The road that Naughty Dog had to walk in order to develop Uncharted 4: A Thief's End was probably one of the roughest and most troubled in their history as studio. Not only because while work was in progress an important member of the narrative team that had helped guide the series since its beginning (Amy Hennig) had left the team and they had/wanted to move the story in a new direction thereafter, but mainly because this chapter marks the final conclusion of Nathan Drake's story. And as with all the great sagas, the studio wanted to mark their final farewell to the beloved adventurer - who is inspired by Spielberg's Indiana Jones (and of course Lara Croft) - with a sublime ending, in what's shaping up to be the most fascinating entry in the series since Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was released (our absolute favourite game in the series thus far).
After receiving breadcrumbs of information regarding the plot via trailers and guarded responses from Naughty Dog during recent interviews, in a recent hands-on event held in Milan we finally had the opportunity to learn more about the story that accompanies this highly anticipated fourth instalment (the fifth if you include the series' brief adventure onto PS Vita), but also we played the main campaign for the first time. We had the opportunity to take a look not only at the most significant innovation introduced in this chapter, the use of vehicles, but we also tested a more modern and structured combat system that perfectly fits around contemporary expectations, even if it's very simple and intuitive.
Before talking about the new gameplay mechanics and the demo we played, it's best that we introduce the narrative element. As in every Uncharted title, the story is based around the search for a rare and virtually unobtainable treasure; this time the object of Drake's desire is the spectacular and legendary treasure of the famous British pirate, Henry Evory, whose "career" only lasted a couple of years, but long enough for him to build a dangerous fleet that went down in legend. The story goes that Evory became a pirate after the mutiny of the Charles (later renamed Fancy), for which he was initially second officer, after many months in the port of La Coruna. From there, he left La Coruna for the Indian Ocean in order to reach Madagascar, recruiting new pirates and new ships to create his invincible fleet, with one single goal: to put his hands on the vast wealth of the Indian Emperor. The pirates organised an ambush and were then able put their hands on an incredible treasure.
It didn't take long for the manhunt to escalate, creating serious diplomatic issues between the United Kingdom and India (for the first time in history), as Evory was British-born. From here it turned into a manhunt, but Evory - and above all the treasure - disappeared. The story behind the treasure was so fascinating that the Drake bros. - Nathan and Sam - decided to find it. However, during their search for the treasure, Sam apparently died, leaving his brother grieving before finally abandoning any interest in this legendary loot. But as you probably new already, Sam came back to Nathan, and this time with some interesting intel: he says he has finally found out where Evory's treasure is hidden, but at the same time he admits that his life is also in danger. With the ever faithful and irreverent Sully, the Drake brothers start their trip in Madagascar in search of the treasure, however, they're being countered by two ruthless enemies who will do anything to stop them.
The plot of Uncharted 4: A Thief's Ends shows once again how much importance Naughty Dog places on the narrative side of their work. Strong and thorough, painstaking research, the studio aims to reach the highest highs with this new chapter, which adds to the popular cast a new character, Sam Drake, in the process bringing more dynamism to the relationships between the various characters.
But with a plot that promises fireworks and surprises, one of the most interesting additions in Uncharted 4 is the explorable environments (there's even more than we've seen in the past), the massive size of the map, all made more accessible thanks to the presence of vehicles, which greatly facilitates movement, but which also turns out to be a great tool in solving some simple puzzles that we find scattered around the place. In the first part of the section we played we could use the vehicle to move quickly around the map, even if Naughty Dog advised us to get out of the Jeep sometimes so we could collect the many items that are hidden around the landscape, a constant feature for the Uncharted series (not only treasures, but also pages of Evory's diary and additional lines of dialogue that allow the most curious players to know more about the plot).
As we said, the Jeep can also be used to solve puzzles or make openings so we can proceed on our journey, using the winch found on the front of the vehicle to force our way through. It might be a symptom of Naughty Dog wanting to expand the score of this final chapter, giving us a very chunky environment to explore, but it also provides an interesting diversion from the long walks we have travelled in the past, making this experience more innovative and modern. The driving is simple and it doesn't require much in the way of ability: with the R2 button you can speed up and with the L2 button you slow down, while to move the steering wheel you can simply use the right analog. Practical, immediate, fun.
After exploring the beautiful surroundings offered by Madagascar, with some of the most stunning and fascinating vistas seen in the series, we came to our first battle with some local bandits, and here we had the opportunity to check the new combat system. First, Nathan can target an enemy using L2 and L3 (the enemy will be marked with a white triangle placed above his head), so you can always monitor an enemy's movements, and you can also attack them the way you most prefer (using stealth or via shooting).
Another interesting thing introduced in the combat system is the addition of warning signals (here they're represented by a diamond) relating to possible enemy threats. These can be of two types: yellow (Nathan can stay in stealth or prepare to initiate combat from cover) or red (Drake has been discovered and combat is inevitable). Finally, in case the enemy catches you, you can press the Triangle button to free yourself, thus avoiding possible death. In terms of the combat system, Uncharted 4 has undoubtedly come a long way when compared to the last game, and we noticed more points of contact with The Last of Us than the Uncharted series, revealing a very versatile, intuitive and certainly more modern system than its predecessors.
However, the thing that catches the eye most when you take the controller in hand and start playing A Thief's End is undoubtedly its excellent visuals. The build that we played, probably the final one, was characterised by some incredible graphics, with a truly spectacular level of detail that, more than once, persuaded us to abandon the Jeep, climb up a hill and admire a beautiful landscape. The same care in terms of detail can be seen in the characters as well: we couldn't resist the temptation to zoom in on Drake's face and count the wrinkles on his forehead (and yes, there are a few!) or watch his face drenched in sweat. Although graphically solid, the impressive amount of detail doesn't in any way affect the performance of the game, which offers a very fluid experience and equally excellent animations, even in the most hectic and fast-paced sections, such as driving in the car and fighting with groups of enemies.
The only minor issues we noted during the demo were regarding the AI of the enemies and some linear sections that have endured from the DNA of previous instalments. Regarding linearity; in an era when we can make our own path, it's illogical that Nathan can only climb a tower (or any other structure) exclusively following a predetermined path. In a world where the focus is on exploration, we would have enjoyed greater freedom of movement, rather than being funnelled down a given path to reach a certain point.
Based on what we've seen so far, Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is looking like it might offer the most exciting experience in the history of the series. With strong new additions and fresh mechanics, the final chapter of Nathan Drake's journey could well deliver the finale that fans want, thanks in part to a particularly compelling storyline. We have to wait until May 10 to play the game in its entirety. But given what we've seen, the weeks separating us from release will feel like an eternity.