Addressing a crowd of journalists from across Europe and the Middle East, at a press event held in a 10th century castle an hour's drive north east of Rome, Uncharted 4 co-director Bruce Straley keeps dropping two key words into his slightly rambling but warmly received introduction to Naughty Dog's newest Nathan Drake adventure: "blockbuster" and "cinematic." Like many who've played previous Uncharted titles, Straley ostensibly views the franchise as reflecting the tenets of bombastic big-screen entertainment: fantastic set pieces, explosive action, just enough plot to get from titles to credits without completely collapsing with confusion over who is shooting who, and why.
I'm not sure that video games can truly be "cinematic," given that they follow very different sets of narrative rules and restrictions, and dramatic devices, compared to what goes on in filmmaking—and here's an article on that very subject. But when Straley says that Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is "cinematic," he's talking in terms of scope, scale, and spectacle, loosely measurable dimensions that separate a lesser production from one with all the money in the world thrown at it.
I don't know for sure what the budget behind Uncharted 4 is, but it's certainly the Santa Monica studio's most expensive project to date, costing tens of millions. That's a trickle of piss into the deepest ocean when set against cinema's most eye-wateringly costly productions, but everything's relative—this is the equivalent of a multiplex blockbuster like Avatar, Jurassic Park, Pirates of the Caribbean, or, shudder, any one of those Transformers horrors. It will sell an absolute shit load, or I'll eat the next piece of promotional tat that tumbles through my mailbox.
Just like the vast majority of big-budget, all-action silver screen successes, though, Uncharted 4's ultimate ambition is weighed down by the necessity to confirm to audience expectations, to walk the line that precedent demands and only deviate from it sparingly. It looks and sounds the part, but it's bloated, saggy around its center, concentrated on moment-to-moment encounters both aggressive and intimate over guaranteeing that this swansong escapade for Nathan Drake is a story worth following across its stretched arc.
Before I even get my hands on the game, I speak to Naughty Dog's director of communications, Arne Meyer, who charmingly lays down the playbook spiel about how "you always want to go out when you're on top," and "we feel we've got a really strong story here." He's sad to see Nathan accept his retirement from the coalface of contemporary gaming, but admits: "There are only so many layers you can peel back on a person, and really get at his or her true nature, before you're just rehashing the past." And then, an unexpected comment: "It does get difficult to keep things fresh."
And that is Uncharted 4's biggest problem: It doesn't feel fresh enough, anymore. Just as Jurassic World felt familiar for anyone who'd seen the original movie, A Thief's End is awash with both explicit references to its preceding PS3 trilogy and new scenarios that are as much echoes of the past as they are radical innovations in a series hardly known for tearing up the action-adventure rulebook.
Shootouts in Uncharted 4 are largely unchanged from what you've survived by the skin of your teeth before, albeit with more destructive cover now and fewer red barrels, meaning that it's sometimes better to take the attack to the enemy forces, and get right in their faces, rather than pick them off from afar. Guns lack a palpable sense of weight and recoil, and button-mashing melee action is largely locked into a few great-the-first-time animations—hammer triangle to break a hold, square to swing a haymaker into a goon's teeth. The only time combat truly feels exciting is when you play things stealthily. Certain enemy occupied areas feature long grass to hide in, as well as ledges to hang from, allowing Nathan to silently thin the opposition numbers before opening fire on the remaining few, to end the encounter quickly.
There are new driving sections, as seen in preview videos. You'll be sliding a four-by-four around the muddy landscape of Madagascar, and careening through a crowded seaside town while pursued by armored cars spitting bullet-hell death in your general direction. These are amazing to watch, and undeniably thrilling to play, too. But they're not out of the ordinary, never-saw-that-coming set pieces. Once completed, almost every chase, every hair's breadth escape from what looks like certain death, is as good as forgotten. Onto the next, until we cut to black. The exceptions arrive late in the game, and I'm not about to spoil them for you, save for saying they're better for being brief.
Because elsewhere, man, do Naughty Dog ever drag things out. Nathan and company spend too much time in their jeep, too much time swinging from ropes, too much time clambering up cliff faces and sliding down shale slopes on what are presumably asses of iron. Repetition dulls the thrill of each that-should-be-impossible action. And just like so many summer blockbuster movies, Uncharted 4 is simply too long for its slight story. The padding is palpable as you swing from the nth ledge to the next on the way to another X-marks-the-spot location on a tropical island that looked delicious for the first five minutes your eyes spent drinking it in, but two hours later the aesthetic appeal has faded. And crates. Don't get me started on the crates. Who leaves all these crates just lying around in such convenient places?
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I appreciate that everything above is sending out signals that I don't rate Uncharted 4. But I absolutely do, honestly. It's one of the best "event" games you'll play on your PS4, at any stage of the hardware's lifespan. Just as Jurassic World was something of a greatest hits repackaging of what'd come before it, and just fine for taking that approach, so A Thief's End is a very enjoyable 15 hours (and change) that ticks all of those this-is-for-the-players boxes—gentle puzzles, light exploration, amazing visuals, just a little goofiness between the core cast—while doing enough to keep whatever's around the corner, physically and in terms of the plot, intriguing. Get to the credits, featuring a prominent thank you to Amy Hennig, director on all three PS3 Uncharteds, and, assuming you haven't minded performing the same few actions rather too often, you won't feel that your time's been wasted. Yes, there's more game here than there is story to support it, but strip back the plot to basics, and it's quite the absorbing yarn.
