Nathan Drake spots them first.
In the distance, among the craggy ruins of an old look-out post, there’s a group of armed mercenaries unloading equipment and patrolling the area. The sun beats down, the sky is cloudless, in the still air you can just make out their voices. It’s a classic Uncharted set piece.
“How do we deal with this?” asks Sully.
“Just follow my lead,” replies Drake.
And then the player is in control.
This is the way things have always panned out in the Uncharted titles. A little chat, a joke or two, and then explosive, pulp movie action. Now Naughty Dog’s multimillion-selling adventure series is coming to a close, in a game subtitled “A Thief’s End”. This is an industry in which choreographed conclusions are rare – successful franchises just go on until interest wanes and the money runs out. But that’s not what’s happening here.
“With Nathan Drake, we have someone that people are so invested in, who they’ve spent a lot of time with” says lead designer Ricky Cambier. “To say that we’re gonna stop telling this story, we have to take care - we have to honour it. Game developers don’t often get to make that choice; it’s a testament to Sony and even Naughty Dog that we would take that on. We could continue to explore Uncharted, but we said, no, we’re going to close it. For fans, we hope this will be difficult but satisfying.”
For his final excursion then, Drake is going big. Every Uncharted has a historical treasure at its core, and this time it’s the fortune lifted by famed 17th century pirate Henry Every. Active across the Indian and Atlantic oceans, the ex Royal Navy sailor formed a cabal of buccaneers who, in 1695, raided a fleet of the Mughal Empire, capturing $400m of gold in the process. The raid resulted in the first ever global manhunt, but despite a hefty price on his head, Every was never found. Some believe he took his fortune and set up a sort of pirate utopia on Madagascar – and its this possibility that Uncharted 4 explores.
But there’s something else going on: Nathan’s troubled big brother, Sam, is back on the scene. He knows the whereabouts of the legendary haul, but he’s also in enough trouble to ensure that he really needs to find it. Who’s after him and why is likely to be an important strand in the story. “We wanted to go back through Nathan’s history and show a little bit about what it was like for him growing up, and bring someone in from his past,” says Cambier. “This relationship he had with his older brother was a large influence on who he is.”
Recently, Sony held a press event to show off a playable section of the campaign mode, set about a third of the way into the game and entitled “The Twelve Towers”. Nathan, Sam and Sully have hired a jeep to explore the plains of Madagascar, and now they’re heading toward a volcano that may well contain Every’s loot.
From the beginning, it’s clear Naughty Dog has not lost its skill at drawing cinematic grandeur from PlayStation hardware. The island environment is rendered in sumptuous detail, with a maze of muddy valleys stretching out for miles, birds swooping overhead, insects buzzing. After a brief intro, the player gets to drive the car – a first for the series – skidding along narrow, treacherous tracks and steep ravines, sending lemurs scurrying up hillsides and into trees.
It’s good fun, splashing along, learning how to make steep inclines by staying on rocky outcrops to maintain traction. En route, the trio indulges in easy, entertaining chatter. Sully moans about the extra price Sam paid for a car with a winch (“I bet we’ll never use it” he complains – in a way that instructs the player that they almost certainly will); Sam yells patronising instructions to his younger brother from the backseat. It’s the sort of loose, charming dialogue we’ve always enjoyed in the series, but with the addition of another character, the dynamic is slightly different. While Nathan is off investigating the little ruins you discover dotted around the landscape, Sam and Sully often sit back and bicker about the past, revealing handy plot details in the process.
To Cambier, this interplay is an absolutely crucial element of the series, and especially in this last game. A lot of the story is revealed through these seemingly off-the-cuff dialogue moments during playable sections. When a cut-scene is necessary, though, the more powerful PS4 hardware has allowed Naughty Dog to use the in-game engine, so the cinematics now merge seamlessly with interactive sequences.
“We’ve always been interested in the idea of protagonists working with allies, and the systemic moments this creates” he says. “In the combat stages you have these moments where your brother comes in and helps you, or Sully call things out …then we have this larger, more organic exploration space, so you’re driving around exploring and the types of conversations that we can have … we’re building these relationships constantly. In the games industry, we have this idea of gameplay, story, gameplay, story … but in this game, the story is always happening, you’re always with these people, you’re doing things together. It’s very challenging, but it makes the game more interesting”.
For all the talk of an open environment, however, it seems that, in this chapter at least, the player’s route is unsubtly funnelled towards key choke points: a rickety bridge provides an amusing dramatic moment and later there’s the tense circumnavigation of a steep rock face beside a waterfall – neither of which you can avoid. Alternative routes lead to dead ends or sheer drops. Still, the feel of driving is enjoyable, and there are certainly hidden areas to discover, at least one of which contains some vital information about Every’s pirate gang.
The drive eventually leads to that old pirate outpost, which is now inhabited by a group of soldiers under the command of a private military contractor named Nadine Ross. She been hired by another treasure hunter Rafe Adler, who is also zooming in on Every’s riches. Whatever the troops are doing here (and they appear to be trying to blow up an old ruin), this is a chance to try out the game’s slightly more complex combat mechanics. Drake can now use stealth more naturally, hiding in long grass in order to creep up on targets (who all now have awareness meters above their heads showing how alert they are to your presence); it’s also possible to ‘mark’ enemies by aiming at them and pressing down the left analogue stick: this ensures they remain visible wherever they are the map – both features seemingly inspired by the mechanics of the Far Cry series. Adding to the list of possibilities is a rope and grappling hook which give access to higher areas, and late Drake swing down on baddies from above.
Naughty Dog has eschewed some of the more fiddly aspects of stealth shooters, like cover mechanics and sprint buttons, but there is certainly more subtlty and range of movement here. The controls are fluid and responsive, so that - as in say Batman: Arkham Asylum – you feel as though you’re controlling a hero in a balletic action movie scene rather than fumbling about awkwardly like a drunken bar brawler. Uncharted has always been a finely tuned engine of narrative amusement and excitement, and this seems true for its conclusive instalment.
Uncharted 4 then, looks to be an amalgam of the things fans always loved in the series – cinematic set-pieces, snappy dialogue and lots of narrative intrigue – with more nuanced combat mechanics. Although the worlds don’t appear to be open as such (more like ajar), they do offer more scope for exploration, allowing Drake to naturally stumble on little plot scenes that will add to his bulging journal.
One thing is certain, it looks beautiful and the interplay between the characters is as lively and loveable as ever. However this journey ends, the route will be filled with spectacle.
This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Monday 4th April 2016 15.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010