Review: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

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Cover art for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.

I didn’t know that I needed Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. I’ll gladly play anything developer Naughty Dog releases, but after revisiting and appreciating The Last of Us, I wanted to see them branch out into new territory, explore other genres and tell different stories. It’s not that I dislike action games, but there’s only so many times series protagonist Nathan Drake can nearly fall to his death, or blow a building up, before it starts to feel repetitive. Besides, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception ended on such a nice note, with everyone seemingly living happy ever after, that it didn’t feel right to once again jump back into Nathan’s shoes, discovering yet another lost city or finding another ancient treasure.

What I failed to recognize is that, over the course of three games, I actually cared about these characters. Nathan, his mentor and father-figure Sully, and his wife, Elena – they were all there at the beginning, and watching them travel the world while escaping from numerous villains hell-bent on world domination was a real treat. That, and watching them grow, almost as if they were real people, friends even, and the bonds they formed and shared over a pursuit as trivial as treasure hunting. I felt privileged to be along for the ride.

That’s where Uncharted 4 comes in. The primary characters are all living relatively normal lives, and they don’t seem to mind it so much. But sometimes, a person may try to move on from their past, but the past can’t move on from them. Nathan is pulled into one last adventure, partially against his will, partially because he can’t help himself, and the result is a very fitting and satisfying conclusion to a franchise that has raised the bar for action/adventure games, and one that continues to blur the line between video game and interactive film.

A Thief’s End

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The story of Uncharted 4 plays a more prominent role than in previous entries.

Uncharted has never been known for its stories – it’s mostly known for the intense firefights that can occasionally take place in collapsing buildings or sinking ships. The mystery Nathan and company solve is one the player can only observe – it’s a passive experience, unlike games such as BioShock or Alan Wake, in which the player tries to pick up on clues and hints at the big twists revealed later on. The story is merely a device that moves the characters from one action scene to the next, which is perfectly fine for a franchise that prides itself on over-the-top action. Occasionally, the games would try to make some larger point, such as the villain in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves reminding Nathan that he too is a mass murder, as most heroes in most video games are. While it was nice to see Naughty Dog step out into the realm of meaning and metaphor, even if just a bit, the games primarily focused on the action first, story second.

This seems to have changed, with the turning point being The Last of Us – Naughty Dog is now more interested in telling stories instead of crafting one long Michael Bay explosion fest. Though plenty of stuff still blows up in Uncharted 4, it is, by far, the most grounded and mature story of the franchise. It’s not as cynical and dark as The Last of Us, but unlike previous entries the story is focused, lacking any supernatural elements. The cast of characters is kept to a minimum – players meet Sam Drake, Nathan’s brother who allegedly died fifteen years earlier in a botched prison escape, who suddenly returns with new information about the legend of the pirate Henry Avery and his lost treasure. The main villain, Rafe Adler, is not some power-hungry maniac – he’s a fellow treasure hunter (and former partner to the Drake brothers), who simply wants the glory of finding Avery’s lost wealth. His sidekick, Nadine Ross, is the leader of the mercenary group Shoreline – she and her team are simply there for the paycheck. These are the only new additions, and with such a small cast, the story is able to take center stage more often.

This renewed focus on crafting a good story first, gameplay second also benefits the pacing of the game. In many ways, Uncharted 4 feels like an interactive movie more than a video game – instead of non-stop shoot outs with waves of seemingly endless enemies, the story is given plenty of time to develop and play out in front of the player, occasionally broken up by short bursts of action. This pacing feels much more film-like, and if my wife’s reaction is any indication, Uncharted 4 is just as much fun to watch as it is to play. It’s Naughty Dog’s most cinematic release, and it also has the most to say. Uncharted 4 is a story about the cost of obsession, and the struggle to let go of the past and to move on. Watching Nathan struggle with his flaws and coming to grips with his past, while hurting those closest to him, provides its fair share of poignant moments.

Of course, it’s always a risk to remove gameplay from video games – we may want better stories, but we’re also here to play games, not just watch them. What helps Naughty Dog avoid making one long interactive cutscene is an attention to detail that may be unparalleled. The world of Uncharted 4 feels alive and real thanks to a meticulous attention to the little things, things that many gamers may not see at first, but will notice and appreciate once they slow down and examine their surroundings. Whether it’s the fabric on Nate’s shirt moving in the breeze, extended dialogue between two background characters that has nothing to do with the story, or a crowded market in Madagascar, the attention to detail creates an immersive experience that is nearly impossible to capture on film (and when video games fail to capture this, it’s very noticeable). Early on, Nathan is in the attic at his home, filing away some paperwork. The player is able to then explore the entire house, which contains artifacts from previous adventures, as well as more common, every-day items (post-it notes on the fridge, laundry tossed on the floor). The player is free to take as much time as they wish to explore the world, and with little surprises hidden everywhere, it’s well worth it.

The Gang’s All Here

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The small cast of characters means a greater focus on developing and exploring these relationships.

Attempting to craft a story without having likeable, relatable characters is an exercise in futility. Naughty Dog knows this, and thanks to the focus on a minimal cast, most of which is recurring characters that gamers have already come to know and love, Uncharted 4 shines brightest when the principal cast members are interacting with one another. The same witty, funny dialogue is present here, and even when the tone shifts to a more somber one, the believability of the characters remains intact.

That is the hallmark of great writing – when players can still emotionally invest in characters who are flawed, and are willing to stick with them through moments both good and bad. It’s easy to like Nathan and Sam as they infiltrate a fancy auction at a large Italian mansion, watching them trying to blend in with the world’s 1%, speaking poor, broken-Italian as they mock the classicism on display. But it’s hard to watch Nathan lie to Elena, or boss Sully around like he’s an unpaid intern that can be replaced. But the writing of the characters is so strong that the player trusts Naughty Dog – we watch Nathan fall, and feel frustrated, but we gladly pick him back up, because we can see the growth in his character.

