The beauty of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End goes so much deeper than its masterclass visuals and cinematic splendor.
The joy I’ve come to expect from Nathan Drake’s adventures stems from a signature, Naughty Dog-brand balance between familiarity and gameplay surprises. I always know that, when I start up a new Uncharted, I’m going to get a globe-spanning adventure, jaw-dropping setpieces, tight platforming, and a narrative that delves into history’s lesser-known mysteries. But despite these common elements, and a shooting-platforming blend that’s stayed pretty consistent since 2007’s Drake’s Fortune, Uncharted always manages to surprise me. From Among Thieves’ truck-leaping to horseback riding and desert storms in Drake’s Deception, Naughty Dog always finds a way to innovate within the confines of what we know to be "Uncharted," resulting in thrilling first-time journeys that grip me like no other franchise.
That trend continues in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, and its press conference showing is proof-positive of that. Everything about the incredible jeep chase, from the scope of the city to the density of its streets, details, and citizenry, is a stunning example of how, just when we think we know and understand Uncharted, the script can be flipped and Nathan Drake can amaze us.
After an extended behind-closed-doors demo at E3 2015, where writer Neil Druckmann played a good deal past the presser’s ending, I was even more amazed. A cut-to-black left the world uncertain of a hanging Drake’s fate, but it only gets better from there.
Let’s rewind a bit. In this extended E3 demo, Drake and Sully are trying to reach Sam, Drake’s brother and a fellow treasure hunter who’s come under fire by lackeys of Rafe, who know to be at least one antagonist. Drake and Sully navigate through crowded city streets–animations, texture detail, and lighting are all a stunning sight to behold–before gunfire breaks out and the duo end up in a heated firefight. We bear witness to some of the subtle ways Naughty Dog has innovated upon its own combat systems. The grenade indicator is larger and more obvious than before. Drake can seamlessly move behind and around Sully even when both are attached to cover. Everything from wooden cover to sandbags to the ceramic tiles on walls is destructible and deteriorating rapidly in the haze of gunfire. As we saw in the E3 trailer, Drake and Sully survive the encounter and leap across a few rooftops to land in a jeep, which they use to bust through city streets and down alleyways, fleeing from Rafe’s men and their armored vehicle.
Druckmann took a slightly different route in our demo, including a wrong turn off the fountain plaza that resulted in a quick diversion before getting back on the main road. I don’t expect this section or similar moments will defy the series’ linear storytelling and level design, but at least the city isn’t just a pretty backdrop: there are plenty of details players might not see the first time through.
Drake and Sully catch up to the enemy convoy where we suspect Sam to be; the convoy’s on a highway above, and Drake is quickly running out of road. In a last ditch attempt, Drake swings a hooked rope to a crane on a vehicle above and swings out over a massive river. From here, the new gameplay footage began.
The rope itself is a perfect example of the way Naughty Dog innovate and achieves setpieces that are more interactive with every Uncharted adventure. As Drake flies across the river, the player shifts weight a bit to dodge oncoming pillars. On the other side, he’s dragged along behind the vehicle across mud, but our control remains. We can climb the rope, shoot at motorcyclists on our side, and continue to shift weight, dodging obstacles. The effort required of Drake to hang on throughout all this and finally reach the bed of the truck above him is nothing short of Herculean, but the entire scene is interactive. I suspect there will scarcely be a moment in Uncharted 4 where some player control isn’t available. This action-packed scene was visually fantastic, but the fact that player control was behind almost all of it is equally impressive.
Things only got more dynamic from there. Up in the truck bed, Drake could take cover behind the truck bed’s walls, which broke and fell off as gunfire rained on him. In a nod to Uncharted 2, Drake leaps from the truck bed to an enemy jeep, knocking out the driver as the game shifted to driving again. I started to get a sense of how open-ended these fights are, even in Uncharted’s linear confines: I imagine Drake could have jumped to a different jeep on the other side, or perhaps stayed in the large truck to continue fending off attackers.
Within the action, there’s another subtle innovation: players now have limited control over Drake’s torso and reach in mid-air. By guiding him through a jump, players can pin down the ledge or thing they want to grab with more precision. It’s difficult to say how this will be useful in combat and platforming situations—I imagine it will make Drake a more efficient climber—but lead game designer Anthony Newman describes it as an important addition to Drake’s mechanics.
