Uncharted: The Lost Legacy
Developed by: Naughty Dog
Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Available on: PlayStation 4
For almost 10 years the Uncharted games have acted as Sony’s flagship blockbuster series. The God of War games, its closest rival, are stuffed with too much brutality to recommend themselves to as wide an audience. Ever since “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves” came out in 2009 the series has been defined by its action set pieces, detailed graphics, and Hollywood-style blockbuster ethos. It’s a series that aims to gratify two basic human impulses: to go places few have ever gone and to be the most charismatic person in the room.
The earlier Uncharted games were based around Nathan Drake, a rogue who travels the world searching for lost treasures. Drake’s evolution as a character paralleled that of increasingly rigorous video game criticism. Although one doesn’t see the term tossed about as much these days, there was a time when the Uncharted games were cited as textbook examples of ludonarrative dissonance, a weighty description for the simple idea that the stories in video games sometimes clash with their gameplay. The term was coined by Clint Hocking. On October 7, 2007, Hocking, who has worked for Ubisoft and LucasArts, posted a critique of “BioShock” on his blog that articulated the idea and also set forth a good distinction between video game reviews and video game criticism: “I’m not talking about all of the reasons players should play this game and all of the reasons they will certainly enjoy it. I am talking about the fabric of the game. I am talking about the nature of the game at the most fundamental levels that I can perceive.”
In the earlier Uncharted games, Drake is portrayed as a cheery, witty guy who is also a firearms expert that wipes out small armies. Last year’s “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” tried to complicate Drake’s character by showing how his adventurous spirit was intertwined with selfishness and how that hurt his wife. But these psychological flourishes didn’t alter the series’ formula of immersing players in exotic vistas and alternating between shootouts, puzzle solving, and climbing sequences. Not to mention tightly choreographed scenes of vehicles causing or taking damage.
“Uncharted: The Lost Legacy” demonstrates how well the formula works for other characters in Nathan’s orbit. In the new game, players take on the role of Drake’s associate, the tightly-wound Chloe Frazer, who is on a quest to find the Golden Tusk of Ganesh, a priceless artifact that’s coveted by a warlord who wants to use it to fund a sectarian uprising in India. Assisting Chloe is Drake’s rival, the laser-focused Nadine Ross.
Neither Chloe, a professional thief, nor Nadine, an ex-mercenary, affect an air of innocence. They’re more outwardly cynical than Drake which complements their profile as outlaws. Their chemistry flows from their coolness toward each other, whereas in previous games Drake exuded warmth in the direction of his nearest and dearest even when he was lying to get his way. This study in character contrasts is the main differentiating factor between “The Lost Legacy” and the other Uncharted games. And it’s one that I welcomed.
Few things draw out my ambivalence like a predictable formula. I could talk about how much sneaking through patches of tall grass, or running to survive falling masonry felt like the sneaking and dodging in the other games. Or how I knew I’d eventually encounter enemies with lots of body armor and high-caliber weapons. But the truth is that I’m susceptible to some formulas at different times in my life. Maybe it’s because I want to get out of the country for a while, but I found myself reveling in the game’s scenery as the designers clearly wanted me too. There are even moments in the game where you’re prompted to use Chloe’s smartphone to take a picture — one of my favorites was of a group of elephants. As Nadine says at one point, “It just keeps getting more and more spectacular.” Her statement could hardly be me more self-reflexive. “The Lost Legacy” is entertaining in a familiar way, from start to finish.
I played through “The Lost Legacy” over two days at my parents’ home in Maryland. From the couch, my father watched me play a small chunk of the game; he let out little exclamations during the action sequences as he would if he were watching an exciting movie. (If you knew my father you’d know this was notable because there was a time when video games bored him.) Together we examined the background details, like glassware on shelves and the religious iconography on ancient ruins. We reflected on the number of hours that must have gone into creating so much bric-a-brac that was a sight to behold but could easily be breezed past on the way to the next goal.
If ever there were a video game that felt like a packaged tour to an ideal tourist destination, this was it.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
Recent game reviews: