The Overblown Action of Uncharted 4

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Occasionally you see something at E3 that’s genuinely impressive. One of those moments came in 2009, with Sony’s demo of Uncharted 2. With a building crumbling around him, and confronted with a helicopter and a scrum of mercenaries devoted more to killing him than preserving themselves, Nathan Drake ducked and weaved and effectively surfed debris to safety in a moment that stood out as one of the highlights of the show. We didn’t get to play it (or at least local newspaper game reviewers like me, attending E3 as a professional for the first time, didn’t get to play it), but the Uncharted 2 demo that Sony exhibited was unforgettable. It promised destruction of a kind gaming technology had previously not been able to achieve, with characters that players would actually care about. It was catastrophic and seductive.

Six E3s later and the upcoming Uncharted 4 almost feels like an afterthought. Perhaps enthralled more (or alternately dismayed) by the somber zombie dirge The Last of Us, Naughty Dog’s follow-up to 2011’s Uncharted 3, or cautioned by the departure of Amy Hennig, the main creative force behind the first three Uncharted games, the people I know who care about games (either personally or professionally) can’t seem to care about Uncharted 4 in the way they cared about Uncharted 2. Maybe it’s sequel fatigue. Even with the creators of The Last of Us taking over for Hennig, the enthusiasm is muted, and the Uncharted 4 demo at E3 didn’t turn up the volume as much as Sony probably hoped.

The Uncharted games have always amplified the inherent absurdity of action movies, but the portion of Uncharted 4 exhibited at E3 took that to new extremes. After a brief, peaceful stroll through an exotic street market, Drake and his partner Sully fall into a shootout with a stream of unfriendly commandos. An armored assault vehicle quickly shows up, bursting through walls like the Kool Aid Man and constantly forcing Drake to find a new path through the town. Eventually Drake and Sully commandeer a jeep, and after a downhill chase through winding backyards Drake winds up grappling onto a moving crane and riding a convoy out of town. Near misses with boats and bridge pylons add drama between the shootouts, and Drake gets dragged behind the crane like a rustler tied to a horse. This entire time Drake is picking off enemies left and right with his pistol. After more constant gunplay we see that Drake is trying to rescue his brother Sam, who’s being chased by this mercenary convoy. The two finish the excerpt on a motorcycle, blowing up the ersatz tank before retiring to their safehouse, where Drake’s wife Elena waits disapprovingly.

Uncharted has always been ridiculous, combining the swashbuckling of Indiana Jones and the inhuman tolerance for pain of John McClane with the combined body count of every war movie ever made. Its strengths included the charm of the characters and dialogue that was, at times, legitimately funny, and neither of those are evident in the clip of Uncharted 4 shown at E3. The wisecracks shared here by Drake and Sully are on the level of that cousin you see at Thanksgiving who thinks he’s Chandler Bing. (If Matthew Perry is your cousin, I am sorry for you.) And although it’s long been common to harp on the disconnect between the charming Nathan Drake and the hundreds of men he’s required to kill by the conventions of the shooter, that divide has never felt greater than in this clip. We know even less than usual about these men he’s killing, and the ways in which he’s killing them are more unbelievable than games, an already unbelievable medium, usually get. That human element of the first two games is trampled by the noise and commotion of this clip.

Granted this is a sizzle reel, a short slice of the game yanked out specifically to spike our adrenaline and make us want to play this game as soon as humanly possible. Compare it, again, to that Uncharted 2 demo, though, and how Naughty Dog and Sony chose to represent that game. Like Uncharted 4, Drake is running from a seemingly unbeatable foe, a helicopter that’s pursuing him throughout a village. He does have to shoot a few enemies, but mostly it’s about exploring this town he’s in before trying to escape from that helicopter. That demo highlighted the world of the game and the technology driving it more than Drake’s specific actions, which amounted to a promise of the kind of adventure that awaited us.

Uncharted 4 focuses almost exclusively on action and gunplay. It promises what most videogames promise: an unbeatable superhero leaving a few cemeteries worth of bodies in his wake. The crumbling building setpiece of Uncharted 2 worked so well because it both fit the larger narrative of the game and created a genuinely tense situation that felt new. The Uncharted 4 demo features tension-free destruction that even Hollywood would deem excessive.

Of course it’s hard to separate the reaction to the first two Uncharted games from the technical advances that they benefitted from. Arriving early in the HD era, their semi-photorealistic graphics and heavy use of motion capture and voice-acting made them feel more like a movie than almost any game before. Successfully approximating an action movie that film critics would dismiss as unambitious was considered ambitious for a game at the time, but less so today. Moving from the PlayStation 3 to the PlayStation 4 isn’t the sizable technological jump we saw with the last generation—or at least progressing from SD to HD is more significant than anything the PlayStation 4 has introduced—so perhaps Uncharted 4 is destined to underwhelm simply for that reason. What I saw at E3, though, makes me worry that it’ll underwhelm for a variety of reasons.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End will be released for the PlayStation 4 in 2016.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He is enthusiastic about so many things. Find out what on Twitter.

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