Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End Preview

Out of retirement.

Three years after the events of Uncharted 3, Nathan Drake has retired. Well, not for long it seems. As Nate takes in a stunning mountain view, Victor Sullivan and Nathan’s brother, Sam, fuss over how they can’t get a signal from their location. Nate snarks that paper, as in a map, never does. Our favorite duo is back, this time with a long lost sibling on a search for the lost treasure of famed pirate Captain Henry Avery.

The main gameplay of the demo I played at a private event for Uncharted 4 is from Chapter 10 “The Twelve Towers” with Nathan driving a jeep that the gang rented from the locales. Sully thinks Nate paid too much, but Nathan argues having a winch attachment was a good idea, more than say, a working suspension. Boy, was he ever right, but more on that later.

After way too many years since Among Thieves, just tagging along for the ride with two olds buds and one estranged brother feels like home and… something new. Fingers crossed—something that might be great. If the whole demo was just driving—something I usually abhor as filler in most games—I’d be ecstatic. That’s how well used the driving portion of the demo turned out. The signature action/adventure of the 2000s is back. This was over twenty minutes of gamer bliss.


 
Frankly, I was surprised at how good A Thief’s End looks and plays. The remaster of the Uncharted trilogy last year sort of opened my eyes to how a masterpiece like Uncharted 2 even with a 1080p upgrade didn’t quite look as mind-blowing as I remembered. Uncharted remains one of the best video game series of all time, but its age was showing. Uncharted 4 has a more detailed, much more expansive feel in terms of environment. This isn’t as super-huge like how Afghanistan seemed in MGSV (Uncharted 4 is not open-world, mind you) but it's impressive regardless.

Back to the demo, the main goal is to find a tower that will give Nathan clues about finding the whereabouts of Avery's treasure. Turns out one of the fabled twelve towers located on a volcano is said to have Avery’s treasure. Like MGSV you’re using a vehicle to speed up the process as it were. The rolling hills are gorgeous, the draw distance spectacular.

Along the way are some ruins, which Nate can get out of the jeep to check out. A treasure is found (a Sawasa tobacco box!), but the tutorial-based reason for this moment is to have players hit down on the directional pad to see the location of the jeep. Works well enough. For fun, Sam and Sullivan can be heard bickering about how much the job of being an explorer comes down to being on the internet these days. (I don’t often like flashbacks as a narrative device, but I would have liked to see Sully getting frustrated acquiring an item on eBay.)

Controlling Nate feels pretty much the same, maybe a bit more refined. What is different, but subtle, is how environment navigation is less dependent on giving players a brightly-colored ledge to signal where to climb a wall. Here a ledge looks brown, more real. It’s still apparent where and how to navigate, but the emphasis on being just a tad more genuine is appreciated.

Driving further up the range, the fantastic chatter continues as well as a sense of openness. There are no guide buttons to hit, but I trudged forward, eventually seeing a bridge I needed to cross. With a little effort I found a path and made my way up. This is the first time the jeep sputtered up a tiny mud slide; inching upward was a struggle for the engine. “Made it,” Nate said as I reached the bridge. There’s a real art to knowing when to have a character react to a player’s actions and Naughty Dog never fails to know just when to chime in. This is a part of what makes their games so darn immersive.

Quickly heading up becomes a bit more of a challenge, as the mud is slippery and I needed to have enough propulsion to drive from a solid rock surface to another. In a way this is kind of like platforming, but with a car, and no jumping.

(In a video I will attach later will be my second runthrough. On my first try I got stuck a lot, even lost. I never felt like the design was bad, though. I just wasn’t paying enough attention.)

Eventually, Nate reaches a hill that’s too steep or too slippery to climb. The hill is near another tower so Nate and Sam jump out of the car. Exploring yields a discovery of a marking that Sam thinks might explain how Avery recruited fellow pirates. This is our first look at Nate’s trusty guidebook, which has the normal drawings, letters, etc. The more important discovery is a tree with bark stripped away near the stump. That’s right, it’s time to use that winch!

As with many Uncharted mechanics, you’ll use the universal triangle button to pull off the winch from the jeep and then—here’s another nice, subtle, gameplay move—you’ll move Nate around the tree tree to tie it. (Nate even switches hands like anyone would.) A less intuitive game would have had you simply hit triangle with Nate would doing all the work. These little touches go a long way to keep players invested. The jeep gets up the hill (success!) and we’re off. Winch: totally worth it.

One of the more interesting aspects of the banter moments comes between Sam and Sully. Sam, who we know next to nothing about, seems to admire a pirate like Avery who just wanted to find a place to live in peace. Sully is quick to remind him, in a half-joking manner, that all those pirates needed to do was kill to do it. That kind exchange works perfectly to let us know who these guys are and how well they may or may not get along. I love it.

Then suddenly, an explosion from far away makes Nate and the gang nervous. Using binoculars (just like Big Boss would have done), they speculate that the armed guys are working for someone named Nadine. She’s character I’ve seen stills of but was not in the demo. Here is where the action ramps up.

The big new addition is being able to tag enemies by hitting the left stick while aiming. It’s a little awkward holding the left trigger and pressing the stick with one hand, but so far you’re mostly doing it at a distance from bad guys so I didn’t mind. The hand-to-hand combat feels smoother, less stuttery like in past versions. If you come into an enemy’s line of sight, he will notice with their marker turning yellow, then red. In a nice addition that, yes, does remind me of Metal Gear again, you can get them to stop searching if you just stay hidden for long enough. Throughout this sequence was also stealth, exploding a huge wall, and a sniper rifle. Everything feels great.

Uncharted 4 is off to a fantastic start, and I was bummed when it was over. I'll just have to wait until the game releases on May 10 this year for PS4..

More quick impressions:

  • Even if you die, enemies you’ve tagged, stay tagged. Nice.
  • The more male-centric vibe (usually a strong female character is a great balance) actually works great.
  • The music is just as thrilling as ever.
  • There are some destructible environments made of wood. Could be something hidden there.
  • Nolan North, back as the voice of Nathan, never misses a beat.