When the ancient dust settles on Naughty Dog’s latest, we’re a bit worse off. We’re worse off for having it kicked up by baddies with private military vehicles mounted with giant guns loaded with seemingly endless rounds of bullets. We’re worse off for seeing these military units somehow capable of bypassing all of the challenges, traversal and puzzle-solving we’ve just endured, yet with nothing to show for it. We’re worse off for having them stand as a more animated, yet less tangible impediment in a series predominantly about treasure hunting. And we’re worse off for having all of the above overshadow what this series has always been about. And all for what?
So, yep, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is a gorgeous and incredibly playable game. It is so because of the two main characters that carry its story in Chloe and Nadine -- one an Uncharted series veteran, and one A Thief’s End alumni still very pissed at the Drake brothers. And these factors are important and explorable -- much like the game’s space. It’s a wonderfully progressive piece of design from Naughty Dog. A more sandbox exercise to the exploration formula (even if it is still relatively directed), but one that rewards players with that sense of wonder. But where it fails, and where I’ll be separated by most of the Uncharted faithful is in its combat. Well, more specifically in its “call to action” -- a design term that represents a turning point for players; a moment where the game sucks them into a never-ending “gameplay loop” until they make the end credits. And in The Lost Legacy’s case, it’s in being forced to shoot your way through to the next eureka exploration moment, over and over again.
Let’s be clear. Shooting and action have always been at the fore of the series. Nathan is a cold-hearted killer, with a heart of gold. He’s an Indiana Jones-type (minus the more acceptable killing of Nazis, replaced instead with private contractors who are harder to judge morally), and much like the woman who came before him -- Lara Croft, neither of them tend to blink too much of an eye at pulling a trigger, throwing a grenade, or hamming it up at the death -- and expense of -- their respective baddies. (Well, Crystal Dynamics did attempt to humanise Lara’s first kill in her reboot, but it was largely forgotten further down the tomb raiding trail.)
While morally in a modern treasure-hunting context it gets harder and harder to accept these situations, amidst our current climate, it is part of the design DNA of these and many other games. It’s just that Naughty Dog had an opportunity here to really make a change for what I believe is the better. I got zero satisfaction killing bad guys because I do it in so many games and, bluntly, the way you do it in The Lost Legacy isn’t new or innovative. In fact, it’s arguably behind the times, but I’m not here arguing the game’s action, because I think the game’s action is superfluous to what the game is about. And moreover, you can still have action without killing -- chase sequences; avoiding detection; playing with dialogue and decision-making, nous; puzzle-solving… the list goes on.
The unfortunate truth is it’s an easier gameplay option having people shoot their way out of situations, than think their way out. And that’s a problem. It’s a problem among designers, and a problem among punters.
But I’m getting too philosophical here.
Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is
a fun and oft engaging experience if only because for a chunk of the game, it’s two disparate characters from unique walks of life in an equally unique setting. How this setting is designed is fantastic, and I mentioned earlier it represents growth in this department for Naughty Dog. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, an open-world Naughty Dog-developed game with dynamism and choice and consequence, not
heavily directed by the developer could be a thing of beauty.
The game’s puzzles and exploration are excellent and, forgetting neither of them is ever properly anchored to various points during their ‘free climbing’ -- vertigo quips and all -- that portion of the game is also fun. The suspension of treasure-hunting disbelief is at its highest when they don’t have their weapons drawn. Their conversations between one another are perfectly executed and deliver a sense of story exposition few games are capable of. That they continue conversations after being interrupted -- for whatever reason -- is also a boon for the series. And even the driving side of the game, which is more or less a means to cover large ground more quickly, is decently handled.
The true majesty here is in game-world geometry. Things off in the distance that look large and set-piecey
are likely wholly explorable; full of interesting visual stories and dangerous puzzles. And treasure. Sweet, sweet treasure.
For what it’s worth, shooting at a puzzle isn’t usually going to solve it. Just saying.
But further to the game-world, that’s the beauty of half the game here. It’s size and scale, fully realised in (eventual) explorable space is incredible. It’s held up by two excellent characters -- neither of which is American, and who aren’t of the same ilk but work together to get the most out of their adventure. And it’s bloody, bloody gorgeous. But it falls flat because your trigger-finger is forced, when it needn’t have been. An opportunity lost by a premier developer capable of bringing about some change in the way we go about it.
Yes, it’s action-fantasy. But the setting is modern and from what I know outside of Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider is that modern treasure-hunters aren’t skilled killers. The meat of the game is in its core, but that core is overshadowed by an age-old digital arcade fallback in whipping out a gun and shooting it off. We’re not shooting Nazis here, or people trying to create nuclear war or bring about the end of times. There's no alien invasion and we aren't super-soldiers, spies or even superheroes, in fact the game and its developers go above and beyond to make these characters as human as possible. And at the end of the day we’re all just searching for ancient, mythological treasure in a world bereft of answers for the modern condition. But then, who knows, maybe that’s Naughty Dog’s trump card. Maybe this is larger conversation they’re trying to have.
Or maybe they just can’t shake the over-the-top action part of their design DNA.
For what it’s worth, I loved playing the game. I felt let down and disappointed with my major gripe riddled throughout this review, but every other facet of the game is a triumph. And so at the end of the day it boils down to where you stand on design progression, and on modern day humanised characters with sticky trigger fingers. While I’m in the former camp, I also realise I’m likely outnumbered by those in the latter.