Uncharted 4 loses its pulp adventure roots, which results in a solid, if less memorable shooter.
Some games feel like an event. The advertising budget tacks on a few extra zeroes, publishers shell out for developers with an extensive pedigree, and everything just whips up into media firestorm, where on release everyone gushes about it, pats themselves on the back, takes a bit of a vacation, and then the cycle resumes for the next “event” game.
Naughty Dog's Uncharted 4: A Thief's End feels like an event. It's one of two games I can think of where I saw an advertisement before a movie for it. And to that end, Uncharted 4 can probably be seen as a success. It's the fastest selling PS4 first-party title in North America and PAL regions. It's been the topic of discussion so far for May releases, at least until Overwatch comes out. I'm sure a bunch of Sony marketing people have been celebrating for the past two weeks.
And to be fair, there's a lot to celebrate about. The game looks fantastic, the production values are through the roof, and every cast member's performance is outstanding. The puzzles are well designed, the gunplay is fun, and the game has a ton of one-time mechanics and bespoke assets that add so much detail to the world.
These superlatives make the next part so confusing: Uncharted 4 just isn't as memorable as its PS3 predecessors.
The first three Uncharted games were presented as these huge summer action blockbusters. Comparisons to Indiana Jones may be incredibly trite these days, but the man was in commercials for the series. It's hard not to make the parallel. Even Golden Abyss felt like the series' Librarian equivalent: smaller scale, but entertaining enough to be enjoyable on its own.
The problems begin to arise in Uncharted 4's muddled opening. Across the first five chapters of the game, we have an in medias res action scene involving a vehicle, followed by a flashback to young Nate, jumping forward to an older Nate, jumping forward to the narrative beginning of the story, then flashing back again to just prior to the narrative beginning.
While playing that section I was constantly reminded of Beyond: Two Souls, which is never a positive thing. The entire thing seemed like they felt they needed to build Sam as a character quickly (given that he hasn't really been mentioned... ever), but there has to be a better way to do that than just jumping around in the timeline. It makes everything feel so divorced from the fiction of the game that it's hard to get attached to what's happening from moment to moment.
Additionally, Uncharted 4's action setpieces don't feel as memorable or as unique as the past games. Two weeks later the biggest moments I can think of involve Drake being chased by a vehicle and having to shoot at it to prevent death (twice), being in a collapsing building as it tumbles to the ground, and a firefight while hopping about on a moving convoy.
There's something about the setpieces, certain narrative beats, and characterizations that just make it feel like someone was trying to make a greatest hits album of Uncharted while being a cover band. You've got buildings falling down, you've got clear and present dangers, you've got an upper-class villain and their paramilitary sidekick, and you've got ancient treasure. And there's certainly nothing wrong with that; it's a formula that works. But at the same time, it feels like there could be so much more.
It's hard to continue without mentioning the staff change. Longtime series writer and director Amy Hennig, as well as Uncharted 3 and then-Uncharted 4 director Justin Richmond suddenly left the studio, being replaced with Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann, of The Last of Us fame. Nolan North said in a 2015 panel that eight months of shooting had been thrown out.
I don't know, and it's probably not my place to speculate on this type of thing, but the way Uncharted 4 unfolds make me think there were two forces at play on the game. Those pushing for it to be more like The Last of Us, and those trying to avoid that. Nathan Drake and company are as quippy and jovial as ever in most places, playing the roles of the pulp adventurers that they're so well equipped to do.
Yet there's almost a feeling of reservedness or something. It never quite goes full bore action movie, instead hovering around stretching the scenes from Fast Five, where The Rock chases Vin Diesel through favelas in Brazil, then Vin Diesel and Paul Walker have a discussion about fatherhood into a full length game. I'm not asking for full blown, Michael Bay orgy of explosion, but at least an equivalent of dragging a giant safe through Rio de Janeiro would be nice to have.
At the very least, the small character moments are generally fine to good, it has the most thought put into a final encounter (which if it sounds like a damn with faint praise: it sort of is), and an incredible conclusion to the storyline of Nathan Drake. There are even parts here and there, like the Italy heist near the beginning that I actually really enjoyed. There's also multiplayer that seems okay too, if you're into that.
All the bells and whistles for modern blockbuster games are there, and they mesh together well in a way that results in a fun video game. But, and it's hard to find exactly the right words to try and get across what I mean here, while Uncharted 1-3 felt like they were aiming for making an adventure first and foremost, and drew compelling drama from the process of the adventure, Uncharted 4 feels like it's aiming for drama, and trying to make a compelling adventure from the drama. It may work, but it's just nowhere near as interesting.