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Uncharted 4: does this explosive conclusion to the series need surprises?

Nathan Drake and co. are going out with a bang.

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"At what point does it all become a bit formulaic? At what point do you run out of different modes of transport to hang off a cliff from?"

Where do you go once you reach the summit? According to developers Naughty Dog and their 20+ million selling Uncharted series, you go straight off the edge in an exploding vehicle, then climb right back up to the top again. At what point though does it all become a bit formulaic? At what point do you run out of different modes of transport to hang off a cliff from?

Of course, whatever the answer, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End does it all on the new console hardware for the first time. It’s the biggest, it's insanely detailed, and will surely be the best in the series to date. That’s all more obvious than Nathan Fillion playing Nathan Drake in the as-of-yet completely fictional (but surely inevitable) film adaptation. From our brief hands­-on, combined with the now almost apocryphal E3 trailer, it looks like Uncharted 4 is going to be a maximalist mantra for our culture of the insane spectacle of excess. And I wouldn't trade it for all the mythical treasure in the world.

The advances in tech since 2011’s Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception on the PS3 go hand-in-hand with the creative and mechanical ones. The playable segment was carefully chosen to showcase them, with special emphasis to Naughty Dog's new favourite buzzword, "wide linear". This simply means much more freedom in how to tackle an area, within the cozy, reassuring drive of a linear narrative.

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To this end, we were dropped into a jeep with Sam Drake and long time series dad surrogate/mentor/cigar aficionado Sully, in the gorgeous mountains of Madagascar, and left to it. That meant cruising around, hopping out occasionally to explore points of interest like abandoned towers and natural caves behind waterfalls. Most importantly, it meant some freedom, and some environmental/traversal puzzles.

These puzzles and exploration made me realise something. The best new character in the game is clearly the jeep itself. We’ve all seen it in full-on action hero mode during the E3 trailer, but here Jeep was just part of the gang, calmly taking in the absolutely lush surroundings, showing off the incredible particle effects as it splashed through mud and clambered over rocks. One such puzzle involved a muddy incline that Drake had to find a way around on foot before attaching the Jeep’s winch to a tree in order to continue. It wasn’t exactly a Mensa test, but damn, it was satisfying to feel for once like I was along for the ride, instead of just possessing Drake for a highlights reel of murder and rune rubbing ruses. I now dream nightly of a open­world, Jeep­centric spinoff.

There was another small touch that impressed mightily while I was getting my axles dirty. The patter between the trio as I explored was adaptive and brilliantly immersive. The writing has always been good in Uncharted games, in a kind of gallows humour positively overflowing with ironic bravado way. Here though, there was time for some more chilled chatter that just massively warmed me to them all. Sully and Drake’s ongoing argument about how much the winch add-­on for the jeep had cost (with the puzzle becoming the punchline) for example. Or Sam’s idly wondering about the provenance of the secret loot you’ve just discovered. It helps that Drake and Sam are voiced by the twin kings of white­action­bro voice overs, Nolan North and Troy Baker respectively. It felt like an awesome buddy movie and filled in a lot of story context.

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"I wasn’t expecting to come away surprised by A Thief’s End, but what did surprise me was the feeling of intimacy, and the increased player choice."

Eventually, we came to a commanding tower overlooking a bridge we needed to cross, swarming with mercenaries in the employ of Rafe and Nadine, Uncharted 4’s antagonists. Combat has been updated for U4 in a few key ways. Firstly, there’s the ‘dynamic stealth’ system. This means you can now spot and tag enemies, they have visible threat indicators, and you have a grappling hook, a bit like [insert any/all 3rd person AAA game here]. The combat feels even more fluid than usual, the wider space allowing for more experimentation and awesome emergent moments.

The grappling hook (for its sins) also allows you to swing between cover and enjoy the verticality efficiently. Crucially the ‘time to kill’ seems to be much better now. Previous Uncharted enemies were inhuman bullet sponges (or you felt like you were shooting peas) but the fact you can drop a merc with a brutal melee or a few shots improves the whole pace of combat. Plus, now they hit harder too, there’s actually a point to prepping and planning your attack.

Another promising moment came when, after dispatching the initial squad, a truck of reinforcements approached from the bridge. By this point I happened to be at the top of the tower with a high powered sniper, and simply picked them off as they disembarked. I realised afterwards there was a detonator attached to the tower, and more vantage points ­- clearly the whole thing can play out in many different ways.

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We also finally heard about the new treasure hunt. A Thief’s End refers to Henry Avery, a British pirate who became known as the richest ever over the course of his two year career. Avery did the unthinkable and united a group of pirate captains for a huge heist on a Mogul fleet, before going into hiding with the booty, and unfortunately forgetting to mark it with a big X. There’s no way ‘A Thief’s End’ would be a pun on what happens to Drake too, right?

As usual, Avery is an actual historical figure, and it’ll no doubt be fascinating to discover the true story of his disappearance and whereabouts. We were also promised by Naughty Dog that Rafe especially will be one of the most charismatic Big Bad’s of the series. Whether he and Nadine live up to it, the volcanic mountains, lush vegetation and (usually) peaceful market towns of Madagascar are a super charming setting for your respective quests.

I wasn’t expecting to come away surprised by A Thief’s End, especially after such a small glimpse. We’ve seen the trailer, played the multiplayer beta, and now experienced WIDE LINEAR and DYNAMIC STEALTH. What did surprise me was the feeling of intimacy, and the increased player choice. More, it seems, really is more when it has the Uncharted spin. Despite slight ‘unfeasibly­epic conclusion’ apathy, I’m frothing with kleptomaniacal glee to get started for the last time.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is due for release on PS4 May 10.

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