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August 25, 2016

Let’s discuss Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (Part 1).


So I finally beat Uncharted 4.


Some people live their dreams
Some people close their eyes
Some people's destiny
Passes by

There are no guarantees
There are no alibis
That's how our love must be
Don't ask why

It takes some time
God knows how long
I know that I can forget you

As soon as my heart stops breaking
Anticipating
As soon as forever is through
I'll be over you

*sigh*

CRIPES.


So in case you’re just now joining me for this little adventure, I’ll give a quick summary.  In anticipation of Uncharted 4, I decided to play through the other three console installments first (via The Nathan Drake Collection).  I pretty much had to, seeing as how I’d never touched them.  It seemed like a good idea at the time; not only would I be ready for Nate’s final adventure, but also be able to see what I’d been missing for all these years.  I mean, it’s not like you become a critically-acclaimed, multimillion-dollar franchise by being awful, right?

Imagine my surprise, then, when I discover over the course of some 30 hours of gameplay, that I find the Uncharted franchise to be stunningly awful.  I went in knowing the jokes -- har har, Nate kills a ton of people -- but other than that I didn’t exactly bear the franchise any ill will.  It was just kind of there.  At least it was, until I actually played through them. 


My findings?  Drake’s Fortune is a disappointment and a slog, to the point where I wonder if it only got a sequel because it got brute-forced into being Sony’s “flagship” title.  Among Thieves “set the bar” for many, but the sheer amount of badness (in gameplay, in plot, whatever) is enough to make me wonder if I’m the only sane man left on the planet.  Drake’s Deception comes off as the definition of phoned in, with a copypasta plot and gameplay that somehow manages to take a downward turn.  I had hoped that I would find some merit to the franchise -- or at the very least something to enjoy -- but my smile and optimism were gone before the halfway point of Drake’s Fortune.  By the time I finished the trilogy, I was burnt out.  Dead inside.  I wanted to give up on video games in their entirety -- and I kind of did for a little while.  Given the choice between “Play Game X” and “sleep”, I ended up choosing sleep more often than not.

That lack of desire carried over into my playthrough of A Thief’s End.  I started it, and didn’t play it again for…Christ, it must’ve been at least a month.  I legitimately thought about just watching an LP to spare the time and effort (and tremendous willpower) needed to finish it.  But I soldiered on, and finished it last week -- as of this writing, of course.  And you know what?  I’m glad I did.  I’m glad I pushed on and played through the PS4 entry.

But don’t get me wrong.  I’m not glad because I liked the game, or even enjoyed it.  Not in the goddamn slightest; it still left me bored and miserable, and eager to play any number of other games within mere paces of my chair.  I’m glad because now I’m finally, truly free…and I can boldly declare that I hate the entire franchise.


I will be fair, though.  If I had to rank the games, I’d put A Thief’s End in the number two slot.  So basically, my ranking goes something like 1 > 4 > 2 > 3.  Don’t take that as a ringing endorsement, though; Drake’s Fortune is a bad game no matter which way you slice it, and it just goes to show how little I think of the other three if it can’t top its earliest entry.  Still, that’s the ranking I’m going with -- and a simplified one, too.  Not only do I consider Drake’s Fortune to be the best, but it’s the best by a pretty wide margin.  If Among Thieves is infuriating and Drake’s Deception is phoned in, then the best way to describe A Thief’s End -- besides repeating the same words/phrases -- is to call it “bland”.  It’s very, very, very, very bland.

Now, look.  I shouldn’t have to say it at this point, but I’ll go ahead and say it anyway: everything I’ve written so far, and everything I will say, is my opinion.  It’s no unflinching truth or immutable law.  It’s just what one guy thinks of one game (and one franchise at large).  If you like it, that’s great.  More power to you.  As always, I wish I could share that opinion.  But I can’t.  Not with this franchise.  I know it’s popular, and successful, and people treat Naughty Dog like their golden boy, but I cannot and will not join in on the praise.  To others, Naughty Dog and Uncharted are the finest chocolate on the face of the earth.  To me?  Well, they’re still chocolate…but I hate chocolate.

Take that disclaimer as you will.  But I’ll respect your opinion, so I hope you’ll respect mine -- sacrilegious as it may be.


So here’s a fun fact: in preparation for writing this post, I decided to go through and read my earlier posts on the Uncharted games -- collectively organized into the “UnchartedPalooza”.  And you know what?  I noticed something interesting.  The problems with those games are all problems that carry over into A Thief’s End, more or less.  I mean that from both a story perspective and a gameplay perspective, but especially on the gameplay front.  It leads me to believe that once again, Uncharted 4 is a copypasta job.

