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May 17, 2016

Review: Uncharted 4

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End. A very good game, but also, a major let-down.

If Uncharted 4 were just the first Uncharted, there's no doubt it would be hailed as a great game. But it's not the first. We've seen much of this in Uncharted 1-3, and also in the well-done homage/rip-off Tomb Raider. (Or maybe that's a rip-back, in that Uncharted borrowed a lot from Tomb Raider -- and now Uncharted returns the favor by ripping off two several good parts of Tomb Raider, including the sliding-to-the-edge-of-a-cliff-and-then-jumping-for-your-life trick and the climbing-up-a-rock-with-a-piton-or-survival-ax trick.)

The opening of the game is great. Lots of story and characterization that doesn't make you want to hit "Skip Cinematic." They mix in plenty of action and exploration with the exposition. A major character from Drake's past is introduced, but it's painless, as the introduction occurs was Drake breaks out of his gothic orphanage, with lots of climbing and swinging from grapple lines.

From there, you move to a prison break from a corrupt Panamanian prison; to an exploration of an ancient prison in Panama; to a very cool and fun sequence of Drake, now domesticated and sedate in marriage, at home, but still feeling a bit of wanderlust; to a very very cool heist job at a mafia stronghold in Italy.

But then the middle and the end are just... meh. All of the previous Drake titles made me excited to find the lost and legendary places. El Dorado. Imar of the Pillars ("The Atlantis of the Sands.") Shamballah/Xanadu.

There was also cool-ass history mixed in with these searches -- the real coffin of Sir Francis Drake. Marco Polo's lost treasure fleet. John Dee and his seventeenth century secret service.

This time around the legend being sought out is a lot more obscure, and pretty mundane. I won't spoil what magic there is in it by naming it, but I'm pretty sure you haven't heard of it. I'm pretty sure you'll shrug and say "Whatever. I guess they had to find someplace." I also don't know that there's any additional history hook mixed into the quest.

Also, this is the first quest for just plain old money. The other numinous objects all had a frisson of magic and mystery to them. This is just a hunt for a pirate's biggest heist -- $400 million in gold and jewels in modern valuation.

That's nice and all but it's not exactly the Holy Grail, is it?

Also, on that point: This is the first Drake story without a supernatural element.

Now that's kind of a trick point, because Drake exists in the modern real world (supposedly) with modern real world rules. That is, there is no magic. But every Drake adventure had an encounter with the unknowable or ineffable, even if, in the end, it turned out -- sometimes brilliantly -- that what appeared supernatural wasn't supernatural at all.

Drake 1 and 3 pulled this trick off amazingly, as what appeared at first to be magic and sorcery just turned out to have a wholly natural -- if amazing -- explanation. (Drake 2's explanation -- it's radiation -- was, um, weak as hell.)

Uncharted 4 seems to have been building towards something possibly magical -- the plot keeps revealing discord and mayhem which could have some hellish origin -- but then I think they rewrote that element and simply omitted it entirely.

So Uncharted 4 is about a quest for a mundane thing (money), and there is no supernatural frisson to it -- it's all mundane real-world stuff. (Well, I mean, real-world, if you take a superabundance of huge lost cities on earth to be "real world.")

It also doesn't help that the action is mundane. In every Uncharted title, there has been a show-stopper set-piece. In Uncharted, I guess it was one of the chases, and definitely the first reveal of the Genre Shift Eruption of the Supernatural. In Uncharted 2, it was the chase in the city in Nepal (or is it Llasa?), and the train opening. In Uncharted 3 -- a title I think isn't highly enough rated -- it was in the incredible series of set-pieces, one on top of the next, all the way from the middle of the game to the end. Horse chase through the desert/getting blown out of plane without a parachute/staggering around the desert dying of thirst/gunfight in a hurricane/ship getting knocked upside down by said hurricane as you continue to fight bad guys. Then the amazing lost city at the end with the most "magic" yet seen in Drake.

Uncharted 4 lacks a really big show-stopper like those. It does have the best run-and-gun chase in any Drake game, because you can take over vehicles and drive them at various points. (You have the most control over driven vehicles in this game.)

But that occurs fairly early in the story, about one third of the way through, and nothing in the later game really tops that.

Just a lot of very repetitive platforming.

How many times can I search for a crate to push down to an ally at a lower level so that he can climb up it and get over an obstacle?

