One Year On, #2 (2017)

One Year On, #2 (2017)

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Overwatch


For avid gamers, May 2016 was a crowd-pleaser. Or at least, it very much wanted to be. Nostalgic FPS fans were treated to a revamp of DOOM, which seemed to tick all the boxes of the original: luridly violent, impenetrably stupid and irrepressibly fun. For RPG fanatics with literally nothing else in their lives, CD Projekt’s mammoth The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt got a second(!) expansion with Blood and Wine, establishing an inverse correlation between how many hours there are in The Witcher universe and how many remain in the lives of those playing it. Even devout indie gamers were rewarded for their aesthetic principles with Oxenfree, a chatty, twisty little number about teenagers on a haunted island that lets you guide discussions and explorations at will. All in all, not a bad month, and that’s all whilst pretending two of the gaming industry’s biggest developers didn’t go to war with one another over who was gonna take the biggest shit on your bank account. 

First off, on May 10th, Naughty Dog rounded off their “Indiana Jones as a mass murderer” series Uncharted with the fourth and final installment, A Thief’s End. Two short weeks later, Blizzard Entertainment (maybe the most maligned game developer this side of EA) released Overwatch, an online multiplayer FPS with team-based gameplay, boasting an array of characters and playing styles available to each individual. The former was as good a cinematic experience as gaming has ever provided (with everything that entails), while the latter opened up the potential of multiplayer online battle arena games for people who would never have considered playing one before.

Beginning with Uncharted‘s “final” chapter, this game (for what it’s worth) went ahead and made a choice that only the last edition in a series really has available to it: dropping the more notorious and outlandish parts of its story for a more character-based narrative. That’s not to say that the plots of the first three games were horrible… but they were pretty stupid. From El Dorado’s Nazi monsters to Shambhala’s mutated-smurf Guardians, there’s always been a supernatural hook to these games. No doubt, it helps to raise the stakes and make everything more of a hoot, not to mention the pretext of a fantasy world dilutes the implications of the insane body count Nathan Drake and his comrades rack up. But, when closing out a story that’s always at least paid lip service to the idea that its characters are interesting, it’s a strong move.

However, good intentions don’t preclude shitty detours on the… road to… fortune… or something. What I’m saying is the plot pulls out every cliche in the book to get where it’s going. There’s a long lost relative back from the dead, a former ally turned arch rival, a badarse femme fatale, pirate treasure (but no zombie pirates, thank Christ), a touching origin story stemming from childhood and a fucktonne of hidden motivations all round. Nothing here, on a storytelling level, transcends the usual trappings of video game narratives, though it needs to be said that little in recent years has managed to reach the high-water mark of The Last of Uss ambiguous morality or the shrouded lore of the Souls series.

Every night before it goes to bed, Dark Souls checks under its bed for Joel. (Naughty Dog)

Still, A Thief’s End‘s saving grace (in this department, at least) is the phenomenal mocap performances of everyone involved and Naughty Dog’s commitment to telling a more human story, eschewing the swollen stank-beasts and (overly) cackling villains of its predecessors. Nolan North is, reliably as ever, the most likable leading man in video games, playing Nathan Drake as equal parts intelligent and resourceful with a dash of smug douchebag just to level it out. Troy Baker, on the other hand, brings a weathered, complicated zeal to Nathan’s presumed-dead brother, Samuel, and returning actors Emily Rose and Richard McGonagle – as Elena and Sully, respectively – continue their streak of forging indelible support characters for Drake to bounce off.

Most impressive, however, is Warren Kole as villain Rafe Adler, a wealthy philanthropist whose earlier kinship with the Drake Bros. is as palpable as his slow turn towards an unhinged, kill-crazy obsessive. He’s wry and cocky, demonstrates an early amicability in some flashback sequences and, honest to God, is pretty fucking likable a lot of the time, making his eventual shift into menace all the more compelling. Seriously, there’s a version of this game from Adler’s perspective where, after years of searching for Avery’s treasure and getting nowhere collaborating with the Drakes, it’s finally within his eager (if, admittedly, spoiled rich brat) grasp… only to have those two fuckers continue to ruin his hunt again! No wonder dude goes a little Bond villain, and I’d totally check out an expansion that explores his side of things.

But, hey, it’s a fucking game, not a movie, right? So, on that note, there’s no denying the degree of playability here, how fluid controlling Nathan Drake has become without making it a single button spamathon, while also organically increasing the difficulty as you progress. Whether behind the wheel of a speedboat in treacherous weather being chased down by tenacious henchmen, or simply in one of dozens (and dozens) of extended shoot-outs, the action will always engage you and at least makes a show of avoiding repetition. At its best, A Thief’s End satisfies the basic needs of many gamers that few titles are even willing to strive for anymore, providing you with ample situations to prove your badarse bonafides without seeming like it’s handing you a win.

Weird side note: this guy hands you a lot of cocaine. I still can’t work out how to get Drake to use it. (Naughty Dog)

There are some caveats to this, though, the most important of which is that – and I can’t stress this enough – you should never fucking play this game on its hardest difficulty. Because look (and I know, it seems like I can’t stop talking about Dark Souls lately), Uncharted is not designed to be the painful, slowburn slog of games like Dark Souls III or Bloodborne. Those games seep a foreboding atmosphere from every pore, to the degree that there’s almost a quiet dignity in every defeat for even trying to play them. A Thief’s End, erstwhile, is a fastclip, action-adventure game with a couple stupid puzzles, so when you get bogged down on the same section over and over again, it really kills the momentum. Specifically, the mid-game level with the elevator shoot-out and the shipwreck graveyard near the end are honestly fucking torturous on the highest threshold, which will make you not only resent the game but yourself for allowing it to treat you this way.