As motorcyclists swarm Drake on both sides and we rocket through new environments—swamps, roads, and small villages—Sam comes up alongside the jeep. The two brothers exchange words like fiercely competitive, independent brothers would, and each wants the other to jump aboard his vehicle. It’s a witty exchange with a lot of chemistry, and more than ever, I’m excited to watch this relationship develop in the final game.
Before the two can come to terms, a truck violently T-bones Drake’s jeep, trapping him underneath in a steel wreck. Fluid leaks within the cab. Red and blue flames lick Drake’s face. He slowly clambers out of the vehicle as two enemies approach from without. Drake manages to pull his pistol and dispatch the two, who can’t believe he’s still alive. I’m stunned at just how relentless the action is, and I consider that it might be the lack of Naughty Dog’s trademark cut-to-black frame transitions. The shift in action to new situations and settings is incredibly seamless. More than ever, players will have to stay alert and look for visual cues that control has returned, lest ambiguous moments result in sloppy deaths.
Drake hops on Sam’s motorcycle and take off, the enemy tank-truck in hot pursuit. With no break out of cutscene, the camera flips and Drake’s targeting reticle returns. Drake fends off the truck with SMG fire, presumably slowing its advancement, and Sam leaps from ramp to box, over walls and around corners, with thrill-ride intensity. The chase ends as Sam and Drake zip through a shipping yard and finally outmaneuver the truck, which is demolished by a gap too small. Drake and Sam stop the bike, breathe, laugh, and share a genuinely funny moment (made more so by the utterly bewildered harbor workers looking on).
As intriguing as their relationship is (it was one of the demo’s highlights, for me), there’s a relationship I care about even more. Some time later, Drake, Sam, and Sully rendezvous at a motel and discuss the treasure they’re hunting. Libertalia, a fabled pirate colony in Madagascar, supposedly houses a treasury with all the property, resources, and money of some of history’s most successful pirates. Sam has successfully stolen information about the treasury’s location from Rafe, and the three share their enthusiasm for the chase ahead. It’s perfectly in line with what we expect from Uncharted, and shows an interesting aspect of Drake’s development. Despite all the dangers and death, and despite how he came to terms with retirement in Uncharted 3, Drake is still in love with the chase and enjoying himself far too much—especially given Elena’s pleas for him to leave that life behind.
As the gang enters their motel room, enthusiastic about the treasure that awaits, I can feel the tension before the camera even turns. Drake turns to face the room, stops, and goes silent. The camera turns. Elena is there, poring over the maps and clues Drake has been amassing in their base of operations. She turns, and begins to speak in a soft voice that quivers with the livid, boiling anger of betrayal underneath. You can hear a pin drop in our demo room.
“How’s the Malaysia job going?”
Our extended demo ends here, but I immediately reflect on the plentiful story hints. Drake and Sully have been traveling under some pretense, lying to Elena about a great deal. I suspect what starts as a rescue mission for Sam or a simple job snowballs into something else entirely, possibly after Drake encounters Sam and finds out what his ambitious brother has been up to. That job would be the discovery of Libertalia and the pirate resources within, but antagonist Rafe and his men are hard on the chase. Drake has succumbed to the allure of treasure hunting, betraying Elena’s trust yet again.
Narrative has been the missing piece of Uncharted 4 up until E3 2015, and I suspect we won’t learn a whole lot more in this regard before the game’s 2016 release. But this demo demonstrated that Naughty Dog’s storytellers are back and at the top of their game—I’ve never been more riveted by the relationship between Drake and Elena, to say nothing of Sam and the history Drake clearly shares with him. For now, the background plot—a race to the treasure in a tropical setting—is pretty standard fare. Indeed, Uncharted got its start in this realm, but I’m glad for a nice step back from the somewhat divisive supernatural elements of Uncharted 3.
With completely seamless transitions between scene and control, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End looks to be the most immersive Nathan Drake adventure yet. The timing is perfect, because the action we get to control is more visually impressive and technically proficient than ever. Within the definition of Uncharted—a serial adventure with drama, humor, and bombast—Naughty Dog continues to innovate in ways that make every epic moment feel like a new peak for the series. And with narrative intrigue at an all-time high, it’s entirely possible A Thief’s End will be our favorite thief’s best.