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Why Uncharted 4’s E3 demonstration was more impressive than it looked

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Naughty Dog's magic trick

When I think of the Uncharted series, I think of widescreen cinematic moments that its developer, Naughty Dog, magically made playable: the thrilling climb up a derailed train hanging off the side of a cliff in Uncharted 2, say, or the fight on the cargo bay of a cargo plane in mid-air in Uncharted 3. So I felt let down when this week at E3, our big demo of Uncharted 4 gave us a car chase. It’s the sort of muddy tropical free-for-all where pineapple carts are turned over to provide extra visual interest while you dodge gunfire: cinematic, sure, but also a bit ho-hum compared with Nathan Drake’s previous feats of derring-do.

After interviewing the game’s directors, though, I felt a bit differently. Making gameplay feel cinematic without just making it cinema is a key part of Uncharted’s appeal, says Bruce Straley, game director at Naughty Dog. One of the mottos around the office has been "keep it on the stick" — in other words, let players maintain control even during the game’s wildest moments. "Those big set pieces used to happen in video games in cut scenes," he says. "You’d do all this stuff, and you’d fight and puzzle-solve, and all of a sudden you get a cut scene. We really said, why can’t I be a part of that? So we created the tech to allow us to move around while a building is collapsing, or while a train is careening through a hillside." The result, he says, is "big, bombastic moments — but it’s 100 percent in your control. That’s what we’re trying to show off here."

"It's 100 percent in your control."

It turns out that there’s more going on in the Uncharted demo than I previously realized — and it’s why playing it is likely to be way more fun than watching it on YouTube. This section of the game, which happens a few hours after Drake has reunited with an older brother he thought was dead, finds Drake and his pal Sully trying to escape an ambush in a stolen Jeep. Hot on their trail is an enormous, speedy, tank-like vehicle that riddles their ride with bullets. To get away, you have to lose the tank — and that means darting through blind alleys, crashing through fences, and otherwise laying waste to a tropical village.

Uncharted

Watching the demo, you might assume that there’s only one way to go — that survival rests upon memorizing the precise series of twists and turns you need to take to escape the truck. But Naughty Dog built the game with a series of branching paths. So long as you’re traveling generally downhill, says Neil Druckmann, the game’s creative director, you’ll make it out alive. This is how Uncharted gives you control over a moment that looks like a film: the turns you take are up to you, but the outcome is predetermined.

Mostly you're watching an illusion

In other words, it’s a magic trick. You have a degree of control, but mostly you’re watching an illusion. Like any art, the best games stay with us because they force us to suspend our disbelief and buy the notion, however briefly, that we are in control of that jeep, and one wrong turn means certain death. When you make it safely through, you breathe a sigh of relief — and feel proud of yourself for successfully navigating the path. It’s a feeling you can only get by playing — something Naughty Dog wouldn’t yet let us do.

I still have my concerns about Uncharted 4, whose demos to date have betrayed a certain more-of-the-sameness that have left it looking a bit stale. Once again, Nathan and his pals are hunting for treasure — and once again, a rival gang is hot on their heels. The emotional core of the story — Drake coming back for one last score, after promising his wife he was out of the business — feels as obvious as they come. Uncharted 4 began life with a series of ugly executive departures. It remains unclear that the game — which is due next year, after delays — is back on track.

Here’s hoping it is. The developers are promising this is Nathan Drake’s "final chapter" — until he gets rebooted in a Tomb Raider-style origin story, I’m guessing — and I’d love to see him go out on top. Uncharted’s interactive blockbusters have been plenty silly over the years, but they’ve also had heart, and I’ve been dazzled by their graphical sleight of hand. It turns out that same sleight of hand is working magic in the car chase we saw at #E3 — and it happened so smoothly I didn’t even notice it.

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