Historically, one of the main differences between developer Naughty Dog's two flagship series was stealth: the "Infected" (i.e. zombie)-filled world of The Last of Us required quiet and careful sneaking, while the pulp fiction swashbuckling action of Uncharted relied mainly on loud, flashy shootouts.
With Uncharted 4, however, those worlds have collided, and Nathan Drake now has some honest-to-goodness stealth abilities. The result is a set of levels that could be pulled straight out of a really great James Bond game. (Beware: some light spoilers ahead).
The setup is classic Bond-style infiltration: Drake (this time, accompanied by his long-lost brother, Sam) must enlist the help of his old pal Sully to sneak into a high-stakes auction, don a tuxedo, and steal an important artifact before the treacherous villain gets it. Unlike most Bond games, though, the stealth gameplay here really works, and the payoff is top notch.
Nate and Sam start by sneaking around the back of the giant estate housing the auction wearing workman's jumpsuits (to keep their tuxes spiffy, of course). Sully, who was able to secure an actual invite, has agreed to leave a window open for them; they just have to reach it. This early segment provides a chance for some of the excellent inter-character banter that Naughty Dog perfected in The Last of Us, showing us some of the first glimpses of how the developer is applying lessons learned from its previous game.
Once they're inside, though, it's time to dress up and get down to business.
This is our first scene with Sully in the game, and the high class surroundings make for a grand reunion. He's definitely aged a little, but he's clearly ready for another adventure.
Just as with any good spy mission, you get a slight beat here to catch your breath, discuss the plan, and enjoy a bit of the party. The architecture is absolutely fantastic—perfectly capturing the essence of an Italian evening spent schmoozing in a multi-million dollar estate (at least I think so, having never spent such an evening).
The first three Uncharted games had a few moments like this where you could casually explore a non-threatening environment, but this scene adds in another Last of Us bit: the ability to trigger optional conversations other characters.
Yes, it's admittedly a pretty minor thing to have to press the triangle button a couple of extra times instead of watching it in a cutscene, but it does give the player a little more agency over the pacing and depth of the story.
From there, though, it's all about the mission as the trio devise a plan to capture the elusive cross they hope contains their next clue.
Again, there are lots of great spy bits here, including eavesdropping on guests (not part of the gameplay, just a fun detail), getting some reconnaissance on the auction (they've switched the item order!), and a cool mechanic involving Drake pickpocketing an access card from one of the waiters.
That last bit is particularly interesting because it's a completely new mechanic that might only be used this one time in the game (I haven't finished it all yet, so I can't be sure). There's an interesting article over on Kotkau about Final Fantasy IX (by the always-thought-provoking Jason Schreirer) that mentions how older FF games would often introduce "one-time events that never happen again," citing them as "unusual in modern game development, especially in Western games." The article even mentions Uncharted 4's rope mechanic as a typical new gameplay device that is built on throughout the game; yet, here, in this mission, we have a strange little mini-game devoted to slyly swiping this card. It's over quickly, but it's a refreshing change of pace that makes Drake feel as resourceful as Mr. Bond himself.
It wouldn't be a good spy story without a femme fatale, and Uncharted 4 delivers in spades with Nadine Ross, currently aligned with villain Rafe Adler. She has some kind of past with Sully, and the two exchange not-so-pleasantries while Drake and Sam head downstairs.
From there, you'll make your through the wine cellar, a few vents, and a few rooftops to reach the circuit breaker to create an artificial power outage so Sully can steal the cross under the cover of dark. It's all very 007.
Again, picking up on some gameplay threads from The Last of Us, there's a lot of quiet sneaking and cooperative environmental puzzle solving as Nate and Sam make their way through the mansion.
That's not to say Uncharted has never featured this type of level, but I really enjoyed the amount of time I was spending doing this instead of fighting waves of faceless henchman, as is often the case in Uncharted. Somehow, this kind of sneaking just feels right at home here.
Once Sully has the cross, however, the jig is up, and it's time for our three heroes to escape.
At this point, they're all split up, and Nate has the misfortune of a particularly violent introduction to Nadine, who engages him in hand-to-hand combat. This brawling moveset is really picked up straight from Uncharted 3, although the mechanics are even more polished. Even better, the fight feels very personal, like something out of a movie, because it's not with just another henchman; they're obviously laying the groundwork for a future Nadine encounter after Nate's narrow escape.
What's great about the entire final portion of this section is that you can really approach it in a few different ways: full action, full stealth, or a mix of the two. I suspect most players will, on their first attempt, land somewhere in the middle (like I did).
As Nate navigates the Italian villa's rooftops, guards are patrolling with searchlights as they hunt for our hero. Careful players will be able to evade detection and sneak up behind unsuspecting guards for silent takedowns. You can survey the field and "tag" guards, which lets you keep track of their surroundings, even if they're offscreen. This is a simplified technique clearly born from the "listening" mode in The Last of Us, which allowed you to see enemy outlines through walls and obstacles.
Beyond that, if guards start to notice you, you'll see a diamond-shaped meter begin to fill up over their head. While stealth purists may object to this as an over-simplification, I found that this kept the stealth options from being overly frustrating. For a game that isn't specifically about sneaking, this is an important concession that will hopefully get more players to experiment with varied play styles.
Of course, this is Uncharted, so you can also get loud and messy with a variety of firearms.
Especially in the final moments of your escape, this will become almost required; but it makes sense given the way things build throughout. It's a satisfyingly big finale to a level that is all about escalating tension toward a bombastic release, complete with a getaway car as the icing on the cake.
Thankfully, Naughty Dog was smart enough to leave ideas like "ammo scarcity" and crafting supplies squarely with The Last of Us, as the brisk pacing of Uncharted 4 would surely have suffered from the inclusion of these slower elements.
This sequence, which comes fairly in the game (chapters six and seven), really serves as a great introduction to some of Nate's new sneaking abilities; however, it also gives us a taste of what Naughty Dog could do with a new franchise centered around being a spy.
The developer has said this is the final Uncharted game for them; and, while a sequel to The Last of Us is all but a sure bet, there is speculation the studio will be also working on a completely new property. Even if they don't specifically make a spy game, though, it's safe to assume we'll continue to see the studio borrow and refine these ideas in whatever comes next.
Until then, I think I'll just have another martini while I wait—shaken, not stirred, of course.