Tuesday, May 17, 2016

One Last Adventure – Uncharted 4: A Thief's End

A Thief's End is the fourth and final game in Naughty Dog's Uncharted series.

I’ve never reviewed an Uncharted game, because I’ve found it to be a mostly disposable series. Nathan Drake (Nolan North) going off on his light, fun, Indiana Jones-style adventures resulted in some eye-catching setpieces but few lasting memories for me (and, in hindsight, it may have been that same resemblance to Indiana Jones which failed to charm me; you have to work real hard to beat Indy at his own game). The high level of visual polish and cinematic flair of Drake’s globetrotting quests provided some temporary “wow moments,” and the characterization and mo-cap performance of Drake and his companions were definite touchstones in turn of the century storytelling in games, but these elements were hamstrung by lackluster combat sections, which interrupted the smooth linear flow of story and gameplay (mostly revolving around traversing the lush environments and solving ancient puzzles). The Uncharted series always struck me as a series of impressive, if slightly forgettable games – until the fourth iteration, that is. Drake’s adventures came to an end, and it was there at the edge of the map that Uncharted and I finally made communion.

A Thief’s End introduces Drake as a veteran of three games; three treasure-hunting adventures through exotic locales and lost cities and hordes of faceless mercenaries which have battered him so completely that he has retreated to a quote-unquote “normal” life, married to prior heroine Elena Fisher (Emily Rose) and working a dull salvage job. Nathan’s brother Sam (Troy Baker) resurfaces after a long stint in prison, and rekindles Nate’s thirst for adventure, convincing him to come on one last treasure hunt – this time for the hoarded wealth of legendary pirate captain James Avery. They’re joined by series stalwart Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Richard McGonagle) and opposed by Rafe Adler (Warren Kole), a shady figure from their shared past. A Thief’s End still suffers from the same gameplay ailments which plagued its predecessors, but its improvements in storytelling and presentation are so seismic that they make up for any lack of meaningful interactivity. There’s actually a difficulty mode that removes certain combat sections so that the story may be experienced as seamlessly as possible, which to me is an admission that the gameplay isn’t really the interesting or worthwhile part of the game. And to me, that is very interesting in itself.

I credit the Uncharted series with that aforementioned level of cinematic polish because it’s been a mark of distinction for developer Naughty Dog, especially in their landmark title The Last of Us (2013) – to the point that I’m willing to forgive, in both games, a broad lack of interesting or memorable gameplay. Typing out that sentence really gave me pause. Isn’t that sort of insane? Aren’t games, by definition, separated from other media by virtue of their interactivity? (Don’t worry, I don’t intend to slip into the morass that are the “what is a game?” and “can games be art?” conversations; I want to keep the focus on Uncharted.) The simple answer is yes, but I believe there’s room in our gaming landscape for experiences that, like A Thief’s End, stride bravely into that unknown territory, filling out the edges of our definitions and expectations, like Drake following a map to untold riches. Many jeer that the Uncharted games are simply movies that you sometimes participate in, and I think that’s pretty spot-on. Where I differ from these people is in my belief that this style of gaming experience is not only permissible, but fascinating – and if there is a strong case to be made for such a game being taken seriously as a cinematic experience, it’s A Thief’s End.

Despite occasional texture pop-ins, draw distance issues, and stuttering framerates – all of which are problems caused by hardware limitations on the Playstation 4, and not by the game itself – my sense of immersion in the story presentation of A Thief’s End was total and profound. There are no stilted animations, no dodgy contacts with props or the environments, no dip into the uncanny valley. You believe it, fully and immediately. (This is the first time that I’ve seen a pair of game characters kiss convincingly. That milestone may sound trivial, but it’s mind-boggling to realize it took almost 30 years for this to happen.) You are drawn in as readily and effortlessly into Drake’s world as you would be by any CG feature film, and in my opinion, few CG features look this incredibly detailed and lifelike. And though the game’s smooth presentation may appear effortless, I can attest that it’s not; working in cinematics production has given me keen insight into the shifting maelstrom of in-game cutscene development and what a nightmare they can be to produce, let alone polish to the kind of sheen boasted by A Thief’s End.