They've also reduced the amount of shooting/murder in this game, which is sad. Yes, the killing in previous Drake games got repetitive and gratuitous -- you could not explore a ruin unimpeded; the moment you'd discovered the clue at the end, bad guys would come swarming into the place and you'd have to shoot your way out -- every single time -- but I think they went too far in the opposite direction here. Yes, it's better to not have so many grindy wave-after-wave gunbattles. Many gunbattles in this game are nicely brisk.

But... they make up for the reduced repetitiveness in killing with increased repetitiveness in platforming.

Also, the only stakes in this one are for a whole bunch of money-- there is no threat to the world lurking in the background. That's too bad, not because I care so much about Saving the World, but because the Save the World plot sort of justified the tremendous amount of killing Drake does.

This plot, being only about who's going to end up rich, justifies a whole lot less killing. There's less killing now, but also... less of an excuse to kill so many people.

The puzzles in Drake games have always been pretty easy, which is a selling point (I don't want some hardcore puzzles). But they've often been extremely neat. There's only really neat puzzle in this game -- the clock tower puzzle -- and another one that's pretty cool and very scary (the platforms over the pit-traps near the end). The rest are kind of standard Drake puzzles. Not bad, but... just sort of "Seen this before."

It's a good game. I can't stress enough that it's a good game. It's just not better than any of the three that came before it. In technical execution, it's undoubtedly the best. In emotional/character relationship terms, it's also the best -- the acting and writing for the secondary characters isn't as hammy and "Action Movie-ish" as it has been in the others.

But in the most important things -- the sense of wonder the game evokes; the sense of "I'm doing something now in a videogame I'll never do in real life," like climbing up and down ice crevasses or wandering though the desert without water; the sense of "I can't believe what I'm seeing" -- it's the weakest of the series.

Not unworthy. Not a waste of your time. Not a waste of your money.

It just doesn't deliver the "Wow" factor of the previous three. Or even the Wow factor of the well-done imitator Tomb Raider.

It beats the other games in terms of competence. But it loses to them all in a sense of magic and wonder.

Three out of four stars, but that missing star is really missed.

If You Haven't Played Uncharted 1-3... They're so good it's worth it just to buy a PS3 for those PS3-exclusive games alone. Also, they've put out the Uncharted trilogy with improved graphics for the PS4; worth it if you haven't already played them.

Honestly -- best games I've ever played in my life. Gave me exactly what I was looking for -- ten hours each of wish-fulfillment fantasy of being a modern-day Indiana Jones.

It's too bad they're ending the series, and it's too bad the series ends on such an imperfect note.


MIA: Charlie Cutter and Chloe are both missing from the game. They are both briefly referenced early on, but do not appear.

I get why neither is in this game -- there are a bunch of characters in it as it is. And Chloe... well, now that Drake is married, Chloe is... maybe a temptation that a married man should have hanging around.

I mention this because I was a little surprised Chloe didn't show up. She's a fan favorite, I know.

Swing Baby, Swing! I should have mentioned how cool the swinging mechanic is, and how useful. Drake almost always has a grappling hook and line, and there are frequent opportunities to use it.

Plus, it can be used in combat. I had a sniper rifle at one point and a dude in heavy armor started shooting at me with a shotgun. He killed me several times. I realized I couldn't kill him at close range -- he was defeating the natural advantage the sniper rifle gave me of long range combat.

So, on the third try, when he came stomping out, I threw my grappling hook, swung to a different part of the battlefield, shot a dude in mid-flight, got my footing on a different platform, turned and fired my sniper rifle at the armored shotgun guy.

I f***ing killed the shit out of him.

It was a really cool thing that just occurred to me and was pretty easy to do in normal combat -- it wasn't a Quick Time Event scripted sequence or something set up for you as a programmed resolution. It's just something you're allowed to do in combat now -- swing on a line, and shoot people while swinging.

Video: Below, a sequence from about the one-third point in the game. Drake and Sully are trying to help Sam escape from mercenary treasure-hunters in an unnamed city in Madagascar. (Unless the city is named King's Bay -- they do mention King's Bay. But I don't know if that's a city or like, you know, just a bay.)

This sequence culminates in what I think is the best action sequence in the game -- a run-and-gun battle where you're jumping on trucks, shooting at enemy vehicles, jumping into enemy jeeps and beating up the driver to take over that vehicle, and occasionally.... being towed behind a speeding truck by your grapple line, Raiders of the Lost Ark style.


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posted by Ace at 07:36 PM

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