"Poor, oppressed pirates," says Sully, facetiously. "All they wanted to do was murder and pillage in peace."
"No, no," retorts Sam, Nathan Drake's brother and Uncharted series newcomer. "No, they wanted to live as free men."
"Freedom" seems to be the buzzword with Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, but you'd be forgiven for being sceptical about whether the series could manage to unstick itself from the linear cement that usually keeps its movie-like storytelling intact. PlayStation's flagship franchise has been a benchmark for its consoles for almost a decade now – a must-buy for everyone who owns one, and something for those who don't to view with envy. But, alongside the resurrection of Lara Croft and ever-increasing expectations from players, developers Naughty Dog have had a lot to do in order to keep surpassing expectations for Uncharted's PlayStation 4 debut proper.
In order for this to happen, several huge shake-ups had to permanently disjoint the status quo. The most shocking was that Amy Hennig, the series' long-term writer and creative director, and Justin Richmond, the game director on Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, both departed Naughty Dog. Their exit left A Thief's End under the stewardship of Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley, the co-directors of 2013's multi-award-winning and critically revered The Last of Us.
Initial reports stated that Hennig was "forced out" of Naughty Dog, and this further aroused suspicions about the state of Uncharted 4. Creative parties appeared to be butting heads, and after the success of The Last of Us it wasn't hard to imagine the Druckmann/Straley dream team wanting a changing of the guard to steer Uncharted in a new direction. But some alterations in main cast talent, a report that Druckmann scrapped eight months of Hennig's work on the game, and several subsequent delays to its release all added up to a bad situation, from an external perspective. A Thief's End looked troubled.
However, against all odds, it seems that Uncharted 4's shaky development may have been just the reroute it needed in order to continue pushing ahead. Naughty Dog's biggest talking point over the past 12 to 18 months has been its newfound focus on player freedom, and that is looking like A Thief's End's greatest strength. There's freedom to move, explore and experiment on a level unseen in any Uncharted before this one. There remains the sense that this is a globetrotting adventure that successfully utilises the immense writing talents of its development team, but that it also wants you to feel like you're more in control, rather than everything being on rails.
A short but varied 45-minute hands-on preview demonstrates the main tenets of A Thief's End – from its new openness and the expertly written personalities of its main characters to the speed and dynamism of its combat. The demo is set around a third of the way into the game. We see Drake, Sully and Sam chasing new villain, Nadine, and her group of bad guys, Shoreline, across the Madagascan savannah to the Twelve Towers – a collection of pirate lookouts that all lead to the summit of a massive, extinct volcano.
The details on events preceding the chase are light – all Naughty Dog will reveal is that A Thief's End follows Nate and his pals as they search for the long-lost treasure of Henry Avery, a 17th century sailor who, after participating in a mutiny aboard the ship he was working on, was then elected captain, renamed it the Fancy, and subsequently became one the most notorious pirates in human history. Known by his contemporaries as "The King of Pirates", he quickly became the most wanted man on the planet after he found, and successfully vanished with, the largest haul of pirate treasure ever discovered, rumoured to be worth around $400,000,000 in today's money. Quite the lad.
A Thief's End feels like a pure treasure hunt from get-go. "Gentlemen, we're on a pirate adventure," says Sam, playfully, as the trio blasts through a waterfall into a hidden cavern. "What are you, seven?" teases Nate. Racing across the savannah in a hefty 4x4, Drake, Sully and Sam exchange quips and one-liners with perfect comic timing, and there's a welcome sense that this is Uncharted as we expect it – light hearted and just occasionally ridiculous. Sam asks Sully how his antiques business is going, but Sully's remorseful at the fact that he much prefers meeting clients face-to-face. You know, to "get a read on 'em", but that it's quite difficult "when you're talking to AnquityMaster87 through a screen".
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The 4x4 itself feels like a natural extension of the new, broader Uncharted. As you drive around the savannah, through sand, mud and water, the vehicle slips, slides, drifts and skids. Unlike vehicle sections in its predecessors, the jeep is genuinely satisfying to control, and doesn't become an action-interrupting annoyance. Instead, it allows you to quickly zoom off in whichever direction you want to, to explore hidden caves and ruins to find treasures and secrets, and you can get out and investigate wherever and whenever you like. It all organically blends together – from driving, to climbing a ruin, to using your new grappling hook to find out-of-reach items, and then even using the 4x4 to solve environmental puzzles to progress. Time will tell whether it's worthwhile to venture into the open, but it all lends to more liberating experience.
Approaching one of the preview's main towers, A Thief's End suddenly morphs into something surprisingly similar to Metal Gear Solid V, offering up a large area with numerous options at your disposal. Nate is able to sneak up on enemies, using long grass to hide in before snapping necks and knocking goons unconscious. By aiming your reticule over enemies, you're also able to mark them to keep tracks on their movement, and a behaviour icon signifies when each adversary is suspicious, alerted or aware of your whereabouts. Get detected and you can swiftly shift out of the line of sight to re-enter stealth, providing you're quick enough.
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The grappling hook comes in handiest when traversing the ruins, allowing Nate to get above enemy patrols, or across gangways. It's a smart, fluid system that works because of the broader scope: you can go from shooting an enemy to shooting a red barrel blows away more goons to running across a parapet and flinging yourself off the edge, to swinging across a gap to melee another bad guy in the face. It's fantastic, and invites you to experiment with it.
Climb up high and you can use the sniper rifle you found earlier to take down an entire squad while Sully and Sam run around below you, providing covering fire. Or you could go all-out and drive straight in, detonating the explosives the enemy has set up, to cause maximum chaos. Destructible cover not only looks fantastic as you shred wood apart, but it creates constantly changing battlefields and you've got to stay on your toes.
'Uncharted 4: A Thief's End', story trailer
The game's AI really helps, straddling a deliberately fine line between the enemies being smart – they're capable of flanking you, and putting the pressure on when things get hairy – and also on the fun-side of dumb. They won't notice an unidentified jeep in the vicinity, and take just a little longer than your average mercenary should to spot someone swinging toward them on a rope. But rather than feel jarring, this allows you to have much more fun while utilising the game's new systems.
It's not surprising that Uncharted 4 looks or plays as good as it does, but it's relieving that its numerous new ideas feel so immediately natural. The game's new degree of depth made me feel like I was creating my own set-piece moments around its templates, rather than being siphoned into scripted sequences that frequently tug control away to show you more beautifully produced but non-interactive cut-scenes.
It's difficult to gauge how Druckmann and Straley's direction will affect the outcome for Nate and company. But what's so wonderful is that, despite how or where this (reportedly) final adventure for Drake will end, and however grave the stakes become, A Thief's End is simultaneously Uncharted at its wittiest and at its most free and fresh. Going on this sample slice of what's to come, it's a game that feels grander in scale but no less focused on telling a great story about a riveting, relatively unknown portion of history. Gentlemen, we're off on a pirate adventure.
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is released for PlayStation 4 on May 10th. More information at the game's official website.
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