A brisk running time and lower stakes do the Uncharted formula no harm at all - even if this spin-off sticks a bit too close to the script.
Sometimes it's good to take a step back. Naughty Dog's Uncharted games were conceived as lighthearted, almost flippant action spectaculars, as knowingly pulpy as their chief inspiration, Indiana Jones. But they ended up with baggage that Indy didn't. Thanks to a deluge of critical acclaim and an overflowing of corporate pride, they took on a level of importance, almost gravitas, that sat awkwardly with their insouciant style. As the series progressed, the games' plot lines became more involved and soapy, and have-a-go-hero Nathan Drake got saddled with brooding backstories that Dr Jones would have dismissed with a sardonic shrug. Uncharted 4 was the most sophisticated and smoothly paced of the lot, but it couldn't quite reverse this trend, and the best thing it could have done - and did - was to set Nate's world to rights and then send him packing.
Now we have The Lost Legacy, originally intended as a downloadable expansion for Uncharted 4 but promoted to the status of a standalone, albeit half-price, release. Perhaps it's too soon to see it as a blueprint for a Drake-free future for the Uncharted series, but that is exactly how it comes comes across. Happily, the plans look sound.
It's a short game, taking eight hours or so to finish, and this might be the best thing about it. Reserve is not one of Uncharted's virtues and the games have rarely left you wanting more. They often succumb to padding, and despite the grandeur of their set-pieces, they rarely mix up their carefully measured lengths of climbing, gunplay and puzzle-solving, which can get repetitive. At less than half the usual running time, though, each gameplay component has enough room to breathe but not enough to get tiresome or for its lack of depth to be too harshly exposed. The plot has just enough time to develop the characters without labouring the point, to deliver one twist and one crescendo, and to wrap it up with a crisp kiss-off. It's pleasantly brisk; you find yourself wishing future episodes could clock out with such economy. (Unfortunately, thanks to the economics of blockbuster game-making: fat chance.)
The search for a lead to fill Drake's boots starts with Chloe Frazer, an occasional partner, rival and love interest of Nate's, and a seductively untrustworthy Aussie, voiced by Claudia Black with her trademark wicked purr. Black, the writers Shaun Escayg and Josh Scherr, and the co-directors Escayg and Kurt Margenau soften this spiky character for her leading role with care (if not subtlety - within minutes of the game's start, she has befriended a cute street urchin). You warm to her as swiftly as Black picks up Nolan North's way with a breezy quip. As a partner and foil, Chloe is given Nadine Ross (Laura Bailey), the South African mercenary from Uncharted 4. It's a less obvious choice and a less immediately successful one - the character is taciturn and players don't have much history with her. But the growing warmth between the two women is played with beautiful understatement by Black and Bailey, and they are given a few irresistibly cute moments together. By the end of the game, you'll be sold.
The plot is pretty sparse. Chloe and Nadine are in India on the trail of this year's MacGuffin, the Tusk of Ganesh, sacred artifact of a lost Hindu people. So is the local warlord, Asav, who is in the middle of a bloody insurrection. Naturally, everyone has reasons beyond mere avarice for hunting this treasure, but it is still just a treasure hunt, and one that is surprisingly and pleasantly uncomplicated by conspiracy or mysticism. There are lives at stake, of course, because Asav - another in a long line of forgettable Uncharted antagonists - is some kind of bad dude. But it's not quite end-of-the-world stuff. The stakes have been lowered a little to fit the more modest scale of this game, and it suits Uncharted's easygoing style to a tee. Naturally, what really matters about the setting is the chance it affords Naughty Dog's designers and artists to build ruins, statuary and mountainous vistas on a preposterously epic scale. The Western Ghats region and Hindu pantheon give them plenty of rich material to work with.
The Lost Legacy represents such good succession planning on Naughty Dog's part that it is worth reminding ourselves, at this point, that it isn't actually a new Uncharted game. It is built on Uncharted 4, and in gameplay terms it is almost identical to its parent. This is good news in the sense that Uncharted 4 was a very polished and well-rounded action game, offering more flexible and less attritional combat than its predecessors with welcome stealth options, as well as a modest free-roaming element. Both return, and the latter is even developed slightly in an enjoyable early section that has you exploring the countryside by Jeep to complete a side-quest (a first for the series).
Functionally, however, there is next to nothing new. The Lost Legacy is very timid when it comes to experimenting with - or even varying in the slightest - Uncharted's gameplay mix, its pacing, its clichés and its habitual story beats. Ledges give way at the last moment; the villain takes you hostage so you can solve a riddle for him; you end up in a scrap with a piece of heavy military hardware. With one notable exception, there isn't a single scene here you haven't seen in a previous Uncharted game. It's adventure by the numbers. Perhaps it is unfair to expect more of a glorified expansion pack, but it was Naughty Dog that raised our expectations were with the excellent Left Behind add-on for The Last of Us; it seems as though, with its changing of the guard, The Lost Legacy had just as good an opportunity to weave some new patterns with this old yarn. That opportunity has been missed.
Many won't mind that and will point, reasonably, to the sheer unflagging quality and effortlessness of this action romp. Others, like me, will take pleasure in finding that a smaller Uncharted doesn't mean a lesser one, and that even in a series known for its excess, less can be more. And Nate? To be honest, I didn't really miss him.