Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review – Feminist Frequency

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Review

#Video ReviewsMay 5, 2016

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Carolyn Petit

Managing Editor

Uncharted 4 opens with the quote “I am a man of fortune and I must seek my fortune.” In the three prior Uncharted games, protagonist Nathan Drake has certainly filled the role of the typical man of fortune, someone with adventure in his blood, for whom the pursuit of gold and glory is the only way of life he understands. The latest and, ostensibly, the last Uncharted game is very much yet another globe-hopping adventure full of climbing things and killing people, but while it fulfills the requirements of the action adventure genre and sometimes feels frustratingly trapped by them, there are also some exciting moments when you feel the game pushing up against the restrictions and expectations of the genre, and when it at least tries to make Drake himself and us as players question whether being a man of fortune is really all it’s cracked up to be.

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Uncharted 4 opens with the quote “I am a man of fortune and I must seek my fortune.” In the three prior Uncharted games, protagonist Nathan Drake has certainly filled the role of the typical man of fortune, someone with adventure in his blood, for whom the pursuit of gold and glory is the only way of life he understands. The latest and, ostensibly, the last Uncharted game is very much yet another globe-hopping adventure full of climbing things and killing people, but while it fulfills the requirements of the action adventure genre and sometimes feels frustratingly trapped by them, there are also some exciting moments when you feel the game pushing up against the restrictions and expectations of the genre, and when it at least tries to make Drake himself and us as players question whether being a man of fortune is really all it’s cracked up to be.

The basic premise is this: Nathan’s brother Sam, long thought dead, appears out of the blue with a price on his head and convinces Nathan to come back into the treasure-hunting game to help him find the legendary pirate loot that will let him buy his freedom. But it’s not the events of the plot that are especially interesting in Uncharted 4. Rather, it’s the way the game tells its story, with a real focus on the characters and their motivations. The dialogue and acting are excellent; often it’s what the characters don’t say that tells us the most, and sometimes they can speak volumes with just a look.

Uncharted Elena look resized

The plot itself, on the other hand, can be cliche and frustrating, and because the storytelling is so great, this leaves us wishing the characters were in a better story. The first time we see Nathan and his wife Elena together, it’s a delightful and surprising scene that suggests the two share a wonderful level of closeness and trust. Their conversation is serious and playful and honest all at once. It’s so disappointing, then, that Nathan does what men in these stories so often do when he sets out for adventure: he lies to his wife about what he’s doing.

Having Nate do something so foolish is an easy and predictable way for the story to generate conflict that also relegates Elena to representing the dull, domestic existence Nate leaves behind while he’s off gallivanting around with Sam and Sully. As players, of course we want Nathan to “seek his fortune”–that’s where all the fun and excitement comes in–and this tired plot device only makes Elena seem like an obstacle to that excitement. She’s a great character when she’s given the chance and Uncharted 4 does eventually give her the chance. But it would have been refreshing if, instead of relying on formulaic plot points, the game had given us a portrait of a marriage between two people who really do trust each other and who face challenges together as equal partners.

Uncharted Nadine smaller

Uncharted 4 also stumbles with its portrayals of people of color. The only prominent person of color in the cast is Nadine Ross, the tough and cunning owner of a private army called Shoreline, which, weirdly, despite being run by a woman, doesn’t seem to employ any. Still, she’s a decent character, and a better brawler than Nathan. But she is a villain, and aside from her, people of color in Uncharted 4 are often depicted as threatening stereotypes, like the tattooed thugs you fight in a Panamanian prison or the sadistic drug lord who threatens to end Sam’s life if he doesn’t find the legendary pirate treasure. The fact that the heroes of the game are a bunch of very privileged white people makes it a little uncomfortable that the game treats a town in Madagascar as their personal playground, with parts of it left damaged and destroyed in the wake of a massive action setpiece.

At times, internal tension arises between the human story that Uncharted 4 is trying to tell and the inhuman actions that the game makes its heroes perform. Nathan and Sam sometimes reflect on the morality of the pirates whose treasure they’re hunting but never really pause and question the morality of their own actions. And in one scene, the psychopathic antagonist Rafe Adler states that Nathan and Sam don’t have it in them to kill Nadine, even though they’ve literally killed hundreds of people by that point in the game.

It’s in moments like this that Uncharted 4 feels most constrained by the fact that, as an action adventure game, it is seemingly required to force you into situations where you have to kill a dozen or so guys. But to its credit, Uncharted 4 also tries to rise above the standard expectations of the action adventure game. In some ways, it’s clearly building on Left Behind, developer Naughty Dog’s wonderful DLC for The Last of Us which placed more emphasis on storytelling and character development than on action and violence.

Uncharted Shambhala smaller

This is a game that’s willing to really take its time using gameplay to enhance our understanding of its characters, as in an early scene where you explore Nathan’s house, finding mementos of his past adventures. There is a wonderful density of detail to its environments that makes you feel grounded in these places as you just walk around, examining objects and getting a richer idea of who these people are. There’s also a terrific confidence to the game’s pacing. Even more so than in earlier Uncharted games, long, compelling stretches are devoted to just traversing its beautiful levels and solving puzzles, with combat feeling like a periodic punctuation to the action rather than something the game relies on constantly.

Uncharted 4
is frustrating when it is exploring really conventional and (ahem) well-charted territory. But there are a number of beautiful and surprising moments in it which I’m not going to talk about here, and the excellent environmental design, writing and voice acting often lift the characters above the conventions of the story they’re stuck in. In the end, it’s the relationships, not the pirate booty, that matter most in Uncharted 4. And while the game sometimes goes through the motions of being a standard action adventure, it also simultaneously demonstrates that there’s still room for AAA games to challenge our expectations and really surprise us, and that’s something I want to see a lot more of in the future.