There was a time when players could look upon a series of conveniently placed, hip-high crates and feel confident strolling without an assault rifle slung over our shoulders. We could stride forward in ignorance, blissfully unaware that a horde or armed goons would — in a split second — pin us behind that series of crates before engaging in a bloody battle of bullets and wits.
That time is over. It's been over since 2006 and the release of the original Gears of War.
But for those with innocent eyes, those halcyon days might have been extended till 2007 and the release of the first Uncharted. But today, almost 10 years and three sequels older, we're world weary and cynical. All of us. In a game like Uncharted 4 we are all painfully aware of the drill. Any player worth his bitterness can stumble across a new area and immediately recognise that he or she will soon be blasting fools.
Overturned crates. Check.
Hip-high obstacles. Check.
Destructable cover? Of course. What is this? 2005? We're living in the future people and Naughty Dog is a master of technology.
War never changes, but sometimes you could be forgiven for secretly hoping it might.
I want to talk about an interesting moment I had whilst driving Nathan Drake's 4x4 in the dusty, oftentimes muddy landscape of Madagascar, circa chapter 11 in Uncharted 4.
Close to the end of a sustained driving section, I had to clamber out of my rented 4x4, climb up a small building and lower a drawbridge, allowing one 4x4, complete with one Victor Sullivan and one Sam Drake, passage to the next section. Almost as soon as I exited the car I saw the warning signs.
Overturned crates, hip high obstacles, long grass tailor-made for stealth takedowns.
Yep, I said to myself. I'm gonna be blasting some fools in a hot minute.
But then something strange happened.
More precisely: nothing happened.
I climbed to the top of the building. I found the appropriate lever. I started cranking the thing, tapping triangle as you do. No goons appeared. Zero. I was confused. So confused.
Then I thought to myself, what if Naughty Dog deliberately constructed this scene to mess with players — to make us feel like gunplay was imminent — but then subverted all those expectations by not sending in the bullet-sponge squad?
How cool would that be.
Then, tragically, that thought was interrupted by — you guessed it — the sponge squad, who had presumably gotten caught up in traffic en-route to a date with the bullety-end of my AK47. It was, if I'm being perfectly honest, mildly disappointing. Naughty Dog were so close, so achingly close to doing something supremely cool. They could have toyed with our expectations but instead they succumbed to them.
That scene, and the rest of the game for that matter, would have been better off had that whole section not resulted in the kind of combat scenario we expected. For one, we would have been surprised. Perhaps more importantly, as a result of that surprise, we'd be far more likely to interpret things differently the next time we approached some upturned crates and hip-high obstacles. It would keep us on our toes.
And it would have also worked as a subtle piece of universe building. In Uncharted crates and cover exist to be shot at. This is their only function. Wouldn't it be cool if some sat there just because? Because those are the types of objects that should exist in that space? Because the pirates/bad guys/treasure hunters left them there? Wouldn't that add a subtle layer of depth to the universe Uncharted exists in? Wouldn't that go a long way to justifying the other crates left lying around Madagascar?
A missed opportunity perhaps.
But later, a similar opportunity that didn't go squandered. Nathan Drake is climbing in the middle of a torrential downpour. Usually Drake climbs with confidence, as does the player because he or she is aware — if you push the right button at the right time there is absolutely no way that Nathan Drake will slip off a hand-hold. No chance in hell. That hold could be covered in butter and Drake would stick it. He might swing out wide dramatically, but he's safe. You — the player — are safe.
But it is wet and a couple of times Nathan Drake's feet have slid from beneath him. What could that mean?
Almost certainly nothing, I think to myself. This is drama. This is an attempt to create suspense and nothing more. There is absolutely no way Nathan Drake slips from a designated video game climbing hold. Impossible. Uncharted has done a few cool things in the past — it allows holds to break, does a great job of creating this illusion of a dynamic climbing space where anything is possible.
But there's no way he slips off a hold and comes careening down this cliff. No way.
Then it happens. His hand slips, but he recovers. I leap up again. This time I'm not so fortunate. Not only do I slip, but I fall all the way to the bottom of the crevasse.
What the hell is going on here, I ask myself. This is heresy.
But it's actually not. It's all part of the plan, part of the experience. Nathan Drake fades from consciousness and we fade to black. Clever right?
You're goddamn right it is.
Uncharted 4 is at its absolute best when it's unpredictable. The only problem: it's actually extremely difficult for a game like Uncharted 4 — a linear rollercoaster built upon incredible set-pieces — to surprise players. Most of us have played the past three games. Most of us are painfully aware of the tropes. We know when we're going to climb, when we're going to solve puzzles and we know when we're about to start shooting some people in the face.
And that's why I was a little disappointed when that group of Johnny-come-latelies arrived to the scene in Madagascar. That's why I was beyond chuffed to fall, almost to my virtual death, from a slippery hold in the rain almost two hours later.