For a studio so invested in the human details and grand drama of its single-player campaigns, it is perhaps inevitable that Naughty Dog's work on multiplayer often goes unnoticed. A shame, considering its most recent effort--The Last of Us--provided an online team-deathmatch mode that was surprisingly fun for something that initially seemed arbitrary.
Arbitrary being the key word, because for the past decade that tended to be a perfectly permissible description of many multiplayer modes that had been towed along with single-player games. To name names (BioShock 2, Dead Space 2, Tomb Raider, Assassin's Creed Revelations) would be slightly unfair considering this has been, and still is to an extent, such a widespread industry practice.
The resulting stigma of spin-off multiplayer is something which Naughty Dog sought to break with The Last of Us, and judging by the Uncharted 4 demo I played at Paris Games Week, there's a chance the studio can finally pull it off.
Uncharted 4's multiplayer makes a deliberate attempt to distance itself from the realism, or at least action-movie-realism, of Nathan Drake's concluding story. It is the addition of supernatural powers, which can be summoned as cavalierly as a frag grenade, which best demonstrates the multiplayer's shift towards more absurd and frantic gameplay. Sony's Uncharted 4 multiplayer reveal trailer showcased a spell-cast sarcophagus that flings out fire-balls, as well as an ability to erupt into flames and blink across the arena, along with waves of healing magic emanating from Chintamani stones.
These bonus items are unlocked by purchasing mystical totems from the in-game store, spending cash accrued from kills, assists, reviving comrades, and so on. Such elements, we are told, can mix up gameplay dramatically. The Wrath of El Dorado sarcophagus, for example, is essentially an ornate turret that can clear enemies out of their bases. According to lead multiplayer designer Robert Cogburn, the thinking behind this was that in previous Uncharted multiplayer modes, gameplay sometimes descended into trench warfare, with players too anxious to break out of their defences. Now, the theory goes, they will have to.
"We started off with the idea of wanting Uncharted 4's multiplayer to be the culmination of the franchise," Cogburn said.
"When that conversation was happening, we started thinking about leveraging an element that you typically don't find in multiplayer, which is magic."
Unfortunately, the couple of rounds I played at Paris Games Week weren't enough to provide a fair demonstration that such powers were pivotal or well integrated. In a single match, which if memory serves lasts about 10 minutes, I had only come across a single supernatural power. It would be unfair to cast a final judgement from a first glance, granted, but without this addition everything felt a little rote. Uncharted's multiplayer is distinct insofar as it's difficult to find another third-party shooter with this degree of verticality and platforming, but the third time around (fourth if you count The Last of Us) it's more difficult to be wowed by its loose cover-shooting mechanics and wall-climbing theatrics.
It wasn't the most ideal demonstration, to be fair. As you can imagine, the little details tend to get lost in twenty-minute gameplay presentations with the UI overlay completely in French. The more I played, the more the cynic in me said that Uncharted's multiplayer formula is so tired by this point that adding a gimmick such as supernatural powers is necessary just to keep it intriguing. That might seem a little harsh, but there certainly wasn't much sparkle without these powers in play.
The second major addition is sidekicks; AI soldiers who take orders from their commanding players and, if successful, earn cash for their masters in the process. Naughty Dog hasn't strayed from convention here; a Sniper sidekick will lurk at a location and scan arenas with its laser-sighted rifle. Saviours, meanwhile, will deliver ammo and gear, as well as accelerate ammo replenish times, and also revive players from downed states.
Brutes are essentially the Heavy class from Team Fortress 2, packing fire-power and endurance. Hunters are potentially the most game-breaking sidekick, and by extension the most interesting, in that they charge at foes and lock them in choke-holds. Captives must escape by bashing the triangle button, or by waiting for a teammate to come kill their captor. Again, during my playthrough, things didn't quite fall into place. On one occasion I summoned a Saviour and it died trying to revive me. That was that.
Cogburn pointed out that players can upgrade weapons, totems, and side-kicks. He also confirmed to GameSpot that microtransactions would be incorporated into the multiplayer mode "from the outset," but added that all gameplay items can be acquired with in-game currency. How Naughty Dog will draw the line between grind and cash is a major question still up for debate.
Seeing as Uncharted 4, in the words of Cogburn, will "most likely be Naughty Dog's last game in the series," it is also intended to be a celebration. This explains why so many characters in the series have been thrown in, from Elena to Chloe to Drake, each with their own lines of dialogue reacting to certain spots and situations.
There is certainly a festive tone to the gameplay; a sort of season-end montage of the series' elements. The Wrath of El Dorado sarcophagus is from Drake's Fortune, the Chintamani stones are from Among Thieves, the load-out editing is from Drake's Deception, and the in-game store is from The Last of Us. With a mix of hyperbole and accuracy, Cogburn describes Uncharted 4's multiplayer as "a culmination of everything we have learned." Whether or not that culmination of ideas is enough to overcome the stigma of spin-off multiplayer, however, is the key question. If Naughty Dog pulls it off, then Uncharted 4 might be remembered for more than how it closed the curtain on the story of Nathan Drake .
Uncharted 4's release date is scheduled for March 18. A code for the multiplayer beta, which is scheduled to go live on December 4, is available exclusively to those who pre-order the Collector's Edition.