The Trouble with Uncharted Boss Fights

Originally published on Trevor Trove on May 16, 2016

Having just finished my Crushing playthrough of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, I felt now an appropriate time to tackle one of the biggest issues that the Uncharted games have never been able to escape: the final boss fight.

Naughty Dog has proven themselves time again to be masters of story-telling and game design over the course of their four Nathan Drake adventures but they’ve somehow never managed to stick the landing. Each adventure has featured hours of entertaining platforming, story, puzzles, and combat (even if the combat isn’t always exactly great). But they have all wound up leaving a sour taste in my mouth at the end because they’ve continued to succumb to the standard that a game has to end in some sort of climactic boss battle. But rather than give the player a more challenging version of the core gameplay mechanics, they routinely introduce a new component at the eleventh hour,

Spoilers for the Naughty Dog Uncharted games and The Last of Us to follow.

Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

The very first Uncharted closes with what could be considered the most standard final battle. As Navarro tries to escape with the El Dorado treasure on his freighter, Nate managed to follow on board for a multi-tiered shootout with the final series of goons. The unnecessary twist here, however, is two-fold.

First, Navarro himself supplements each waves of enemies with an auto-locked on insta-kill shotgun blast. If you’re not behind cover when this shot connects, you die and have to start over. Of course, the game doesn’t give you any kind of indication that you can’t shoot him in these sections so you also run the risk of wasting precious ammo on him instead of the other goons you need to take out before he’ll run to the next part of the ship.

Once you do manage to fight your way through the three-tiered battle, you wind up on the top of the ship without your gun. All you can do is hide behind wooden crates and slowly make your way forward when Navarro’s insta-kill blast destroys your cover. When your last bit of cover is destroyed, you have to rush him and the final moment of the game becomes a melee quick time event. Melee has never been a strong point for the series but it definitely wasn’t a selling point in that first game so ending on the quick time event felt incredibly lackluster and the insta-kill feature of the combat section leading up to it felt cheap.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

By the end of Among Thieves, Lazarovic has proven that he’s just a lackluster villain who’s motivations and lust for power never felt fleshed out. Flynn winds up being the villain we actually care about because he had the history with Nate and Chloe before betraying them. Lazarovic is just a paint-by-the-numbers mercenary.

His boss battle is often touted as the worst of the series because, again, Naughty Dog felt compelled to give him super-human strength and introduced the idea that in order to weaken him, you had to run around the battle arena and shoot the big blue balls of resin, causing them to explode when he was nearby.

The often overlooked fact though is that you actually could damage and defeat him just by pumping him full of bullets or lobbing all your grenades at him. The same series of mini-cut scenes will play out; showing him getting progressively weaker and enraged. I didn’t even find this out until my most recent Crushing playthrough in the Nathan Drake Collection. After getting frustrated by one too many deaths trying to stay ahead of him to shoot the resin before he blasted me (again with a severely over-powered shotgun), I just chose to unload a full clip of my AK-47 in headshots at the start of the fight when the first weakness scene triggered.

Still the fact remains that this wound up being an overly frustrating final fight due to the cheap power of Lazarovic’s shotgun, his overall bullet-sponge-ness, the late introduction to the idea that you had to just stay away from him and shoot explosives when he got in range, and the overall blandness of the character meant there was no emotional payoff to defeating him.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception might be my front-runner for the worst offender. Following in the footsteps of the first game, Talbot was the second-in-command villain to Marlowe (just as Navarro was a glorified henchman Roman). In both cases, we knew next to nothing about these characters so there was no catharsis to beating them tied to the story.

But while Navarro at least had the game’s main gunplay mechanic at the heart of his encounter, the fight with Talbot is entirely a melee button-mashing free-for-all. As Ubar sinks into the sands around you (in some of the most beautiful visuals Naughty Dog had created to that point that you don’t get to enjoy because of this fight), Talbot attacks and depending on how he connects, you have to mash an appropriate counter. It winds up feeling like the Navarro fight turned up to eleven. And yet again, the melee in the game, while certainly improved, still wasn’t the core mechanic of the game so choosing to end with it once again winds up underwhelming.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

The late game gun fight as you try to save Sam in a pirate ship graveyard is some of the most rewarding gameplay offered throughout the entire series (assuming you’re not going into it with far too little ammo on your Crushing playthrough). As it wrapped up, I thought to myself, “now that’s a great note to end the gameplay on. Just give me the story climax and denouement now. None of this final boss crap.” But Naughty Dog was not listening.

For the final battle with Rafe, we once again head down quick-time event counter-attack alley. But this time we’re fighting with swords, not fists. Boiled down to a simple press Triangle to block if he’s attacking your left side or Circle if he’s attacking your right, we’re once again forced to suffer a final encounter with something that has not been seen anywhere else in the game up to this point.

The one thing that this fight has going for it that at least lets it stand out above the others is that there’s an emotional resonance here. Rafe and Nate have a history together. And during this final encounter, we get to actually see just how far off the deep end Rafe has fallen. He has spent the last fifteen years searching for this one treasure, all the while hearing legends of his former crew member Nathan Drake discovering the lost cities of El Dorado, Shambala, and the Iram of the Pillars. There’s at least an emotional heft to this battle that was sorely lacking from all of the previous games, even if you do have to suffer through mashing Triangle and Circle to get to it.

Final Thoughts

One of the weirdest things about the ending of the most recent Uncharted especially, is that Naughty Dog has shown that you can end a game without some kind of final “climactic” one-on-one fight. In The Last of Us, the game’s final “boss battle” is rooted in the core gameplay that you’ve spent the previous ten hours playing through. Joel fights his way through waves of enemies in the Firefly hospital in order to save his surrogate daughter Ellie. There’s no last-minute quick-time event fight with Marlene. The game lets those final moments play out in the story, without feeling compelled to include the player by having them mash a few buttons.

That’s what I was hoping for after the long, exciting battle throughout Chapter 20. I just wanted Naughty Dog to finish telling me their story. I would have been quite content to be a passive observer to a final cutscene where Nate and Rafe duke it out. But forcing me to suffer through the stress of split-second button pressing out of nowhere once again left me with a bad taste in my mouth when it comes to describing my final moments controlling Nate. The story that follows was an incredible sendoff for the characters. But my last moments as Nathan Drake were a let down.

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