It’s dark. Nathan Drake awakens in a glass chamber, water surrounding him. Not exactly unfamiliar territory for the intrepid explorer, but nor is it exactly welcome. He’s trapped in a secret deep sea base, headquarter of a terror organisation, ready to flood the ocean with a chemical weapon.
No, that’s not the story of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, which finally arrives on PS4 on 10 May, but it might have been. That was how developer Naughty Dog first conceived of Uncharted, a tale of eco-terrorism and the greed of corporations making billions with chemical waste. In 2005, the game’s codename was Zero Point, Nathan was a not so sporty guy, doing research for an activist group. But then BioShock was announced and Naughty Dog was in urgent need of a different concept, a different setting and a different kind of hero.
That’s when Uncharted was born and the Nathan Drake we know is still having the time of his life in 2016, sliding, drifting and leaping down a muddy valley in Madagascar. He hasn’t changed much: sure, he is a little older, sporting a few wrinkles and some grey hair atop his forehead, but his long-sleeved top is still in desperate need of a wash. But boy, has the gameplay changed. The Uncharted trilogy on PS3 was always akin to a rollercoaster ride. It was very fast, with extreme highs and lows, and always very scripted, a combination of Indiana Jones, Die Hard and Mission Impossible.
Uncharted 4 is not an open-world game in the sense of Far Cry 4 or GTA 5, but playing the game ahead of its release, it feels like one. Its spaces are much, much more open to explore and you can really take your time – you won’t be cut off by a hail of gunfire, a scene of Nathan Drake ragdolling down a cliff, or a quick time event.
When you jump into a jeep, you don’t just roam around for a minute as a little break from all the shooting. You roam around for a long time and you have a lot of fun doing it, because Naughty Dog has an eye for detail. The way the vehicle feels, the tyres behave and how realistically it slides through the mud reminds us more of DiRT Rally. Which is quite an accomplishment, considering that the Californian studio is actually not developing a rally sim or an arcade racer, though the announcement of a cart game has been a running gag since Uncharted 2.
As a result, it’s challenging when you have to climb a steep hill – but also playful, especially if you make good use of the environment. You can make your ride dirty, no questions asked, with mud spraying the windshield and even the jeep’s interior, coating Sully and Nathan’s brother Sam. They don’t seem to like that, so we drive very slowly through a waterfall covering the base of operations, where the team stores its gear and weaponry. “Thanks for the second shower today, little brother,” Sam quips. Sam, a new character to the series, has been through much worse since he accidentally shot a guard in a museum and was forced to stay away from Nathan for years, only to get into some shoddy business with some shoddier people, who now – surprise – want their money back.
Learning from The Last of Us
“People constantly ask me what I’ve learned from The Last of Us,” Uncharted 4 creative director and lead writer Neil Druckmann tells Red Bull Games. He also served as director for survival horror The Last Of Us, Naughty Dog’s last PS3 game and one of the most acclaimed, thoughtful AAA games of the entire generation. If Uncharted’s scripts are pulp fiction at its finest, The Last Of Us is a prize winning work of literature, beautiful in what it leaves unsaid.
“If I have to point out one thing, it’s the confidence to just let dialogue flow. This is still very much a summer blockbuster, with huge explosions, gigantic set pieces, everything you expect from an Uncharted. But with Joel and Ellie I’ve learned not to interrupt an emotional moment. Let it flow, let it grow.“
And he’s right: Uncharted 4 is a very cinematic experience. Not because of a certain Hollywood styled pace, but because of its acting and how much screen time everyone gets. The moment Nathan and his estranged brother, played by Troy Baker (who voiced Joel in The Last of Us) is very emotional and intense, though they are just having a casual chat about life and love. Naughty Dog doesn’t need more than a few moments to build up a real connection to its protagonists and that’s stunning. This time in Uncharted, the characters are not just figures to fill in some story beats; they feel like real humans, almost a bit like friends.
“What I love about this franchise is that it’s not just about shooting stuff and discovering treasurers, it’s about the people,” says Nolan North, the voice of Nathan Drake as well as many, many other iconic game characters of the last 20 years, from Final Fantasy to Assassins’ Creed.
“Uncharted 4 is about the question, how far you would go to help out your brother – would you be ready to betray the person you love? I mean, Nathan truly loves Elena, hell, they had to fight for this marriage for a long time. But Sam also awakens Nathan’s deeper delight of adventuring again. That’s what he has done his entire life, now he has an office job, taking care of papers, not treasures. This adrenaline of getting chased and always living on the edge is a drug for him. Once he tries it again, it’s tough for him to go back.”