More to the point, the technical successes of A Thief’s End are simply a means to that end, which is the execution of a compelling, exciting, emotional story, centered on characters that have evolved from glorified pastiches into layered, fascinating people. North’s portrayal of Nate as the wisecracking Diet Indy of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune (2007) has matured into a nuanced performance that reveals the pain behind his constant quips, capturing Nate’s denial, self-doubt, and unresolved grief. The story ventures beyond the well-worn adventure tropes that fueled the origins of the series and posits that, hey, a man like this who chases fortune and glory and makes reckless choices and laughs them off is probably a bit of a destructive asshole in normal conditions, and we see that natural fallout in the dissolution of his relationships with Elena, Sully, and Sam. We see Nate question his motivations for chasing treasure around the globe, and whether they may be entirely selfish, even when someone else’s life is on the line. A Thief’s End is exactly that: a denouement that represents a total deconstruction – and reconstruction – of the main character. I won’t spoil where the story goes, but it was such a joy to experience it, in all its thoughtfulness, passion, polish, and honesty, that it became disappointing to occasionally have to pick up a gun and shoot some dudes.

It might be pure exhaustion – after four titles featuring similarly half-baked cover-based run-and-gun combat, I might simply be sick of it – but I think the combat in A Thief’s End goes beyond an annoyance or a distraction, and becomes a straight-up detriment to the game. I think the strength of the game’s narrative presentation, especially in terms of its improvements over its predecessors, highlights the yawning gulf between the story and the combat gameplay. Industry veteran Clint Hocking coined the term “ludonarrative dissonance” to describe this disconnect between a game’s verisimilitude of story and the ludicrous and excessive violence which often accompanies it. It seems to me that Naughty Dog is more than aware of this disconnect, even making a cheeky reference to Hocking's term in the title of a trophy the game awards you for killing 1000 enemies. I get the distinct impression that Naughty Dog includes its tacked-on combat – complete with small iterations on the formula with each new game, like the grappling hook and improved stealth mechanics of A Thief's End – as a way to remain competitive in a cut-throat market. All it takes is five minutes trying to dodge enemy fire as you scramble awkwardly from cover to cover to realize that their hearts just aren't in it – the characters and the narrative they generate are where the team's passion truly lies. Every combat sequence in A Thief's End was an unwelcome interruption from the game's beautifully-told story, no matter how seamless the transition was from exploring and talking to shooting never-ending waves of nameless foes.

Many games prioritize gameplay over narrative, and that can be a good or bad thing – but in this game, the combat acts as the connective tissue between each story sequence, and its relative mediocrity serves both to bolster the storytelling by comparison, and weaken it with its frequent interruptions to the game's momentum. I should applaud Naughty Dog for making this as painless as possible in their fourth crack at bat – the tone of the series invites action and adventurous peril, after all, and the inclusion of several combat-oriented setpieces that also involve environmental hazards like collapsing buildings help in lessening the amount of mindless gunfighting – but they never manage to fully shake that particular monkey off their back (for reasons that may or may not be entirely their fault).

The game's success, then, is its ability to wave away this issue, to distract you from its tattered shoes by twirling its gorgeously embroidered cape. To say that A Thief's End sets a new bar for other games to reach is to vastly understate the emotional power of its story, which was finally able to connect me to these characters and move me in ways that were surprising and unique. In a post- Witcher 3 world, that's a hell of a feat. And its jaw-droppingly beautiful level art, cinematography, and animation are the final nail in the coffin for those who claim there isn't a place today for cinematically-driven games. With the finale of Drake's saga, Naughty Dog have cemented their place in gaming history, and then some.

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

No comments:

Post a Comment