Naughty Dog could have coasted when it came to the characters, since most of them are already established and their stories appeared to come to a nice resolution at the end of Uncharted 3. But Naughty Dog took this opportunity to do something we’ve long been calling for more developers to do – bring women and diversity to the forefront. The use of female characters in Uncharted 4 may end up being the game’s enduring legacy – women are just as independent and strong-willed as the men. The game may not quite pass the Bechdel test (a test that asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man), but it doesn’t cast women in supporting roles, either. Nadine Ross is a take-no-crap merc for hire – she’s there to do a job, do it professionally, and nothing else. Naughty Dog never degrades her by forcing her to use her feminine wiles to obtain information or trick the player – her character would nearly be unchanged if her race and gender were switched. This representation is important – it’s proof that video games, or any form of fiction for that matter, can feature women in more prominent roles, and that results will be the same as when men are the focus. The universe won’t collapse because a woman, trained in martial arts, beat up Nathan Drake in a fist-fight – that’s exactly what should happen, and it’s refreshing to see gender treated with such a straight-forward approach.

Elena is also more than “just Nathan’s wife.” Throughout the franchise, she’s always been right alongside Nathan, doing the same dangerous things, getting into the same trouble. Her role in this story is crucial – she’s the character who is in the best position to call Nathan out when he acts like a coward, and to challenge him to accept his flaws and work to overcome them. But unlike a typical depiction of the nagging wife trope, Elena joins Nathan on this final adventure. She isn’t upset at what he’s doing so much as she’s angry that he lied to her, and hid behind the excuse of trying to protect her. As Elena herself says, she doesn’t need to be protected, and when it comes time to unlocking the mysteries of yet another lost city, she’s just as eager to explore them as Nathan is.

Pushing Crates

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Although the mechanics of the gameplay are sound, they are beginning to feel a bit repetitive.

For as much focus as the game puts on cinematic storytelling and characters, it still features its fair share of gameplay. Traditionally, Uncharted’s gameplay can be broken down into three elements: firefights, platforming and puzzles. All three return here, and although the mechanics of each are sound and perfectly enjoyable, there is a repetitiveness to some of it, an indication that Naughty Dog needs to move on from the third-person action genre.

In a move that benefits the pacing of the story, the platforming elements are equal in terms of amount and length to the firefights. It’s not so much that platforming is essential to telling this particular story, but that constant explosions wouldn’t make much sense. Most of the first act consists of jumping off cliffs and just barely grasping the ledge opposite it, or scaling the sides of buildings. In an attempt to add variety to the mix, Nathan can now use a grappling hook, which does add some much needed excitement to these sections. There were countless moments where I gripped my controller, knuckles white, as I swung over a large chasm, letting go of the grappling hook at the highest point, hoping I would land the jump. Nathan would often vocalize my worries in these moments, further adding to the immersion.

That said, there is a lot of platforming in Uncharted 4, and some of it feels a bit like filler. On my first play-through, it took fifteen hours to complete the game. On my second run, despite knowing exactly where I needed to go and how to solve each puzzle, it still took twelve hours. Most of that time was spent jumping from cliff to cliff, and after a while it does begin to feel a bit tiresome, especially when the game could be completed in a shorter amount of time if the repetitive platforming was reduced. It’s a matter of quality over quantity, a matter of less is more.

The puzzles are another area where Uncharted 4 takes one step forward, two steps back. Almost every environmental puzzle (how do I access that door up above me?) is handled the same way – by pushing a crate over to where the player needs to go. Fans of Naughty Dog will no doubt recognize this as the same mechanic seen in every Uncharted game and The Last of Us. The number of crates lying around in ancient pirate ruins is a little too convenient, and with the grappling hook, it sometimes doesn’t even make sense.

However, when the game does present an actual puzzle for the player to solve, it’s a real treat. Navigating traps, unlocking doors that lead to more clues, deciphering pirate code – the puzzles strike that balance of being just challenging enough to give the player pause, but never enough to enrage them and encourage looking the answers up online. I’d gladly take more puzzles over the platforming sections, and I hope to see more of this in whatever project Naughty Dog works on next.

This leaves the firefights, the traditional action of an Uncharted game. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of shootouts – there are considerably less of them than previous games, and while it may have worked for Uncharted 2 and 3, I didn’t need to see more of them in the fourth entry. They never feel repetitive like the platforming sections do; yet another sign that Naughty Dog is growing as a developer. They’re confident in all of their other abilities to balance the game to keep players engaged, and after spending twenty years of my life mindlessly mowing down bad guys with bigger and bigger guns, I’m thankful to them for the restrained approach.

Seeking My Fortune

I didn’t realize how much I grew to love the characters and world of the Uncharted games until I start playing Uncharted 4. What I initially saw as nothing more than a fun action game has morphed into something much more meaningful. Uncharted 4 is both a celebration of the franchise and a refinement of the formula, an indicator that developer Naughty Dog is growing up, but still capable of providing amazing experiences.

Uncharted 4 is a rare example of having your cake and eating it, too. It’s still the same silly, over-the-top action franchise, one that, on the surface, doesn’t take itself seriously. It would have been difficult to defend the previous games as high-art, but with the last entry, it’s able to straddle that line. A Thief’s End treats its characters with respect, tells a great story and has something important to say. It avoids many of the criticisms commonly levied at modern video games, while still featuring car chases through city streets and rocket launchers galore. It’s the best of both worlds, a fitting conclusion to a memorable and fun franchise.