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July 11, 2016

RE: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

I have a lot of questions about this game.

--Why does the game think it can impress us with a “thrilling” setpiece on the high seas when the first game in the franchise did that almost a decade ago?  Why does the game think it can impress us now when said setpiece is so rudimentary in terms of gameplay that I’d actually prefer a cutscene?

--Why does a flashback that takes us to Drake’s childhood not really answer any questions or contribute any new information about his past?  Why does it feel so superfluous, given that it’s supposed to enrich our understanding of the character?  Was it only there to retroactively show how much Drake loves his brother Sam?

--I know this point has been belabored already, but why does Sam’s introduction into this franchise -- in this, the fourth mainline game -- feel like such an obvious retcon to try and get our “hero” back into the action?

--Why is it that, as the flashback continues further into Drake’s life, he goes from fight-happy upstart to master criminal with no stops in between?  Why don’t we get to see him struggle, or learn how to be a thief?  Why do we have to jump immediately to him being effectively “the best there is” at whatever the plot needs him to be?

--Why has the melee combat in the game become so overloaded with “dynamic” camera angles and shaking?  Is it to use smoke and mirrors to mask the button-mashing nature?

--Why does the game still feel so on-rails and undercooked despite bumping around for almost a decade?  Why is climbing and jumping through dizzying locales not nearly as interesting or fun as it should be?   Why can’t I shake the feeling that my hand is being held throughout most of the game, given that even if you press the grappling hook button by accident, it’ll break reality and snap to the grapple point at an obtuse angle despite the grapple point not even being on-screen?

--Why does Drake think he can delude one of his prison captors/criminal cohorts by hiding a relic the size of a turkey leg in his back pocket and lying about “not finding anything”?  What did he think was going to happen when he got patted down almost immediately?

--Why is it so inconceivable for Drake and the Crime Time Bunch to split a presumed bounty of $400 million four ways?  $100 million will go a hell of a long way, but they’d rather have all of the money than some of it?

--Why does Drake and Sam’s cohort Rhys murder their prison cohort while they’re still in prison?  What did he think was going to happen, besides the obvious “land your ass in trouble with everyone in the prison, many of which have guns at the ready”?  Was it just to trigger an action sequence?

--Why does one of the main villains get so butthurt over the idea that the treasure Sam told stories about for ages might not actually exist?  Why would the kingpin of a drug cartel -- a man who wields no shortage of power and the wealth that comes with it -- be so desperate to get more money when his prison escape gives him the freedom to tap his resources at will? 

--Why would the baddie stake so much on something that might not actually exist, up to and including forcing Sam into a “you have 24 hours” situation to deliver the treasure? As a corollary, why would Sam assume with 100% confidence that the treasure was real until someone called him out on it?

--Why does it feel like that plot point only exists to flimsily force Drake back into the adventuring life he tried to abandon as well as shove Sam into the canon?  Why does said plot point feel like it was ripped from dozens of other movies (which is a statement you could apply to scores of other moments throughout the series)?

--Why is it that when Sam gets “lethally” shot, the action and effects get all dramatic to try and show the weight of the loss?  Why is the game pretending like we have as deep a bond with Sam -- someone we’ve barely known for an hour -- as Drake did?  Are we just supposed to be impressed because he brings in a sweet bike?

--Why does Drake continue down the path of a criminal from that point (in the past) onward?  If his lust for riches cost him his brother’s life, shouldn’t that have been enough to make him think twice about going off on illegal, lethal adventures?  Did he just forget?  Is he not afraid of the consequences, knowing that he consistently puts the lives of Sully, Elena, Chloe, and Cutter on the line?  Did Naughty Dog just break the entire premise of Nathan Drake with a single retcon?

--Why is it that the game half-built on running back Drake’s reputation as a murderer, thief, and criminal make me hate him just as much, and maybe more?  Why does it feel like the game makes him even shittier than he was already?

--Why does it feel like Naughty Dog took the idea of “dadification” a step too far with this game?  Why did they think that the one thing gamers wanted out of a series built on action and adventure was a chance to bumble around a suburban home and go through a day on the job?  Why does it feel like a mistake as much as it was a step forward (maybe more) given that it’s just a matter of letting the sand run down the hourglass so players will get right back to the big dumb action?