And you know, there’s nothing grievously, inherently wrong with being the same game released ad nauseum.  It’s not ideal or recommended, but it’s not an instant fail-state.  How much has Super Smash Bros. changed over its 15-ish years of existence?  Enough, I’d say, but it was still the same in 2014 as it was back in 1999.  The key difference is that the four-player fighter has gameplay that’s actually engaging.  Uncharted does not.  It never has.  But it’s built on that formula -- that awful formula -- for about a decade with a smile on its face, rather than figuring out how to improve or diverge in the slightest.

And yes, I know that there are “new features” in this game.  I’ll get to them in a bit.  So for now, let’s set the story aside and focus this post solely on the gameplay.

Have your alcohol of choice at the ready.


Not too long ago, I said that the Uncharted series -- through the first three games, at least -- tried its hardest to push what I called the “monogenre”.  It was (and still is) a hodgepodge of all of the genres it can think of; it offered gamers a cocktail of shooting, platforming, puzzle-solving, stealth, and action, just to name a few.  It’s an admirable effort, for sure.  Plus, offering up so many genres at once means that theoretically, there’s something for everyone to enjoy.  But when you try to be everything and do everything, you’re risking a lot of dilution.  Sure enough, that’s what happened with Uncahrted as a whole: it has things in it, and things to do, but it’s not particularly engaging in any of those things.  Jack of all trades, master of none.

But it’s been five years since Uncharted 3, and the game industry has changed tremendously in the time since -- least of all because of the release of the latest consoles.  How do you keep up with the times after such a long absence?  Well, obviously, you double down.  You do everything you can to reassert your dominance of the monogenre -- and you do that by co-opting all of the advances your peers have made into your latest game.  Because that’s how you evolve, people.  Just do what everyone else is doing, even if it doesn’t feel welcome or make sense.


Okay, sure.  Maybe that’s a pretty harsh and unfair stance to take with this game and its franchise at large.  But in case it wasn’t obvious, I’m all out of fucks to give for the adventures of Nathan Drake and crew.  And having played through all of them, including the latest game, I can say that in my opinion the new features either add nothing substantial or actually take away from the final product.  It really does just feel like it added new features (such as they are) because other AAA games had them, and Naughty Dog had to play catch-up.

The biggest example of this is that they added branching dialogue, kind of like Mass Effect…in theory, but it feels about as well-implemented as it was in Final Fantasy 13-2.  Here’s how it works: during certain cutscenes, you have the option to press a button and have Nate respond to different conversations in different ways.  And it’s just like, “Okay, this could be a thing.  Maybe I can have some kind of agency in the narrative -- you know, push Nate towards making some good decisions, or lead him towards an alternate route.”



It doesn’t work like that.  For starters, you have very few chances to even SEE the branching dialogue choices in action; they come so rarely that you’ll either forget they’re in the game, or you’ll wonder why they were even added in the first place.  That’s especially true with the latter point, because near as I can tell, the dialogue choices have no impact whatsoever.  One of the earliest ones has Elena asking Nate to repeat what she was talking about, but I suspect all of them were the wrong choice (since Nate zoned out mid-conversation).  When Nate’s getting pounded on by one of the baddies, he can try and reason with her -- and it doesn’t work.  So then another prompt gives him a chance to A) fire off a quip, B) fire off a quip, or C) fire off a quip.  And near the end, the dialogue choices are A) continue this conversation or B) stop this conversation.

I guess it was inevitable.  Uncharted is a pretty tightly-bound adventure, focused on guiding players through a narrative rollercoaster.  Having Nate say something out of line would derail the cars and send the audience careening off of a loop.  I get that.  But if that’s the case -- if the choices aren’t going to matter in the long run because predetermined cutscenes outstrip player agency, then why have those dialogue options in the first place?  Why create the illusion of choice when the illusion is pretty terrible?


Next problem.  One of the major new additions to A Thief’s End is the grappling hook, which puts a new traversal tool in Nate’s arsenal.  By tapping the L1 button, you’ll be able to have our “hero” fling the hook at certain points, latch onto it, and be able to swing or climb as needed.  Even though using ropes, vines and chains to clear wide gaps has been a part of the franchise from the start, here you can use your grappling hook to make it through otherwise impossible paths.  And it works fine.  As intended -- most likely because the game won’t allow otherwise. 

