Reviewing Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
When Naughty Dog first announced Uncharted 4, I was disappointed. I felt like the series had run its natural course and that another game at this odd juncture would just feel repetitive. Unfortunately, actually playing and completing Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End only confirmed that feeling. Even worse, the game just does not give the player a whole lot to do. More than half of the game is spent walking, climbing, and staring at scenery, with combat serving as an uncommon and not utterly redeeming intermission. Production values are top notch throughout–as expected from Naughty Dog–but the experience distinctly lacks the magic and excitement of The Last of Us or, yes, Uncharted 2.
(This review only covers the single player campaign.)
Very Charted Waters
When Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception released, most felt it was a highly competent game whose only major fault was being unable to live up to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which had (rightfully) won myriad accolades. The third game introduced technically dazzling “flow” effects for sand and water, but the story felt disjointed and the combat did not evolve significantly. In Uncharted 4, the story has different but equally significant problems, and the combat badly shows its age.
The plot of this game is very straightforward, offering surprisingly few curveballs: Nathan Drake discovers that his older brother Sam is alive after 15 years of believing otherwise, and Sam convinces Nathan to come out of exploration retirement to help him discover the ultimate pirate treasure that they had been seeking those 15 years ago. The antagonists are Rafe, who is Nathan and Sam’s old partner who also seeks the treasure, and Nadine, the leader of a mercenary group that Rafe hires. Series mainstays Elena and Sully round out the cast. Frankly, every character is written and portrayed to outstanding effect, as has come to be expected of Naughty Dog. But none of these people are given much to do.
Sully is mostly a glorified chauffeur this time around, and Nathan enjoys such instantly good relationships with Elena and even Sam that there is not much for them to talk about except to reminisce about old times. The narrative quickly establishes that Nadine is good at beating people up, and yet her mercenary army never feels very threatening since Nathan and friends are somehow able to kill a couple hundred of her men without ever getting seriously hurt. The result is that the stakes in the game just never feel very high, and even when they should be high, the game does not care. For instance, a critical character gets kidnapped by the antagonists, and even though Drake should be deathly worried, he still takes a timeout to give another character a long, leisurely history lesson on something interesting that they stumble upon soon afterward. It is very frustrating that such likeable characters spend almost the entire narrative trapped in idle chitchat just because the story itself cannot offer anything better. I will be addressing this problem further when I discuss level design.
As for the combat, which consists of probably only 35 to 40 percent of the gameplay, it feels very tired. The melee combat controls are clunky, and the weapons feel about the same as they ever did. Uncharted 4 tries to offer a wealth of new stealth opportunities, owing from more open-ended environments, but stealth as an option is relegated to one button on the controller. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that the recent Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain offered tighter melee combat, more varied weaponry, and infinitely better stealth mechanics. Everything about this game’s combat just feels like an outdated half-measure in the wake of The Phantom Pain‘s stellar combat options.
Pirates Are Morons
The other 60 to 65 percent of the game is confined exploration. Had there not been three previous Uncharted games, perhaps I could have appreciated this aspect of the game more, but that is just not the case. Whether in mansions, dilapidated ruins, deep caverns, or just hanging out in the jungle, Nathan goes through the same old motions, hopping across a trillion convenient tiny ledges to get around. There is sometimes more than one way to get through an area, but it almost never uses very much brainpower regardless, so it just starts to get boring quickly. The game introduces new rope swinging mechanics in the hopes of refreshing the exploration, but it does not succeed in this aspiration. Instead, it becomes as perfunctory and mindless as ledge hopping, except that it can be used in combat sometimes too. Another new addition is a spike that can be manually wedged into certain ledge-less rock in order to proceed. The mechanic does not occur often or intelligently enough to matter though. It is just another stopgap, almost feeling like a confession that the developers had finally run out of good ideas for the series.
Returning to my discussion of frustration began above, so much of the “story” consists of going to excessively elaborate temples, undergoing death-defying feats, and solving puzzles that ultimately culminate in a reward of, “Thank you, Nathan, but your treasure is in another castle.” There is literally one temple where the reward for solving its gigantic puzzle is that a window opens, allowing Nathan to observe a giant statue outside that was pretty observable in the first place, thus making the temple’s entire existence a preposterous waste of time and resources on the part of these dead pirates. It was just a lazy lack of creativity on the developers’ part, but what makes it even more embarrassing is that Nathan and Sam constantly try to justify in dialogue why all of these idiotic, physically impossible temples exist. They never let the player forget how rich these pirates were, and how they must have hired the greatest engineers of their day to build these things. Maybe Naughty Dog should have spent less time justifying nonsense and more time conceiving interesting reasons for Nathan and friends to go to these places–reasons beyond “The pirates had to build these implausible traps and puzzles to make sure only the worthy found their secrets!”
Twisting the knife of frustration an inch further is the fact that the general art design and graphics are as marvelous as ever. Foliage is gorgeous. Textures, while sometimes inconsistent, are generally fantastic. The draw distance can be awe-inspiring. Tons of intelligent little details are placed appropriately in the varied settings. Everything looks pretty all the time, even if I eventually got tired of creaky wooden houses and caves. When it comes to the art though, far and away the greatest accomplishment lies in the main character models and their facial expressions. Nathan and Elena have never looked so incredibly human before. Every slight tinge of emotion is captured in perfect detail, and even the way their lips pucker when they kiss is captured naturally. I felt like I was looking at real people, which is the best compliment I can possibly give.
Farewell, Old Friends
At its heart, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is about obsessive passion and the quest to find value in one’s life. Nathan, Sam, Elena, and Rafe all encounter this in one form or another, and I enjoyed all of those parts. Any time I was ever just watching the game, I loved it. The beginning of the game, which finds Nathan and Elena settled down into a quiet life, feels heart-warmingly cozy even if it is clear that they both quietly yearn for something more. The ending and epilogue tie everything together very well, crafting a conclusion to the franchise that is likely to satisfy the vast majority of fans. It is just a shame that the game design decides to play it so safe, to adhere so closely to the conventions of previous games under the mistaken belief that conventions from 2009 are still current. In this way, the game is a paradox of sorts; it is a very highly polished missed opportunity.
Ultimately, Uncharted 4 is a delight to watch. It is often a chore to play.
I don’t usually do this, but just this once, here are some additional thoughts that didn’t fit within the review…
- I recognize how jaded I sound by complaining about the impracticality of the ruins in the game, especially since Raiders of the Lost Ark was cheerily doing it back in 1981. However, I feel that what makes Uncharted 4 more damnable is that the plot specifically revolves around these lame dungeons. Previous storylines in the series, perhaps because of former series writer Amy Hennig, seemed more inspired to me.
- The year is 2016, Naughty Dog is one of the best developers in the world, and yet Uncharted 4 is still full of identical-looking enemies. I do not understand how they put so much detail into individualizing the environments and yet could not be bothered to make more than a scarce few enemy character models.
- There is an open-ended car chase sequence down a hillside within a densely populated town that was extremely well designed, and the characters provide context-sensitive commentary on what you are doing. Maybe it is time for an Uncharted racing game spin-off.