It’s been almost two months since I had enough material built up to write a post for This Week in Gaming. I think it’s clear at this point that I may need to reconsider the name. When I originally began writing about games, I chose the name as a way to keep me to a regular schedule. But real life, as they say, has a habit of getting in the way. I’ve been so busy studying for various exams and working on my calligraphy and art that I haven’t had more than a few hours to game each week, if even that. I definitely haven’t clocked the kind of hours necessary to write anything meaningful, and that’s hurt me on two fronts. For one, I really love gaming. It’s the only hobby I have that isn’t attached to some kind of expectation of performance or improvement. Likewise, I’ve really enjoyed blogging about games over the past year, and it’s been a wonderful opportunity to learn more about myself in relation to this medium. Reflection on what I like and don’t like about the games I’ve been going through has deepened my appreciation for gaming as well as transformed them into something a bit more meaningful than the throw-away popcorn experiences I used to treat them as.
As usual, I found myself standing in the game store during my lunch break on May 10th. I vaguely recalled promises I had made both to my family and on Facebook that this year I was really going to turn over a new leaf as far as my poor spending habits were concerned, but those kinds of public claims of frugality were obviously no match for a new Naughty Dog game.
Uncharted 4 is a good game. It is very solid, and to be honest, I would be hard pressed to really find something in particular I disliked about it. I have one major problem with it on a fundamental level, and it’s that Naughty Dog didn’t really need to make another entry into the series. They could have stopped at 3 and I would have been more than satisfied with the telling of Drake’s adventures concluding there. If I remember correctly, Uncharted 3 left off with Nathan swearing off adventuring for good and starting off his life anew with Elena for the umpteenth time. I feel like a good adventure story leaves a lot to the imagination after the credits roll. You get to imagine for yourself what happens to the characters: Do they live happily ever after? Do they go on more adventures? Who knows? Honestly, I don’t want to. But Uncharted 4 told me exactly what happens to Nate after 3. We join him how-many-years after the events of the last game. He’s given up adventuring and taken up a job working for a salvage company. He lives in a picture-perfect house. Elena’s career has also been going incredibly well, it seems. This is almost exactly the life that I would expect Nate to be living had he given up treasure hunting for good. But this is a sequel. It can’t just be about his boring, middle-aged life. Something has to draw him back into adventuring, and not only that, he’s got to find that he’s actually enjoying it, too. He has to have a brother that you never heard of over the course of three games. And he also has to hide the fact that he’s adventuring from his wife. And she, of course, finds out. And then it turns out he was being lied to by his brother, too. Yes, all of these beats are incredibly predictable, but I feel like the story had no choice but to go this way if you were to take each step of the plot to its next logical turning point, so I don’t really mind it being as cookie-cutter as it was. Likewise, the writing – as always – did an excellent job of distracting me from its lack of originality in different areas. In fact, it’s only now that I realize exactly how predictable the whole thing was. I guess that proves that you don’t have to have an original story in order to have a good story.
In the end, though I thought Uncharted 4 had a good story, it’s not a story that I wanted to see. I didn’t need to know more about Nate’s origins, I didn’t need to know he had a brother, and I didn’t need to know that he would end up retiring again and having a kid. It was better not knowing for sure.
Teaching an Old Dog
Up until A Thief’s End, I would have said that the story was what got me excited about any one of the games, but for the reasons stated above, that was just not the case with Uncharted 4. This time around, I felt like the gameplay was the star of the show. With the exception of the gun-play (I still hate it), the mechanics in 4 are near-perfect and it serves as a shining example of what games should feel like. Naughty Dog has really displayed their mastery of game design. I suppose they had a very solid foundation to build upon and they’ve just been fine-tuning things over the years, so while this game doesn’t do anything particularly revolutionary, everything it does, it does extremely well. The climbing, the jumping, the sliding, and the swinging all feel perfect.
Oh yeah, and there was driving. Hmm… to be honest, I could have lived without the driving, even if it was mechanically sound…
While Uncharted 4 nails its gameplay and adds in a few mechanics here and there, there are no jumps in design like those between the first and second Assassins Creed games (two games that will always serve as an example of how to take something with a mediocre foundation and improve on it in every way). The two main gameplay additions that Thief’s End has are that of the grappling hook and sliding. Both are great and feel like natural evolutions of the Uncharted gameplay, but neither, particularly the grappling hook, feel as mind-blowing as I got the impression they would be. I actually did a pretty good job of going on total media blackout with the game from the moment it was announced, but on a few of the podcasts I listen to I had heard mention of the grappling hook and just how amazing it was going to be. Is it fun? Yes. Functional? Definitely. It’s so fine-tuned that you wonder why it wasn’t in the series from the beginning. However, I just don’t feel like it’s revolutionary or even something I would mention to someone when talking about how much fun I had with the game. The sliding areas also create a few interesting sequences here and there, but it doesn’t really stand out as anything special.