North is not wrong: we really do care what happens between Elena and Nathan. We’ve known her for as long as we have Drake, ever since her boat exploded in 2007 and Nathan rescued her. But Uncharted is not just about its protagonists: it gives everyone the screen time necessary to built up a personality. Nadine Ross, the main villain of the game, gets a very classy introduction that feels more like a Bond movie, less like a game. She’s first seen flirting with Sully at a fancy party in a luxurious mansion. It’s clear they are old acquaintances, if not friends, might even have had an affair – you know Sully, the salty old playboy. Things take a turn for the worse though, and fast, because now Nadine is the head of a mercenary corporation named Shoreline, hunting Nathan, Sully and Sam.
Fist fights hurt in real-time now
Not long after this conversation, Nadine knocks on the door of our fellow Nathan Drake. “You have something I want and you are going to give it to me“, she says in a quiet, threatening manner. Nathan doesn’t take things too seriously, shows off his wedding ring and points out that he’s spoken for. But Nadine is not here to play games, she is willing to fight, quite literally, and punches him straight in the face – she’s certainly not your everyday Bond female villain, using muscles rather than charm to take out 007. Usually it’s the other way round.
As Nathan is kicked in the groin and then into the bookshelf, we can’t help but notice that Naughty Dog has outdone itself for graphical fidelity once again, particularly in the way encounters have been designed. Everything is tracked and calculated in real-time; if a fist hits a nose, an algorithm determines whether it breaks or not. So when Nadine’s fist hits Nathan hard, his nose bleeds lightly and his bridge starts to swell. Lead character artist Frank Tzeng explained to us in a special panel at the Playstation Experience earlier this year that the anatomy is now much more real than in Uncharted 3: the system measures the impact of a hit to a degree that it can even determine whether Nathan’s eyelid just gets a little blue and red or if a real cut occurs.
It’s not just the bruises we’re interested in, of course. The fighting gameplay itself is much more dynamic, much more like in The Last of Us. Most enemies in Uncharted 3 were very easy to knock out, more victims than adversaries. Now they’re ready to fight and exploit their advantages. When Nathan tries to take on a tall, muscular soldier from Nadine’s mercenary army, he goes for a counterattack by turning Nathan around and hurling him against a boulder. It’s not a fight you can win in 10 seconds, it’s an all out brawl in the dirt, which is much more fun. And again, the holy graphic engine of Uncharted 4 is just a joy to watch.
“The higher polygon count and the higher resolution require a lot more work and a lot more thought,” explains art director Robh Ruppel. “It’s not any mud will do, it’s a very specific dirt, and how wet is that dirt, how many pebbles are pushing that dirt?”
It’s not just about shooting stuff: it’s about tactical exploration
What’s most surprising about Uncharted 4 in our playthrough is the way it handles A.I. and its sprawling levels. We can’t just drive close to the base of operations of the Shoreline Group at a mine in the Madagascan jungle. Because the engine of our jeep is as loud as you would expect, the noise would attract direct attention of Nadine’s well trained mercenaries. Brave as we are, we tried the obvious: crashing into the camp with our ride, guns blazing.
But Uncharted 4 is not Far Cry or Just Cause and things don’t work that way – we are killed immediately. A more sneaky approach proves the best bet. We park the car some distance away, sneak around the camp, spot a couple of enemies and decide to go for a little climbing tour on the huge bell tower. As it turns out, we don’t need to shoot any guards punching in their time at all. We hide in the pasture, wait until a guard patrols by and knock him out gently. It works on all of the guards in succession. Bingo.
Still though... this is Uncharted. The James Bond in us wants to climb that tower, steal the sniper rifle from one of the soldiers and shoot his colleagues on the ground. We have to blame the nicely positioned explosive barrels here, showing off the physics engine of Uncharted 4 in all its destructive glory. If we want, we can also combine shooting with classic melee takedowns.
Once the first guards are down, we can just slide along a rope, press a button, activate an aerial takedown that way and land our fist in the face of a guy that just wanted to take aim with his assault rifle. “It’s a leap of faith,” like a famous archaeologist named Indiana Jones once said. It’s one we’re confident Naughty Dog will land safely.