I’m at odds with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. When the news of a fourth Uncharted game broke, I was skeptical. Even more so after hearing about the departure of creative director and series writer, Amy Hennig. And yet, I couldn’t ignore the chance to travel around the world with Nathan Drake, Elena Fisher, and Victor Sullivan. I’m grateful to have experienced Nathan Drake’s final adventure but I’m struck with worrisome feelings of disappointment. Uncharted 4 is the most gorgeous and technologically marvelous video games ever made. Yet I believe it suffers from pacing issues that makes the game not as fun fun to play.
At the end of Uncharted 3, players saw Nathan and Elena reconcile their troubled marriage after saving the day. In A Thief’s End, we find that he has settled into a life of domestication and legit employment. Then, Nathan’s life is retconned to introduce a thought to be dead brother named Sam. Despite Nathan swearing off the life of a treasure hunter, he is forced to seek out the lost treasure of pirate Henry Avery because of Sam’s shady dealings. Sam Drake…isn’t that great of a character. That’s no fault of Troy Baker (who I’m thrilled to see him stand shoulder to shoulder with Nolan North). Instead, he comes off as a shoehorned addition to the Uncharted family. I tried my hardest to rationalize the change to Nathan’s childhood but the one shown here does not and cannot exist alongside the first chapter of Uncharted 3. I also didn’t like (SPOILER, highlight to view): that the second flashback reveals that Nathan may or may not have Sir Francis Drake as an ancestor. Instead, Sam and Nathan rename themselves to beat a police rap. I didn’t much care for that because it ruined an interesting, if inconsequential, characterization.
Nathan and Sam will explore beautiful landscapes, such as Scotland and Madagascar, in their quest for treasure. The journey here is different from previous games, where the quests Nathan took part on dealt with fabled legends. The Goonies-like hunt for pirate gold feels a lot more relatable and based on terra firma (in other words, you won’t find yetis, Nazi zombie monsters, and teleporting sand ghosts here). And I don’t make the comparison to the classic film lightly, as the game’s climax is reminiscent of the classic 80’s movie. A Thief’s End hits all the marks of an Uncharted adventure: wise cracking heroes, mercenary armies, solving puzzles tucked away in hidden locations, narrative twists that raise the stakes, scaling tall mountains and precarious ruins, and bombastic (and innovative) action sequences.
On the technology front, Naughty Dog uses Uncharted 4 to show off. The amount of detail that pours out of the screen is ridiculous. Hands down, this is the best that video games on any platform has looked. The realism of textures in the flora and fauna shows that the studio are masters when it comes to building a world and creating a sense of place. The lighting alone is sheer magnificence. Some of the most dazzling effects occur when clouds pass across the sun, creating beautiful rays of light, or when torches provide the only sources of illumination. The game’s physical space is much, much larger than those in past adventures, giving the experience a large sense of scale. Too often the game takes opportunities to point out how far you’ve come and how much left there is to travel. And with all loading done in the front end and (I assume, during cutscenes), there’s nothing to interrupt the flow of gameplay.
The issue I have with Uncharted 4 is that the game is too big. Traversing through chapters, which is the bread and butter of the series, goes on for far too long in this game, causing the narrative pace to slow to a crawl. There came a moment during the middle of the Scotland part of the game that I was struck by a feeling I don’t associate with the franchise: boredom. Look, you can only climb, shimmy, and barely catch a loose edge for so long before it gets uninteresting. And the game has whole chapters dedicated to this. It’s way too much to be interesting, especially after doing it for three games. The level design of each area invites exploration but too often the non-beaten paths do nothing more than route back to the main road. Some lead to hidden collectibles but for the most part, they’re short and uninteresting alternate paths. I don’t quite know what Naughty Dog was going for here. Perhaps to allow the AI companions to take their own way? That can’t be it because they have no problem sticking close behind me. Again, I think the studio is doing it because they can.
Traversing, which is about 90% of the game, is a slog but the grapple hook does lighten things up. Apart from further inching the series close to its mentor, Indiana Jones, it plays a big part in making combat more enjoyable. Encounters are almost always built around branches and towers that Nathan can hook onto and speed across the zone or set up a cool takedown tackle from above. It adds a nice verticality that the other games didn’t use as much. Stealth has also been better incorporated in the game, making it feel way less throwaway than the god awful sneaking chapter from Uncharted 2. Limited to combat encounters, you’r free to go in guns blazing or use tall grass and obstacles to perform takedowns or bypass the area. Naughty Dog should have taken it a step further, like letting Nathan lure enemies and make the AI more intelligent, but it’s fine for what it is.
The game’s tentpole action moment, the Madagascar city car chase, is a spectacular piece of technical engineering because the game does a great job with herding you towards the aim while, at the same time, reacting to the player’s variations. The weird thing is, the car chase is the only action sequence that is worth remembering. I finished the game about 12 hours ago and for the life of me I can’t pick out combat sequences that stand out, which is weird because I can call out all sorts of great moments from Uncharted 2 and 3 without batting an eye. Because the game is front loaded with traversal after traversal sequence, the actions scenes should have been more memorable.
What Uncharted 4 amounts to is an experience I had more fun watching than playing. this was proven to me when I visited some family and watched my nephew play through the Madagascar chase. The Naughty Dog crew went for a more cinematic feel, interjecting non-playable scenes and transitions as much as possible (and as a result, it makes it easy to miss sudden quick time event button prompts). All this game does is make me desperate to know what Amy Hennig had planned before she left the studio.
Down as I am against Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, it is still a good video game product. Naughty Dog blows everyone out of the water with their grasp of the PlayStation 4 and the level of detail has to be seen first hand because no screenshot or uploaded video does this game justice. Also, the game’s epilogue left me a blubbering mess for the rest of the weekend as I reflected on the incredible, nostalgic journey of Nathan Drake and his band of treasure hunters. Uncharted 4 may be mostly unnecessary but it’s also a damn fine video game.