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Can Uncharted 4 go big without losing its soul?

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Creative director Neil Druckmann on Nathan Drake's final chapter

Nathan Drake’s last adventure will also be his biggest. The scale of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End — the closing chapter in the series, which launches next month on PS4 — is bigger than its predecessors not just in terms of the adventure it takes players on, but also the way it plays. One of Uncharted’s most defining qualities has always been its rollercoaster-like nature, which pushes players from one over-the-top action movie-style set piece to the next, often with little room to catch their breath in between.

Uncharted 4 opens things up, with bigger spaces to explore and more freedom to tackle problems in different ways. It’s not quite open-world — developer Naughty Dog has coined the awkward term "wide-linear" to describe it — but it’s a big shift for the series. According to Uncharted 4 creative director Neil Druckmann, it’s also one that makes a lot of sense.

"I think it’s something we’ve always wanted to do," he says. "Here we finally had the opportunity to blow the door open and give you the sense of being lost in a sprawling layout, having to find your way through, and having to discover these nooks and crannies. That felt like a natural part of being on an adventure."

Uncharted 4

I recently played through a section of the game set in Madagascar to get a feel for how these changes work. A Thief’s End has Nathan Drake partnering with his older brother Sam and veteran treasure hunter / longtime series coconspirator Victor "Sully" Sullivan on a quest to find a wealth of legendary lost pirate gold. The portion of the game I played started with the trio in a rugged 4x4, driving around crumbling ruins in search of clues. For perhaps the first time while playing an Uncharted game, I actually found myself getting lost — though never for very long.

It was a relatively large and complicated area to drive around, but the game included subtle hints to point me in the right direction. There were a few tire tracks here and there, and when driving over water or slick mud I quickly learned to find the dry patches of rock for traction. At one point, I drove in a few circles trying to find a way up to a bridge, when one of my companions eventually pointed out a hill I had been missing. "Hopefully that feels natural, and doesn’t feel like the game is trying to give you a hint," Druckmann says of these interactions. "It’s just a character noticed something, and they’re pointing it out to me."

"We give up some of that authorship and give it back to the player."

Where the game really felt different, though, was when I reached a set of ruins full of armed mercenaries, presumably in search of the same treasure. Shootouts in Uncharted are typically straightforward, boisterous affairs, but here it was almost like playing Metal Gear Solid. (You can call him Solid Drake.) I hopped out of my Jeep, and snuck up to the building as quietly as possible. From there I surveyed the area as best as I could, getting an idea of where all of the bad guys were, and then proceeded to methodically take them out. I hid in the bushes waiting for guards to pass, before knocking them out quietly; I shimmied along the walls, hanging on by my fingertips, pulling unsuspecting snipers down by their ankles. Most of my time was spent hiding and waiting. By the time a firefight did break out, there were so few guards left that it didn’t last long.

The key to making the game more open while still feeling like Uncharted, according to Druckmann, all comes down to balance. "We were very conscious not to lose that," he says of the series’ directed feel. "There were levels that were too big, and felt like pacing-wise they don’t work for what Uncharted is. We either had to shrink them down or create really interesting content for those areas where you can get lost in." He also believes that, while it can create some pacing problems, giving players more choice can actually be good for the storytelling aspect of the game. "We’ve found that giving players that choice gets them to be even more in mind with Nate," he says. "We give up some of that authorship and give it back to the player, but our experience is that that can be more rewarding."

Uncharted 4

Druckmann previously served as co-lead designer and writer on Uncharted 2 and creative director on The Last of Us (he didn’t work on Uncharted 3 at all), and he says that what drives him for each project is having a specific goal in mind, often one that’s perhaps overly ambitious. For The Last of Us, he says, he wanted to turn Ellie into the best female character in video games. For its add-on chapter "Left Behind," he was aiming to make the best story-driven downloadable content ever. "I don’t know if I’m going to achieve it, but it’s going to drive me," he says of these goals. "Here it was like, I want to make the best conclusion to a franchise, ever. What does that mean? How do you make it definitive?"

"I want to make the best conclusion to a franchise, ever."

That mentality extends throughout Naughty Dog, as well. "Even when we make a sequel to a franchise, it is so important for us to find the new challenge," Druckmann says. "There are so many talented people at Naughty Dog, and I think without that they would start getting bored. Once you run out of those challenges, then it’s time to move on. For this franchise specifically, it felt like we’ve already told almost every story we can with Nathan Drake, but there’s really one more, kind of important one, that we can tell."

Though he jokes that "no one believed us" when the studio said this would be Drake’s last adventure, Druckmann also believes the fact that it will be the final chapter has been a positive driving force behind Uncharted 4’s development. "When we made that our goal it became very exciting, because how often do you see something successful end?" he says. "Especially in the games industry, it’s pretty rare."

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End launches May 10th on PS4