A Thief’s End – My Thoughts on Uncharted 4

Mild Spoilers.

Naughty Dog is easily one of my favorite developers, because they aren’t afraid to be traditional.  In an era when cut-scenes are considered old fashioned, their games are stuffed with them.  It’s not that the action comes to a grinding halt, there’s some story, and then there’s another movie.  The story continues with the action, but the storytellers behind the games utilize both narrative devices, interactivity and passive play, to create an engrossing, engaging, emotionally-involving experience for the players.

What I wouldn’t give to have Naughty Dog (or Tell Tale Games, who is also very story driven) take on Fallout, my favorite gaming franchise.

This TV spot for Uncharted 4 perfectly captures what these games are all about.

“Nathan Drake, that two-bit thief, risking it all for some piece of treasure.  I guess that’s how they know me.  How they’ll remember me.  But that’s not who I am.”

As he says this, the camera has us believe that Nathan is throwing himself toward a cave-in – toward almost certain death – for a gold coin that is spinning into the chasm, but in the end, he is reaching and putting himself on the line to save his brother, Sam.

Uncharted is a human story.  It’s about relationships.  And those elements are elevated by the perilous stakes.  By the beautiful surroundings.  By the thrill of discovery, the chase, and competition.  The adventure that you go on would be hollow if you were on it alone.

Through three previous games, Nathan’s relationships with his mentor and partner, Sully, and his now wife, Elaina, have come to feel real and vibrant.  The particularly great third part of the series solidified emotional context between these three and in the process continued to elevate the art of video games.  I went into this game with a grand fondness for these characters, and that is very important, I think.

One of the surprises with this final installment of the franchise is that, while the game does benefit from the nostalgia of these mentioned relationships, it doesn’t center on them.  This time around, we are asked to focus on Sam Drake, and until now, we didn’t even know Nate had a brother.  Realizing the risk they were taking, the writers remark on the surprise about halfway through the game through Elaina, but at least for me, I felt like this was a welcome addition to the lore.

It worked, and I felt a kinship with Sam.

Part of that, as I mentioned, is in the execution of the game play.  With every puzzle that requires interaction with Sam, with every door that needed two people to open and every wall you couldn’t climb alone, and with the witty banter between the characters, I felt that closeness growing.  Yes, between the characters, but since video games are more than simple voyeurism, since you CONTROL the actions of the protagonist and literally SEE THE WORLD through their point of view, you feel this bond growing as well.  By the end, you really do develop a connection to these characters.

My only real qualm with the game is that it didn’t quite feel as fresh as the previous installments.  The environments are HUGE, detailed, and masterfully designed, but I’ve explored jungles and snowy plains with Nathan before.  The last half of the game, which takes you into Libertalia, a lost city of pirates, felt new and different, and the ocean was definitely something special.  Honestly, I don’t know what they could do to avoid the mild sense of deja vu, and maybe it’s not all bad.  I mean, this is a game about the past and about our history with these people.

To place a value on the quality of this game is difficult, but as this is a review, that is my task.  I can say this.  I really enjoyed this game.  I don’t quite know if it is my favorite in the series (that’s probably 3).  I also couldn’t say it’s Naughty Dog’s best game (that’s The Last of Us).  However, it is a satisfying conclusion to a series that totally absorbed me.  There were moments of sheer bliss while playing, which is a rarity for me, and I was sad when it was over.

I’ll miss Nathan Drake.

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