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Uncharted 4 Lead Game Designer: "It's Not Open-World, It's an Uncharted Adventure"

Mike takes a look at the extended E3 demo for Uncharted 4 and talks to lead game designer Kurt Margenau.

This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.

At E3 2015 this year, everyone got another look at Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, the latest entry in Naughty Dog's pulp adventure series. The demo featured Nathan Drake and his longtime mentor and partner Sully (glad you're still alive, bro!) attempting to track down Drake's previously unmentioned brother Sam. We were treated to one of Uncharted's movie-style set pieces, with a shootout, followed by Nate and Sully driving a Jeep and avoiding an APC through the streets of a tropical city. The shootout was pure Uncharted cover shooting, but the Jeep sequence was something new for the series.

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Behind closed doors, I was treated to an extended version of the trailer above. The sequence featured Drake hanging on for dear life at the rear of the convoy pursuing Sam. As the convoy leaves the bridge, Nate gets dragged through the mud, having to shoot at those trying to kill him and slowly make his way up to the vehicle. From here, the demo turned into something more traidtionally Uncharted, with Nate leaping from vehicle-to-vehicle, dispatching those in his path. Eventually, he catches up with Sam, who's doing his best to stay ahead of his pursuers on a motorcycle. I'm definitely looking forward to hearing more about the backstory here, because Nate and Sam share the same cocky banter that Nate and Sully have, so Sam isn't some new, unexpected person.

The final bit of the action sequence comes after the truck Nate commandeers crashes, forcing Nate and Sam to share the motorcycle as they attempt to get away from the APC. Sam's doing all the driving, while the player controls Nate, firing a semi-automatic pistol at the APC. Eventually, assuming you pump enough bullets into the vehicle, it all ends in a massive explosion and more witty one-liners.

Later, Nate, Sully, and Sam meet at a hotel and talk about the next big score. This time, we'll be heading to an island that supposedly contains Libertalia, a legendary pirate colony whose inhabitants shared everything, including their riches. Before they can head off to the adventure though, they run into Elena, who is not to happy that her husband lied about some Malaysia deal to go off adventuring. Oops.

I admit, that this demo was one of the Uncharted series' extended action sequences, where the focus is more about doing what the designers want you to do than exploring your own creative desire. If you've played the train sequence in Uncharted 2, you know what I'm talking about; divergence usually means death. The Uncharted 4 demo sequence feels a bit more open than previous set pieces, but you can still tease out the edges of Nate's world. The theme park's bigger folks, but Uncharted is still all about the ride.

After my demo, I sat down with Uncharted 4 lead game designer Kurt Margenau to talk about the E3 content and where Naughty Dog is taking the game in the future.

USgamer: What did you want to accomplish with Uncharted that Naughty Dog didn't in previous titles?

Margenau: Evolution. We're pushing Uncharted farther than the previous three games. The PlayStation 4 gives us more memory, so we can do bigger spaces, more dynamic AI... more choices for the player is what it boils down to. Adding vehicles to Uncharted is a big thing that we've always wanted. You're seeing those vehicles used in this kind of set piece scenario, but also in exploration, puzzle solving, combat, all the different Uncharted pillars. Giving the player more options via ropes and seamlessly sewing all this stuff together. To us, Uncharted has always been about the flow, weaving the story into the gameplay with fewer visual cuts. The demo here is just flowing through the experience.

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USgamer: The island is the primary location of Uncharted 4. Is the island open-world?

Margenau: It's not open-world, not as it's known in the game industry. It's definitely more open. In the PlayStation Experience demo, we showed a more wide-open exploration/combat space with multiple traversal paths. You can skip past enemies completely or lose them in the foliage. There are definitely areas of the game where it's going to get pretty big, but it's still that rollercoaster, that directed experience, that driven story. It's an Uncharted pulp adventure driving you forward.

USgamer: Is that a more difficult balance to hit, having a more directed experience vs. larger areas with more player choice?

Margenau: It's really hard. Pacing is hard. It's taken us a while to grapple with that concept. When we do open it up and allow that space where we don't necessarily know how long the player is going to be there, we still want to push them forward with every design trick we have in our toolkit, driving someone towards the goal. But the pacing has to fit the story. When we have an epic chase, we're not going to open it up wide where you can drive anywhere. In the demo, even within that area, it's wider. All those side roads you see, you can go down those. We push you, but still give you a lot of play with.

USgamer: So the demo mirrors the driven set pieces of previous Uncharted games, which didn't allow from many options moving forward. If you diverged, you frequently died. Is Uncharted 4 different?

Margenau: The goal is to give you as many options as possible. We're trying not to do the thing where the player's like, "What the hell, I wanted to go that way and it didn't let me." We try to allow those options to happen and then direct you back. Pinch you in and have key moments that direct you.

We also want to get you onto the rope and driving. We want to present opportunities to do that in a way that the player feels trained on those mechanics and knows to do them naturally. At this point in the game, you would've been trained on the rope and its iconography. This isn't the first time you drive a car. This demo is the culmination of those mechanics and forcing you to use them in crazy ways.

USgamer: Other than the rope and driving, are there any drastic changes to the core Uncharted mechanics?

Margenau: It still feels like Uncharted. We went back to ground zero. We had a little more time to think for this game, just kind of stripping all of the mechanics down to their core and rebuilding them with new animations. The physics are embedded, the climbing mechanics have this ragdoll going on inside Drake to give him more weight and realism in his motions. Every mechanic has been rebuilt. And there's a bunch more stuff we're excited to talk about... in the future.

Nate, you should probably not lie when you know you wife isn't an idiot.

USgamer: I noticed in the demo's shootout section, there are more additional idle animations, with Drake flinching in the face of oncoming fire. Is that just visual, or is there more behind that?

Margenau: We always want to make our characters as expressive as possible. We don't get a lot of time to see a character's face. During cutscenes, we make sure those are moments where you see the character's face and we remind you that you're playing as Nathan Drake. Where you see him a lot is in cover, when his back is to the enemies. Cover time is a good time, so we want to get as much life into those animations as possible. All the flinches, all the facial animations. There's a lot of stuff we learned in the Last of Us with the gesture system in conversations, where you can look at Ellie and gesture. We're totally taking that on in Uncharted and we've amped it up even more. It's more dynamic. Every line and delivery is as performed as possible.

USgamer: Was there anything in your original premise for Uncharted 4 that you haven't been able to do?

Margenau: Not really. This is a big game and we're doing a lot of crazy stuff. Vehicles is a big one. We've always wanted it. We've been developing vehicle tech since Uncharted 3 shipped, building prototypes of vehicles. It's exciting to finally get them in and do them in the right way. Do them in the Uncharted way.

USgamer: Family is another returning theme in Uncharted 4, with the end of the press demo highlighting Drake being pulled between two different families. Is that a huge part of the emotional conflict in the game?

Margenau: It's the core of the whole story. Nate and Sam have been separated for fifteen years, and he's settled down with Elena. He's pulled back into this treasure-hunting world because his brother needs his help. Nate's kind of torn. Where we are in the game in this demo, he's fully in and back on the adventure. You'll see a little bit of the struggle that Nate has.

Uncharted 4 is coming out for PlayStation 4 on March 2016.

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