If you’re in range of a grappling hook point (and that range is generous), then a single tap of L1 is all it takes to latch on.  It leads to situations where Nate will throw the hook and rope at a model-distorting angle and have it work perfectly regardless, but I get the idea behind it.  No time to aim, given that sometimes you’ll use it to avoid certain death.  It’s a way to preserve the pacing of both basic platforming and high-stakes action beats.  But it still feels insubstantial.


Call me cynical, but I suspect that the grappling hook is as much about traversal as it is about giving players a chance to marvel at the million-dollar sights while Nate dangles in the air.  Alternatively, Nate has to swing a lot because it looks cool, and the death-defying heights are supposed to impress a sense of danger and breathlessness in the player.  But after a few tosses of the hook, the specialness is gone.  Much like the climbing in general, it’s basically an automated process -- and while I get that that’s probably by design, it doesn’t make for an interesting gameplay mechanic. 

That’s true in platforming sequences as well as skirmishes; the idea is that you’re supposed to use it to gain an advantage in height or positioning, or maybe land an instant-kill drop on a foe.  But given that it’s a cover-based shooter -- one in which Nate’s wanting for mobility on the hook or on his feet -- it strikes me as extremely unwise to try and swing your way to victory when you have to establish where you’re going to end up and what baddies you’ll have to deal with…all while you’re taking hits from distant gunmen.

Also, I know this is venturing into pedantic territory (which is par for the course with me), but why isn’t Nate using the grappling hook all the time instead of every now and then?  Yeah, I get it -- he has to use the hook on points that are reasonably secure/hook-ready, and expecting him to take time out to aim would hurt the pacing Naughty Dog is nursing.  But it seems like there are a lot of situations outside of action or platforming sequences where he could use the hook to tug himself or others to higher points.  Then again, I guess if he did that, then there wouldn’t be any platforming puzzles to solve.  Inasmuch as there can be platforming puzzles.


So basically, the grappling hook comes off as something minor; it’s nowhere near a game changer, especially since The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker had grappling down pat more than a decade ago.  It’s not much of an evolution gameplay-wise, since it doesn’t add a new layer of depth or challenge.  And it opens up questions story-wise, since apparently Nate learned about the marvels of grappling as a kid, but only just now thought about picking it up again in his fourth major adventure.  If I had to guess, I’d say that it’s the linearity of the game that hurts the grappling hook’s impact; you’re not so much an explorer as you are a member of a guided tour, with grappling used solely to make sure you’re paying attention. 

That’s kind of a problem when so much of a game is dedicated to traversing lavishly-rendered areas.  And sure, it’s not like being linear or limited is an inherent problem; Wind Waker’s primary use for the grappling hook was to latch onto certain points in a generally-obvious path (though it expanded the tool’s use over time…and had multiple tools to offset it).  The problem is that Uncharted isn’t engaging enough to justify anything in its monogenre arsenal, even with new additions. 


And some of these additions come off as baffling; for whatever reason, Nate picks up a tool of a dead pirate that lets him jam a blade into porous rock and create a makeshift ledge.  This happens at least two thirds of the way into the game, if not more -- and sure enough, it doesn’t add much besides a formality, a way of saying “See?  Now the climbing is much less automated than before!  Now you don’t just press X to move, but you have to use Square every now and then!  Brilliant, right?”

Credit where credit’s due: getting that tool does mix up the monotony of climbing, at least when you actually get to use it.  But why did it come so late?  I can’t confirm anything, but I have a theory that Naughty Dog caught wind of a similar tool in the rebooted Tomb Raider games and decided to add their own version of it.  It just ended up happening late into development, that’s all.  Because any and all mechanics of AAA games must be co-opted into Uncharted, so that all games can continue to be one single game.

It’d help explain why A Thief’s End co-opts elements from Splinter Cell, Far Cry 3, and Metal Gear Solid V…which arguably means that all of those games steal from each other, but whatever.  Everything is turning into everything else (if it hasn’t already), and Uncharted’s done its damnedest to ensure the immortality of the monogenre.


So here’s the rub: once more, stealth gets played up in the game.  On occasion, Nate and crew will get the drop on enemies; that gives you the chance to dispatch them one by one while staying hidden.  You’ll have a better shot at it by making use of the tall grass strewn about, especially since it lets you land a stealth kill while darting almost instantly back into safety.  More to the point, there’s a new feature that lets you mark enemies on the field by aiming and pressing L3.  That way, you can keep up with foes no matter where you (or they) might be in an area.  In theory, you can plan your strategy and clear an area without a fight.

