Naughty Dog is hardly being subtle with the subtitle of its fourth – and final – entry in the Uncharted franchise. ‘A Thief's End': the bell is tolling for PlayStation's blockbuster series.
For eight years (the first instalment launched shortly after the PS3 in 2007), the exploits of Nathan Drake helped define the console action genre. It was a major step-up for the studio that made its name with the cartoon worlds of fellow PlayStation exclusives Crash Bandicoot and Jak and Daxter.
Naughty Dog has since taken one step further into the darker realm of action with The Last of Us. Building upon Uncharted's third-person shooting and narrative set pieces, the acclaimed post-apocalyptic title already looks set to become Naughty Dog's next hit IP. The Last of Us' innovations in storytelling will be feeding back into Uncharted, too – but don't expect the latter game to lose its identity.
You saw with [story expansion] The Last of Us: Left Behind that we took a little more atypical approach to how we told our story,” community strategist Eric Monacelli told MCV shortly before the release of the Nathan Drake Collection. (Since the time of this interview, Monacelli has moved to Call of Duty studio Infinity Ward.)
But at the core of Uncharted 4, it's going to be an Uncharted game. It's the final chapter for Nathan Drake, so we're going out with the best and everything we've learnt from past Uncharteds will be put into this one.”
This doesn't mean the new game will simply recreate its predecessor's past glories, Monacelli insisted. In fact, the triple-A giant is taking a leaf or two out of the indie sector's book.
As time's moved on, these great games have come out,” recalled Monacelli. [Uncharted 4 directors] Neil [Druckmann] and Bruce [Straley] love Gone Home and have played that a ton, people have played Everybody's Gone to the Rapture and titles like that – these wonderful games that don't have typical gameplay.
Those influences will always seep into how you think about and design game mechanics, but we're not going to change the core of what Uncharted is. It's going to be an Uncharted game with a lot of thought put into how we can create unique elements that have a distinct tone to them.”
"We're going out with the best; everything we've learnt from past Uncharteds will be put into Uncharted 4."
Eric Monacelli, Naughty Dog
One returning feature from the last two Uncharted titles is a multiplayer mode.
Uncharted 2 and 3 both included arenas for players to do battle in, while The Last of Us expanded on the third-person combat with a crafting system, stealth mechanics and ‘Factions', which divided the player base into competing clans.
Similar innovations will be present in Uncharted 4's online gameplay.
We definitely learned a lot from The Last of Us,” Monacelli reveals. Everybody at the studio is working on Uncharted 4, which is a really great feeling and the way that Naughty Dog has always worked best. You're going to see a lot of influence from every member that touched The Last of Us that they're bringing to Uncharted 4.
"We have a really good pedigree as the leaders in story-driven narrative. We're always going to champion that and be proud of it but, especially with Uncharted 3 and The Last of Us, we learnt so many lessons about how to make a good, fun multiplayer game.
It's one of those things where Uncharted 4 multiplayer is going to really surprise some people and be a unique experience in and of itself.
There are some really great communities for multiplayer out there, and that's one of our main objectives with multiplayer: how can we keep people engaged, playing and attentive to our brand? That's something we aim for, but above all you want your multiplayer to be fun. That's what we're doing. We playtest it every day in the studio to make sure it's fun. We're hoping that this is going to be people's favourite multiplayer that we've ever done.”
Uncharted 4 is still months from launch, yet fans are already speculating about what will follow.
With rumours of a The Last of Us sequel, remastered versions of Naughty Dog's past classics and the potential of brand new IP circulating, Monacelli is quick to refocus attention on the climax of the studio's biggest franchise yet.
We tend to work on one game at a time,” he states. Uncharted 4 is what everybody's working on. After that, we're going to be working on Uncharted 4 DLC. [See ‘Transaction Traction']
Beyond that, there's been tons of ideas bandied around – everybody knows the rumour about The Last of Us 2. There could potentially be – who knows? We could go back to Jak and Daxter 4 if it seems right, or there could be something else in the future on our horizon.
We tend to work with an idea always on the board and once we have time to devote the right amount of attention to it, then we'll tackle it.”
If PS4's first-party line-up feels a little light this Q4, it's partly because there's a massive Uncharted-shaped hole in its release schedule.
Yes, there was the release of Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection, but Uncharted 4's delay into 2016 hasn't gone unnoticed.
Notably, the extra wait opened up November for rival adventure game Rise of the Tomb Raider, which is an Xbox exclusive until next year.
But Naughty Dog's former community strategist Eric Monacelli stresses there is no ill will between the series.
Everybody wants a fight, everybody loves a bloodbath,” he told MCV. But there's a lot of mutual respect.
Crystal Dynamics have done some amazing things with Lara Croft from day one. They have a really great appreciation of what good games are and everybody works really hard to make them; at the end of the day, as a developer, you just want to appreciate when a good game gets made. Both franchises have had some phenomenal ground-breaking titles.”