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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Uncharted 4 makes a move for the open, but at what cost?

Drake's progress.

Well, this is new. We're crouched in one of the rustling pockets of tall grass that's flecked across the plains of Madagascar, pushing Nathan Drake slowly towards a tower that's riddled with enemies - snipers near the top send out laser sights that probe all that parched greenery. From afar, Drake's able to mark out each enemy - get too close and a tasteful indictor above a soldier's head begins to quickly fill (in an inadvertent bit of cross-brand synergy, it looks like the floating obelisk from the cover of No Man's Sky), letting us know whether Drake's about to be spotted or not.

It's all as if Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain just got a very colourful makeover. The point that Naughty Dog is making with this, a slim hands-on opportunity with the single-player campaign culled a third of the way into the studio's last Uncharted game, is clear. This isn't quite Uncharted as you know it - it's broader, with more options available to the player. It's what Naughty Dog refers to with a straight face as 'wide-linear'.

Returning players will find plenty that's familiar, of course. First there's the set-up, with a grand historical mystery at its core (this time centring around 17th century pirate Henry Avery, commander of the wonderfully named pirate ship Fancy who was more recently brought to dashing life by Hugh Bonneville in a brief Doctor Who cameo). Then there's all those fantastic wisecracks, the contextual conversation that helps put the spring in the series' step rendered all the more impressive when it finds its way into a more expansive world.

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And then there's the attention to detail that's often helped Uncharted feel like the most lavish of productions. In this slice of Uncharted 4 you'll find it in the messy power slides of a jeep, struggling for traction in the slippery mud that masks some of Madagascar's inclines. It's an interesting departure for the series, a short jaunt across the countryside where you're able to leave your vehicle at any point to investigate the surroundings, and the sense of freedom is capable of being more than mere illusion. There are some optional secrets to discover, such as a cave hidden under a thundering waterfall that rewards you with its own treasures, and its own light-hearted skit between Drake, his brother Sam who's new to the adventure and returning favourite Sully.

The jeep's got a surprising amount of character of its own, gamely looking for purchase in all that mud and slotting neatly into Uncharted's brand of light traversal. You'll be looking for rocks in the slippy brown slick that can give you the traction you need to progress, and for tire-tracks that provide some guidance as to where to head next. When you're asked to use a winch to heave the truck up, there's something pleasingly mechanical about it all - including the process of neatly tying a loop by walking around the tree trunk you attach the winch rope to, a nicely tactile alternative to a dumb button press.

You'll end up at the same place, of course. In this case it's that tower, patrolled by all those enemies, where the promise of freedom is dangled before you once more. In the short highlight demo shown shortly before our hands-on, anything seems possible - Drake uses his grappling hook to swing from one small encampment to another, knocking enemies down before they're able to alert other guards and then swiftly retreating to the grass before going loud in a beautifully choreographed display of firepower and fury.

That's the dream, anyway. The reality, in our hands, is a little more scrappy than that. Perhaps it's something to do with Uncharted's idiosyncratic control system which takes a short while to get reacquainted with (triangle for reload? Please!), but what follows is a clumsy brawl through the sizeable number of enemies in the tower, fist-fights tumbling into close-quarters gunplay while AI partners Sully and Sam Drake occasionally intervene in all that chaos. It's not a great advert for the slightly cumbersome fundamentals of Uncharted's combat, where there's not quite enough weight to the weapons, not quite enough fluidity in Drake's transitions from cover to cover, and the directorial hand that proved too stifling in Drake's Deception might have moved too far away.

In all that noise, though, the promise of more freedom is fulfilled, even if in our hands those avenues often led to a bloodied nose and a violent dead-end. It's a broader brand of action, and there are more options available to you - although, whether you take the more skilled approach or the more cumbersome one, the pile of dead bodies at your feet suggests you'll still end up at the exact same spot.

As a statement of intent for a new, gently retooled Uncharted it's an effective demo from Naughty Dog. As a reminder of what's great about the series - the spectacle, the drama and the set-pieces delivered with so much technical flair - it's a little less convincing. Surely that's all still yet to come, and Naughty Dog's pointedly keeping those moments close to its chest in the run-up to release. For now, it's just happy to show us that, even as Nathan Drake shuffles off into retirement, this old dog's not above learning some new tricks.