Naughty Dog's hints that Uncharted 4 could be its last entry in the series - a suggestion made most recently at last week's Paris Games Show - shouldn't come as a big surprise. Especially so, judging by the ideas bandied about in its multiplayer demo, a five versus five team deathmatch set to a striking jungle stage. It's clear the team is in a reflective mood, as if casting its mind back on the series' highlights since its 2007 debut, and incorporating it all into one package. It's an online mode that feels like a celebration, a carnival of all things Uncharted, as the studio looks to close its tenure with the series.
Watermarked as a 'pre-alpha' build, the map shown at the event is pure Uncharted; a dense jungle set that loops around an ancient ruin. There are wide pits to cross, passable with a grappling hook deployed with the L1 button - a new move that also enhances your melee attacks, should you swing to the other side with an enemy in reach. We take control of a wide-ranging cast of Uncharted faces here, from Nathan's newly introduced brother Sam, to old rivals like the second game's main baddie, Zoran Lazarević.
It's a vibrant mishmash of personnel that, in its fiction, you'd be surprised to find all in one space duking it out. Even the studio's recent The Last of Us used generic nobodies in its multiplayer to preserve the impact of Joel and Ellie's story. It's a tactic pleasingly not taken here though, and as with earlier games Uncharted 4 takes delight in its bombast, with every hero and villain getting an encore past the single player portion. The introduction of magic and AI sidekicks pushes the mania one step further, and already it looks like the fastest, most action-focused multiplayer effort we've seen from Naughty Dog.
The core mechanics are familiar enough. Each ten minute deathmatch unfolds at a fair clip, putting aside the methodical pack strategies of The Last of Us' multiplayer for slightly more selfish shootouts. Once again, we roll between cover points, scale wall-sides, and if positioned just so, yank at the heels of a passing enemy. The verticality of Uncharted's maps still plays a big part in distinguishing it from other third-person shooters, and in terms of its basic attacking options, long-time series fans will feel right at home.
It's familiar territory in terms of its controls, but plenty has changed over the top. To mix things up, we now have Mystical items at our disposal - magic powers based on the treasures at the heart of each Uncharted adventure - plus sidekick characters that can be summoned to join the fight. These are activated via a new menu (raised by the d-pad), as assigned to one of four slots before a game starts. Whether you perhaps want two sidekicks at the ready, an upgrade pack, or even a third weapon, there's an apparent flexibility here in how loadouts can be built. Once you're in play, dollars earned from kills are spent on-the-fly, on any of your options - though repeat purchases cause the cost of each one to inflate.
Five Mysticals are accessible in the upcoming beta, and three in the build I played. One called the Wrath of El Dorado serves as a call-back to the first Uncharted, prompting spectres to fly from a sarcophagus to deal damage within your chosen area of effect. Uncharted 2's token treasure, the Cintamani Stone, also operates within a wide circular range, activating a blue miasma across the floor that revives all downed allies. The Spirit of the Djinn is another that recalls Uncharted 3, allowing you to teleport towards an enemy in short bursts, a tactic that ties in with its secondary effect of boosting melee strength.
It's fair to say these powers aren't used frequently enough to disrupt the flow of Uncharted 4's core shootouts, in part due to alternative options like ability packs being just as useful. But it's clear the tone of Uncharted's multiplayer is becoming increasingly more outlandish as all these ideas are blended into one pot. Sidekicks add an interesting dynamic too, where only one of these AI-controlled players can be summoned at a time. Once in play the rules are simple: they take damage as you'd expect, but recharge health when left alone for too long.
Four sidekicks are shown so far, including a Sniper who is most effective when manually placed at the map's tallest points, and also a medic-style Saviour, who sets out to revive players. The Hunter is an interesting proposition too, charging at and grabbing opponents while you decide how to deal the finishing blow. The last of the four is the Brute, an ostensible tank that trudges slowly across the map, a bullet-sponge that brings plenty of firepower of his own.
While the pace of play is undoubtedly faster than The Last of Us, certain ideas make it over from that more co-operative focused game. The intended influence on team play is clear, and Naughty Dog is striving to instil a pack mentality in each squad this time, encouraging players to stick together. This is mainly by way of adding a 'downed' state, where players crawl along the floor to a short cooldown before respawning. A tightly knit squad can react to this and, in theory, pull an ally back to their feet within a second.
In my experience, the urgency to revive an ally in The Last of Us doesn't translate quite so directly to Uncharted 4. It's early days in its balancing act, but the speed of shootouts here seems to make it harder to find a clear opportunity to help an endangered ally. The ebb and flow is different, but loadout items like the RevivePak, which boosts revive speed and range, might nudge players in the right direction. It's unlikely to match the careful, considerate teamplay of Naughty Dog's last immediate work, where co-operation was encouraged further still by a shared stockpile of lives. But outside of the hurried bustle of a trade event, I'm compelled to see how savvier players might gel together given time.
No Doubt, Uncharted 4's main attraction is its single player, and how Naughty Dog might choose to wrap up its treasure-hunting saga. After the credits roll though, it's reassuring to see the multiplayer mode is shaping up to be something quite special to carry us over - a tour of the series' cast and most iconic items. As for the careful tuning of its competitive balance, we'll see how it all locks together once the beta kicks off proper this December.
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