'Uncharted': Latest Game Balances on the Precipice of Evolution and Disaster

Evocative characters weighted down by aging game mechanics

Uncharted: The Lost Legecy has all of the bonafides of a classic Uncharted title, but with the potential for a much more gratifying approach to story-telling, player agency and character growth.

It is the sort of second dive into a rich franchise that could ultimately not just extend the fictional universe of treasure hunting, mythology exploring, face-punching Nathan Drake, but reshape it into something more nuanced and ultimately engaging than the original.

But that's a big ask for a game that seems, at least in my short time with it, to rely so heavily on the aging bones of the game's interactions. There is a lot of familiarity in Uncharted: The Lost Legacy that could easily drown out the title's greatest potential and risk: the sometimes caustic, often compelling relationship of a former secondary protagonist with a former secondary antagonist - both turned hero in this new entry.

A little history
My time with Uncharted: The Lost Legacy started more than an hour into the game, when I dropped into the driver's seat of a four-by-four with Chloe Frazier at the wheel.

Chloe is on the hunt for the golden tusk of Ganesh in the mountains of India.

The artifact, the lynchpin of the entire game's story, is said to have great power and is known to have great value. It was, the game's lead designer tells me as I play, rumored to be hidden in the Western Ghats range by the Hoysala Empire sometime during their rule, which ended by the 14th Century.

As with most of the Uncharted games, much of what the game is based on is anchored in fact. From there, though, the developers tend to work off of rumors, fables, mythology to build up an epic treasure hunt.

While the core Uncharted series, which wrapped up Nathan Drake's adventures in Uncharted 4, included a number of fantastical plots and enemies, this new tale set in the universe of Uncharted is meant to be a bit more grounded, lead designer James Cooper tells me.

The game stars Chloe Frazier, who appeared in Uncharted 2 and 3 and mentioned in 4. The character brings with her all of the impulsive, devious nature that did so well to counter-balance Nathan Drake's relatively noble, charming demeanor. She also has a partner in mercenary Nadine Ross, the change-of-heart antagonist from Uncharted 4.

The chemistry between the two – at least during my time with the game – ranged from openly hostile to willing to put up with. How that relationship develops will be an integral part of the game, but that evolution wasn't noticeable during my short time playing.

Instead, the demo gave me a hands-on chance to see just how much the developers have strived to open up the game to player choice and control.

Cooper says that the game has the most free-roaming of any Uncharted ever developed, and much more player agency comes with it.

"It's a much more player-directed experience," designer James Cooper says. "What we are trying to do is capture that feeling of adventure, of exploring and then handing that over to the player."

"It's a much more player-directed experience," he says. "What we are trying to do is capture that feeling of adventure, of exploring and then handing that over to the player."

At the wheel
Back in the truck, Chloe at the wheel, I round a muddy track to see a massive valley open up before me. In the distance I can see ruins and towers, meandering waterways, jungle and mud tracks. There's no obvious direction to head.

With the tap of a button I open the map to see a few key areas marked on the map, but again, no straightforward explanation of where I should go first.

Popping the map away, I start driving down the path and into the valley. Trails and mud roads break off in different directions, but I continue down the path I'm on, heading to a squat ruin perched along a river bank.

At this point in the game, I know that Chloe and Nadine are on the hunt for a tusk, that there are three symbols connected to the tusk and its whereabouts.

I know that there is something in this area that will help me along my treasure hunt. I also know that a warlord named Asav, the game’s main antagonist, is hot on our trail after we stole documents that led us to this valley. I know that I’'m looking for anything that shows any of the three symbols: the Ax, the trident and the bow and arrow.

That's what's on my mind as I roll across a rut, heading toward a stream and I start to hear the chatter of gunfire behind me and distant yelling.

I plow up the hill, turn off to a copse of trees and park the vehicle.

Hopping out of the vehicle, I creep Chloe back toward the gunshots.

The enemies stand amid the ruins, scanning the area around them looking for any sign of the vehicle that had so recently driven by.

Stealth remains an important part of the game. I manage to sneak up on one of the mercenaries, hop up on the cracking and worn stone of the ruins, walk up right behind him and then push the wrong button, tumbling away and alerting him to my presence.