In practice?  It’s got the same problem as previous games: a number of areas aren’t conducive to stealth, given how much unsafe climbing and jumping you have to do on a regular basis.  Nate’s animations still take too long, meaning that it’s all too easy to get spotted despite making the right moves.  Marking enemies on the map feels more like a minor addition instead of a critical feature; setting aside the fact that the markers are set in white -- against very bright backgrounds that obscure their presence -- they still don’t help you keep perfect track of an enemy’s position or orientation. 


It’s a poor man’s MGSV, basically.  Keeping track of baddies is much easier (and more essential) in that game because of the tools at your disposal, the terrain/mechanics that enable better stealth, and the consequences of failure.  If I end up getting detected in MGSV -- which is often -- then I know that it’s my fault for being too reckless.  Paradoxically, you can make up for your mistakes or poor planning with a brief grace period that allows you to shoot a foe in slow motion.  Get spotted in Uncharted, and it’s action time.  And sure, you can run away and hide in grass to disable the alert, but why would you ever want to when shooting enemies is much faster and far more efficient?

The critical misstep with A Thief’s End -- something that even The Last of Us understood -- is that Nate doesn’t have any long-range stealth options.  Unless there are silenced pistols hiding in the game (which you’re very unlikely to carry with you 24/7, thanks in part to Nate constantly losing his weapons in cutscenes), there’s no way to disable enemies quietly without a huge risk.  Your only option is to get within attack range -- on foot, behind cover, or hanging from a ledge -- and hit Square to take out a foe.  So if there are 12 guys bumping around, you can’t just take out two or three of them from a safe and tactically-sound spot.  You have to go from one guy to the next guy to the next guy, slowly, in sequence, and hope you don’t get spotted along the way.  And the probability of that increases dramatically over time.

But it’s fine.  If you have a shotgun, you can still win 90% of the game’s skirmishes with braindead run and gun antics.  Tactical espionage operations, these are not.


And of course, there are driving sections.  It’s not as if Uncharted has been a stranger to vehicle segments -- the first game had a less-than-stellar jet ski sequence -- but there’s a higher concentration of it in the fourth game.  It pretty much has to, because on a couple of occasions the game opens up; it dumps Nate and his pals in a wide area to (theoretically) explore, with the intent to expand the scale of A Thief’s End.  Well, however briefly.  The cynic in me looks at those moments and points fingers, accusing Naughty Dog of trying to jam in open-world segments to chase after Grand Theft Auto

But I don’t think they even go that far; it’s more like the Gran Pulse section of Final Fantasy 13.  An intensely-linear game suddenly decides to open up and let players wander through a sprawling expanse, which in theory should work like gangbusters.  But when you actually get to do the exploring, it exposes the fact that there’s not much to do.  You’re still essentially on that guided tour, only the tour temporarily becomes 0.125 times more interesting.  Which is to say, not interesting at all

There’s still a set path for you to follow, which keeps you from getting lost (in the absence of a map).  But the diversions aren’t particularly worth it; Nate might find some ruins along the way, but an investigation of them will either turn up a basic document or a fat load of nothing.  Those quasi-open-world segments slaughter the pacing of the game -- and even though I have problems with the franchise, it’s not as if I hate anything that’s a linear adventure.  Structure is good.  Guided tours have merit.  So why would Naughty Dog opt to ditch that for sequences in wide-open spaces without a shred of tension?

Oh, right.  Because A Thief’s End has to assert itself as the God Emperor of the Monogenre, and thus be every game at once even if it’s terrible at it.


What really kills me is that the actual driving is fine…to an extent.  The moment it was revealed that Nate would be behind the wheel, I was dreading shoddy controls or mechanics that wouldn’t be out of place in Watch Dogs or Batman: Arkham Knight.  Thankfully, they weren’t nearly as bad.  I could move around with relative ease; I couldn’t exactly do powerslides straight out of Mario Kart 8, but unless I drove into mud I still had a full range of mobility and responsiveness.

At least, I did.  But I swear to God, when it’s time for a setpiece featuring vehicle driving the controls become demonstrably worse.  Maybe it’s justified by the sheer speeds Nate is moving at, but steering where I wanted to steer felt like a dice roll overseen by the gods of fortune.  I was swerving out of control and crashing in places where the game probably didn’t want me to crash -- and even when I managed to slow down, it still felt like I was controlling a giant bar of soap coated in grease.  So I’m led to believe that the driving was purposefully hamstrung just to create more “hype moments”.  I hope I’m wrong on that, but…honestly, it wouldn’t surprise me.


