Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is Nathan Drake's swan song. But if what we've seen from Naughty Dog so far is any indication, he won't be going gentle into that good night.
Uncharted 4 follows Nathan on his search for treasure in a pirate haven. At E3 2015, Naughty Dog demoed the game live onstage at Sony's press conference. It was a brief, albeit action-packed look at the game: While Nathan and his pal Sully hunt for Nathan's brother, Sam, they get themselves into a gunfight that starts in an open-air market and embroils them in a high-speed chase. The duo finds Sam with enemies hot in pursuit, and Nathan boldly hooks onto one of the cars tailing his brother. The stage demo ends right before Nathan slams into a wall of debris.
During a behind-closed-doors demo, Naughty Dog pulled back the curtain on Nathan's fate in that moment. While it's not exactly what you'd call graceful, it's certainly exciting. Nathan is being dragged by the pursuing trucks — he's crashing into obstacles, sliding through the mud and generally having a bad time — but still holding out. He fires off a few shots and manages to pull himself onto the hooked vehicle, where more enemies await.
Here the demo flies into full-on action movie mode: Nathan is fending off enemies while driving wildy. He's leaping onto other vehicles while around him, chaos and explosions reign. He catches up to his brother and, for a moment, it seems all is well ... until a truck smashes into him, flipping his jeep over and leaving him momentarily trapped in the fiery wreckage.
The bleak scenario does have a happy ending that I won't spoil here, but the real takeaway from the demo is the crazy, action-packed chase sequence that Naughty Dog has lovingly crafted. According to lead designer Kurt Margenau, taking the wheel has been a "natural evolution" for the Uncharted series — something they've always wanted to do.
"There's something about vehicles that lets us explore all the pillars of gameplay that we want," he said. "Exploration, combat, set pieces — the fact that we can have vehicles in all of those."
Uncharted 4 will undoubtedly be a "big-ass game"
This slice of Uncharted won't be the only place players will get to test their driving skills, Margenau said. The goal for Uncharted 4 is to give the player more choice, as well as the options and freedom to explore as they see fit. During the demo, for example, players are free to escape the market at their own pace. All roads will eventually take you to your destination — which is essentially just the bottom of the hill — but how you get there is up to you.
"Everything you see, you can go to," Margenau said. "We're not going to arbitrarily block you. It's still a directed experience. We have our beats, our big moments that we want to pinch you to, but we want to make the player come to them on their own. We're not shoving them down their throats."
Uncharted 4 will undoubtedly be a "big-ass game," the designer said. That, in part, explains why Naughty Dog decided to push it from launch this year and into spring 2016 — a window that the developer is "pretty 100 percent on."
"We don't want to compromise," Margenau said. "It is Nathan Drake's climactic chapter of Uncharted, so we don't want to have to compromise anything for this game. If that means pushing it out in a couple extra months to make sure it's going to be to the level that it needs to be for [Uncharted 4] to be the best Uncharted — same thing with The Last of Us, a little extra time, just being aware of the extra time we need. The Last of Us, I think it turned out ok."
Extra time isn't the only way Uncharted 4 is taking a tip from The Last of Us. Naughty Dog learned a lot from its critical success, Margenau said. The developer began with A.I. from The Last of Us and modified it accordingly to nail some of Uncharted 4's stealth elements.
"We wanted these newer stealth elements ... but holy crap, it's really slow," the designer said. "[In] The Last of Us, every mechanic is slower.
"Uncharted is all about flow: speed, climbing, jumping ... We had to speed everything up. Taking that Last of Us A.I. and just supercharging it to be able to handle the speed and mobility of Uncharted. To us, Uncharted's always been about fluidity."
"we'll say everything we need to say by the time that this is over."
Flow aside, the Uncharted series has always had a pulpy, adventurous kick to it. And while some elements of that certainly aren't going away, A Thief's End will be a more personal tale. Margenau calls it a more mature adventure, not just an action game, that touches heavily on themes of family.
"Naughty Dog kinda grew and grew as storytellers," Margenau said of the series' evolution. "We kind of started taking more risks with the storytelling. Definitely from The Last of Us learning a lot and not being afraid to go in certain places or certain things.
"It's doing all the things we've wanted to do with mechanics and really polishing and going back to ground zero. Character-wise, we're not talking too much about the story. I think we'll say everything we need to say by the time that this is over."