Why Uncharted 4 is a Disappointment After Playing The Last of Us
(Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Uncharted 4)
Uncharted 4 is purpose built for demo booths. If you sit a friend down, hand them a controller and get them to play the exhilarating chase sequence through King’s Bay, they’ll probably wind up ordering a PS4 and fifteen copies of the game. But after playing through each of its 22 chapters, I was a little disappointed by Naughty Dog’s first new release since The Last of Us.
In its earlier chapters, Uncharted 4 hints towards a story that will explore the psychology of Nathan Drake, a character who thus far has been little more than a walking quip-machine with a penchant for murdering people over the acquisition of shiny things. It depicts him struggling internally with the humdrum of everyday life, purposely avoiding adventure because he knows that dipping one toe back into that water will inevitably draw him back in, something which could prove to be detrimental to his new marriage with Elena Fisher.
Thankfully, Naughty Dog doesn’t go down the tired path of pitching Elena as a joy-killing spouse out to ruin his fun, but rather sees her encouraging Nathan to embark upon an illegal yet relatively harmless salvaging job in Malaysia. Nate refuses, but when his long-lost brother Sam returns and requests that the duo seek out the hidden treasure of pirate Henry Avery, a job which he states was forcibly given to him by a drug lord who busted him out of jail and is now threatening his life, Nathan dons his gun holster once again and returns to his days of rock-climbing and shooting guys in the face.
However, the game’s opening chapters show how this time, things are a little different. Nathan tells his wife that he’s spontaneously opted to go to Malaysia, a lie told out of fear that informing her of the truth could ruin his marriage. But regardless of the cloud of guilt hanging over his head, Nathan is ultimately depicted as having the time of his life chasing the treasure, reliving the thrill of his younger years alongside a brother he had previously believed to have been dead. It’s a mid-life crisis, then, but instead of buying a ostentatious new car, Nathan is swinging across waterfalls and killing hired mercenaries. It’s Uncharted as you know it, but with the added caveat that the game highlights why this is a bad idea: how Nate has grown up, but how part of him resents that and is rebelling against the comfortable, if routine life he’s carved out for himself in the “real world.”
A game of two halves
As Nathan and Sam descend further down the rabbit hole, hunted by antagonists Rafe Adler and Nadine Ross (who is an infinitely more enjoyable character, but who doesn’t get nearly enough screen time), their fun jaunt across the world starts to take a darker turn, and when Elena figures out what’s going on and confronts Nathan in Malaysia, it feels like all the pieces are in place for an explosive finale to the series.
Considering The Last of Us had no issue with providing players with an unhappy ending if it made sense within the context of the events that had taken place before it, Nathan’s seemingly irredeemable treatment of his wife who, lest we forget, was more than willing to let our hero continue being an intrepid explorer before he decided to secretly run off with his brother (whom she didn’t know existed until this point) for a month on a mission which could have seen him killed, suggested that he was going to be forced to pay some penance for his actions. The plot continues to unravel when it is revealed that Sam was lying about the drug lord, and that his bail was instead paid by Rafe who enlisted him to help hunting Avery’s treasure, before Sam decided to not do that and instead go looking for Nathan to embark upon the journey with his brother instead. Sam is then shot by Rafe, Nathan falls off a pretty high cliff and everything appears to be in ruins.
But then, as if by magic, all of these tangled plot threads resolve themselves. Elena immediately rushes to Nathan’s aid after he falls off the cliff because, unbeknownst to the Drake brothers, they have been tailed by Sully’s plane this whole time (which begs the question – how the fuck does no one know that Libertalia exists if one can simply fly a plane above it? Even Elena says that she saw it while sitting in the plane’s passenger seat), and after he awakes she’s more-or-less completely fine with the entire ordeal. In fact, the pair then embark upon the Uncharted version of a romantic getaway, pulling levers and climbing mountains together before rolling in the mud and kissing after narrowly escaping a death trap filled with exploding mummies. They both joke about Nathan’s series of incredibly ill-advised choices, which could still quite easily lead to both of them being killed, while continuing to hunt for Sam whose existence has been quietly accepted by Elena, despite her having spent the past decade or so thinking he was dead up until a few hours ago.
From there on out, the thoughtfulness and maturity that was teased in the game’s opening chapters swiftly begins to dissipate, with Uncharted 4 instead deciding to meekly follow in its predecessors’ footsteps. Nathan and Elena continue their hunt for Sam, who upon being rescued decides to fuck off again in order to find the treasure on his own, causing Nathan to have to pursue and protect him once again in an action which ultimately leads to zero consequences for the Drake brothers.
