The best games can be smarter and more thrilling than most of what you see in multiplexes...
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End was released last week for Playstation 4 - and it might just be the blockbuster adventure of the summer.
The video game industry has been happy to boast for some time now about how it is putting Hollywood to shame. The latest entry in the seemingly unstoppable Call of Duty franchise was proclaimed to be the ‘biggest entertainment launch’ of 2015 by publisher Activision after sales worth $550m (€485m) in its first three days on sale. That number was surpassed not even a week later during Fallout 4’s reported $750m (€660m) launch weekend.
By contrast, The Force Awakens’ opening weekend saw a box office take of $529m (€467m).
All of that is nothing compared to Grand Theft Auto 5, which earned a Guinness World Record for “highest revenue generated by an entertainment product in 24 hours” with a rather dizzying $815m (€720m, or around 11.21 million sales).
It’s worth stressing that, while video game publishers would like to imply such figures suggest games have overtaken games commercially, the comparison is not quite like and like.
The most significant caveat is that games are substantially more expensive to buy than a cinema ticket. New ‘AAA’ (basically the big, expensive ones) video games on consoles usually retail for around €60-70 (sometimes a little bit more or less depending on the retailer and game). In contrast, you’re looking at maybe a tenner for a cinema ticket. However, given video games are played by a significantly narrower audience, the huge grosses are still rather noteworthy.
Uncharted has not achieved the sorts of numbers seen above, but it has certainly been a sales success. Around 28 million Uncharted games were reported to have been sold before the fourth game’s release. The latest has topped the UK & Irish charts, with sales said to be up 67% on its predecessor’s launch. Not bad for a Playstation exclusive - meaning it was released to something of a limited audience compared to some of the multi-format releases mentioned above (even with the unexpected sales success of the PS4 taken into account).
Although Uncharted 4 is a commercial hit, what Naughty Dog’s game really illustrates is how video games can compete - and even surpass - Hollywood’s efforts creatively speaking.
For those unaware, the Uncharted series follows the adventures of Nathan Drake, a wisecracking, charming treasure hunter. The Indiana Jones comparisons are unavoidable, and there’s a bit of Lara Croft in there too (ironically, the latest Tomb Raider games have drawn plenty of inspiration from the Uncharted series). The series, especially from the second game onwards, has been widely acclaimed for its exciting action, smart writing, memorable characters and reliably impressive technological prowess.
The Uncharted series has both been celebrated and criticised for being ‘cinematic’ - an often dirty word in discussions about video games. Where many games build vast open worlds or offer complex mechanics for players to engage with, Uncharted games use mostly non-interactive cutscenes to tell their stories. The action setpieces are incredible rollercoasters that nonetheless often require only limited input from the player.
The gameplay tends to boil down to lots of shooting combined with lots of navigating precarious structures. A few basic puzzles in the game’s ‘tomb’ sections tend to be about as complicated as it gets, and have nothing on the complex puzzling mechanics seen in recent games such as The Witness or Stephen’s Sausage Roll.
Uncharted is far from above criticism, then. It’s a textbook example of the so-called ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ - a term coined to describe a disconnect or conflict between a game’s story and gameplay. The Nathan Drake shown in cutscenes is a charming, good-natured and very human hero - and that can jar with the huge body count he leaves in his wake as the player guides him through waves of nameless grunts and death-defying stunts.
All that said, Naughty Dog are still masters at what they do, and Uncharted 4 features a lot of their best work yet.
Most obviously: Uncharted 4 is a visual tour de force. The PS4 has been criticised for being underpowered, especially compared to a good gaming PC. But Uncharted 4 is truly stunning, with some of the most detailed graphics yet seen in any game. Take the way mud sticks to Drake, or the beautiful weather effects, or the jaw-dropping vistas you encounter on your globe-trotting adventure. It looks gloriously expensive, but is matched by imaginative and confident art design at every turn. A robust in-game ‘photo mode’ seems to exist primarily for Naughty Dog to show off - they deserve it.
It’s more than just empty prettiness, too. The game’s peerless motion capture and facial animation mean directors Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann (who previously led the studio’s equally impressive The Last of Us) can really expand on the series’ storytelling ambitions. This is still pulpy, over-the-top genre fare, but it’s handled brilliantly (aided, of course, by the cast). Extended chunks of the game feature relatively little action, and instead take the time to meaningfully explore the well-developed characters and their motivations - a choice that pays major thematic and emotional dividends throughout.
The action is equally confident. The setpieces here offer some truly thrilling spectacle - wild, ridiculous and tense. CGI in films is a tool easily abused, with even the best artists struggling to mix fantastical computer landscapes with real actors. Uncharted 4 doesn’t have that problem due to its very nature, and Naughty Dog takes the opportunity to create the sort of impossible action Hollywood directors could only dream of.
Video game critics are notoriously over-generous in their praise, but even within the hyperbolic world of games writing the unanimous positivity here feels deserved. Uncharted 4 carries over some of the flaws of its predecessors, but seems determined to make the best Uncharted game yet while addressing - or at least acknowledging - some of those problems (there’s an unlockable trophy called ‘ludonarrative dissonance’).
A more thrilling adventure than the last Indiana Jones sequel; smarter and more stylish than any Marvel film; just straight up better than blockbusters like Jurassic World: Uncharted 4 makes a good case that a great AAA game can easily surpass the vast majority of blockbusters (the odd Mad Max: Fury Road or Christopher Nolan film aside, perhaps). Funny, charming, exciting and surprisingly smart, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End may well be the best blockbuster you watch… sorry… play this summer.