by Jed Pressgrove
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is by far the best Uncharted game. That’s not a surprise since the series is largely mediocre, but this fact doesn’t take away from Uncharted 4’s almost-perfect opening chapters that change protagonist Nathan Drake from an opportunistic douchebag “related” to Sir Francis Drake to an individual beset by familial, spiritual, and instinctual pressures. This conflict, which appropriately references the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves, loses its potency and its point when directors Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann seem to go out of their way to recycle action concepts and arrive at a non-messy, amoral ending.
The previous Uncharted game, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, attempted to draw the series closer to the mythology of the Indiana Jones films with its flashback of a young Nathan Drake getting a lesson in thievery from veteran Victor Sullivan (adult Nathan’s partner). This flashback resembles what a young Indiana Jones experienced in The Last Crusade when he got his fedora from an older, better man, but Uncharted 3’s secular lightheartedness and lack of family ties spoil the Indiana Jones comparison and show a specious understanding of juvenile development. Uncharted 4 corrects this mistake with flashbacks depicting young Nathan’s rejection of religion — the game’s best visual is when Nathan sits on a bed as a nun remonstrates him, the lighting on the boy bringing out the preciousness of his soul — and the influence of his big brother Sam.
The present-day journey in Uncharted 4 takes off when Nathan learns Sam, thought to be deceased for years, is alive and needs help finding treasure to pay off a crime lord. Due to guilt over the fact that he once left his brother for dead on an ill-advised quest for fortune, Nathan lies to and leaves his wife Elena to accompany his long-lost mentor sibling, but the script also implies Nathan is starved for violence. This yearning shows up in an earlier segment when Nathan, retired from adventuring, rolls around in his man cave and shoots targets with a toy gun, as if to combat withdrawal. When Nathan later lies to Elena again in order to buy more time to assist Sam, the shot of the wife on the phone dissolves into a shot of the Madagascar wilderness (where the brothers think they’re hot on the trail of treasure). This cinematic technique powerfully communicates screwed-up priorities: the thrill of danger first, family second. Sullivan, often a comic-relief character, even highlights Nathan’s dubious motivation: “I thought this was about saving Sam.”
The deeper you get into Uncharted 4, the less concerned it is about morality and the more determined it is to run the player through a gauntlet of unexciting or overused ideas. Ledges breaking. Tediously easy puzzles. Characters boosting each other up to places where ladders should be. Pushing boxes against walls so that you can reach a higher platform. Triggering mummy bombs. Uncharted 4 is another case where good editing seems off the table in the AAA business meeting that says quantity equals quality. The more responsive melee combat, greater emphasis on stealth, and addition of climbing tools are fine, but the more suspenseful and dynamic sequences, such as the clock-tower climb and the elevator gunfight, should have made up the majority of the game, as they could have given the action a consistently engaging identity.
Even the once-complex cast peters out. Elena does show up a couple of times to make Nathan question his intentions, but soon all the characters agree the suicidal mission should be completed. The earlier allusions to the penitent thief, who confessed his sin to a dying Christ, are forgotten. By the end, the greed and irresponsibility of Sam and Nathan result in everyone’s dreams coming true. The sentimentality is at its grossest in the epilogue, which showcases Nathan and Elena’s privileged daughter edging toward the same path of materialism disguised as adventurism. This unironic ending proves the subtitle “A Thief’s End” is bullshit.