Hands-On Preview: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (PS4, 2016)

After a few delays and huge discussions about the possible end to one of the most adored gaming franchises of the 21st century, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is finally ready, taking place three years after the action-packed, story-driven Uncharted 3.

Much happened in Uncharted 3 and the “fresh start” Nate promised Elena doesn’t seem to be holding too true as Drake, Sully, and Nathan’s “long lost” brother, Sam, appear in the thick of a vast treasure-filled adventure involving pirates, puzzles, and certain danger. Ahead of the game’s release I was given the opportunity to go hands-on with an excerpt from this sprawling adventure, playing through around 20 minutes of Chapter 10 “The Twelve Towers”, highlighting a strong focus on some new mechanics such as more open fight sequences and – and this is a huge leap for the series – the fact that you now have a nice and adaptable jeep to drive around in. Below are my impressions of the game along with excerpts from a chat I had post-gaming with Naughty Dog’s Arne Meyer.

“At the beginning of the development we had a notion that we wanted to try and put a vehicle in the game. We knew that the technology would be there. We knew that it was a sort of extension of our philosophy of wide-linear. And so then when we were trying to look at the environment that we were considering, alot of it was like ‘how can we use a jeep in an interesting manner’ so not just as a way from going from point A to point B but also incorporate it into problem solving and keep it interesting. One of the things that isn’t noticed alot is that in Uncharted you are always problem solving, whether it’s combat, travesal, or actual puzzle. We wanted to keep that together with the jeep, so then that really opened up a lot of interesting possibilities in terms of like how are you going to navigate the terrain, which path are you going to take, and then how do we make it interesting for you, how do use the jeep in a problem solving scenario, how are we able to gate you through all those sequences. It just naturally grew from there and that’s how we started building the environments.” – Arne Meyer of Naughty Dog

The expansive open world approach that has come to defined the way Naughty Dog have been marketing Uncharted 4 is evident as I jump into the playable demo, already I can notice the incredible level of detail that has gone into fleshing out this landscape, which is the rugged, mountainous terrain of Madagascar. An imposing volcano is strikingly crisp in the background, providing you with a big way point without making an actual show of it, one of the little touches Naughty Dog have seemed to learn over the better part of a decade with this acclaimed franchise – keep people engaged with subtle details.

“The more interesting way for me when I think about it It’s not heavy-handed in terms of you as a player, but in terms of game design we were actually putting in very deliberate things in to help you progress. We do know that there’s a narrative we want you to follow but we do want to give you a lot of freedom, so a great example is that volcano in the distance. There will be times when you go around corners and it might get hidden but you’ll see the volcano and it will be naturally drawing to you to that goal, because it’s reminding you that ‘oh yeah, I need to head over there’ so it’s subconsciously encouraging that type of forward progression. You may not notice it but we’ve put it there deliberately as a way to encourage you.” – Arne Meyer of Naughty Dog

Dropped into the deep-end well into the game, my only instruction was to keep heading towards the volcano, so I accelerate my trusty 4×4 towards as my perspective of the volcano changes. Sully and Sam are having some light banter – something having this vehicle seems to allow more of – while I, controlling Drake, navigate the muddy paths, often driving in shallow water to get where I want to go.

Driving slowly across rickety bridges is necessary, and I had to hit just the right angles to take this jeep up some slippery slopes, to which rocks crumble under the wheels and loosely roll down the hills. At any point, I can jump out of the vehicle and explore a bit – and this is necessary for those looking to pick up collectibles – but as open as the world is, there’s still a path to follow and ultimately I’m glad that Naughty Dog have found a balance between linear gameplay and open-world exploration.

The Uncharted games often start out relatively slow but quickly speed up and are almost break-neck until the end, a pace pushed along by the linearity of it all. This push into an open world does seem to interrupt the pace a bit, and for that there’s a much more patient energy to this. That alone is a big difference for Uncharted, and it may be divisive to some hardcore players, but it also stretches the whole experience which I see getting more and more valuable as the game goes on. Too often I have found myself not wanting some of these sequences to end (the train from Uncharted 2 or the ship from Uncharted 3 for example) so at least there’s an option to somewhat prolong A Thief’s End.

“I think it’s integral to what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to keep you solving problems. With the jeep it’s how do you change or take advantage of the environment? How do you overcome obstacles? It’s part of the tool set you have. It’s part of an expanded tool set.” – Arne Meyer of Naughty Dog

Having a jeep also allows for more possibilities with problem solving. For example, there is a winch attached to the front of the jeep; Drake thought it was a waste of money but Sully insists that paying a bit more for the feature will come into use (a little nugget picked up from the on-the-road banter while driving up the mountain), and it turns out that he’s right, as always (sully is the best). I use the winch to carry the vehicle up steeper inclines, and to take down bridges by reversing and splintering the pillars; I couldn’t progress without it. Similarly, having the jeep requires you to pay closer attention to the landscape, seeking out faint tire tracks to let you know that you can traverse this path, often requiring you to leave the vehicle and engage with Uncharted’s most defining traversal trait: climbing.

The linear aspect integral to moving the story along comes back into play on the major narrative beats, like all roads leading to a guarded tower, a segment which highlights the game’s improved battle mechanics. There’s freedom here too, thought going into allowing the player to approach battle in a multitude of ways, whether it be via a stealthy approach, made smoother with the mechanic of tagging enemies (in a similar fashion to the Fallout games) before deciding how you want to tackle the whole scenario, or just running in guns blazing, taking down snipers in a gun fight that feels more meaty this time around, in both movement and sound. The way gun fights are layered in the Uncharted games is second to none, and from this demo it looks like Naughty Dog will be continuing that reputation throughout this game.

“We originally started experimenting with stealth back in Uncharted 2, creating more complex AI systems. It’s all in service of providing you with more player choice. How much can we introduce player choice into everything that you’re doing? This was the biggest evolution we could do in combat scenario, so you have full on stealth and full on combat, and you choose how to approach it. So I think we were lucky that we had started working with stealth in Uncharted 2, and then expanded on it a little bit in Uncharted 3, had more complex AI systems. The Last of Us kicked in and had a really great AI system because it helped us reconsider how enemies work in this scenario. The way Naughty Dog works is we’re always iterating on top of what we’ve done before so we were able to look at all these learnings and create this definitive combat scenario.” – Arne Meyer of Naughty Dog

Enemy AI is also improved, as is that of your companions, making Sam and Sully very useful players in these grand battle scenes. Having messed up the stealthy approach, I end up with two enemies surrounding me, one about to shoot before Sam intervenes and takes down one of the men.

The sharp, cinematic quality of Uncharted is continued here, and the improvements in the way it moves, oscillates, and progresses as you control Drake and head out on this adventure is looking like one big epic end to what is truly a revolutionary franchise in gaming history. There may be some divisive introductions that take some getting used to for some hardcore Uncharted fans, but from what I’ve seen, it expands the game in a positive way rather than takes away from anything. If this demo is any indication to what the full game is like, then we, as fans, are in for something special.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End will be released in Australia on 10 May, 2016. It will be exclusive to Playstation 4.