It's such a rare idea, to actually end a game franchise. Videogames come second only to comic books in their tendency to be perpetual – while movies, books, plays, albums and so forth are more often than not standalone (even in this day and age), and even TV shows are expected to eventually end, it’s exceedingly rare to see a video game created without any chance of a followup, and also very rare for a successful series of games to be deliberately brought to a permanent conclusion.
Of course, time has yet to tell whether Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, the conclusion to Naughty Dog’s profitable Uncharted series, will in fact be the last Uncharted game. Other franchises have “ended” – Halo, Gears of War, God of War, Mass Effect and others have brought a continuity to a close, only to find some means of continuing the franchise anyway, with spinoffs, prequels, reboots and the like. One can imagine at some point of the future they could come up with an Uncharted game which takes place between Nate’s Panamanian misadventure and Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. Or we could see an adventure starring Victor Sullivan and Sam Drake. A grown-up Cassie Drake could become reluctantly involved in her father’s legacy. Or we could go in the opposite direction and see Cassandra Morgan and her mentor chasing down historical artefacts.
But I think that Naughty Dog might stick by their assertion that this will be the last Uncharted game. For one thing, they’ve been unusually happy to end franchises in the past. Not by closing off continuity, just by not making the games any more. It’s been a long time since they’ve touched Crash Bandicoot or Jak and Daxter, and considering the significant change in direction they’ve made over the past decade, it’s hard to imagine them returning to either of those properties. Despite the huge success of The Last of Us, they’ve still not confirmed a sequel. For another thing, that same change of direction might make Naughty Dog less interested in continuing the Uncharted franchise; their growing preoccupation with serious dramatic content makes a wisecracking treasure hunter who guns down baddies while unearthing ancient curses the kind of thing they’d want to get away from.
Either way, even if they make liars of themselves and deliver us more Uncharted games in the future, one thing is certain: we have now seen how Nathan Drake’s wild adventures come to a close. So how does the game work on that level?
Ideally, a concluding chapter in a franchise is supposed to resolve the story and character elements which are still up in the air. This can be a problem when each instalment has been relatively standalone and you haven’t actually got much to resolve. Uncharted 4 takes what scraps it can – Nathan’s self-destructive addiction to adventure, and the sense that there are still some things we don’t know about his past – and tries to build a resolution out of them. The result is a reformed Nathan, trying to live a normal life, drawn inexorably into one final adventure by a figure from his past: his brother Sam, who provides the remaining puzzle pieces of Nathan’s backstory.
It’s problematic to me that the story revolves around Nathan’s relationship with Sam. After three games we’ve gotten a solid grasp on the character dynamics involved, with Nathan and Elena and Sully, and while the game does spend some time resolving the old tensions between Nathan and Elena, it mostly focuses on the issues between Nathan and this guy who only just now got introduced. Sam being immediately presented to us as the most important person in Nathan’s life is difficult to swallow. Even when we become more used to the character over time, there’s always a lingering sense of resentment towards this intruder.
But overall the conclusion works. The Nathan Drake of the first couple of games seemed like somebody who would never truly grow up; by now we can believe that, as much as he misses the thrill of adventure, he’s finding he no longer has the same taste for it. He doesn’t want to take stupid risks anymore, because there’s too much that’s important to him. As a result, when the game finally tells us that he never gets up to his old tricks again, we can buy it.
And all that is just looking at the game from the perspective of how it functions as a finale. On its own merits, I think it’s an excellent game, up to the standards of the series. The characterisations and dialogue are, as ever, done well enough to cover for a somewhat by-the-numbers plot. It has all the tried-and-true gameplay elements we expect by now: climbing puzzles, puzzle puzzles, cover-based shooting, a smattering of stealth, vehicle sections, elaborate action set pieces, sightseeing tours, barely interactive bits, a save point every five feet. The old formula.
And the visuals are the most gorgeous in Uncharted history, which makes them the most gorgeous in videogame history. I know that I’m supposed to be discussing narrative design and graphics have no place here, but I can’t help it. About a quarter of my playing time involved just standing there and staring at the scenery. The Uncharted franchise can’t be topped in terms of environments that live and breathe; big things always feel big, old things always feel old. Just walking around on a front lawn in this game, I could almost feel the lush, thick grass beneath my feet --
Whuh-oh. I’d better stop before everyone figures out my secret graphics whore tendencies. Let’s all go play some Undertale, gang! That Papyrus, amirite?