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Uncharted 4 shines by making time for the quiet moments

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Hands-on with a peaceful journey across the plains of Madagascar

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Naughty Dog's Uncharted series is defined by globe-trotting spectacle, with protagonist Nathan Drake — our semi-reluctant action hero — inevitably seeking some long-lost treasure and racing to find it before the bad guys can get their hands on it. If there's one thing you can count on in an Uncharted game, it's shit blowing up real good. But explosions lose their impact when a story is all action, all the time; even Mad Max: Fury Road hit pause a few times.

Our previous look at a live demo of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End came at E3 2015, where Naughty Dog showed an action-packed chase sequence in which Nate and Victor "Sully" Sullivan help Nate's brother Sam survive the mercenaries pursuing him. Last week, we finally got our own hands on the game, and the segment we played ran at a much more languid pace, in a manner similar to Naughty Dog's initial demo from way back at PlayStation Experience 2014.

Pacing was one of the studio's main focuses in making Uncharted 4, said co-writer Josh Scherr in an interview with Polygon before our demo. This time around, Naughty Dog wanted to give players — and the game's story — some time to breathe.

The treasure at the center of Uncharted 4's tale is the legendary pirate's booty held by the infamous Henry Avery. A merchant and slave trader who hailed from England, Avery gained renown as a pirate in the last decade of the 17th century. He is best known for leading a group of pirate vessels against an Indian fleet from the Mughal Empire in 1695. Avery's men captured the fleet's crown jewel, the Gunsway, and made off with as much as £600,000 in treasure — equivalent to $400 million in modern currency, making him the richest pirate in the world at the time.

Avery's plundering put a serious dent in English-Indian relations, and the East India Company soon put a bounty of £1,000 on Avery's head, kicking off a worldwide manhunt. Some of Avery's crew was eventually apprehended and brought to justice, but Avery himself vanished in 1696.

As usual, Naughty Dog weaves a tale that uses actual history as a jumping-off point. Uncharted 4 takes place three years after the events of Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, with Nathan Drake having retired from his life of treasure hunting and settled down with his wife, Elena Fisher. That's when his older brother Sam — who's been presumed dead for 15 years — arrives and throws Nate's life into disarray. Sam is "in a lot of trouble," and it turns out that the only way Nate can save him is to find Henry Avery's treasure.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End - Madagascar screenshots

Although Scherr was loath to go into much detail about Uncharted 4's story, he said that Naughty Dog is "trying to tie off all the loose ends from the previous games." (At multiple points during our conversation, he referred to this as the last Nathan Drake game.)

Asked to describe what kind of person Sam Drake is, Scherr said, "Anytime we introduce a new character, the point of it is to try to reflect a new facet of Nathan Drake."

Nathan Drake is a man being pulled at from all sides

Scherr told Polygon that Uncharted 4's Nathan Drake is a man who's being pulled at from all sides. For a long time, Sully was the only family he knew, but now his actual family has shown up in the form of his brother Sam. Elena went on plenty of adventures with Nate, but they've built a life together that doesn't involve near-death experiences. Sully, for all his swashbuckling ways, has always served as a voice of reason; he's the Henry Jones Sr. to Nate's Indiana Jones. Sam, however, is perhaps more reckless.

This character philosophy also applies to the antagonists of Uncharted 4. Rafe Adler is a treasure hunter like Nate, but comes from money and is "considerably more ruthless," according to Scherr. Adler works with a South African woman named Nadine Ross, who runs a paramilitary corporation called Shoreline.

"So it's, like, what parts of Nathan Drake do you see in these characters, and what parts in these characters represent the opposite of Nate?" said Scherr, noting that everyone has their own reasons for pursuing Henry Avery's riches. "Where [are] the similarities and where are the conflicts?"

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End - Madagascar screenshots

In telling that story, Naughty Dog is taking lessons from its previous games, including the missteps of Uncharted 3 and the successes of The Last of Us.

"One thing that we're doing in this game that we didn't necessarily do a lot of in the previous games is, we're trying to allow for more quiet, contemplative, exploratory moments," said Scherr. "Something that we learned from The Last of Us — particularly [its story expansion] Left Behind — is that there are these moments that you can have these nice, quiet moments that are just a couple of characters talking about things, [where] essentially you're just walking around and taking everything in."

"we like people just being able to walk around ... without being shot at"

Those kinds of laid-back sequences were some of the most memorable parts of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, widely considered the series' peak thus far. Think of petting yaks in a Tibetan village, or going spelunking in ice caves with Tenzin. And much of The Last of Us: Left Behind is devoid of combat, focusing instead on Ellie and Riley exploring a dilapidated mall.

That's not to say that Naughty Dog got away from quiet moments entirely in Uncharted 3; it had a chapter in which Nate wandered the desert after a crash landing. But Scherr acknowledged that the studio "went maybe a little crazy with the setpieces" in that game, and specifically called out inspirations like Gone Home and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture in saying that the team wanted to build more slow-paced exploration into Uncharted 4.