In the end, for all of A Thief’s End‘s story achievements and decent continuation of its genre, it can’t seem to affirm itself as a great game. It never quite strikes the right balance between the glorious postcard its extended climbing and exploring sections want it to be and the swashbuckling shoot ’em up it so often is, leaving it feeling overstuffed at best and, more often, overlong and very erratically paced. I’m sure a good deal of your overall enjoyment will simply come down to your affinity for this world and the characters therein but, even so, Uncharted‘s final installment ends up feeling like a mass of things that should make you feel invested amalgamated into something that simply seems to be vaguely aware of the expectations surrounding it.

Overwatch – on the other much sweatier, tightly-clenched hand – isn’t nearly as concerned with your investment in its characters. Sure, if you’re really interested, there’s an endless trove of animated shorts detailing the backstories of each of them, but you’d be right to think that sounds a fuckload like giving out homework at a stripclub. Really, you got what you came for while it was happening, and anything else is strictly for the insatiably curious. Overwatch is for one thing and one thing only: frustrating the ever-loving shit out of you by gaslighting you into thinking you’re the greatest player in the world and everyone else is out to fucking take you down. Including your goddamn teammates.

See, what Overwatch does – moreso and with better success than any game I’ve ever played – is encourage, nay, necessitate teamwork. Except for one specific game mode, there’s nothing to be gained from going gung-ho, sole mercenary in this game. Rebelling against that reality not only negates the finer features and overall draw of the game, it makes you immediately stand out as the overeager cockhead you’re bound to be. Be it Quick Play or a Competitive Match, no one gets anywhere in this game trying to single-handedly defeat the opposing team, and one of the greatest things about Overwatch is that this is so apparent from the get-go that there’s no adjustment period involved. Team mechanics are so ingrained into the very fabric of this game that you’d have to be actively trying not to work with others to find yourself in that situation. In that sense, it’s not about learning how to be a teamplayer so much as working out what you’re best suited to within that dynamic.

And if it’s this, even your own mother hates you. Bet on it. (Blizzard Entertainment)

But the strangest thing I’ve noticed about Overwatch (in what feels like the many years that I’ve been playing it) is how its most perfect examples of group work will often alchemise into something bordering on the invisible. It’s the benefit of having a full twelve months with this game, being able to observe the slow, encroaching hubris and madness it inflicts upon those in its grasp. See, it’s only the most perceptive and selfless of players who will really be able to pinpoint exactly who has been the team’s best attribute or, more specifically, parse who is doing what in real time to contribute to your team’s overall success. Adept or not, in the flurry of an intense battle things become fairly binary: either you’re winning and it’s all because of you, or you’re losing and it’s everyone else’s fault!

It convinces you you’re the greatest player on your own team, and it does so by (in matches where you can choose) allowing you to select the character you’ve become best at using. Conversely, in your own mind your ability to function with this character is self-reliant if you do well; however, in a match where you lose, this becomes psychologically pinned on your teammate’s abilities, or lack thereof. After a while, when you’ve actually become a capable player, blinders prevent you from seeing your own shortcomings and from seeing the achievements of your teammates. The teams, after all, are wildly flailing six-armed organism, too unwieldy and random to keep in check but cooperative enough to function on some level.

Though this will be the shit that haunts you in your Vietnam-like flashbacks to the game. (Blizzard Entertainment)

In that context, there’s no room for nuance when it comes to that line between victory and defeat, something that lends itself to a brutal, internal cycle that Overwatch nurtures in die-hards and amateur players alike. It’s why it can deliver the most soaring highs and devastating lows, but can keep you coming back, because (short of a shitty connection) you can always blame failure on those around you and revel in your own skills whenever your team scrapes out a win (and the narrower, the better).

There’s no iteration where this mentality doesn’t pan out. So what, you’re usually a support character? Ok, so let’s say you’re Mercy, you spend the whole game healing tanks like Reinhardt and D.Va while lending added power to the attacks of assault characters. If you win, it’s only because you kept everyone else alive and gave them the added oomph they needs to push through/suppress the enemy forces. You lose? No one else knows what the fuck they’re doing and couldn’t properly utilise your divine gifts properly so fuck ’em anyway, the next team will be better.

Same works, obviously, with Zenyatta or Lúcio, and extends to ultimate abilities: goddammit, no one took advantage of my Blizzard/Earthshatter/Gravitation Surge to kill all the frozen/stunned enemies, and now I’m dead anyway; fuck, no one got hit by my RIP-Tire/Self-Destruct/Dragonstrike because everyone else was moving them around too much gaaaaah! And I know, that shit sounds mightily impractical (never mind that I yell out something to that effect roughly once a session) but that’s the fevered, illogical sort of thinking this game inspires. It has to, because even a great player who hits a streak with their teammates will eventually suffer one too many setbacks to not turn around and blame every other possible person they can before themselves.

Though an unlikely pairing in many ways, between the two of them Uncharted: A Thief’s End and Overwatch manage to cover most desires and impulses that tend to afflict mainstream gamers. The former weaves a (theoretically) engaging tale and wraps it in a beautifully rendered adventure setting, letting you kill and scour its environment in equal measure; the latter, meanwhile, offers a decidedly finite but still robust combination of teams and maps in which you can prove yourself worthy of that inner voice that assures you you’re great at this. Still, it’s not hard to see – beyond the obvious longevity an online multiplayer game inherently has – why Overwatch has A Thief’s End beat in this instance. A game that can instill such feelings of triumph and self-worth in you, even when it so frequently punishes you, is always going to deliver more returns than a game that just seems too pleased with itself to even realise you’re playing it.

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