Review: Uncharted 4 – A Thief’s End

coverThis is a review I honestly never thought I’d write, and certainly one that I hoped I’d never have to write. It actually physically pains me to put these words down, read them, re-read them, and commit them to the “submit button.”

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is goes beyond disappointment. It devolves into insulting and unashamed humiliation of the player and does a disservice to the entire franchise.

Score: DNF

There are two video game series that I absolutely adore and rank highest in my collection: The Bioshock series and the Uncharted series. Ken Levine and Amy Hennig, respectively, are my two favorite writers of video game narratives and I will stand up and shout, “Shut up and take my money!” whenever they announce a new title.

They’re that good.

In case you don’t know Amy Hennig, she has been a powerhouse in video games since the 1990s. She has written and directed the Uncharted series (up until Thief’s End), among many others, and has a very unique and distinct style of interweaving character, story, plot and action into near-perfect narratives.

The Uncharted Legacy

Creme de la Creme of video game storylines

Creme de la Creme of video game storylines

When she announced that she was leaving Naughty Dog Studios in 2014, I was very concerned about the future of the series, and even more surprised that Thief’s End would move forward without her. But, a franchise is a franchise, and just like James Bond moved on without Ian Flemming, it’s possible that there could still be a future for Nathan Drake. After all, they hired both Nolan North and Troy Baker for joint lead role voice actors – and they constantly do quality work.

The series follows Nathan Drake, a treasure hunter who has searched for the historical loot of – respectively – Sir Francis Drake (no, the name is not a coincidence), Marco Polo, and the fabled “Atlantis of the Sands” in the Arabian desert. He’s accompanied by lifelong friend Victor “Sully” Sullivan, and (frequently) a reporter named Elena Fisher. Every once in a while additional players round out the cast, participating with their own particular specialties.

It’s nearly impossible to give a synopsis of the series as a whole without revealing spoilers, because like any good story there is friendship, loss, redemption, betrayal, and characters whose lives and actions intertwine in complex and interesting ways. Suffice to say that each and every character in the series is fleshed out seamlessly and every reveal of Drake’s life, friendship, and past is internally consistent and believable.

It’s one of the reasons why the series is a favorite of not just mine but many others. When you take a look at the body of work as a whole, you begin to realize just how brilliant Hennig is – over the years of development and complex story lines, she managed to maintain a rock-solid consistency that underscores her as arguably the industry’s best storyteller.

Thief of Belief

Thief’s End decided to mess with that consistency, much in the same way that Highlander 2 decided to take the same characters and mess with their backstory (though, admittedly, nowhere near as egregiously).

From the very beginning something felt “off” with this installment. Sure, the game mechanics were all there, the characters were there, but there were moments that seemed more forced than ever before.

In previous incarnations (specifically, the third installment), we find out about Nate’s childhood as an orphan where he meets Sully, and yet there are no inconsistencies in the storytelling from the previous two games. In other words, there was no interruption of the continuum of either Nate’s life or in previous incarnations of the games.

Nate had a brother? Who knew?

Nate had a brother? Who knew?

In Thief’s End, however, this is changed. Nate’s orphan backstory is altered to include an older brother. The location of the orphanage has changed. The motivation of the character is skewed in a complete tangent. The influence of this brother character was considerably more consequential than ever implied in previous games, and the ripple effect that retroactively changes the player’s perception of the Nathan Drake character wasn’t entirely pleasant. It felt shoehorned in, for the sake of justifying the entire plotline.

At the time I was playing the game it didn’t feel right, and I couldn’t put my finger on why. After all, in video games you must sometimes grant the conceit that character histories may need to be bent in order to further the story (Star Trek reboot, anyone?), and we can accept it and move on. I did, but looking back I realize that sometimes even subtle changes can have amplified effects on perception.

I didn’t realize that those weren’t the only changes that had been made to the franchise.

The Nadine Controversy

For me, I don’t like reading up on reviews before I play something, aside from some general “thumbs up/thumbs down” indicators. I don’t like my plot lines spoiled. So, I didn’t know about the “Nadine fight controversy.”

(I don’t think I’m spoiling anything in the game by describing this particular aspect of the game, as it doesn’t really have anything to do with the plot or outcome of the game, so you can feel free to continue on as you see fit.)