"We haven't gone 100 percent Gone Home," said Scherr. "And it's a lot harder for us to do things like that. But when we can, we like people just being able to walk around, look at things, just take in their environment — without being shot at."

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End - Madagascar screenshots

We spent a lot of time taking in the gorgeous environment in our demo of Uncharted 4, which lasted for about a half hour of Chapter 10, "The Twelve Towers." Nate, Sam and Sully have followed the trail of Avery's treasure outside the fictional city of King's Bay, Madagascar, where Avery is believed to have set up a number of watchtowers defending the path to his loot — including one right on a massive extinct volcano.

Naughty Dog strives for a "wide linear" approach to level design in its Uncharted games, according to Scherr: While the studio funnels players through the specific story that it's telling, it also wants to give players some openness in how they make their way along. Scherr said the PlayStation 4 has afforded Naughty Dog the ability to "make these levels much more expansive and wide than we ever have before," and we saw that on display in Chapter 10. (Watch our full playthrough in the video at the top of this article.)

The chapter begins with a lengthy segment in which the gang drives a rented jeep toward the aforementioned volcano. Driving was a centerpiece of Uncharted 4's E3 2015 demo, in which Nate put the pedal to the metal as he and Sully tried to catch up with Sam. But here, we took a leisurely jaunt through the plains of Madagascar, pausing every so often to have Drake explore ruins and natural features. The drive doubles as a way for Naughty Dog to organically drop in some backstory, as Sam and Sully continue to chat about various topics when Nate hops out of the 4x4.

There wasn't a paved road anywhere in sight, but our jeep ably crossed all kinds of natural obstacles. Much of the path was dirt, although we also navigated weathered rocks, patches of mud, large puddles and even shallow streams. At one point, we had to tie the vehicle's winch around a tree trunk so we could pull ourselves up a steep, muddy incline. Every variation in terrain brought with it a different level of traction, forcing us to switch up our driving techniques in order to proceed. And we loved that the act of searching for paths forward encouraged us to explore the environment.

"What we wanted to do is make [the jeep] an extension of Nathan Drake's traversal mechanics [...] and make it just as interesting to drive around as it is to climb on things," said Scherr.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End - Madagascar screenshots

Uncharted 4 is the first game in the series in which players can control a vehicle themselves, and adding driving to the franchise is one way that Naughty Dog is expanding the mechanics of the game. Scherr said the team wanted to add mechanics that don't feel "either tacked on, or like these little one-off moments." Another addition is Nate's grappling hook, which he uses for pulling items, swinging, climbing and rappelling. The tool comes into play in combat as well, with the ability to swing toward enemies and leap off for a lethal takedown.

Later in Chapter 10, we came upon some Shoreline soldiers and had to take them out before we could keep driving toward the volcano. The sequence gave us an introduction to the ways in which Naughty Dog has refined Uncharted's combat for Uncharted 4. The studio integrated stealth into previous Uncharted games, but it never felt great; consider the awful Turkish museum sequence at the start of Uncharted 2. And once you got spotted in those titles, that was it — you had to shoot everybody.

"we haven't gone 100 percent Gone Home"

The larger combat spaces in Uncharted 4 make it possible for your enemies to lose you. We made it all the way to the top of a tower without being seen, then took down the sniper up there and started killing the troops on the ground with his rifle. Then we descended back into the tower and re-entered the stealth state, because the soldiers had lost track of us. (Just like Ellie in The Last of Us, Sully and Sam are mostly invisible to enemies; Scherr said Naughty Dog has "done a little bit better job" with the AI powering your companions.)

Uncharted 4 also offers some new tools to help you sneak past Nate's foes. You can mark targets as in a Battlefield game by holding L2 and pressing the left stick. And when you're hidden, each enemy has a stealth indicator above their head à la Assassin's Creed. The sand-colored icon slowly fills up as they train their eyes on you; it turns yellow if they think they've seen something, at which point they'll head over to investigate; and it turns orange once they've definitively spotted you. (You're free to turn off these features if you want, and they're disabled by default on the hardest difficulty, Crushing.)

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End - Madagascar screenshots

We played through the Madagascar demo three times, and the first time, we killed all the Shoreline troops silently, without alerting anyone. If you can't pull that off, reinforcements arrive from across the rickety bridge that leads to the rest of the chapter. Sam Thompson, a senior producer at Sony, told us that it's unlikely you'd be able to leave anybody alive in this particular area — the bridge collapses when you try to drive the jeep across it, making a lot of noise that would surely attract the soldiers' attention. But Scherr said it's possible to sneak by everyone in some encounters in the game.

It's all in keeping with the spirit of freedom in Uncharted 4, which sounds like an odd thing to say for a series that's known for its linearity. But from our time with the game, it seems that Naughty Dog has indeed taught Nate some new tricks for his swan song.