Uncharted 4 Explores the Possibilities and Constraints of Big Budget Game Design

Games Reviews uncharted
Uncharted 4 Explores the Possibilities and Constraints of Big Budget Game Design

It’s usually a sign of trouble when a long-running series introduces a new family member. The writers are admitting that they’ve run out of ideas for the characters they already have. So when Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End begins with a young Nathan Drake getting busted out of an orphanage by his previously unseen and unmentioned older brother, you might get a little nervous. We already have a perfectly acceptable ersatz family unit with Drake, Elena and Sully: is there room for a fourth, especially one who looks like a gas station Luke Perry?

There is. Uncharted has always been good at establishing relationships that are believable and resonant, and Sam Drake comfortably fits into this group. Sam shares the same easy rapport and breezy banter with his brother that Nathan has with just about everybody in these games, and recurring flashbacks fill in their history enough for you to actually start to care about their relationship. If you’re tired of Uncharted’s predictable story beats—Drake and friends following various ancient clues across the globe in search of a long-lost hidden city—you might still find yourself taken with the tale of these two brothers.

Uncharted 4’s best quieter moments are as memorable as any of its action set-pieces, which can be as elaborate and disorienting as anything in the superlative Uncharted 2. True, the quieter moments stand out because there are less of them—the parts where you jump, climb and shoot drag on far too long, as usual—but also because they’re done as well as games like this have ever done them. From Sam and Nathan reestablishing trust after 15 years apart, to Nathan and Elena’s increasing boredom with domestic life, Uncharted 4 spends enough time fleshing out the human stakes to make you care about the shoot-outs and explosions—to a point.

The game’s biggest problem is a familiar one: the game and story often work in opposition to each other. As a massively budgeted action blockbuster designed to serve as an enduring pillar of Sony’s console plans, there are certain expectations of how it should play and how much time it should take to play it. The inclusion of a fine and highly revisitable multiplayer suite will not, in the minds of most players, make up for an adventure that ends too soon. And so a story that contains maybe an hour of plot is stretched out to a dozen or more.

This makes the pacing crumble like one of the ancient ruins Drake is always dangling off of. The Drake brothers are in search of a legendary lost pirate treasure (sometimes it feels like the game’s biggest influence is that first part of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride with all of the pirate skeletons laying around everywhere), and following the clues and going from one far-flung location to the next is perhaps Uncharted’s best evocation of the Indiana Jones movies yet. The plot stalls out once you reach a specific destination, though. The final act feels much longer than the first two combined, with characters and motivations firmly fixed and the momentum falling off one of the game’s ever-present cliffs. You can only push so many (oddly well-preserved) crates and wagons against dilapidated walls before you realize the game is spinning its (also oddly well-preserved) wheels, regurgitating simple tasks not because they’re enjoyable or exciting but because you’re playing a game and it’s time for you to do that thing you sometimes have to do in games again.

This extends to the shooting. It’s a cliché to complain about the scope of bloodshed caused by the otherwise sitcom-amiable Drake, but you will do so much shooting by the end of this game. What works exceptionally well as an occasional burst of action to break up the exploration becomes a steady, sluggish death march the closer you reach the game’s end. Uncharted 4, like the earlier games, is so good at creating a sense of wonder and discovery through its exploration and its pulpy approach to history that the regular increase in gunfire feels like another concession to what’s expected from a best-seller. It’s more glaring this time, even if there’s less actual time spent in shoot-outs than in the previous Uncharted games, because Uncharted 4 does stealth a lot better than those earlier ones. When you’re stuck in your third consecutive gunfight with armored heavy machine gunners late in the game, you’ll yearn for earlier chapters where the Drakes snuck through sprawling landscapes teeming with bad guys without ever firing a round.

These criticisms sting in the moment, but fade with time. After you’ve finished the game you’re more likely to remember the quietly powerful early moments that resemble what tiresome churls would probably deride as a “walking simulator,” where you explore Nathan and Elena’s nondescript home, enjoy a meal together and play an old favorite from 20 years ago. (It’s not quite the To Kill a Mockingbird scene from The Darkness, but it’ll do.) You’ll think of Sam’s tragic story, the revelations of Nathan’s youth, and the interweaved pattern of betrayals that propels the story. You’ll remember the formidable new rival Nadine Ross, the satisfaction of moving through these complex environments, and the exhilaration of surviving some of the most thrilling moments in action games since the last Uncharted. With distance the places you visit and people you meet will stand out more than what you destroy and kill.

Still, Uncharted 4 aims to be a blockbuster action film in game form. It pulls it off, and not in spite of its repetition but because of it. Action movies can be repetitive, but games are repetitive by design. That’s why this maybe isn’t the best medium to tell a story as interested in its characters. Even that interest has its limits, though—Nathan Drake is often a sad man with a gun in his hand, but these games never deal with the emotional trauma that gun must cause. When Nathan is sad it’s because he’s disappointed his wife or disrespected his mentor or abandoned his brother, problems we can all relate to and not the ones you might expect from somebody whose job involves massacring others. And he’s rarely upset for long—there are always more rickety beams to swing from, mudslides to coast down, and heavily armed mercenary platoons to cut through. Uncharted 4 cares about its characters, but not as much as it cares about its thrills, and it doesn’t quite unite these two goals as seamlessly as Uncharted 2 did. The game tips its hand when, early on, Sam asks Nathan about the best thing to happen to him in the 15 years they were apart, and the options on display focus on Drake’s adventures and don’t even let you mention falling in love with and marrying Elena. As good as Uncharted 4 is at being the type of game it aspires to be, it also seems to argue, unwittingly or not, that no matter the budget and number of designers and amount of development time you devote to them, this type of game can’t be much more than the sum of its thrills.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End was developed by Naughty Dog and published by Sony. It is available for the Playstation 4.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. He last rode Pirates of the Caribbean literally a week ago but Uncharted 4 really makes him want to ride it again as soon as possible. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.

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