Last Friday, I had a chance to get my greedy hands on a preview build of the single player campaign of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, and the headline of this preview is no exaggeration: what I saw right in front of my eyes wasn’t just one of the most beautiful video games I ever played, but it also surprised me from a gameplay point of view.
This is going to be a spoiler-free preview. I’m not going to mention absolutely anything about the story. I’m not even going to tell you where the level I played is located. I know that many of you want to learn every single detail about the game’s story directly by playing. If you want to hear more about the location, you can check out my narration on the new gameplay footage, and if you’re curious about the history behind the game, you can read my dedicated article. Absolutely nothing about that will be uttered here.
The first very pleasant surprise are quite obviously the game’s visuals. They look slightly improved from previous screenings of the game, and the frame rate appears to be rock solid. Of course I have to trust my eyes here, because we didn’t have any measurement tool at our disposal, but I did not notice a single frame rate drop in my twenty minutes with the game.
Both characters and environments looked absolutely spectacular. The level of detail, the lighting, the vistas, the textures… Basically this looks like an entirely different game compared to what we saw in the multiplayer beta. While just a hint of stylization in perfect Naughty Dog style is preserved, the level of fidelity is simply stunning.
A much bigger surprise was the level that I was allowed to play: Naughty Dog has always been very careful and almost self-restraining in mentioning that the game is more open than its predecessors, but it’s not an open world game. For not being open world, the level was really massive and really open.
I was encouraged to explore it freely while driving a jeep, finding areas of interest, treasure, diary logs, landmarks and even beautiful vistas. There was a lot to explore and a lot to enjoy, and it definitely left me wanting more.
Driving the jeep is, in itself, another surprise. It’s even more fun than I expected, with grip independently simulated on each of the four wheels, and a bouncy feeling that made everything more interesting. Even better, the game’s characters actually react dynamically to how you drive. If you’re too daring and shake them around too much, they will complain, and they will react to the environment and to the landmarks and vistas that you approach while driving.
Everything feels natural, and even just driving around is interesting, and it lets you discover funny little snippets of conversation between Nathan and his friends.
To make everything more exciting, Naughty Dog’s level designers artfully placed mud all over the level. It’s definitely not random, and it’s basically painted on the map in order to create what I would define “platforming with a jeep.” You need to use rocks in order to climb slopes covered in mud (which has different degrees of slipperiness depending on the location), and where there are no evident rocks, you have to improvise.
Part of that improvising is done with the jeep’s winch, that lets you pull the vehicle up slopes, or even pull down platforms that you can climb. There are several uses for it, and I only had time to see some.
Of course, the area isn’t deserted, and you’ll have enemies to deal with.
Stealth gameplay has been beefed up considerably compared to previous games of the series. When you move through tall grass, Nate will automatically crouch, resulting invisible to the enemy goons. Of course he can also use walls and elevation to his advantage to remain undetected.
From the grass, you can execute stealth takedowns, and even use it to hide bodies so that they won’t be discovered by patrolling enemies. Incidentally, the goons that I faced moved around quite a lot, making stealth gameplay rather challenging.
A new element is the ability to mark enemies by holding L2 and pressing L3. A small triangle will appear over their head, following them around and keeping their location visible in a subtle way.
There’s also a threat indicator for enemy soldiers. When you pop into sight, a diamond will appear over their heads and quickly fill up. Once it’s full, it will turn yellow, indicating that they are aware that something is wrong, and causing them to move towards your location.
At that point, you have a few precious seconds (depending on how far they are, and on how visible you are) to jump back into cover, or to take them down. If you don’t, the diamond turns red, and Drake has been detected. It’s time to fight.
Combat feels a lot tighter than it did in previous chapters of the series, including the revised system in Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection. Aiming is snappy and responsive, and getting into cover is quick and intuitive. Friendly AI is also very workable. They don’t get in your way and they dutifully help out in shooting up the goons that stand in your path.
Something that does, on the other hand, feel rather familiar, is that enemies appear to have unlocked the bullet sponge perk, and their aim is really, really good (at least in normal difficulty, which is the one I tested).
The grappling hook that we already experienced in multiplayer returns in single player, and it feels really great. The game encourages you to use it extensively in order to reach vantage points and traverse over obstacles. It’s definitely a great addition to Nathan Drake’s arsenal.
The only thing that i found a bit disturbing is the fact that the laser beams that indicate the aiming point of enemy snipers look more like ultra-long and rather thick beams sabers, with a slightly unrealistic and a bit annoying effect, but I will admit that this is really a nitpick.
Ultimately, my first taste of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End looked absolutely fantastic and played even better. Naughty Dog’s developers mentioned in multiple occasions that this is the best game they ever made. While the jury will be out until the full review, I’m really starting to believe it.