Last time we saw him, Nathan Drake was looking like a dog-chewed Jeremy Renner toy; damaged, moist and forlorn. This time, however, it’s the environment’s turn for a kicking. The E3 demo showed Nate and Sully smashing through a middle-eastern market town with a cheerful disregard for people, scaffolding and digital produce.
It’s more than just an angry jeep pinballing through a city, though. This year’s E3 told us loads about Uncharted 4, and we’ve got all the info scribbled down like urns in Nate’s notebook – things like time frame, locations and characters. We’ve also got new details about the stuff Sony showed behind closed doors, and best of all, you don’t even need to solve any cog-based riddles to access it. OR DO YOU? (No.)
Firstly there’s that title, ‘A Thief’s End’. Sounds kind of final, doesn’t it? Naughty Dog has also said it’s the last for them. Then there’s creative director Neil Druckmann throwing fuel on the fire. According to him, “Sony owns Uncharted and they can do whatever they want. But at the end of this story, it will be really hard to do a sequel with Nathan Drake.”
A lot of people are assuming that means Nate will die at the end but it seems super unlikely Naughty Dog would be that crude and blunt – everyone’s thinking it and for the studio to be so obvious would be a cheap shot. No, whatever it has planned has to be something else.
Naughty Dog itself has made it clear that Drake’s wheels are as much a part of his arsenal as his gun and new piton climbing tool. The previously seen chase sequence shows its worth in more action-based moments but the few seconds of it we’ve seen in Africa (up there) suggest you could be off exploring in it as well.
We’ve also seen Nath taking to the water in a boat and then swimming, presumably having dived overboard. It suggests that the usual cover-to-cover shooting and climbing won’t be the only way from A to B this time.
Nadine is the head of a security company owned by Rafe, and his second in command. They seem to be after the same thing as Nathan, or at least initially after the same artefact (something that’s specifically mentioned in a trailer). At one point Rafe is seen to offer Drake a deal to quit and go home, or end it all “right here,” suggesting they might be slightly more nuanced than the usual ‘keell heem’ style villain.
More open areas were offered right off the bat, with the first gameplay showing a chaotic Jeep chase through a variety of routes. Naughty Dog has since clarified that we’ll have a lot more branching paths, with up to 10 times more explorable space to play with.
You can see that in the screen up there. A large portion of that area appears to be playable, judging from different trailer shots. It’s not quite open world territory but the space is far more open to interpretation than previous games.
Joining Madagascar is its nearest neighbour Africa, with a recent trailer showing a positively safari-like experience for the gang. We’ve also seen what looks like Nathan’s childhood home in Manhattan and a very Celtic looking gravestone suggesting either an English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish or even French location.
That’s not as improbable as it might seem either, as the Pirate Every was English, originally coming from the UK’s West Country. He definitely visited both Ireland and Scotland during the Nine Year’s War when he served in the Navy.
There seems to be a few of these flashback scenes (including one shot featuring what looks like Manhattan Bridge, to give us a setting for where the boys grew up). As well as the teen Drakes we also seem to get what looks like a glimpse of them as younger men, in their treasure hunting heyday, when they first set off in search of the Pirate Every’s gold.
Considering Nate’s previous back story set him up as an orphan, and we’ve never heard so much of a peep about a brother, it makes sense to spend some time setting up the relationship.
According to lead game designer Anthony Newman, “one thing that we really learned from The Last of Us, and experimented with and got really good results from, is allowing the player to just poke around in an intriguing environment.” Another trick Uncharted 4’s picked up is having a buddy you can rely on. In The Last of Us Ellie is always on hand to help Joel in a pinch. It’s something that really makes an NPC feel like more than a dumb sidekick.
We’ve seen something similar in Uncharted 4 trailers as Sully rushes into help Nathan when he’s grabbed by an enemy. “It really resonated with us,” explains Newman of Joel and Ellie’s helpful relationship and why a similar system has been implemented in Uncharted 4. “We want them to be there with you, and helping you, and you guys working together as a team.”
However, creative director Neil Druckmann has explained that moments like these are rare. Rather than adding a Mass Effect edge to every encounter they’re more of “a cool nod to the fans.” You won’t be chatting away all the time, says Druckmann. Instead, “there are a few spots in the game where we felt a dialogue option would give us something interesting. Let’s give the player the option.”