--Should I be angry over the fact that it took until 2016 to feature even a single black person in the franchise -- by which I mean “someone Drake talks to” instead of a target that needs to be shot?

--Why the hell is Elena married to Drake?  Did she forget about that time when he abandoned her after stealing a boat, or that time when she was held at gunpoint by a greedy old man and his goon squad, or that time when she got blown up, or that other time when she got blown up, or that time when she got dragged through Shambala while bleeding out, or that time Drake used her as an accomplice to break several international laws and jeopardize her inconsistently-written career as a journalist?  Does she only like him because they can throw wisecracks at each other?  Is she an idiot?

--Why does Drake think he can get away with lying to Elena about going on a business trip to Panama?  What’s he going to do when she talks to one of the guys in the salvage crew and finds out immediately that Drake isn’t there?

--How pissed do you think I’m going to be if the game ends with Elena announcing she’s pregnant and/or raising a child in a years-later epilogue?  How much more pissed do you think I’ll be if Drake sacrifices himself “heroically” as an act of redemption?

--I’ve been wondering this since game one, but game four highlights it in VERY stark terms: what are the treasures Drake finds throughout the levels?  A Thief’s End implies that they’re things that he collected over the years, but if that’s the case, then why is he keeping them locked up in his attic?  Do they not have any worth?  Would they not be better suited for a museum, or at least added to an aficionado’s collection?  Is Drake just keeping those trinkets out of sight to relive the good old days?

--How far up your own ass do you have to be to do what Naughty Dog did and dump Crash Bandicoot into your game wholesale, and completely drag the opening hours of A Thief’s End to a halt so Drake and Elena can quip at each other about it?  Is it really wise to have the tried-and-true gameplay of “run at the camera while death chases you” included, given that it arguably shows how little progress Naughty Dog has made on the gameplay front since 1996?

--Why do Drake and Elena even have a PS1?  Has anything in their histories implied that they have an interest in gaming?  If they are gamers, then why would they bank solely on an ancient console?  If they aren’t gamers, then why would they keep such a relic hooked up to the living room TV?  Is this just more of the Naughty Dog mantra of “nothing has to make sense”?

--And finally, here’s the big question: Did Uncharted ruin an entire generation of video games?  Or, alternatively, did Uncharted ruin video games?

The obvious answer to that is a booming, resounding, thunderous no.  In case it wasn’t obvious, I have a hate-boner for this franchise the size of the Washington Monument; my biases are firmly in place, and there’s not much that can change that at this point.  It’s to the point where, if you read all of those questions above, I’d suspect you wasted your time.  Those aren’t objective points of discussion; they’re the thoughts of a guy who, thus far, hasn’t had much fun with the franchise or the latest installment.

So on that note, let me make something clear: those are all of the thoughts and questions I had within my first session with the game.  That’s not a complete list, considering that I’ve already made it several scenes past life in the Drake house.  And, critically, as of this writing, the first session has been the only session thus far.  In all fairness, the game doesn’t make my soul hurt like the other games did (at least, it hasn’t yet; who knows if there’ll be another “Drake shrugs off a point-blank grenade blast” moment later on).  But in exchange, I find what’s been offered so far incredibly dull.  I’m a guy who doesn’t mind a slow-starting story, but A Thief’s End pushes it much too far -- and something tells me the gameplay proper won’t exactly bring the hype.

So yes, I have been putting it off.  Blame Overwatch.  And more recently, blame Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE.  But I know I can’t use Delay Buster forever, so I guess I’ll have to bring A Thief’s End to…well, an end.

As impersonal as I try to be (or make myself out to be (no, really, I am)), I know that my biases are going to influence everything I say and feel about the fourth game when it comes time for the final post or two.  I expect that, and so should you; I’m not being fair to Uncharted, to Nathan Drake, or to Naughty Dog.  With that said, it’s not as if I’m writing an objective, purely-factual review.  I’m just out to do what I always do, and it just so happens to be with a franchise that, up until I actually started playing a few months ago, I was basically OK with. 

