used a touch too much to get Nate out a jam, though; I can't even tell you how many times you'll slide down a hill only to grapple away at the last second and live. The over-presence of the mechanic, perhaps, is it's biggest downfall, but it's a welcome addition to the already fantastic feel of movement this franchise delivers.

Naughty Dog has always been great at narrative pacing, and they continue that trend with this adventure. Some might feel that the game starts of slow, but I'll offer that Uncharted 4 is better because of that start. The game swells instead of starting with a series of concussive bangs and shrinking back into a shell.

The result is a story line that feels more dramatic at its conclusion, and that tight pacing focuses elements like character relationships. Don't worry, I promised I won't spoil things, and this review offers nothing specific.

It's not all perfect, though. Uncharted 4 sees the introduction of Nate's brother Sam. You'll see him as both a kid and an adult. I like the kid version of Sam better, but the relationship between Nate and his brother never approaches what we have had with Nate and Sully or Elena.

That last relationship, though? The one between Nate and Elena? It's the best it's ever been. There were moments between Nate and Elena early on in the adventure that had me grinning from ear to ear, conscious of the smile and wondering if the pair had always been this dynamic.

Nate and Elena seem like married best friends, and that relationship pays off over the course of the adventure. I always preferred Sully to Elena, but this game shifted my perspective quite a bit on that.

How's the shooting?

Some would argue that the combat sections are the weakest point in the Uncharted franchise. While, yes, in purely relative terms these segments probably aren't the best Uncharted has to offer, I've always enjoyed them. What I haven't enjoyed, however, is how tedious the shootouts tend to get.

This tediousness of battle has plagued the Uncharted games since Drake's Fortune. Enemies would move in by the horde's worth, and Nate would slowly move from close cover to close cover to pick them off one at a time. That grueling feel of battle has been dramatically reduced in Uncharted 4.

There are still shootouts, don't get me wrong. Some of them put Nate in ridiculous situations that will require him to use the grappling hook mechanic to flank into better positioning. It's just that these fights are more manageable, feel less obnoxious and come with a better sense of pace. They're also broken up by more stealth elements. You can take down a whole section of soldiers in stealth if you're smart about it, and that feels fantastic.

The only bits I didn't like were the forced melee encounters. You'll see most of those early on, but the sections feel awkward at best with Naughty Dog not offering players a way to block or counter. You'll simply absorb the hits, break free of grabs or roll out of the way. In later melee segments, oddly enough, rolling has been disabled. This isn't a fighting game, and I wasn't expecting Arkham Asylum-esque combat from Naughty Dog; however, if a developer puts these systems in a game, they should work as well as everything else. These moments, in my mind, are the worst in the title.

What's annoying in the punching areas is made better by the gunfights. The aim assist can be tuned, and you can even make use of an auto-lock system if enemies are giving you too much trouble. I wouldn't, though. Nothing feels quite like popping out of cover and lining up a headshot without taking a hit or aid from the game. That feeling is satisfying, and I can say, for the first time with this franchise, that the combat is satisfying as well.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is beautiful, tightly focused and wonderfully adventurous.

Franchise fans, get excited. If Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is truly Nathan Drake's finale, it's a good one.

Over the nearly 20 hours I spent with this game for review, I found myself enthralled with its approach to adventure, combat, emotion and narrative. Naughty Dog have once again shown that they're fantastic when it comes to telling a piece of Nate's story, and I'm pleased with what was created.

There are moments of tedium and frustration here and there, but the overall package is the most complete it's ever been for these already stellar series. Gunfights feel better, vehicles are handled expertly, even more attention is paid to narrative structure and the new grappling hook mechanic is a welcome addition.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is fun. When adventure is at stake, isn't fun what matters?

Disclaimer: We received a retail copy of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End from Sony for this review.