Hopefully, though, there’ll be a point in the game where the choices are 1. Oh crap, 2. Oh crap, and 3. Oh crap.
Let’s start with that E3 demo. Up until this point, Uncharted 4 looked glum. The box art is stormy and bleak, the tone far removed from the rakish adventuring of previous games. Then there’s that name, A Thief’s End; it conjures up medieval images of hot tongs and special forks designed for bothering vagabonds. Not anymore. Sully and Nate joke throughout the demonstration. Even when pursued by an indestructible truck made of guns, they laugh in the face of probably-death.
It’s a riot, made more compelling by incredible detail. It’s certainly scripted, but NPCs mill about like they have important other places to be. As well as people, the environment is crammed with stuff to destroy, and it all reacts dynamically. Scaffolds crumble like sugar sculptures, tiles tumble off walls, flour sacks sadly deflate. Apparently it runs at 30fps in single player – 60fps is reserved for multiplayer – but you’d have to be some sort of special shit boring robot to notice or care. You’re better than that.
We’ve seen vehicles in Uncharted before, but this is the first game that lets us drive them during gameplay. Everything is bigger. Naughty Dog is calling it ‘wide-linear’, a sort-of-rubbish name for a world that offers explorative choices while retaining a compelling, linear narrative. Yes, you can drive a car through marrows, but you’ll also enjoy a nuanced story and deft characterisation.
Size isn’t everything: it’s smarter, too. Enemies appear cleverer than the pop-up pirates of previous games, teaming up to outflank and attack Drake. The good news is that they also react to being shot in specific body parts, so you can reward their newfound intelligence with bullets to their clever kneecaps. Think on that, nameless mercenaries.
As revealed in Uncharted 3 – spoiler alert – Nathan Drake was raised in an orphanage and at a young age fabricated his ancestral connection to English explorer Sir Francis Drake. Outside of his adoptive parent Sully, Nate seemingly had no family, which is why the introduction of Sam is such a surprise. He turns up begging for Nathan’s help, and a glimpse of this was shown to the chosen few who experienced Sony’s extended E3 demo.
Sam is apparently being hunted by the same group seen in the demo – yeah, the ones with the tank. After escaping from their pursuers, Sam and Nate meet up with Sully to discuss their goal: the legendary pirate city of Libertalia, off the coast of Madagascar. Like El Dorado, Shambhala and the Atlantis of the Sands, this is the lost treasure Drake is searching for. We’ll come to this in a bit.
Drake seems to have spent the last few years watching the competition very closely, because he’s learned a ton of new skills. On top of his unflinching aim and incredible climbing prowess, Drake now has the kind of grappling hook abilities one expects from Batman. We saw this in action during the E3 demo. Nate, somewhat unwisely, grapples a moving truck, leaving him dangling like a hooked fish. “Oh crap.” Quite.
It’s great to see that an old dog can learn some new tricks – even terminally dangerous ones – and Drake will certainly need to expand his list of abilities to match the wide-linear world he’ll be exploring. Of course, he’s also taking that new equipment into combat, using his grappling hook to swing into enemies, among other new attacks. Maybe Batman will have to start learning from Drake. Maybe a few one liners? Perhaps not.
Life hasn’t been treating Drake too badly – he’s finally got hitched to Elena, and it’s only Sam’s reappearance which drags him back into danger. Unfortunately, his time off shows. Drake suddenly looks older and achier. He can still pull off all the same moves – just expect increased grumbling about the good old days.
We know that Nathan’s older brother drags him back into a world of thievery, but this is the least enthusiastic we’ve seen Drake. But is that all there is to it? The first trailer also definitely puts revenge on the brain, but does that refer to revenge against Nathan himself? Again, will come back to possible villainous motivation later on.
We now know A Thief’s End takes place in various locations, from jungle isles to urban sprawls to remote mountains. The previous gameplay demo showed off a Madagascan rainforest, giving us a good look long at a snaggletoothed mountain, seemingly endless wilderness and a coastline with imposing, spiky rocks. There’s also plenty of sheer cliffs to climb, with Drake taking a page out of Lara Croft’s book and stabbing pointy stuff into porous rock to assist his ascent. And of course there’s abundant jungle cover, and chasms Nathan can jump over, using his momentum to punch baddies in the face. Gravity is your enemy, wrongdoers.