I still take him down with a few blows, but now the entire group knows we're here.

I can hear them shouting for reinforcements. Somewhere, Nadine seems to be taking people out too, though I can't see where.

The gunfight, the melee combat, the sneaking around, all feel comfortably familiar, ported from the main Uncharted series into this stand-alone expansion.

Later, after wrapping up the demo, Cooper tells me that the little encampment of bad guys is a sort of side quest, something designed to add an additional layer of options to the free-roaming experience.

I hop back into the vehicle, Nadine following on my heels, and make my way across the substantial map to a massive pillar that is both marked on the map and a standout in the world.

Here, I discover a larger group of guards. At one point, I find myself using a grappling hook to swing to a pillar of ancient rock. But the pull of gravity seems off, Chloe’s swing seems unnaturally slow, as if she’s slightly floating at the end of the rope as it arcs its way across a chasm. I botch the swing, letting go too soon and after a quick death, need to try again, this time with the odd physics in mind.

Once on the pillar, I start climbing up, avoiding the gunfire of an alerted guard who is perched at the top of the pillar. It’s satisfying: scrambling around the rock, leaning back occasionally to pop off shots at the guard when he pokes his head over the edge to shoot at me.

Deeper into the encounter, I find myself essentially surrounded. Hiding behind a slab of fallen rock, I quickly pop off shots with an automatic rifle, while trying to avoid incoming fire from all sides. I have to move quickly, running and jumping, rolling, scrambling, taking down enemies with grabs, punches, kicks and gunshots. The encounter feels almost like a puzzle, it's so packed with cover, enemies and blind drop-offs.

Clearing the area with the help of Nadine, I'm able to move deeper into what is obviously a set-piece encounter tied to the game's main story.

I use the vehicle and my grappling hook to wrench massive, ancient doors from their frame, take down more bad guys and eventually find what I was looking for: an ancient trigger, of sorts, and a clue.

It points me to several other areas on the map where I have to go and activate switches. The entire valley is one giant puzzle box, it seems, and once solved it will lead me closer to my treasure.

I didn't have time to go seek out more of those switches before my time ran out with the game, but it was clear that each would be guarded, each would require a certain approach to survive the encounter and trigger the switch. Most intriguing, though, was that there didn't seem to be any right way to approach the collection of encounter points. Spread across the map, I was in charge of deciding where I went and when I went to each.

I found the gameplay engaging, though a bit well-worn from a series that has slowly worked to both perfect its flavor of interactions, but also develop a rut using them. But just as engaging, and certainly more important to the game, is the chemistry of the characters and story of the game.

As a big fan of the Uncharted series, I've always found the stories to be adequate, the video game equivalent of summer pulp reading, a page turner with very little to dig into. But it was the characters and, in particular, how they interacted with one another and grew over time, that really pulled me into the games.

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy seems to be doubling down on that core tenant of Uncharted games.

This early into the game I found the interaction of the two characters almost grating. They obviously dislike one another, distrust one another, but feel compelled to stick by each other’s sides, if only for the treasure.

That approach brings with it quite a burden to surmount and if the developers fail, it could turn into a disaster; but that high burden also provides a lot more for the writers and developers to work dig into.

If the game can show growth in the relationship between the two, it will be that much more compelling than what was seen in the previous Uncharted games, which essentially had a very affable man and a pal or love interest becoming better friends.

The journey from enemy to friend offers much more grist and the developers know it.

"Character is very much a key part of what has made Uncharted what it is," Cooper says, as we talk about my experience playing once I’ve wrapped up the demo. "Tying into pulp fiction, hunting for treasure, mysticism is all very, very important too. We're taking a much more grounded stance with this game. It's more about the characters and their relationship."

It's the sort of thing, this tenuous relationship and its growth, that could easily spin-out to become not just an expansion of a singular game, but a new series in the franchise.

I asked Cooper if that was where this was headed: Will Chloe and Nadine be the new faces of Uncharted moving forward?

"Right now we're focused on this one game," he explains. "Where Uncharted goes in the future, I can’t tell you."