Hello, and welcome back to Load of Bollocks’ critique of the Uncharted series. Well, we’re finally here. After the conclusion of my critiques for the first three games, we’re approaching the end. The final game, Uncharted 4, is finally in sight.
I feel the need to restate something that I mentioned in one of my earlier critiques of this series. That is that Uncharted aims to be a cinematic experience that is visually engaging enough to make you forget that you’re on rails. This statement, while pursued admirably through the previous installments, is truly realized in Uncharted 4. It’s a game that feels massive – hopping around from island nations to exquisite locales with each new chapter – but is just as linear as previous entries. The spectacle has never been more entertaining – even though it’s been done countless times before. The gameplay is – well, that’s one aspect that underwent some visible changes, and for the better. And the story is, well, certainly the best in the series. More on that later though.
We’re finally at the end of this wild ride, and for those of you who’ve read all of these monstrously long blogs, I thank you. This has been a difficult process for me, but I’m glad that I saw it through to the end. Let’s end this.
Welcome to Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.
I am a Man of Fortune, and I must seek my Fortune.
Let’s talk story. This is the end of Nathan Drake’s adventures, and on this adventure, Naughty Dog has crafted their best Uncharted story yet. Like past games, the themes and the characters a simple, but easily resonate with the player due to how clearly ideas are expressed, and how charismatic and natural each character is. Yet on this outing, the plot, and the story structure, are leagues above previous entries. This isn’t a treasure that Nathan wants to chase down, rather, it’s a chance for him to reconnect with his long-lost brother. Sam Drake is the one moving the plot forward in this one, while Nate plays the passive protagonist who only wants to relive some former glory through slam dunking a few mercenaries, and shimmying across a ledge or two.
Even Nathan has changed. Once a gung-ho explorer, Nathan has become a washed-up parts scavenger for a diving company. He reminisces about his adventures only occasionally, and we’re exposed to this in a depressing sequence early on in Uncharted 4. Still, while Nate wants some more adventure in his life, he isn’t exactly thrilled about a globe-hopping hunt for treasure. Naughty Dog intentionally made Nate as passive as possible, allowing Sam Drake to grab the reins and direct the story. As the plot progresses, we’re made painfully aware how far Sam must go to see his adventure through, dragging Nate through the mud as he marches on. By the end, both Nate and the player dread finding the actual treasure, as the perilous implications received seem to hint that the mortality of both Nate and Sam are on the line.
However, it is in these perilous implications that we find a clash between the themes, the tone, and the action.
Now, generally, if you want to tell a successful story, you first need to find some central theme, and explore it through interesting situations until finally, a new realization about the theme occurs, bringing the entire story full circle. This is easier said than done, as the writers behind the story need to agree on a theme, write characters that have different values that lead to scenarios in which to explore that theme, often through character change and consequences to character actions. In other words, characters need to pursue something, face obstacles, and deal with the consequences of their actions. Now, for the most part, Uncharted 4 does the first couple parts well. What Sam and Nate are pursuing is simple: Sam wants to go on an adventure of personal significance, one that he’s been waiting to go on his whole life. Nate wants to re-connect with his brother, and to a lesser extent, relive the thrill that of his days exploring. Through these goals, we are met with two themes: Obsession and Letting Go. Sam is obsessed with uncovering the story of Captain Avery, and finding the pirate-colony of Libertalia. Nate is desperately trying to save his brother from his obsession, not knowing how captivated by the dream Sam really is. The story and the theming is primed to show us what happens when someone becomes obsessed, and how you’re supposed to deal with someone like that. Going into the finale, I was sure that Sam was going to die, and that Drake needed to learn to let go of his brother, and of his life of adventuring, for good.
But, that never happens. The story anticlimactically saves both Nate and Sam. Wha-Wha.
After the main story has concluded, both characters reach the end of their arcs, but without earning them in a satisfying way. Sam realizes that he was obsessed, but says that he’d probably do it again. And Nathan realizes that he can’t change his brother’s nature, and gives up on trying to be his brothers-keeper. Sam goes into business with Sully, and Nathan learns that he needs a little bit of excitement in his life, so he and Elena take riskier business ventures with the diving company.
