Uncharted 4: A Thief's End may be the final installment in roguish hero Nathan Drake's improbable saga, but it's also developer Naughty Dog's first new release since heart wrenching survival shooter The Last of Us launched in 2013. That means Uncharted 4 is Naughty Dog's first opportunity to apply all the lessons it learned while developing what's already become one of the most celebrated games of all time. Creative director Neil Druckmann himself enthusiastically acknowledges the influence, but even without his confirmation, the impact could be clearly felt in my recent hands-on demo.
Though Uncharted games have always employed a "wide linear" approach to level design that funnels players towards an inevitable goal without explicitly directing them, the structure here feels wider than ever. The section I played opened with an extended driving sequence that allowed me to explore the sweeping, rocky plains of Madagascar at my own pace. There were no obvious threats chasing me forward and my jeep was definitely not on rails -- rather, I could navigate in any direction, stop at any time, and take as long as I wanted while hunting for collectible bits of story and treasure.
It also gave me a chance to get to know Drake's long-lost brother Sam, who drags the aging Drake out of retirement at the start of the game. As I explored my surroundings and commuted across the map, Sam and series staple Sully bantered idly, sharing small details about their backgrounds and commenting on our collective mission in much the same way Joel and Ellie conversed during the quieter moments of The Last of Us. That sense of pacing, and of deliberate intimacy among the characters, feels like both a clear holdover from Last of Us and a natural evolution of Uncharted's already character-driven formula.
It's unclear how much of the game will be spent driving Drake's jeep around, but the 4x4 at least controls smoothly--which isn't always the case when a long-running series suddenly adds a prominent vehicle. And though the path wasn't always clear, the level contained enough stone markers and tire tracks to keep me from feeling lost. I powered up some muddy hills, sped across a rickety bridge, and eventually ended up in the middle of an armed conflict.
Like the pacing, Uncharted 4's action seems to take cues from The Last of Us, mainly by adding optional stealth mechanics. Drake will regularly be outgunned by rival treasure hunter Rafe Adler and mercenary leader Nadine Ross, so these new mechanics should equip players with the tools they need to take advantage of the game's larger areas and gain the upper hand before opening fire. Among these tools: enemies now have awareness indicators that appear above their heads when Drake is sneaking. If the indicator fills all the way, that enemy becomes suspicious and will start actively searching the area. If he spots you, expect all hell to immediately break loose.
Thankfully, Drake automatically crouches and sneaks through tall grass and can "mark" enemies from a distance, making their glowing silhouettes visible through walls. He can also take out bad guys with contextual stealth takedowns that somehow don't attract attention despite being bone-breakingly brutal. The enemies I encountered during my hands-on time didn't seem particularly observant or aware, but I still enjoyed choking a guy out with an AK-47 as his buddy casually wandered ahead none the wiser.
And once I was done darting between patches of grass and stealthily slamming errant enemies into walls, I fell right back into Uncharted's familiar cinematic shooting, dive rolling out of danger, cozying up to cover, and grabbing better weapons off fallen aggressors. While the core aiming could use some fine-tuning, the controls felt responsive and punchy on the whole. Sam and Sully--much like Ellie in The Last of Us--also proved remarkably useful in combat, autonomously gunning down flanking attackers before I could even swing my reticle in their direction (no word on co-op, unfortunately).
After the firefight, I had a brief moment to test Uncharted 4's free climbing -- which, as with previous franchise entries, feels smooth and intuitive -- but I didn't have many opportunities to try out Drake's new grappling hook. I also didn't see any of the dialogue trees teased at PSX nor much of the broader narrative, though Naughty Dog did reveal the story revolves around a real 17th century pirate named Henry Avery, whose incredible fortune made him the subject of history's first recorded worldwide manhunt.
But my demo did reveal a great deal about Uncharted 4's underlying approach. Just prior to the mission's combat section, Sam turned to Nathan and asked, "What's the play here?" Drake simply responded, "Just follow my lead," without providing any indication -- to either Sam or to me -- what that meant. In essence, the game is subtly, even elegantly telling players, "You are Drake. Whatever you're thinking is what he's thinking." You can choose to utilize the added stealth mechanics or you can drive straight into battle with reckless abandon -- there is no wrong answer.
That alignment of player and character motivations again harkens back to lessons learned in The Last of Us, which consistently interwove narrative and gameplay. Turns out Nathan Drake isn't the only one who knows the value of a little creative appropriation.
Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is scheduled to release on PlayStation 4 on May 10. For more on the game read GameSpot's interview with creative director Neil Druckmann, writer Josh Scherr, and lead designer Ricky Cambier.