Dissonace: An Essay on Uncharted 4

On paper, Uncharted 4 checks all the boxes of a great game and yet I am left conflicted.

I should begin by expressing my love for this franchise. I bought Uncharted 1 when I got my PS3 some nine years ago now and I fell in love with it. Naughty Dog had created a game that was fast and fun and I have looked forward to every iteration since. Uncharted 2 stands as one of my favourite games to date. And I have been looking forward to 4 pretty much since Drake’s Deception Ended.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End™ Drake and Elena play Crash

Uncharted 4 is a great game. The story is fantastic, Naughty Dog has gone to great lengths to craft a narrative that humanizes its characters and leaves a lasting impression. The game is also stunning. Not just because the graphics are leading the generation but because the environments are have been built with so much purpose and detail. Not one level in Uncharted 4 doesn’t have a set piece that will blow you away. The action sequences are a lot of fun, enemies are aggressive and challenging and the level design affords a lot of fun gameplay: From sneaking about to leaping on your enemies to good old-fashioned run and gun. These thrilling encounters seem to take a backseat to the storytelling and, at least for me, are just not enough.

Until now I have enjoyed the careful balance Naughty Dog created Uncharted with. They mixed exciting gameplay with puzzles, wit with drama and story with action. Now I find the balance upset in Uncharted 4. An amazing game no doubt but one I feel has lost itself a little. It seems unfair to critique things like a compelling story or character development because they are definitely important, especially in Uncharted. To that end, I wanted to take a moment to discuss my biggest issues with Uncharted 4.

The Last of Us

The influence of Last of Us is quite evident in Uncharted. A fantastic game in its own right the Last of Us was a strong story and complex characters and I am happy they could bring that depth to Uncharted. This in-depth storytelling means The Last of Us is paced very differently to the Uncharted series.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End™ Drake and Elena

I appreciated the entirely human enemies in the game. Uncharted 4 brilliantly follows its characters both past and present and their obsessive decent over something as human as gold. The rich storytelling of the Last of Us drives takes hold and while it is well done it becomes a little overpowering.  I found myself disappointed by cutscene following cutscene and by the extended periods of limited player input. The fast pace of Uncharted is one of the things I love about the series. I question whether the drama needed to be as heavy-handed as it was? Uncharted is a different game after all.

I will admit I know a man who has a  degree in history, knows a dead language or two, and scale rock faces like it’s nothing (Seriously I do), so I am not saying the characters here are impossible but I have always felt they have been larger than life. I understand wanted to make these fantastic characters more relatable. Some of the interactions between them are moving but it does change the dynamic of the game. Yes, I want my shooters to be more than run and gun, but I still want an adequate amount of run and gun in there.

When we find action sequences they are quite compelling as well. Enemies are aggressive and the most intelligent in the series so they offer a welcome challenge. The chapters near the game’s conclusion feature some of the best firefights in the series. They are just not long enough, to balance out the game.

Lights Out

I have seen a few reviews and posts about how Nathan Drake is basically just a thieving sociopath who kills his way to the treasure he can’t even hold on to. It is an unfair judgment I feel in a lot of respects. First, welcome to the shooter genre. It’s heroes kill their way through most situations. If ethics were really a question we would have to throw most major franchises in the same pile. Second, for the majority of the series, Nathan has been either on the defensive from pirates and mercenaries who shoot first almost every time or occasionally on the offensive but while trying to save his various companions.

Naughty Dog has typically built scenarios where collateral damage is minimized. Drakes Fortune featured no noncombatants at all. Among Thieves is set in a literal war zone and but it was like that before Drake even got involved and you never come across locals. Drake’s Deception marketplace brawl involves no guns and while perhaps disruptive to the locals never really endangers anyone.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End™ Lights Out Take down
This guy is not getting back up.

Uncharted 4 brakes this motif and gives critics justification to say Drake is dangerous and destructive. In lights out we find our “heroes” shooting their way out of a situation they escalated. Even the stealth encounters are deadly, unlike Among Thieves where Drake broke into the Turkish Museum using only stealth and knocking guards out, not killing anyone. The chapter sits uneasily with me because for the first time in the series Drake is truly the aggressor. On the other hand, it was almost necessary because up until that chapter players had spent most of the last 6 chapters walking around.

This uneasiness escalates in Chapter 11 where we find our protagonists escaping mercenaries in a jeep through crowded markets and an otherwise peaceful city. The Sequence is fun to play but at the same time seems so removed from the spirit of action in earlier titles.

Going Through the Motions

The spirit of the earlier games is not dead however, their influence is felt throughout Uncharted 4. Although Some interactions seem a little too reminiscent. Naughty Dog has engineered an amazing game: The magnitude of detail in the level design, the in-game physics, even the increased accessibility. Yet I was left with a been here done this feeling in a number of set-piece moments. Outrunning collapsing bridges, falling buildings, crumbling handholds, even poorly secured zip lines.

Uncharted4-Screenshot-bike-escape

Yes, many of these things have appeared a number of times in the other games but not without bringing fresh new moments of their own. Not to turn my attention away from the innovation the title brings. The new rope swing is a lot of fun and the multi-level maps add a new dimension to the firefights which are pretty cool.

It is not just the action that seems recycled it is the theme. Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception explores several ideas including Drakes obsession with the past, how it damages his relationship with Elena, and how he is moving on. Uncharted 4 does examine these in more detail with a more overt conclusion, but they were not new ideas.

I would like to believe this was actually intended given the moral of the story, however part of me felt like the team may have been checking off boxes from their greatest hits.

Conclusion

Many of these critiques seem unfair even from me. The story is fantastic and as a capstone to the series Uncharted 4 is perfect in a lot of ways. The game is beautiful and a lot of fun but for me, it doesn’t feel like Uncharted.

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