In any other year, Gears of War 4 would be a marquee example of how to bring a franchise forward from a past generation. It’s a technical marvel that takes full advantage of its new platform. It features clever iterations on concepts and mechanics introduced in the previous games. It nods at the past in ways that acknowledge that fans have helped build the franchise, that their countless hours spent with previous entries hasn’t been taken for granted. Unfortunately, Gears of War 4 was released in the same year as Uncharted 4, a game that manages to accomplish all of those things while also recognizing that sometimes the best thing for a franchise is to put it to bed.
The latest entry in the Gears of War series still provides one of the most fundamentally satisfying shooter experiences that can be found on any platform. Everything from the weight of the character movement to the sound of an assault rifle’s last rounds feels as if it has been precision-tuned to trigger pleasure centers in the player’s brain at exactly the right intervals.
But while the moment-to-moment experience of Gears 4 lives up to the reputation established by the series, the game feels oddly quaint in the current moment, to the point that it raises the question of whether franchises ought to move between platforms at all. In contrast, Uncharted 4 feels expressly designed to be the rare justification for going back to the well one last time.
What sets Uncharted 4 apart from Gears of War 4 the clarity of its vision. From its opening scene onward, Uncharted 4 aims to mine out the depths of its protagonist, Nathan Drake. It takes a pre-existing character who neatly fit into the smarmy rogue archetype, another scion in the line of Indiana Jones and Malcolm Reynolds, and it systematically unpacks the underpinnings of that persona. In doing so, the game challenges the player’s preconceived notions of its protagonist while retrofitting an unseen emotional resonance onto the preceding games.
Uncharted 4 achieves this through the introduction of Sam Drake, Nathan’s troubled older brother, a character previously unheard of in the series. Though Sam is an interesting character in his own right, his critical function is to prod the newly settled, tax-paying, day-job-working Nathan back into a life of high adventure, theft, and brutal violence.
Through Sam, Naughty Dog is able to introduce new stakes and motives for Nathan’s dogged pursuit of mythical treasures. Nathan is driven by the uncertainty brought by his childhood abandonment and the guilt of failing to protect his brother. He carries that emotional burden along with him up every sheer cliff face, out of every burning building, through every grueling gunfight. Because of that burden, he’s an impulsive, self-destructive, alarmingly inconsiderate narcissist, capable of making countless ethical compromises and betraying his loved ones as he pursues redemption in elaborate fantasies.
Uncharted 4 exists to provide essential context that casts the series in an entirely new light. It exists because without it, the previous games are a lesser experience.
Gears of War 4, meanwhile, seems content to offer up more of what the series does well: visceral gunplay, elaborate set pieces, and best-in-class production value. It leans heavily into fan service, nodding reverently at every returning character, every iconic piece of equipment. It makes you wait an entire act before handing you the chainsaw Lancer, as if knowingly withholding the very stuff you came for before giving it to you in spades.
The trajectory of the Gears franchise may come as no surprise to those who have been paying attention to pre-release marketing of Gears of War 4. The game introduces a new generation of heroes, including a protagonist directly descended from Marcus Fenix himself.
That character choice is no accident: it’s designed to let players know that they’re in for a whole new set of adventures, but ones that have a direct link to previous games. It’s a savvy business choice, but it’s one that steers the series toward the same model that led to diminishing returns from countless AAA franchises.
As we stare headlong into a future where console generations as we currently know them will no longer exist, it’s troubling to think that we may soon run out of natural stopping points for workhorse franchises like Gears of War and Uncharted. Microsoft’s decision to prime Gears for another run on the new generation makes perfect sense, which makes Naughty Dog’s decision to bow out voluntarily so notable. Where most series seem intent on telling fans that they’re not going anywhere, Uncharted had the grace to question what that actually means.