And that’s basically everything that’s new to A Thief’s End.  Okay, sure, you get to have optional dialogue with your comrades (and unlock bonuses in the main menu), but A) those are decidedly fleeting, and B) those conversations don’t do much to enrich our understanding or appreciation of the characters.  And you get to slide around on sloped drops -- which often lead to a grappling hook prompt for maximum “excitement” -- but that doesn’t add much besides a minor diversion, and one that’s bereft of the risks you’d expect of an action-adventure.  These features either add nothing in the long run, or subtract from the whole by introducing problems that didn’t have to be there.

Take them away, and what do you have?  The same game, basically.  But leave them in, and what do you have?  The same game, basically.  Nate still controls clumsily, getting stuck on stuff or misinterpreting your inputs.  Gunplay is still incredibly basic, with headshots aplenty and grenades that still land by your head with pinpoint accuracy (and the ability to toss them back excised).  The melee combat will never be better than when it had the Brutal Combo, because anything otherwise is a high-risk and overlong amount of guesswork you’re forced into.  Not even the occasional wrestling move can save it, and that’s saying something fierce.


Climbing stuff is still basically a bunch of busywork sped up solely by mashing X and a direction.  Puzzle-solving is still playing gatekeeper to progression and little else -- even if it’s just leading to more fast-paced sections that aren’t even remotely interesting.  Speaking of which, there are actually setpieces that get repeated in this game; Nate still has to jump from one moving vehicle to another, and still has to escape a burning building, and still has to survive a grenade blowing up an inch away from his face. 

Things will still collapse or fall apart so many times that you’ll lose count, and all attempts at subtlety have been lost.  When Nate has to clamber over a downed palm tree, you just know it’s only so he can switch to “oh no, Nate’s falling again” mode.  By the way, I just love how almost the entirety of a clock tower collapses around Nate -- who’s gone as high as its bells -- and he walks away from it with little more than a cough.


And maybe it wouldn’t be so bad -- any of it -- if the past three games in the franchise (Golden Abyss excluded) had the decency to avoid overstaying their welcome.  But they don’t.  Uncharted 2, 3, and 4 are all WAY TOO LONG for what they’re trying to accomplish, gameplay-wise or story-wise.  (Drake’s Fortune is the ONLY ONE that understood how to keep its excess under control, and even then only partially.)  I know that’s hypocritical, coming from a guy who’s blown more than 4000 words in this post alone, but hear me out. 

I like the Marvel movies as much as the next guy, but it’s not just because of blind fanaticism for Captain America.  The people behind it know what they’re doing; it has characters, plots, action, and more that changes either across movies or in the span of their run times -- often both.  There’s escalation.  There’s differentiation.  There’s imagination.  Those things are proven, and each movie ends before things can get too stale or repetitive.


As a franchise that’s been aping blockbuster movies for the past decade, Uncharted doesn’t understand that -- and it STILL doesn’t, as proven by A Thief’s End.  Because there’s so much of it -- so much rehashed or barely-remixed content that it comes off as filler -- the goal to create a pulse-pounding experience is eternally compromised.  There’s nothing left in the chamber 11 hours in, 10 hours in, 8 hours in, 5 hours in, or even 2 hours in. 

Why?  Because I’m routinely left saying “I’ve already done this before” or “You already did that” by the events that transpire.  It’s been done in other games, and it’s been done in this franchise.  But it’s constantly shoved into my face in A Thief’s End, as if more bland content will equal better content in the long run.  And it doesn’t.  I’m constantly trying to blow through the slow parts so I can get to the fast parts, and then I’m constantly trying to blow through the fast parts to get to the slow parts.  That’s not a good situation to be in.

But it’s the situation I landed in regardless.  Because as bad as the gameplay is, there’s still the story.

Oh God.  There’s still the story -- and I’m legitimately, genuinely confused by it, even now. 



So I’ll see you next time, then.  And keep your chin up; I’ll be going into the exact moment where the game, and the franchise at large just dies…and I laughed so much I had to wipe away tears.

Remembering times gone by
Promises we once made
What are the reasons why
Nothing stays the same

There were the nights holding you close
Someday I'll try to forget them

As soon as my heart stops breaking
Anticipating
As soon as forever is through
I'll be over you

*sigh*

FUCKIN’ SHIT.

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