Hands on: Uncharted 4

Choose your own adventure: Uncharted 4 finally lets players roam free

Uncharted 4 expands its scope (and borrows from other action-adventure games) with more open gameplay, more stealth, and more combat options.

At almost a decade old and with three games already on the books, the Uncharted series has been starting to show its age.

Since the release of Uncharted 3, there have been some major additions to the action-adventure game landscape. Metal Gear Solid V set a new bar in many ways with open-world-ish stealth gameplay, and Lara Croft has returned with two new takes on the classic Tomb Raider franchise — and has even been accused of cribbing from Uncharted here and there.

With Uncharted 4, it looks like Nathan Drake is taking a page or two from Lara Croft and Big Boss. And while the influences on this final entry into PlayStation’s flagship series are pretty obvious, so far, their impact on Uncharted 4 and developer Naughty Dog seem like they’re all for the better.

A Wide-Linear Experience

Sony and Naughty Dog gave journalists a chance at a hands-on preview of Uncharted 4 in Los Angeles last week, and right off the bat it was notable for being much less linear than the previous three games. The demo level takes place in an open area of Madagascar, as protagonist Nate Drake and his buds, long-lost brother Sam and treasure hunting pal Victor “Sully” Sullivan, chase after a pirate treasure. The section is also notable because it lets players take the wheel of a 4×4 Jeep and explore freely.

The emphasis on exploration is a refreshing twist on the Uncharted formula.

The area isn’t exactly an open world, per se; instead, it’s kind of a “wide-linear” experience, as described by lead designer Emilia Schatz. There’s still a linear path through the section as Nate and his pals head for a distant volcano where they think the treasure is hidden, and with old guard towers along the way that provide clues to the booty, but players can drive around and investigate sites of interest off what might be considered the “main road.” These are mostly ruins, filled with artifacts and bits of story to find.

And like in co-director and lead writer Neil Druckmann’s last game, The Last of Us, players who bother to take in the scenery will uncover optional side conversations between the three characters, which add lots of little flavor bits to the unfolding story.

“We tried to do a lot more of player-centric pathing,” Schatz said in an interview with Digital Trends. “Especially in Uncharted 3, we had a number of segments that felt very linear, almost like a greased tube, and that creates a very nice roller coaster sort of feeling, but at the same time as a player, you really want to feel like it’s on the stick. You want to feel like it’s a part of your actions.

Uncharted 4

“For instance, in the Madagascar demo, we give you a goal, and it’s the volcano, out there, and we’ve got these towers, which are the immediate goal to get there. And then we try to let you go and let you find it yourself. And yes, it’s a linear path to get there, but at the same time we try to make it so the walls aren’t really visible. The walls are just far enough out that you have a choice, you have to find your way there, but they’re not really closing in on you.”

Driving freely around the area, a new addition to the series, is a major part of the gameplay in the demo, and Naughty Dog uses the Jeep as a chance to add bits of environmental puzzle-solving to a section that would otherwise be a bit repetitive. Muddy hills are an obstacle for the Jeep, so players have to watch for better traction in order to keep from sliding. There’s also a winch on the car, which gets used to solve a few puzzles, and which is the subject of much banter between the characters.

The emphasis on exploration is a refreshing twist on the Uncharted formula, and it factors into Uncharted 4’s take on combat, as well.

Nate? Nate!? NAAAAAAAAAAATE!

The last third of the Madagascar demo centered on a big encounter with enemy mercenaries, who are tearing toward the volcano as well. Of course it turns into a deadly firefight, but the more open take on the Uncharted formula means players are able to choose how to approach that fight, and how they want to play through it.

It’s hard not to make direct comparisons between the encounter in the demo and last year’s Metal Gear Solid V. Just like in that game, enemies mill about in a location, and the player can drive up, hop out of their Jeep, and sneak up on them from any direction. Stealth also gets a major emphasis in the demo, with tall grass popping up all over the combat area to allow players to slink around unseen.

