Fancy playing some Uncharted 4? Well now you can. Owners of Uncharted: Nathan Drake Collection get their first contact with the game this week, by way of a multiplayer beta. Two maps are included; the island stage first shown at Paris Games Week, and another set in Madagascar - a marketplace you'll know well from the single player demo of E3 2015. As promised, we're getting a native 1600x900 output in multiplayer (while single player runs at 1920x1080), but what's especially striking is how its competitive mode's bid for 60fps has improved since our last hands-on.
Labeled Beta 1.03, the new build runs significantly more smoothly compared to its Paris Games Week showing. Previously, the island map in particular was prone to moments suggesting more optimisation work was needed. Physics-based destruction left parts of scenery floating midair, and we had a sustained bout of stuttering in a spot that, to that point, ran without any issues. Otherwise, all signs pointed to Naughty Dog designing a superb competitive mode, deserving of its place next to the solo portion. A real highlight of the show, the only real caveat was that it was tellingly still in a work-in-progress state.
To an extent, this is still true of the public beta going live today - but at least now it broaches a level of polish we'd expect of its final release. Despite being at the mercy of the same five versus five chaos, drops remain here, but it's safe to say the bulk of the experience now unfolds at a smoother 60fps rate. There's a gain in overall stability that keeps the action lodged at this top figure - and the flow of play feels all the better for it. Especially in the island map, we've yet to experience the same sharp stutters of the last build in a similar spot.
Accepting this new beta as a 60fps most of the time, some worst case scenarios still bear mention. Having spent a day playing team deathmatches at a capacity of ten players, the more obvious drops we see are to around 50fps. These aren't frequent enough to distract - often cued by one-off special items like bazooka fire, a radical build-up of side-kicks, or the use of relics in central areas. On balance, it doesn't impinge on your ability to control the action, but when things congest at the centre of a map, drops start to become perceptible.
In other words, we're still not 100 per cent in the clear performance-wise, but it's a big step forward. There's a more obvious cause-and-effect to this build's frame-rate drops, where they might happen, but fortunately they're restricted to the use of unique powers. So far, we've also yet to spot the same oddities surrounding its physics, barring a few hilarious moments where a downed enemy might go rocketing across the map on the final burst of a FAL round.
It's a likewise story for the newer Madagascar stage. Pleasingly, this map bangs to the same 60fps drum for the most part, despite a clear difference in design. Rather than pushing for dense forest thickets, action hinges on a more open market pavilion, flanked by a hillside construction site. Destruction physics play a bigger role on this stage; there's chip damage to cover, and even exploding vehicles to watch out for.
We're largely stable at 60fps once again, but adding these physics dynamics to the mix means our lowest recorded readout is 45fps. This is notably as we invoke a combination of relics and sidekicks in the central plaza; an unusual moment, given the rigid hold on 60fps elsewhere. Madagascar is the more troubled performer of the two maps overall, especially at its town centre - but this is something of an outlier compared to its general performance level.
On balance, this stage is an abridged version of what we saw in Naughty Dog's single-player demo at E3 - a rapid downhill race that saw Drake rush past these landmarks. In part this is to service the needs of a good multiplayer map. The crowds of tourists are gone, for example, and everything we saw of that impressive set-piece is crunched down into a more symmetrical arena. And of course, the 30fps target of Uncharted 4's solo adventure enables the team to stretch its visual ambition, while its multiplayer's bid for sharper 60fps controls means certain elements are pruned back.
The more noticeable of these pare-backs is its less liberal use of physics. Across the market stalls there's an obvious reduction in the density of objects - though its small smattering of stools and bottles still knock over as you'd expect. We're also missing the mud slick effect building up on Drake's clothes, where one segment of the map lets us simulate the mudslide sequence of that E3 demo. Otherwise, the aesthetic holds up; a recognisable facsimile of the solo experience, and yet clearly a domain built for competitive play - where each of its quarters is easy to tell apart.
We're still a good few months from Uncharted 4's full release in 18th March, but as a milestone, this public beta already shows huge progress. Certainly, its performance can be shaken once several major relics are used in concert. However, most of the time it runs undisturbed at the 60fps line, and we expect Naughty Dog could achieve an even tighter seal on its goal by release. It's simply a matter of fine-tuning at this point, where performance is largely in a very good place as-is.
At the time of writing, the beta should be available to anyone who owns the Nathan Drake Collection (though note: you'll need a save file generated by the game to log in). The timing of this beta is also apt; giving fans of the series a chance to experience Uncharted 4 engine ahead of time - a stable build overall, and a compelling early tease of one of PS4's most anticipated games.