Before moving forward it’s important to point out something that is critical to what follows: Nathan Drake (and company) are fortune hunters. Each game requires him to have considerable athletic skill, not just from fighting but also moving around his environment. Parkour, climbing, obstacle courses – all are part and parcel of the game series. During the course of the game series he fights pirates, mercenaries, guerrillas, and other baddies. Hell, he even has had to fight supernatural creatures as well – but nothing has ever asked the player to suspend disbelief quote like Thief’s End.

 

Nathan Drake is no slouch.

Nathan Drake is no slouch.

There are a couple of moments in the game where Nathan (and his brother), both accomplished fighters and athletes, fight with a female mercenary named Nadine. In these sequences Nadine not only comes out the victor, but utterly humiliates the protagonists in a fight sequence in which the player is prevented from fighting back.

It’s important to note that the fact that Nathan meets his match in Nadine (even repeatedly) is not necessarily at issue here (not for me, anyway). Nate is a street fighter, an improvisational brawler who never claimed to have technical finesse in his combat style. In real life, for instance, I’ve seen 100lb women take on 200lb men in Aikido and demonstrate that precision can, indeed, trump physical size on many occasions.

So, in a series that has supernatural elements, Drake’s preternatural dexterity while climbing, running, and other activities that strain belief, what’s so terrible about a female mercenary taking out one (or two) guys in a fight? Seriously, what’s the problem with that?

Nate the brawler

Nate the brawler

What I had a problem with was the way that the director designed the sequence. What you cannot see in the video clip below is how the actual fight mechanics are changed for the player. Nathan Drake is severely handicapped in his capabilities – “nerfed,” as the slang goes – and moves that he was able to make moments before suddenly are unavailable. The player is caught being witness to – and forced to participate in – their own humiliation with no chance of fighting back, let alone winning.

Hell, the player isn’t even allowed to get out of the way (dodging is a key fight mechanic in the game). You are simply forced to stand there and take the beating.

If you’re interested, here’s the fight sequence in question:

What the video doesn’t show is just how little control you actually have over Nathan Drake at this point. As I mentioned, you cannot avoid punches, and while the game does allow you to throw some, it only does it on its own time sequence – not yours. You are, effectively, completely impotent.

It’s one thing to be in a battle and lose. It’s another to be held down and beat up, and be expected to enjoy the experience.

Teaching You A Lesson

When I played this I found myself infuriated to the point of throwing down the controller. I understood that Nadine was a badass. I got it.

There are ways of demonstrating that you are going up against someone who outclasses you. Hell, most good games reflect that very aspect of gameplay as part of character development – going up against insurmountable obstacles and overcoming them.

The game could, for instance, simply have a cut scene where Nadine (a smaller, 110-lb woman) is able to outclass Nate (190-lb man) by demonstrating her technical martial arts ability in the appropriate environment. Or, the game could have made her considerably more agile than Nate, easily dodging his clumsy brawling techniques. Or, she could have used her environment to outwit him. Or, and this is what I would have actually expected, she could have been faster and better than Nate so that normal movements and techniques that Nate (and the player) were used to using weren’t good enough. Hell, Buffy the Vampire Slayer rode that theme to success for many years.

None of these things happened. Instead, the director deliberately handicapped Nate – and players – in order to teach them a lesson. This was an outright beating of a capable, seasoned fighter by a smaller woman, accomplished solely by removing player capabilities.

At least in other games when you are stripped of weapons, armor, or movement there is a reason conducive to the story line. Here, however, the game simply takes your ability to move away from you without explanation or reason. It was as if they’re saying, “Okay, you people who loved the games before, well, you’re sexist assholes and we’re going to show you what it’s like to give you a taste of your own medicine.”

This isn’t simple paranoia here. The director actually admitted that he was influenced by Anita Sarkeesian, the Al Sharpton of the video game industry:

“Q: You’ve said in the past that you’ve been influenced by Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency videos and the larger conversation about diversity and representation in games. How did that affect Uncharted 4?

A: You have some sexist focus testers who were really upset by Nadine beating up Nate […] to the point where we had to ask one guy to leave. In his core, it just affected him. He was cursing, “Not you, too, Naughty Dog! Goddammit, I guess I’m done with Uncharted.”… And I was like, Wow, why does that matter?”

It is a striking decision on the part of the director: eliminate the player’s agency in a game that depends on it, and then marvel at how the players find this problematic.

Why It Mattered To Me

This went beyond lifting the suspension of disbelief. It was a deliberate act that took the player out of the story line in order to prove a point: this was out-and-out punishment. Of the player. It was a capricious act, taking the player out of the game to prove a point.