Overlong story, incredibly short, then: Nathan Drake has had his fill of treasure hunting—well, he's keeping his wanderlust in check, at least—and is living the quiet life at home with his wife, Elena. Then, a ghost reappears from his past: His brother, Sam, who he assumed was dead (for good reason, as the game shows you early on). Sam's in trouble, and he needs Nathan's help to discover the whereabouts of the incredible horde of riches accumulated by Henry Every, or Avery as he's called here, an infamous 17th century pirate (who you can look up and everything). Cue a little jet setting as we journey from the States to Europe and later Africa, following clues and cracking simple puzzles. Complicating matters, though, is a mercenary outfit called Shoreline, employed by a rich prick by the name of Rafe Adler, who has a complicated history with the Drake brothers and, wouldn't you know it, wants that booty for himself. Hundreds of guns are fired, several bridges collapse, a handful of loved ones get messed up in the whole thing, and a payday of approximately $400 million awaits the person who claims it first.
Obviously there's a lot of Indiana Jones to how the plot plays out, just as there's always been in Uncharted. But what I really like about A Thief's End is its unanticipated parallels with The Goonies. No spoilers, but there are sights here, and scenarios, that could have been plucked straight from the screenplay of Richard Donner's cult classic of 1985. The acting is of a consistently high standard, although Sam's patronizing "nice shot, little brother" patter during combat grows tiresome. Straley and co-director Neil Druckmann, who steered The Last of Us to so much acclaim, throw in another "giraffe moment" here, when Nathan and Elena find a little closeness and calm on an elevator, followed by a delightfully quiet drive to the next conflict area. The interactions between them, between actors Nolan North and Emily Rose, are the best in the game—though perhaps I'm biased, as a married man who recognizes a lot of their sharp, succinct quips and comebacks from his own relationship.
While the core cast of Nathan, Sam, Elena, and Sully shines, the bad guys are shadows in comparison. Rafe's introduction is electric, but he too quickly slips into the background. And Shoreline's leader, Nadine Ross, is an accomplished ass kicker with a silver tongue, who I'd have liked to see more of. The Shoreline grunts exist exclusively as cannon fodder—albeit cannon fodder that bites back, hard, so don't be surprised if you're not exactly coasting through gunfights on the game's "moderate" difficulty level. Remember: When going stealthy is an option, take it. When Nathan has an ally with him, they'll pop shots off at the opposition, but their kill count come the end of the game won't be significant.
Slower-paced sections of the game are, surprisingly, some of the most memorable ones. A younger Nathan and Sam get up to hijinks in a couple of flashback-set stages, and a contemporary sequence sees the adult Nathan just bumming around the house with Elena, going over his knickknacks, eating dinner and—get this—playing the original Crash Bandicoot. Pay attention to the PS1 game, Naughty Dog's first for Sony, released back in 1996, because how it plays will be important later. This "real life" Nathan and Elena are captivating for their normality, an entirely alien state of affairs in the wider context of the characters. It, and the Nate-as-a-kid chapters, give the core plot essential breathing space, adding background to the brothers' determination to find Every's treasure, and breaking up the this-can-quickly-grow-monotonous trigger-finger workouts.
Money sweats from every sticky pore of Uncharted 4. Look at it—it's absolutely gorgeous. But more importantly, so too does a genuine love for these characters, which no doubt explains the game's reluctance to bring itself to a prompter conclusion—its own makers want to spend as much time as they can with this guy. Naughty Dog knows, though, that now it has got all it can out of Nathan Drake. "We sort of had this string where we were always learning more about him," Meyer says, "but now we've kind of exposed him." And that means whatever the studio does next, beyond DLC for this game, both for itself and the landscape of triple-A, blockbuster gaming, becomes incredibly important.
The Last of Us so easily could have flopped. A new IP in a highly competitive market, made in tandem with Uncharted 3, it was so far from a certainty. That it was a hit opens the possibility for a sequel, perhaps a trilogy. But Straley, Meyer, Druckmann, and company will have learned from this game, and all the challenges it presented, that they cannot merely repeat the past. Bigger explosions, deadlier guns, and more infected won't have the impact that a sideways shift in direction will. I haven't the answer to the question of what that game is, exactly, but you suspect Naughty Dog is working on it.
"People want to go to where the art is being made," Troy Baker, who plays Sam, tells me in Italy (read the full interview here). "If cinema is doing big, pulpy, popcorn spectacles, but TV is getting into the minutia of the form, and building characters, then people will flock to that. And I fully believe that games are the next iteration of that." Naughty Dog has proven itself the masters of delivering those big, pulpy, popcorn spectacles, and Uncharted 4 is the biggest of the lot. (Hell, it barely fits on a Blu-ray disc.) But now it's time for something completely different, because this breed of blockbuster has nowhere left to grow.
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End will be released on May 10, for PlayStation 4. Find out more at the game's official website.
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