Uncharted 4 borrows a number of mechanics from other adventure games here to make it work. You can “mark” enemies like in Metal Gear Solid V or Far Cry 4 in order to keep track of their movements. Bad guys have “alert” indicators that fill up if they spot you, causing them to come investigate the area. And if you happen to trigger a full-on fight, you can break line-of-sight with your enemies such that they’ll lose track of you, allowing you to sneak up and outflank them again.

Rather than having every fight turn into a pop-and-shoot battle of sticking to cover and taking out enemies when it’s convenient, it feels like Uncharted 4 is instead pushing players to be more mobile and adaptive. You’ll still have your gunfights from cover, but you also have options to use Nate’s new grappling hook and rope to swing around to new locations or drop on enemies and take them out in high-octane maneuvers. The demo was set to a pretty easy difficulty, but it seemed like in a more normalized gameplay experience, players would organically link careful, cover-based shooting with chances to lose their opponents and go back to stealthy hit-and-run attacks.

“The thing we’re super proud of in all the Uncharted games is the overlapping of all the gameplay mechanics,” Schatz said. “Separating Uncharted out from all the other shooters, for instance, is this idea of ‘traversal gameplay.’ Climbing is fun in and of itself, and then in the next level you have this cover-based shooter, and then we have you doing both at the same time. And that is absolutely the case of every single one of our mechanics.

“When you’re playing the Jeep, there’s a lot of just driving, and then you’ve got the winch, and then you’re driving and now you’re in combat. All those different mechanics overlap. Same thing with the rope — the rope is very fun just with traversal and problem-solving, trying to get from point A to point B, but then when you play it in combat and you see that rope icon appear, you rope across and land on a guy — it’s such a pleasure when all those mechanics sort of fold in on each other. The player has this toolbox to work with where they can sort of make the encounter work as they want to.”

Keeping the Uncharted in Uncharted

What the demo didn’t include, however, was much in the way of the huge, bombastic set-piece moments that Uncharted is known for. Given how much emphasis, at least in this slice, is placed on giving players the sense of more freedom and control, it might seem like those train-derailing, building-collapsing, cruise ship-sinking moments could be tougher to make feel right.

Schatz said Naughty Dog basically has dealt with the problem by iterating, and iterating, and iterating, to make sure that Uncharted 4 maintains the gameplay feel that marks the series. Paths naturally converge on “pinch points,” so the game can deliver those big moments, important story beats, and the like.

While the influences on Uncharted 4 are pretty obvious, so far, their impact on Uncharted and developer Naughty Dog seem like they’re all for the better.

“It’s all about pacing,” Schatz explained. “That’s one thing that’s really nice about having Neil write the story. Neil is also a designer. So he understands writing the story that needs a lot of concessions for ‘we want the gameplay to be in a very specific way right here, but we want to get into a story moment here.’ And pacing that out so it feels like you very much have those new moments of driving and having three buddies that are around you, and then getting into a set piece. It’s very difficult to get that feeling right.”

And while it’s easy to draw parallels between games like Metal Gear Solid V and Rise of the Tomb Raider with these new Uncharted changes — somewhat ironic, given how much 2012’s Tomb Raider reboot has been discussed as borrowing from the Uncharted series — that doesn’t mean those changes to the Uncharted formula are in any way pandering or trend-chasing. The Madagascar demo felt like an update to the series that helps it keep pace with other games on the market.

Conclusion

The Madagascar demo was only a very small piece of a much larger game, so it’s difficult to extrapolate that experience to some of the bigger questions about Uncharted 4. Its combat was diverse and exciting, but it also did feel quite a bit like other recent entries into the action-adventure space. Uncharted has always banked its appeal on great characters and amazing moments, and the demo was thin on both of those elements.