Now, I think these arcs are okay, they’re fine, but neither character really faces any consequences to their actions. Sam gets off scot-free better than he was at the outset, and so does Nathan. Both Sam and Nathan acted irresponsibly and dangerously throughout the story, and absolutely nothing happens to them. Re-playing the game after knowing this fact makes the adventure feel like it has no stakes. Nothing is lost, but everything is won, regardless of the shitty decision making by our protagonists.
This is one of the biggest reasons why Uncharted 4 is good, and not great. I know reviewers gave this game exceptional praise upon release, and I still have yet to figure out why. The story’s tone might be a little darker, and the game takes itself far more seriously, but without any consequences to character action, it essentially becomes good escapist fun with nothing to say. It’s a nice end to the series to be certain, after all the previous games were nothing but escapist fun, but it’s rather disappointing that Naughty Dog promised a mature Uncharted game, and delivered it only through tone, not action.
This problem with consequential action extends further than just the climax, however. Nate has been keeping his adventure with Sam a secret so that Elena won’t be worried, and won’t come after him, putting herself at risk. Of course, Elena finds out where he’s been, tracks him down, and confronts him in person. Now, Elena is a reasonable person, but putting your life in Jeopardy to have an adventure with some brother you’ve never been told about, all while keeping you in the dark about it says a lot about Nate. He doesn’t trust her. He doesn’t think she’s valuable enough to go on the adventure with him. Most of all, he’s incredibly irresponsible, and is prioritizing someone she’s never even met over her.
It seems like their marriage is, well, on the rocks. But lo-and-behold, Elena just joins the adventure an hour or so later, and after thirty minutes riding around in a jeep, things are pretty much back to normal. There are no consequences for Nate’s actions besides some dirty looks, and a sad/bitter wife. So, if the story hints at being mature, but isn’t mature enough to doll out penalties to those who fuck up, is it really taking itself as seriously as it was marketed to be? I completely disagree, and I’m extremely disappointed that Naughty Dog didn’t have the balls to craft a more compelling, thought out story.
But I’d be doing the story a disservice If I said that I didn’t enjoy it. The beats it covers, and the story that unravels between Nate and Sam is a fun ride that leaves you feeling good, if a little bit unfulfilled. It’s not fresh or innovative, but for the most part it’s told well, and sometimes that’s all you need for a fun adventure series like this. Maybe Naughty Dog simply wasn’t willing to go the extra mile for fear of alienating their Uncharted fans. Who knows.
As a final note for the story, the legendary pirate that Nate and Sam are following has a compelling story as well. With the notes and documents you find on your adventure to locate the mythical pirate haven Libertalia, the story expands and questions pop up that will pull you straight into the pirates story. In the past games, I’ve never once been interested in the legends that they’re chasing because it’s far too obvious from the outset that what they’re after is some cursed artifact/city that’s the same old shit that Indiana Jones has been trotting for decades. But with the story of Captain Avery, there is no superstitious mumbo-jumbo, and no boring ancient artifacts. There is merely the story of these pirates, who they were, what they represented, and what they tried to achieve by creating a city just for pirate outlaws. Why would they do something like that? Pay attention and you’ll find out. Who are all these fabled pirates, and what do they want? Did they like each other? Pay attention and you’ll find out. Even thinking about it now has me itching to pop Uncharted 4 back in and give it another go, just for the story of these Pirates, and their eventual dissolution.
What makes this story-within-a-story so effective is that the downfall of the pirates mirrors the potential destruction of Nate and Sam perfectly. The hazards of temptation, ambition, and greed are what led to the extinction of the famed pirates, and it’s these vices that threaten the lives of Nate and Sam in distinctly different ways as well. I’d argue that the similarities in narratives are the best piece of writing in the entire series, because it allows the player to piece together a deeper meaning that maybe not everyone will be privy to. It’s really compelling stuff, and while the surface level story of Drake’s adventure sometimes falters and plays it safe, this aspect of the story almost has me forgiving its past transgressions. Almost.