So I’ll be honest.  Yes, as it stands I think A Thief’s End -- what’s been shown off so far, at least -- is like eating a great big bowl of cold, watered-down gruel.  Will it get better?  Will it get worse?  We’ll see.  But here’s the thing: finishing up The Nathan Drake Collection left me burnt out not just on the franchise, and not just on the genre, but on games in general.  There was always that dark part of me deep down that entertained the thought of giving up on the medium, and Uncharted pushed me closer to the breaking point than anything so far.  And yes, that includes this:

Don’t get me wrong.  The modern-day Final Fantasy games are still unthinkably awful, but there’s a saving grace: droves of gamers out there have long since accepted that the glory days are over.  They’re getting more critical of the brand, and (rightfully) assume the worst, or take shots as needed.  So it’s not as if FF occupies a massive mindshare in the industry.  With the exception of the incoming doomsday release of FF15, the franchise is easy enough to push off to the side.

You can’t do that with Uncharted.  It’s got too many accolades, too many glowing reviews, too many fans, and too many sales to just get shuffled into a corner.  The entire industry has basically gone “More, more, more!” and now we’ve gotten more.  And I hate going against the grain like this, because it pushes me closer to saying “All of you are wrong for liking this thing I don’t like!”  And I DO NOT want to do that.  But that dark part of me can’t help but bubble up and say “This is what you want more of?  This is who you’ll throw your trust and dollars behind?”

The alternative explanation is that Uncharted is to me what The Fast and the Furious is to Jeremy of CinemaSins.  I just can’t handle the bullshit, and I don’t see why I should have to.  And yes, what’s bullshit to me is chocolate to others, but as a reminder: I’ve never liked chocolate.

Boy, am I cementing the heel turn with this post.

It won’t do anyone any favors to assume that Uncharted is the direct cause of the game industry’s foibles.  Still, it’s not hard to see some of the correlation, or at least an exhibition of what would become the industry’s biggest vices.  A weak protagonist (with bonus points for being a generic white male).  Less-than-stellar treatment of the female characters.  Tons of shallow spectacle.  Insubstantial gameplay, almost as if it was an afterthought.  A dedication to lavish visuals, but at the expense of everything else.  A rollercoaster ride that doesn’t understand how to earn real thrills -- only weariness and a player beaten into submission.  A forgettable soundtrack (seriously, hum a few bars from any Uncharted song besides Drake’s theme or variations of it).  An “experience” that’s anything but.  And many more.

But here we are, and the waves generated from Uncharted’s bloated form cannonballing into the water have long since been felt.  I’d even go so far as to say it helped codify the modern “monogenre”, i.e. a hodgepodge of third-person action, stealth, gunplay, setpieces, and million-dollar vistas you can only have so much impact on.  That’s a bit presumptuous to declare, but surely if you’re reading this, you know about the cries of “homogenization” thrown at the games industry before.  That’s started to change recently, in good ways and bad ways.  The glimmer of hope is that devs large and small are trying to inject life into the medium.  The depths of despair try to snuff that out, since the “monogenre” might have simply shifted its form.  See: Days Gone.

Enough about that, though.  We can spend all day and all night arguing over the impact of one franchise and its ultimate worth, but for now it’s best to keep focus.  I played through three separate games to prepare for A Thief’s End and had my spirit broken in the process; that effort’s going to be worth it, or else I might as well be the next Voldemort in the making.  So yes, eventually -- probably soon -- I’m going to power through what I hope is the final entry in the franchise…or at least the final entry with Drake, because there’s too much money at stake to let the name die.

The end goal is to give my thoughts about the game, as I have for the three predecessors.  But if it really is the end, then I guess I’ll have to find a way to sum up the series -- my final thoughts, and my case on what it meant (and/or means) for the industry.  It’ll probably be contentious, and I’ll say right now that you should NOT take what I say seriously -- or as some ironclad truth -- but if you want to see what I think, then you’ll see eventually.  And who knows?  Maybe it’ll be worth a laugh.

Or maybe I’ll actually end up liking the game.

What?  Stranger things have happened.

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