By Andrew Larimer

Man, oh, man. Naughty Dog has been plenty naughty with the development of “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.” But after three delays and multiple technical hiccups they finally delivered a game that balances narrative pacing and graphic bliss. From decrepit, aging mansions to the jetties of lush islands, this game’s aesthetics are off the charts.

Throughout the story, the game places Nate –its protagonist – in a variety of environments that affect the gameplay; the graphics start to dictate the mechanics. The jeep you drive jumps and bumps and slides through mushy red sediment, allowing Nate’s driving to feel raw and immersive.

All these places feature climbing up obstacles and solving puzzles, similar to other “Uncharted” games. But unlike its predecessors, Nate’s clothes react dynamically to his surroundings and the animations react in real time: his shirt flails with the wind, his pants get torn by branches – all in crisp 1080i and 60fps.

Nate’s newest gadget, the grappling hook, helps him swing from awning to awning, teeter over terrorizing heights and even fling himself out of raining bullets in a dizzy. But repetition makes it lose its luster after a while. It can prevent death, even when the player reacts too slowly or makes a bad choice.

More repercussions, please.

Naughty Dog has always had a knack for narration in their games (e.g., “The Last of Us”) and they hold onto this relationship at the start of what is considered Nate’s last adventure. This time around, the game begins slowly and it’s beneficial. Instead of fire fights, exaggerated explosions and near-death experiences within the first few minutes, it clenches, letting tension build, rather than going downhill after a killer first act. This steady crescendo leaves the end of the story with more dramatics (the good kind) and hard-hitting emotions.

Nate’s relationships with his friends are arguably the best aspect of this game. And to a player who has never dived into the “Uncharted” series before, I can say with full confidence, they will ache for these characters. Nate and Sully still bicker like old childhood buds and Nate and Elena’s exchanges are far more robust than they ever have been before. There are quick, subtle moments that made my hands clammy and left my face with a sloppy (and sometimes cheeky) grin.

The most notable downside to this game –and one really has to dig to find one– is the combat. More specifically: Nate’s movement in battle. It has been a constant irk of mine since “Drake’s Fortune” and, despite improvements, it still feels tedious and clunky. Nate swaps from cover to cover, hiding behind barrels, crates and trees either too easily or not at all.

And the forced melee encounters seemed plain awkward. Naughty Dog didn’t give the player the control to dodge in any capacity.  The combat in “A Thief’s End” is still better than other “Uncharted” games but it isn’t as polished as it should be, especially in contrast to other aspects of the game.

If “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” is indeed the closing chapter for Nathan Drake, then it is a superb one. Naughty Dog has proven they can create characters and experiences that transcend the controller. I found myself –after sinking 30 hours into the recurrent jumps in time of Uncharted 4— wondering about my own relationships. Which is both amazing and surprising in a video game. But that’s really the point. Naughty Dog has shaped gaming into something that mingles and coalesces with the real world in an uniquely authentic way.