Well, I’d say that’s about it for the story portion of this thang. Onto Gameplay.
He was hell-bent on keeping his treasure, no matter the cost to the others around him.
I found it quite hard to talk about the Uncharted series gameplay in past entries of this because it was so bog-standard and uninteresting that little was worth mentioning in each subsequent write-up. However, there are some actual changes to combat, puzzles, and even platforming to talk about this time that have made Uncharted a far more interesting game to play, rather than just slog-through.
First off, the guns feel incredible. The sound design on each weapon is greatly improved from previous entries where most guns felt the same and sounded all too familiar. These guns kick ass. While I still think they could have had more weight behind them, the sound effects are incredibly realistic, and unique to each gun. The recoil is unique to each gun. Weapons have way more character than they used to, and who doesn’t want that?
Second, most gunfights are set in an arena that you can manipulate to your advantage. In past games, combat was strictly linear, but now there are scads of approaches when entering a fight. You can pick off some unlucky guards with stealth, retreat to a vantage point and pick off enemies. You can go in guns blazing, while utilizing the grapple-hook to both escape your foes and ambush others. You can find cover easily, and plan your next move with precision (well, unless there’s a grenade at your feet.) It’s not revolutionary by any means, but it’s a breath of fresh air in a series that’s only known the thrills of generic cover-based shooting. Now, every encounter feels fresh, and your route to victory will vary greatly depending on how you play your cards.
So, the combat has been improved. What else? Well, I’d like to brandish that very same praise for the puzzles, but for the most part, these are unchanged from past games. Except that now, the solution will be spelled out for you most of the time. There’s a puzzle early on in Scotland that’s the perfect example of this. It feels like baby’s-first-puzzle, and even though it’s an absolute no-brainer, there’s fucking dialogue that keeps guiding you towards the correct solution. I’m trying not to spoil too much, but this is just fucking infuriating. People who are playing Uncharted 4 are likely long-time fans of the series, or assholes on the internet trying to give an honest evaluation of the game (like me!) They don’t need to be spoon-fed the solutions like it’s the first puzzle in a point-and-click adventure.
Okay, I’m being a little bit harsh. The puzzles improve towards the second half of the game by adding more variables and more visual stimulation to them. One puzzle involving portraits of some very infamous pirates comes to mind as being particularly good. There are little clues that provide an inkling of direction, but putting the pieces together is still in the players hands, not the game designers, and that feels pretty good. Puzzles in adventure games are supposed to make players feel smart more than anything, even if a puzzle is relatively tame compared to an actual puzzle game. God I’m saying Puzzle too much. Puzzle, Puzzle, Puzzle.
Enough about puzzles. Let’s talk about platforming. Now platforming has always been one of the most boring parts of this series for me. I could be seven drinks in and have no trouble navigating Nate towards his destination. Sure, maybe that’s been the point all this time, but if it was meant to serve as a break for the player – a time to reflect on events and gaze upon gorgeous vistas – why the hell do they take up so much of the game? It seems like for every intense firefight and plot beat, there’s a moment where Nate has to climb up a damn boulder. These sections start out innocent enough, but can really grate on the nerves after 6 hours of dedicated playing. In past games, these moments were numerous, but still bearable. In Uncharted 4, there seem to be more than ever before. It seems like a conscious decision by the developer to balance combat with climbing, but it ends up feeling gimped. I want to return to the new-and-improved gunfights, not climb a Rope #88.
For all my bitching about the platforming, it has been improved somewhat. Often enough there exists more than just the true path up a wall, and sometimes you’ll guess wrong. You need to scurry down and around to find the way up. Handholds are better disguised than ever before. There was a lot of effort dedicated to disguising handholds, making them look as realistic as possible to the player, while still remaining identifiable enough to your average player. Nate almost never does something the player didn’t intend, and that responsiveness goes a long way.
