I remember when Star Wars: Attack of the Clones released. One of my friends – a bigger Star Wars nerd than me even – hailed it as a breaking point in cinema. He thought it was the absolute pinnacle of storytelling, and saw the movie a handful of times in its first month of release. I disagreed, but he wouldn’t have any of it. That moment when Obi-Wan hugs Dexter Jettster, he argued, bridged the gap between live action and CG. He told me he cried and cheered all at once.
Of course, he was wrong.
He freely admitted as much months later too. When the rose-tinted glasses were removed he saw the movie for what it was – a slightly better experience than The Phantom Menace, broken in more ways than one, and utterly self-indulgent on George Lucas’ part. Time, when obsession is involved, is your friend, and in the case of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, it’s why I’ve waited until now to publish my review, in hopes those rose-tinted glasses have been removed and the game can be championed for what it actually is, and what it certainly isn’t (read: the second coming of Christ, for one).
A Thief’s End
The Never Ending Escape is, in all honesty, an initial grind. It’s gorgeous to behold, and boldly chooses narrative over call-to-action in the early stages – a factor that never really lets up for a while. You spend most of the first act escaping: from an orphanage, from jail, from your job, from your wife and the seemingly mundane life you’ve both created for yourselves. And the gameplay loop surrounding this is climb, hide, shoot, escape with – barely – minor shifts in approach. And the big new addition of a grappling hook is a missed opportunity that stands as a metaphor for how the whole game treats you, in that you can only ever use it when it’s required, as dictated by Naughty Dog. This might actually be the most on-rails experience in the series thus far.
The Uncharted mafia is going to lynch me for the above, but it’s true. Fortunately, what does save the product is its gorgeous visuals and stellar performances from the likes of Nolan North and Troy Baker, as well as the rest of the cast. If heavy-handed story is your videogaming bag, then this is right up there. It’s not an evolutionary tale told in the best of interactive forms, but it takes calculated risks and assumes anyone playing this has been chartered
with Uncharted from the beginning. It cleverly masks the on-rails experience with large, seemingly open vistas and playspaces, but you rarely take a course the developer doesn’t want you to take. If this were an open-world game, with this level of visual fidelity, it would be hailed as a masterpiece. But it’s not. It’s an almost passive adventure story where Naughty Dog become a little more than self-indulgent, just like old George.
Now, this is not to be construed as an entirely bad thing. The Uncharted games have always been like this. And like the previous games, the largest weakness in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is the action and gunplay. Enemies sponge bullets, barely reacting while Nate is usually dead within two or three hits, max. Your evade button (read: rolling out of the way) is also the same button for going into sticky cover, which obviously creates some pretty hair-tearing issues while you’re in the thick of it. The aforementioned grappling hook is a means for escape, or creating space while in combat, but once you’re spotted the enemy unfairly has vantage on you – often from no matter where they are. You can break line-of-sight, but it takes a lot of movement in order to do so, and as you’re usually being bombarded with a hail of bullets, you tend to find yourself looking at the greyed-out death screen rather than taking a breather and working out your next course of action.
Stealth is also new to the series, where Naughty Dog has lifted the high grass and plants concept from Assassin’s Creed where Nathan and co can hide and strike out at unsuspecting goons. Provided no one else sees you breaking the neck of your South African mercenary enemies, you’re okay. In fact, it becomes humourous – they’ll talk to one another about the area being clear, then you’ll kill one of them while the other remains oblivious. He never asks where his buddy he was speaking to minutes ago has gone, and even if you create an interest for him to check out he won’t enter the tall grass or plants you’re hiding in. It’s the safest place in the game. Level by level. And it’s how I combated most of the issues mentioned earlier – I essentially spent roughly 90% of the game just waiting and striking from stealth positions. In fact, I managed the entire section Naughty Dog released initially as part of their beta – on the game’s final island – entirely from tall grass, never seen, and didn’t even get a Trophy.
Further to the above, the overall AI is actually really bad, and it’s a huge sore point for the game. And contextually there are sections you and your brother work through, that your rivals haven’t worked out, but somehow have soldiers placed there already anyway. It’s never really explained, but having soldiers standing in a lost city waiting for you feels off
. It also gets harder to digest that both Nate and his brother – who has spent most of his life in jail – alongside Elena and Sully are more combat savvy than paid mercenaries with huge arsenals. By the end of the game, you’ve killed more than a hundred people, but the jokes and good humour never let up and your life goes on. The balance between being an adventurer and cold hard killer and thief isn’t even blurred, it’s largely scoffed at by the developer which makes any form of discovery you have somewhat empty in the grand scheme of things. At the game’s close, there’s an Epilogue I won’t spoil, but it puts all of that death and destruction of the series into player-perspective without the game ever really acknowledging just how bad it really is. Yeah, it’s a videogame, but the lengths Naughty Dog go to early on to make this a poignant life-story makes that point even more valid, because they barely make a videogame here.
Which leaves us with story. It’s a good story, and the archaeology/history side of it is right up there with Indiana Jones. There’s even an Indy joke thrown in for good measure while you’re in Scotland (“bad dates”), but there’s maybe too much story (and no supernatural weird shit, either). The trend throughout this review is that the game is repetitive, and you’re developer-lead throughout the adventure. In many ways, this is the same as a Call of Duty experience with far better visuals (I can feel the hate coming towards me as I write this, but it’s true). In short, there’s very little player-agency because you’re doing what the developer wants you to do. The new Tomb Raider games at least give you large, explorable hubs that branch to different chapters and narrative sections, but survival and discovery are on the part of the player – here, it’s all on Naughty Dog.
I’ve used this analogy while discussing my experience with the game with my peers, but what you’re getting here is Fry sitting in his chair at the movies, watching Calculon do his paperwork
before he’s told a fight scene has broken out at the special effects warehouse (or a lasergun battle). Fry’s chair asks him if he wants Calculon to finish his "tedious paperwork", or go to the fight scene in his hover Ferrari. He chooses the fight scene, but the chair lies to him, and makes him watch the tedious paperwork. Ironically, the next shot of Fry watching this is him smiling and enjoying it.
If I can sum up my experience and thoughts on the game at all, it’s with the above metaphor. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is an enjoyable romp, but it’s essentially an interactive movie with very little player-choice over what any of that interaction is. It’s almost like Naughty Dog are throwing in their credentials to just become the next Pixar. It’s an astonishingly gorgeous game, but it doesn’t really let you game
enough for it to be anything other than a tightly-controlled story experience. Oh, but it does have multiplayer, which is arguably the meatiest gameplay component of the game, and should extend the life of the product beyond the single-player campaign. But really, is multiplayer what you come to Uncharted games for?