How Uncharted Got Better by Getting Smaller

Warning: Major Spoilers for Uncharted 4 Ahead

There’s a brief moment in Uncharted 4 where Nathan Drake is sitting on the couch alongside Elena as they have dinner and simply discuss how their day went. It was poignant, seeing as these are two characters who we only ever see planning a caper or escaping from a crumbling obstacle and yet here they are, fully entrenched in the doldrums of domesticity. A world unfit for such a lively, adventurous bunch. Drake’s treasure hunting days are long behind him as evidenced by his new 9-5 job as a salvage worker and the fact that he hasn’t heard from his partner in crime Sully in 2 years. But there’s a glint of the old Drake that creeps in while Elena is blathering on about Bangkok and her work. Drake is fixated on a painting of a mysterious island and totally tunes her out. The old Drake almost beckoning him through the oils and canvas. Elena then pokes him with her fork, bringing him back to reality. It’s a subtle moment, beautifully nuanced by the impeccable facial animation and the acting done by both Nolan North and Emily Rose. Drake is married now and has new responsibilities but his old life still remains very much alive like a burning ember.

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Uncharted 4, like The Last of Us, is astonishingly grounded despite the spectacle because it’s a story ultimately about family and whether or not all of this treasure seeking and risk is worth it in the end. Near the end of the game after Drake and Sam find Henry Avery’s treasure, Sam tells Drake that he feels empty inside even though he fulfilled what they set out to do. Drake then follows by saying he always feels the same way, noting that the treasure is almost meaningless once you get it, it’s really about the thrill of the hunt and even that sense of exhilaration and adrenaline eventually dies out. It’s such a great character moment for Drake and his brother, because in the end, was it really worth it?

There’s a great scene when you’re moving through the pirate ship on your way to rescue Sam and you’re completely surrounded by heaps and piles of treasure just strewn all over the place. All of the spoils, over hundreds of millions of dollars in gold and trinkets just lying there like dirty laundry inside a burning ship. There it is, what we worked so hard to find and track down and yet it’s so unglamorous and tainted, almost meaningless because Sam’s life hangs in the balance.

Uncharted has always toyed with the idea of Nathan Drake’s motivations but in Uncharted 4 we get to dive even deeper into what makes Drake tick and at the base of all this is their late mother, (again continuing with the family theme) an accomplished explorer herself who didn’t get to finish her work on Sir Francis Drake due to an untimely death. Drake and Sam feel an obligation to complete their mother’s work and we get a closer look at why via flashback sequences that are peppered throughout the campaign. This is undoubtedly the most personal Uncharted has ever been and why it’s most effective, powerful moments happened through dialogue and character revelations rather than the big, explosive set pieces we’ve been so used to seeing.

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Now, that isn’t to say that there aren’t any thrilling set pieces. Uncharted 4 boasts incredible action set pieces and one in particular that may be the best in the series but most of them feel a lot more intimate and a lot more grounded. One of my favorite set pieces in the game takes place in a Madagascan clock tower, a brilliant platforming puzzle that quickly turns south and has you jumping and climbing while the clock collapses from above you. The first fight you have with Nadine is another example of this intimate, tighter approach to set pieces that totally delivers. Drake is cracking jokes, underestimating Nadine’s prowess and ends up getting his ass literally tossed out of a window. Its moments like these combined with the big action sequences like the lengthy car chase in Madagascar that really illustrate how beautifully paced this game is.

The quiet, jeep scene when you’re driving around with Drake, Sam and Sully is pretty much the epitome of how Uncharted 4 outdoes its predecessors by not going bigger but by getting smaller. There’s no volcano that erupts in this scene, no supernatural surprises and save for a few encounters with Nadine’s army, the sequence is relatively peaceful and it’s accented by the naturalistic dialogue between these 3 guys and the lack of music. The game slows down and allows you to take in this environment along with the characters and you’re just as in awe of it as they are.

Even to the very end, when you’re playing Crash Bandicoot as Cassie Drake the game takes its time to convey a passage of time and even metaphorically; the passing of the torch. Walking around the house as Cassie was such a neat experience because you know for sure she’ll be following in her parents’ footsteps fairly soon. It’s in her blood and in her character to discover great wonders and this could be a way for the Uncharted series to continue forward should Sony allow it; who are we kidding, of course they’ll allow it. The moment she discovers Drake’s hidden and locked away cabinet containing artifacts and photographs of his past adventures was a moment that nearly made me teary-eyed although I eventually lost it and actually cried a single tear at the very end (more on that later).

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She finds a photograph of Drake, Sully and Elena posing in front of treasure. She notes that her father has a shotgun on his back and so she understandably wants to know what the heck is going on with her parents. Drake and Elena come home and catch her snooping and Drake has to finally tell her about what he and Elena used to do and we get a fantastic shot of Elena watching Drake walk with Cassie telling her about Sir Francis’ Drake and all the crazy stuff that went down in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune.

This is where that tear I alluded to earlier finally dropped. All the memories came back from that first game and seeing an older-looking Drake retelling these stories was such a monumental moment for me as gamer. Seeing this chapter close after being with these characters for nearly a decade was like watching the very end of a television series come to a close. Naughty Dog did it again. This is what great closure feels like.

You know what, that emptiness Sam and Drake were talking about after finding Avery’s treasure and Libertalia? I feel the same way after finishing Uncharted 4. It’s bittersweet to see Nathan Drake’s story end but boy am I glad I got to see it through. Cheers Nate.

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