There’s also the new mechanic – sliding – brought to you in part by Modern Warfare 2. However, unlike that game, I think sliding works pretty well in the Uncharted series. Slides need to be measured out in order to reach handholds. They sometimes require decent timing to land a grapple hook on a nearby post, allowing an escape from certain death. There are even times late in the game where sliding and grappling need to be strung together multiple times to progress. It’s just a shame that this comes so far into the adventure. These are skills most players will have mastered in the first couple of hours, and could have been implemented at the halfway point for a more engaging experience, and possible a more rigorous platforming challenge towards the finale. But once again, Naughty Dog refuses to trust players with anything too challenging in fear of alienating someone. I really wish they would allow high level gameplay beyond ramping up the difficulty level.
Let’s talk set pieces. I usually save this part for last because anyone reading this far has most likely played the damn game, and I don’t want to spoil too much. Which means I will now be spoiling all the set-pieces (or most of them) in Uncharted 4. You’ve been warned.
The Prison is a set piece early on in U4 where Nate and Sam must escape a South American prison while the guards are at high alert. You have to run for dear life, jumping from roof to roof, weaving in and out of bullets all while taking momentary breaks for some fluid hand-to-hand combat. It’s an unexpected moment, pivotal to the story, and ends on a dramatic note. It isn’t that flashy, but it’s a memorable enough section that
The Boat is the introductory set piece that gives us a destination to work towards. It’s sort of interesting, but not nearly as dramatic or visually stunning as the introduction to Uncharted 2 and Uncharted 3. What’s more, it’s the combat tutorial. Not very exciting, save for the ending. Next.
The Convoy is this game’s, well, convoy sequence. Each game has built on top this template, and in Uncharted 4 it’s taken to the next level. Nate starts by chasing some vehicles, ends up swinging for his dear life on a rope, and dragged through the mud in order to hijack an enemy truck. There’s this excellent sense of forward momentum throughout, and the changing environment invokes a sense of real progression and wonder. You shoot some bikes, you shoot some trucks, and the whole thing ends with Nate and Sam on a motorcycle, barely escaping a huge enemy Truck by shooting the ever living fuck out of it with an SMG. It’s quintessential Uncharted, it’s why we play these games to begin with. It’s fun-fun, fun-fun-fun. Best set-piece in the entire series, period.
The Island is your classic building-collapse sequence. You must escape while the bad guys shred the structure with a furious hail of lead. It’s okay, there isn’t a lot to look at, and it’s not tied to a big plot moment or anything either. Fun in the moment, but tough to recall once it’s over.
The APC is an escape situation, where Nate needs to run away from an APC that keeps hounding him, and firing rounds with a stormtroopers accuracy. It’s quick and simple, over in a minute, and has a fun little moment with Sully. Not offensive, not amazing, just okay.
The Tower is exactly what it sounds like. There’s a tower collapsing around Nate, and he’s got to make it to the bottom before he gets pancaked by a gigantic bell. It’s visually stunning and immersive, sure to engage nearly any player with how cool it looks, and how smooth it controls. Definitely one of the good ones.
That’s all the major set-pieces. There are a few I didn’t mention because they were either too short, or more of story moments than gameplay. So, with Story, Combat, Puzzles, Platforming, and Set-pieces out of the way, is there anything left to talk about? Yes. Yes there is.
I have a few notes that I figured I’d save for the end to let the rest of this sprawling blog breathe. They aren’t anything major, but they’re little things I thought deserved a little praise or criticism that I wouldn’t feel right ignoring.
First of all, this game is absolutely gorgeous. Naughty Dog squeezed so much detail out of the PS4 that this game looks like something I’d be playing on PC…besides the obvious 30fps cap. This can be seen in all aspects of animation: the faces, objects, textures, environments, shading, lighting effects. Everything looks incredible, and there are moments where I just put down the controller and gazed at a mountain, or peered across the horizon.
