Most people call it quits after their first lost city. Not Nathan Drake: he’s done loads. If you’ve got a legendary city lost to time, an ancient artefact harbouring a deadly curse or a secret treasure cache you’d prefer stayed where you bloody well left it, he’ll find it. Age has caught up with the hapless treasure hunter, however, and after a career spanning three (now four) games proper – and about as many notepads detailing the solutions to a series of increasingly elaborate, but only mildly perplexing, puzzles – Drake’s fresh out of graves to rob and tombs to raid.
Tonally, Uncharted 4 is a shade darker than the series has been in the past; backdrops alive with vibrancy largely being swapped for gloomy caves and overcast skies. The difference is subtle at first, but the shift is manifest most notably in the narrative, where Drake’s motivations for routinely putting his and his loved one’s lives on the line in the name of a few dusty – albeit, priceless – pirate baubles are put under the microscope. For the first time in the series grand adventures, and even grander explosions, are as important to the game’s goings-on as what drives Nate, this man of fortune, to seek his fortune in the first place.
This lens swap, subtle as it may be, makes all the difference in the world. Where before Uncharted games were silly, pseudo-blockbusters to be taken exclusively with your morning pinch of salt, Uncharted 4 has about it an underlying seriousness, a sense of being vaguely grounded in reality in everything Drake and co do, that simply wasn’t present before. Where once set pieces (jumping between train cars as they explode and are thrown from the rails, running and gunning through a building as it collapses and topples over) were the focal point of the adventure, and everything in between just context to get you there, they now feel like bullet points on the page of a much more complicated narrative.
Ultimately, taking a more restrained approach means that Uncharted 4 is a fundamentally different type of game to that of its predecessors; a game that, trying as it may to use its brain a bit more, can’t work out why all the blood keeps rushing downstairs whenever something on screen blows up. It’s a game in conflict with itself, then: wanting its characters to be seen as plausible real world people with believable emotions and bad hair days, while at the same time focusing on someone who has never before experienced either of those things. All Drake’s ever had to worry about up until this point is getting the blood stains out of his H&M henley before unabashedly gunning down the next lot of bad guys.
All that carnal killing was fine before because it wasn’t asking to be taken seriously. It made sense when Nate stood over an army of dead mercs and blue yeti people in Shambhala and cracked an awful one liner, because why wouldn’t he? He’s Nathan Drake, the closest thing gamers have to Indiana Jones short of getting their nephews the Lego games for Christmas so they can act like they don’t actually want to play them.
Gameplay has never been the series’ forte, either, and if Uncharted 4’s feels like it’s been ripped straight from a game that was outdated by 2011’s standards, that’s because it has. In the past, even though the gameplay – an uninspiring mix of “floaty” gunplay, perfunctory climbing mechanics and, ugh, quick time events, so many quick time events! – was passable at best, it did the job; succeeding in its purpose of effectively conveying the feeling of being an untouchable psychopath who fires up cliffsides like he were bouldering down at the gym.
Juxtaposed against Uncharted 4’s more serious tone, however, it all falls a bit flat. It’s all right to be liberal with how much Nate can get shot up before keeling over, or with how easily he can choke out a heavily armoured soldier – it is a video game, after all – but there’s a line; a line Uncharted 4 doesn’t comfortably sit on. Drake’s struggle with emotional complexity feels so false because he is not now, nor has he ever been, an emotionally complex character. He simply isn’t capable of it. Having a believable personality, emotional depth, or in any way resembling a real human being at all just isn’t in the script.
It’s hard to say for sure, but it’s likely that The Last of Us directors Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann’s influence had more than a little to do with Uncharted 4’s dour mood. Sure The Last of Us is a great game, one of the best, but it is also a very different type of game; a game whose tone and atmosphere don’t make sense in Uncharted’s fantastical world. When Joel creeps up behind an enemy and strangles them, their eyes bulge and redden as they gasp for air; when Nate smacks someone with the butt of his rifle, their out cold for the foreseeable future.
While Uncharted 4’s aesthetic is still nowhere near the bludgeoning brutality of The Last of Us, it does bear an undeniable resemblance that doesn’t compliment the experience in quite the same way. Being grounded in such a gritty reality worked for Straley and Druckmann's 2013 masterpiece because they specifically developed its world and characters with it in mind. Ellie and Joel were written with a verisimilitude that Nate and Sully were simply never intended to have. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that: it’s what made Uncharted such a beloved franchise in the first place. But somewhere along the way, those two very dissonant types of game became muddled and Uncharted 4 suffers because of it.
Alright, so maybe trying to give the tin man a heart wasn’t the worst thing Naughty Dog could’ve done, but by choosing to focus the story of Uncharted 4 on the very serious and intimate inner workings of its intrinsically shallow characters (sans Sully: apparently he’s too old of for this crap), they fundamentally misunderstood the appeal of the series. Expect their next game to be about Crash Bandicoot questioning the double denim outfit he doesn’t have, or Jak, of and Daxter fame, seeing a psychiatrist about his compulsive obsession with precursor orbs. Or just The Last of Us 2. Whatever.