An E3 press release confirms what we saw in the first teaser trailer: an old map of Africa with an X (to mark the spot), hinting that the game is set off the east coast of Madagascar. History tells us that Madagascar is a hotspot for shipwrecks and pirates, which goes along nicely with the gibbeted skeletons we see in the second trailer. It’s not often we get to say that sentence.
Way back in the first teaser, Drake and Sully both swear they’ll only be working together “one last time”, and an immediate pan to gibbeted skeletons makes the whole exchange not very cryptic at all. Sure enough, creative director Neil Druckmann has said that A Thief’s End will ‘bring closure’ to Drake’s journey. Hopefully not in a ‘because he’s dead’ kind of way.
It’s less likely to be the end of Uncharted, though – that would be like Nintendo retiring Mario (disregarding all the guns and pilfered treasure). Perhaps we’ll see another game with a familiar Uncharted face? We’d go with Chloe Fraser. She’s totally capable of solo adventuring, and her erratic moral compass would make it a fascinating journey.
We know Sully is in Uncharted 4 – no surprise there – and the old dog can still handle himself. If anything, Drake is the rusty cog that needs Sully’s oil. And that sounds much weirder than we wanted it to.
Elena’s presence is more interesting. Nate, Sam and Sully all meet in the behind-closed-doors demo shown at E3. Elena joins them, and she’s not happy. We’d speculate that Nate has apparently misled her about his intentions – or perhaps he’s been enticed back into though the machinations of his devious brother. Either way, he’s in trouble.
Rumors circulating during Uncharted’s reveal suggested that Francis Drake will actually be in the game. We know that Drake did sail around Madagascar and the Cape of Good Hope on his voyage back to Portsmouth, so it fits quite well historically.
While Nathan Drake is still around, it is VERY possible that we’ll get to see and play a level featuring his ancestor. Uncharted 3 featured a lengthy flashback level, so why not have one that jumps a little further back in time? Like, by several hundred more years?
Here’s another interesting historical theory. The Delgrave–the ship wrecked in Madagascar back in 1703–contained a man named Robert Drury. He survived the wreck and lived on the island as a slave for 15 years before returning to Britain. So what? Well, we have reason to believe he might be the one speaking in the first teaser trailer.
Now, the narrator claims to have been “lost for 15 years” while “rotting in a hellhole”. The time period could be a coincidence, but it fits historically. Not sure why he’d had a vendetta against either Francis or Nathan Drake, though, as they lived in different time periods, but it does line up in a way.
Let’s talk about the narrator in the first teaser trailer. Todd Stashwick voiced it, and he was originally meant to play Sam. After six months attached to the game, he left the project. But whose voice was it meant to be?
Ignoring the change in personnel for one moment, let’s ride the fact train into the realm of speculation. It’s a safe bet that he’s the bad guy, as he’s on a quest for revenge. There’s a trail of blood that snakes its way from the Cape of Good Hope to Madagascar. Writing appears on the map that reads ‘Every betrayed us all’. Ah, now, this curious phrase raises another interesting historical possibility…
Captain Henry Avery – also spelled Every – was a pirate who operated in the mid-17th century. You can read all about him here, but in summary, he was famous for taking a fortune from The Grand Mughal (in the waters of north-east Africa), before convincing other Captains to entrust their loot with him, and sailing off with the fortune. Now, where do you think he sailed to?
Yeah, he docked in Reunion, an island next to Madagascar where he reportedly shared the entire bounty of the Grand Mughal’s treasure among his crew. So that puts a massive heap of stolen treasure damn near the point where X marks the spot on the teaser trailer’s map – the same map that reads ‘Every betrayed us all’. It’s since been confirmed that Drake and Sam are on the hunt for Captain Henry Avery’s long-lost treasure, hidden in the pirate utopia – apparently that’s a thing – of Libertalia. This legendary colony is located off the coast of Madagascar, and it’s the supposed location of Avery’s hidden fortune.
There’s so much we don’t know about the next Uncharted game–so much. But what we’ve seen so far has us very ready to see what Nathan Drake’s PlayStation 4 debut will look like. Is there anything we missed? Let us know in the comments and we’ll be sure to add it in!
And if you’re looking for more, check out 30 years of Naughty Dog history in one art book and 8 highs and lows of PlayStation 4’s first year.