However, this leads to this…annoying, completely unnecessary problem that really irked me. There are numerous chunks of dialogue in the game, where Naughty Dog openly pats itself on the back for making the graphics looks so good. Go up an elevator, and Nate will probably say “wow, what an awesome view” even in he’s saying it to Elena in the middle of the biggest argument they’ve ever had as a couple. Climb up a ledge, and Sam will comment on how damn pretty everything is. I wouldn’t be mentioning this if it only happened a few times, but it happens so fucking often. Christ Naughty Dog, way to fellate yourself. I know this game is fucking pretty, alright? I don’t need Nathan, Sully, Sam, and Elena reminding me every half hour. You’re making me feel like a fucking tourist in my own backyard.
Besides that, I really liked the journal in this game too. In the past, the journal was mostly related to solving puzzles and looking over clues, and while it still serves that purpose, Uncharted 4’s version adds a lot more character. The journal is regularly updated with little thoughts, doodles, detailed sketches of ruins, etc., that do a great job giving Nathan some more personality. It’s a small touch, but a very welcome addition to the game.
My last note is that there are two levels that I really, really loved: Madagascar and The Island. Everyone’s knows that the Madagascar level is both beautiful, and a good opportunity to stretch your legs, so I won’t say anymore on it. However, I will talk about when Nate and Sam wash up on the island. It’s a sequence of nearly 15 minutes of quiet time…more than this series has ever allotted, where Nate needs to regain his strength, get his bearings, locate Sam, and reflect on his actions. The visual dressing is a mirror to Nathans mind, and the time spent navigating and climbing through some gorgeous locations is a stretch I sincerely enjoyed.
Okay…. let’s wrap this up!
There’s your treasure. Was it worth it?
All things considered, Uncharted 4 is a good game. Not great; that right is reserved for games that try to go above and beyond what is expected of them, games that exceed expectations. But good, certainly good. Uncharted 4 is a good game that’s executed very well, dressed in smooth albeit familiar gameplay, and transformed by its outstanding visual presentation. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, Uncharted is a series of games that are made by their presentation. Granted, Uncharted 4 does quite a bit better than previous entries, certainly in terms of the plot, themes, tone, and little touches, but the package that it’s wrapped in transforms an otherwise okay game into a thrilling experience from start to finish. I know that years from now, I’ll want to relive that excitement, and play each of these games again (except Drake’s Fortune.)
But, the next time I replay these games will probably be my last. I like these games, I really do, and writing these gargantuan analysis’ has been a great experience. Yet there isn’t any mastery I’ll gain for the combat, and there likely isn’t any deeper meaning to these stories that I haven’t already surmised. I was hoping that Uncharted 4 would change that, and evolve into a truly great game. That was a stupid belief on my part. I know these games aren’t trying to be that. Still, looking at games like The Last Of Us makes me want that deeper experience. TLOU isn’t deeper in its combat, but it’s story has several layers to dig into, little nuances that make the experience deeper. And, unlike the Uncharted series, TLOU executes its story in action, tone and structure perfectly.
Okay, If I start talking too much I’ll keep rambling. Here seems like a good place to stop.
Here are my ratings for the entire Uncharted Series:
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune – 4/10. A decent adventure game with good characters bogged down by repetitive gameplay, lackluster moments, and poor controls.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves – 7/10. A very good world-hopping story that has an intimidating villain, blockbuster thrills from one moment to the next, some of the best character writing in the series, and a grand sense of scale.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception – 6/10. With a poorly thought out story, and moments visibly derivative from the second game, this adventure falls in the middle of the pack. Still a fun time, but not nearly as good as the sequel.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End: - 8/10. A well-executed story despite failing to deliver any realistic consequences. The evolution of the gameplay makes this the most replayable game in the series, and the excellent smaller scale set-pieces set this entry apart from the rest of the series.
Well, there we are! Thank you so much for going with me on this journey, I’ve deeply enjoyed writing about these games, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about them as well.
See you next time!
- Drew Stuart (LoB)