As I said, the game could have handled this particular scene any other way that would make it possible for the player to accept a loss to Nadine and move the storyline forward, but they chose this way. They chose it because Anita Sarkeesian complains about, well, everything related to women in video games and they wanted to make a statement. It didn’t even work: Feminist Frequency didn’t like the game (big surprise – they don’t like any game with mature themes, regardless of how strong the female characters are).

What’s worse is that it backfires on all counts. Nate’s brawling approach would have been well-suited in that library. Aside from a few grappling moves – which were completely reasonable and believable – there did not seem to be any reason why Nate should have been so ridiculously impotent. His sheer mass (not to mention his ability to improvise in three other games) should have given him more than simply “an edge.”

Nathan is a badass as well.

Nathan is a badass as well.

It’s useful to reiterate that later in the game she goes on to fight Nate and his brother (also an accomplished fighter) at the same time – with the same outcome. Okay, so a fit female fighter might be able to defeat the average male, but two battle-hardened, fit men who each outweigh her 4-to-1? Especially when both of those men are highly experienced in improvisational fighting techniques?

Elena

Elena

This isn’t about powerful female characters. We’ve seen (and played) powerful female characters: Lara Croft (Tomb Raider), Ciri (Witcher 3), Jill Valentine (Resident Evil), Elizabeth (Bioshock Infinite) – hell, even Uncharted’s own Elena and Chloe! Lara Croft – especially in the latest reboot – is an excellent example of how you can take a female character and show how she can be a badass without resorting to crippling her opponents. There are many, many more.

Nadine is not a strong female character. She’s about as strong as anyone is when their opponent is held down against their will and unable to fight back. The fact that the game forces the player to repeatedly be subjected to this type of humiliation with no recourse is simply bizarre. That’s right – here’s the one spoiler alert for the game (and I only found this out later) – Drake never is allowed to have the agency to defeat Nadine; he is simply forced to be the punching bag – both figuratively and literally – for political purposes.

It mattered to me because it was cheap and pandering. It was pointless. It meant that the story, character, and history of Uncharted was turned over to identitarian politics and pointless posturing. It mattered because I cared about the story, the characters, and the narrative.

There was a lot of the “old” Uncharted gameplay to make Thief’s End playable, even though I found the brother-brother contrivance somewhat forced. I waited for some of the glorious puzzles that littered the earlier installments, but there weren’t any of consequence (up to the point where I stopped playing the game, that is). When we finally got to the Nadine fight sequence, however, I realized that something was permanently amiss, and irreparable.

I broke my rule about spoilers and did what I never do – I searched the Internet to see if there was something redeemable about the game and Nadine/Nathan’s interactions. Perhaps this was an anomaly, for example. Maybe this forced humiliation comes back to haunt Nadine in the end, and Nathan gets to reclaim that agency. Perhaps this is a character-building moment for Nathan that he must overcome, like all the other obstacles in all the other games. If that were so, I could cope with a combat mechanic glitch and move on.

Nope. It’s just there to prove a point, and it gets worse. No character development, no overcoming the challenge, no means for the player to compensate. You’ll take your beating just because we said so, not because it actually does anything for the character and story, and you’ll shut up about it. Because if you don’t, we’ll call you sexist.

If you try to defend yourself, you'll only make it worse.

If you try to defend yourself, you’ll only make it worse.

Bottom Line

I didn’t expect my own, deep visceral reaction to the game. I think part of it may have been due to my adoration for the series as a whole, my investment in the franchise, and the buildup of anticipation I felt for the game.

But I took it personally. I felt as if the game had said, “You know, I don’t actually need to do this, but I’m going to take you out of the gameplay for just a moment, rip you away from the characters and the story line, just so I can teach you a lesson. You just sit there and think about what you’ve done while I remove all control and beat the hell out of you for daring to play this game.”

I didn’t like or appreciate that. I didn’t appreciate the notion (and confirmed by the director himself) that he was trying to make a political point at the players’ expense.

It took me three weeks to come to the begrudging conclusion that I wasn’t going to pick up the game again. Every time I thought about playing it I wondered just how many more times I was going to have to sit through having the controls ripped from my hands while some antagonist beat up on the character while I watched, helpless. Finally, I deleted the game from the console and put the disk back on the shelf, where it will stay until I resell it.

Score: DNF (Did Not Finish)

I miss Amy Hennig.

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