I guess that’s the issue. For the final game in the series I was kind of hoping for something both polished and innovative. Uncharted 4 is – I hate to say – just polished.
One nice thing about Uncharted that you don’t see very often in other games is the inclusion of NPCs that don’t get in the way. Especially in 4, I never felt like any of them were placing a burden on me (here’s looking at you, RE4). Naughty Dog went out of their way to really make companion characters feel less like wooden objects that follow you around to each objective while occasionally taking a random shot at enemies, and more like living, breathing people. One little touch I really loved was that when you lose your way, you can even see them looking around for the next path. They help you progress in ways that feel very natural to me. For example, there’s one puzzle where you have to pour water into some kind of mechanism, so you drop down a ledge to fill a bucket in a nearby pool. The ledge ends up being too high to climb back up while holding onto the bucket, so you pass it onto your brother, Sam. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s a little detail that made me actually glad I had someone else around to help me progress.
Master of Subtlety
I always felt like Uncharted was a little too blatant about where it wanted you to go when climbing. Anything climbable was colored so that it would stand out like a sore thumb and this design choice always seemed so forced and lacked any semblance of subtlety. While I like the fact that you never spend much time wondering where to go – which helps keep the action moving along at a good pace – it was just too ham-fisted. Good design in a platform leads you down the right path without making players feel like they were having their hands held. Uncharted 4 doesn’t quite succeed at that level of subtlety, but it at least tried a bit harder than previous games. If this were Uncharted 3, cliffs would probably have been littered with bright-yellow rocks so players didn’t get lost. On that note, I think it’s also worth mentioning that Thief’s End had about 80 percent less randomly-breaking-and-falling-away objects than I expected. Since the first game, Naughty Dog has been upping the action beats exponentially with each entry. By the time they got to Uncharted 3, I was getting sick of nearly everything Nate grabbed onto dissipated into bits or tearing away from the wall. Every step on a bridge was begging to break through. Every ledge was bound to crumble away into nothing. These kinds of tropes were getting so overused by the end of 3, it was one of the things about this game I was dreading. How over-the-top were things going to get this time around? The Tomb Raider reboot suffered from overusing action sequences and small shock scares to the point that the last third of the game overloaded my senses so much it all became just noise. I feared Uncharted 4 would do the same. Much to my surprise, it went the exact opposite route. In fact, I dare say the developers over-corrected in this regard. The (unnecessary) story was very well crafted, the mechanics were refined to perfection, and yet, for an action adventure the journey itself didn’t really get my blood pumping at any point. Even now I’m having trouble recalling any huge set pieces like the train sequence in 2, or the airplane and convey sequences in 3. I think the most interesting section in Thief’s End was the convey sequence (similar to 3), but while that was fun, it didn’t really stick out to me as much as everything that’s come before.
Uncharted 4 has refined the storytelling and the mechanics of the previous three games to the highest degree and is the most polished gaming experience I’ve had in a while. Although it is a story I didn’t want to be shown, the final chapter of Drake’s journey is told extremely well. The performances feel real and are moving, and Naughty Dog has closed the book on Uncharted in a way that shows respect to the both the characters themselves as well as the fans. It is a good game, and I would recommend it to anyone with a PS4 looking for a triple A title. That being said, I just feel like it was the typical “unnecessary sequel.” I dare say any Uncharted fan could play the first three and be satisfied with the arc and character progressions contained in that trilogy, and with that in mind, it’s difficult to say that I feel content with the experience provided in 4 as a whole. Go ahead and get it, but don’t expect it to be the best in the series.
I have – somehow – also found the time to get in a few hours on Doom 4 on PS4.
Yes, I am still trying to turn over that leaf…
This isn’t exactly the experience I was expecting, especially considering my first real exposure to the series was Doom 3, which I picked up on PS3 a year and a half ago the last time I was in America. I tried to start that game several times but found myself quitting due to the extremely slow introduction to the story. Eventually, I decided to chug on through and, after a certain point, the more I played, the more I was drawn in. Looking back now, I really loved Doom. I loved the character design, the world design, the feel of the guns, and the atmosphere.
Doom 4 is not Doom 3. In terms of pacing alone, the two games are nothing alike. Yet it’s the character designs, the world, the guns, and the atmosphere that make Doom 4 the sequel to 3. Doom 3 was a horror game because of both the story and the design. Doom 4 loses the story but somehow manages to retain that exact same feeling of tenseness and discomfort that 3 had for me.
Hopefully next week I can delve into my impressions a bit more, but for now I just want to say that any game that says “demonic threat reduced by 25%” with a straight face has my vote.