Though it’s impossible to accurately judge from such a small slice, the impression left from the hands-on experience is that Uncharted 4 will live and die by how well it can borrow from other games, while maintaining its essential Uncharted-ness. It won’t be until its release in May that players can find out whether Uncharted 4 will be able to expand its scope, while also remaining Naughty Dog’s unique takes on its genre.

Highs

  • You can finally explore!
  • Side conversations shed light on characters
  • Driving is a natural fit for Uncharted
  • Stealth greatly improves cover-based combat

Lows

  • How will open level design work with set pieces?
  • Gameplay isn’t unique
Gaming

Feeling bored in real life? Pursue a new persona in the best open-world games

Open-world games are among the most popular in the medium. These are the best open-world games of all-time, including titles in series like Assassin's Creed, The Elder Scrolls, and The Legend of Zelda.
Gaming

Your PlayStation 4 game library isn't complete without these games

Looking for the best PS4 games out there? Out of the massive crop of titles available, we selected the best you should buy. No matter what your genre of choice may be, there's something here for you.
Gaming

This list of PlayStation 4 exclusives puts its competitors to shame

The PlayStation 4's game library and incredible selection of exclusive games could make anyone with an Xbox One or Nintendo Switch think twice. Here's our list of the latest and greatest PS4 exclusives.
Gaming

These are the must-have games that every Xbox One owner needs

More than four years into its life span, Microsoft's latest console is finally coming into its own. From Cuphead to Halo 5, the best Xbox One games offer something for players of every type.
Gaming

Here's how you can play your favorite PC games with a Nintendo Switch controller

Nintendo's Switch controllers, including the Joy-Cons and the aptly titled Pro Controller, use Bluetooth, which makes them compatible with your PC. Here's how to start using them for PC gaming.
Gaming

Wage war on a budget with these fun and free first-person shooters

We all know about Halo and Call of Duty by now, but what about quality titles that won't cost you upward of $60? Check out our picks for the best free first-person shooter games from Paladins to Quake Champions.
Gaming

I'm canceling my backlog for Apex Legends. Be back never

Live service games like Fortnite and Apex Legends are eating up everyone's time, leaving other games out in the cold. While my backlog continues to grow, it seems the gaming industry is struggling to keep up as well.
Gaming

Get creative and collect 15 coins with our Fortnite overtime challenges guide

The first Fortnite overtime challenges are now available. Use our guide to help you collect the hidden coins in the featured Creative mode islands and get closer to that free season eight battle pass.
Virtual Reality

Getting into VR is spendy. Which headset is truly worth your hard-earned cash?

Virtual reality has finally gone mainstream, but how do you find the best VR headset for you? Check out a few of our favorites, whether you want the best of the best or a budget alternative for your mobile device.
Gaming

Become a champion with our beginner's guide to Apex Legends

Jumping into Apex Legends for the first time? Need help becoming a champion? Our Apex Legends beginner's guide has 15 tips and tricks that will hopefully help your team make it into the champion's circle.
Gaming

Buy a new Switch console and get a $35 eShop gift card at some retailers

Multiple retailers are currently offering the Neon Blue and Red Nintendo Switch console with a free $35 eShop gift card. The system still costs the standard $300 and includes Joy-Con controllers and the dock.
Gaming

Thrive in the nuclear apocalypse with our Metro Exodus survival guide

Metro Exodus is a difficult shooter, especially if you're new to the series' blend of stealth, action, and scavenging. Here is what you need to know to survive the nuclear apocalypse.
Gaming

Here's where Xur is and what he has for wares this week in Destiny 2: Forsaken

The weekly vendor in Destiny 2: Forsaken always brings Exotic weapons and armor, some of the toughest loot to find in the game. Here's everything you need to know to track down Xur: Where he is, when he shows up, and what he's stocking.
Gaming

How do the revised Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles stack up?

Microsoft's new Xbox One S and Sony's PlayStation 4 "Slim" have bucked the generational gaming console trend. But which of these stopgap systems is worth spending your paycheck on?