Time to stop shooting
HIGH “We can never, ever come back to this city.” “Add it to the list.”
LOW This story again?
WTF How is it that the wheels on these ancient pirate crates still work?
One of the trophies available for Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is named “Ludonarrative Dissonance” and it’s given for killing a thousand enemies in the game. It refers to a complaint about the series that’s been circulating since its second installment: Drake is posed as an affable (if morally lax) good guy who seems neither to notice nor care that he shoots hundreds of dudes in his continuing quest for ancient treasure. As one of the people who has made this complaint, I appreciate the good-natured ribbing, and after all, I got that trophy. At the same time, it’s a little hypocritical to tease people about talking up this dichotomy when this is the second Uncharted in a row built around the theme that Drake is a good guy who indulges in too much bad behavior.
As the game begins, Drake is a nice guy. He’s given up the tomb-raiding life for a normal job as an underwater salvage worker and a cluttered house to share with his long-standing love interest Elena. When his boss comes to him with a plan for a dubiously legal salvage operation, Drake resists despite an obvious desire to hunt treasure again.
His resolve only crumbles when his long-lost brother Sam resurfaces after rotting for more than a decade in a Panamanian jail. Telling himself that he’s doing this to help Sam allows Nathan to re-enter his treasure-hunting mode and sabotage the new life he’s been trying to build. So then, we re-enter the rhythm of an Uncharted game: climbing the light-colored handholds that sometimes break and hiding behind scenery while shooting an army of mercenaries in the head.
Naughty Dog makes an effort to elaborate on these cores. They borrow (but under-utilize) Tomb Raider’s trick of climbing on porous rock, and add badly over-utilized segments where Drake slides down gravel or mud chutes. The classic video game Magic Grappling Hook of Returning also gets some clever use. The climbing segments are still longer than they are interesting, but at least they are somewhat interesting on occasion.
Traversals are also expanded by the mixed blessing of vehicular sections. Naughty Dog skillfully uses the narrative space afforded by travel to let the characters unspool to each other, but the driving doesn’t play particularly well. The vehicles never feel quite right and many of the levels manage the strange feat of being both confusing to navigate and overly constricted. The ability to use a jeep plays a key role in one of Uncharted 4’s better set-pieces, but little else in the game recommends this addition.
Uncharted 4 supplements the shooting by occasionally offering avenues to avoid it. Naughty Dog uses Uncharted’s existing cover mechanics as a basis for a stealth system, and also borrows the ability to hide in lush ground cover from Assassin’s Creed. It’s a competent offering, although I felt the difficulty progression was backwards, with the trickiest stealth zones coming early and later ones seeming much easier to handle. Also, as in The Last of Us, companions present during stealth sections tend to scamper about madly, often running right in front of enemies who are blind to them. At least in these stealth zones Drake’s allies occasionally manage to helpfully choke out a mercenary, in contrast to their uselessness once the guns come out.
One of the chief mysteries of Uncharted’s addiction to shooting is that the series’s gunplay has never been all that good or memorable. Here again, as in Uncharted 3, the chief feeling in a fight is boredom rather than exhilaration as one plugs away repeatedly at the heads of Drake’s foes. At least the “Bullet Time” gameplay mod adds some style to the proceedings.
Another effect of the shooting addiction is a lowering of the narrative stakes. Uncharted 4 asks its players to believe that Drake and his allies are intimidated by the fact that the unmemorable villains have a private army, but look—I’ve played these games and Drake has already single-handedly killed at least three private armies (arguably, the army he killed in Golden Abyss was public) and at least two species of bizarre, toothy mutant.
This unfounded expectation of intimidation isn’t the only chain around the story’s ankles—the character issues that A Thief’s End covers are well-charted territory for this character. The premise that Drake’s addiction to the thrills of treasure hunting endangers everyone around him and his own chances for love were the core of the last game. Even the trick of using flashbacks to examine Drake’s relationship with a mentor is a re-run.
On its own merits the story is hit-and-miss. Its antagonists add almost nothing beyond justifying the presence of warm bodies for Drake to shoot, and the core twist is so predictable I knew it was coming three hours before it arrived. One scene crucial to the treasure-hunting is so sloppily written that I almost threw down my controller. Worse, literally every time they expect to find a massive fortune in Mughal gold, Drake and co. show up without any possible means of extracting it.
When it stops pushing the treasure hunt, Uncharted 4 occasionally becomes compelling. Drake’s eventual unburdening to Elena sounds as much like an actual series of emotionally-charged conversations between two actual flawed people as anything that has ever been written for a game. The conversations in the jeep in Madagascar do excellent character work. Dull as the antagonists are, some of their dialogue is cleverly written to mislead about the core twist. If Uncharted 4 hadn’t needed to justify having dudes with guns in every corner of the world Drake visits, this could have worked.
In Uncharted 4, we see hints of an alternate version where long-range exploration and inventive climbing were major components of this series; where shootouts were a rare fail state as Drake sneaked around opposing forces, rather than murdering his way through them. Instead, A Thief’s End feels like it’s straining its story to justify Drake shooting of hundreds of dudes and overextending its mechanics to avoid having him do that at the same time.
It’s telling that the game’s ultimate vision of a good life for Drake keeps the treasure hunting while getting rid of the guns—that vision feels right for the character. I just can’t help but wish that he, and these games, had gotten there sooner. Rating: 6 out of 10
Disclosures: This game is developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony. It is currently available on PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via retail and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 14 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed twice. 3 hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.