Also, despite Sam having placed her husband’s life in danger for weeks as a result of a series of lies, Elena somehow remains completely cordial towards him, exhibiting a superhuman level of understanding that verges upon her being emotionally comatose. Throughout the latter half of the game, her level of anger never rises beyond “marginally disappointed,” despite having chased her husband across the other side of the world because he really wants to look at a pirate ship, and regardless of the fact that a new Drake has now been inserted into her life who clearly has no regard for the well-being of others if they overlap with his own selfish motivations. Sully is also there.
Where did the plot go?
But the game’s sudden shift in tone and reluctance to venture down the darker path it had set for itself is nothing compared to the detrimental impact this has on its gameplay. Shooting in Uncharted 4 has been improved, meaning that it feels less imprecise and “floaty” than in previous incarnations, but it’s still got its own unique set of problems. For one, Naughty Dog has yet to successfully merge both clambering and combat, meaning you can still find yourself accidentally and hopelessly clinging to a wall in the heat of the firefight, while the newly implemented stealth mechanics are perfunctory at best, with them basically being limited to rummaging in long grass and marking enemies with a click of the thumbstick.
The key issue here is that these gunfights more often than not take place in open areas, which coupled with a far more aggressive AI effectively means that there are only a very limited number of places in which you can take cover. As such, I often found myself staying behind piece of stable cover as enemies refused to stop firing in my direction, pinning me down and rendering me unable to move without risking death. More realistic, perhaps, but considering how incredibly accurate Uncharted 4‘s enemies are, certainly not fun.
Its stealth system is also rendered obsolete throughout the majority of the game due to Naughty Dog’s decision to make every enemy immediately begin firing at you once a lone mercenary has spotted you. Considering how quickly this can happen due to the small armies of men you’ll typically be tasked with taking down, the margin for error is incredibly small, and seeing as how being spotted while sneaking around will typically leave you stuck in the center of a bunch of bad guys, more often than not it’s easier to simply start shooting.
While these combat problems are prevalent throughout the game, they become much more of an issue after Naughty Dog consciously decides that they’re going to swiftly move away from the dark, ominous tone they’ve been working on in its first half. In the slow burn towards the game’s finale, it feels as though its developers are attempting to make up for lost of time after having spent so much time on characterization and subtlety, reverting back to explosions and Nathan Drake making out. The combat sections are pushed to the forefront, with the number of enemies having been notably increased, though by this point the frustrations I had quelled regarding its combat due to maintaining an interest in its story became more prominent, largely as a result of me no longer being emotionally invested in the story and therefore thoroughly disengaged from the action.
The Last of Us did it better
Uncharted 4 has played all the cards in its hand by Chapter 17, with Nathan having reconciled with Elena and, without even having a conversation with Sam regarding his pretty awful lies, also having forgiven his brother regarding the falsified reasoning behind him looking for Avery’s treasure. There is nothing left for the game to do except take the player to the treasure, yet it carries on for another few hours regardless, the swiftness with which these dilemmas are brought to an unsatisfying conclusion retroactively spoiling the story laid out in previous chapters.
But for its many faults, Uncharted 4 isn’t a bad game; it’s a landmark moment in terms of its visuals and animations, and it’s got some of the best action set-pieces in the entire series. But this isn’t the Uncharted game I wanted to see from a developer who had most recently brought us The Last of Us. Naughty Dog’s tale of surviving through grief and bereavement was a unique tale told masterfully, with its methodical action complementing the story that was being told, and the developer confidently carrying out their vision until its final moments regardless of the fact that its ending would undoubtedly sour a few people on the rest of the game.
On the other hand, Uncharted 4 feels like the result of a lack of confidence on Naughty Dog’s behalf. They’re quite clearly proud of the way the game looks, frequently asking you to stop and stare at its beautifully designed environment, but the clear unwillingness to stray too far from what had been established in the previous Uncharted games ultimately serves to undermine what had been positioned as a far more grown-up take on Nathan Drake’s adventures. The Last of Us combined action and plot in a way that felt meaningful, whereas Uncharted 4 eventually settles upon providing a completely disparate experience in each half of the game. It’s certainly an enjoyable finale, then, but in no way does it reach the high bar its developers have set for themselves.