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‘Uncharted 4’ Preview: Pretty Good Even Though It’s Covered in Mud (Commentary)

It’s got a bunch of new bells and whistles, but it’s still just an ”Uncharted“ game

Mud physics! Stealth! Big open areas! These are the things I was supposed to feel excited about after playing a half hour of “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” last week.

But, no, I didn’t care about those things. Well, “didn’t care” isn’t entirely accurate. Those things did manage to change the overall dynamic of the “Uncharted” series just enough so that playing “Uncharted 4” — which will be the first of the series made for PlayStation 4 when it hits in May — didn’t feel like I was playing a cut chapter from one of the PlayStation 3 “Uncharted” titles. But it wasn’t a paradigm shift.

And that’s fine! Who cares about paradigm shifts, especially on a technical level? Normal people certainly don’t. I don’t. We don’t go to the movies hoping each new blockbuster is a technical achievement unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. We like good-ass CGI, sure, but only for the experience it serves, not because we just enjoy looking at CGI things out of context. Developer Naughty Dog has always been trying to provide a video game storytelling experience that evokes the best of film and television. Focusing on stuff you wouldn’t focus on the first time you watch a movie or TV show feels incorrect.

Nonetheless, the section of “Uncharted 4” myself — and other members of the press — were allowed to play was chosen seemingly in hopes that I would be impressed by the way driving a Jeep over small rocks that are embedded in mud might dislodge them.

Or how directing series protagonist Nate Drake to walk through mud will make his pants dirty. Sure, I love dirty pants as much as the next guy, but that sort of novelty doesn’t sell the way it did when the first “Uncharted” game (way back in 2007) let Drake’s clothes get wet when he fell in a pond.

But the video game industry is still banking on that kind of novelty to move games, and so Sony is making a big deal about how amazing it is that it’s hard to drive the Jeep up a muddy slope in “Uncharted 4.” I know how mud works, though, and I’ve driven a car through it before, so I’m not going to be impressed because the video game mud is realistic. Game director Neil Druckmann even told us to note how the Jeep’s tires work on different terrain. Maybe that was just a friendly tip but, again, there’s a lot of mud out there and I’ve seen a lot of it.

Don’t take all my mud-related cynicism the wrong way. I liked what I played of “Uncharted 4,” and in no sense was it bad. I enjoyed myself quite a bit, in fact, because “Uncharted 4” feels like a legitimately well paced and fun entry in the “Uncharted” saga. You drive around in a Jeep with old pal Sully and Drake’s long-lost brother Sam, and there’s plenty of banter from all three — as you’d expect from one of these more relaxed sections of the story. In the past, during this kind of section you would walk around leisurely, but here you drive around leisurely instead. It’s cool, I like it.

The mud and rocks serve as a subtle enhancement to the overall natural-ish experience. This is what hooks us with “Uncharted”: the feeling that you are moving around in an action movie version of the real world. Having realistic mud means you aren’t jarred out of your immersion in the game because of weird mud physics.

After you finish driving, you have some bad guys to take out in an open area that’s larger than what we’d normally expect to see in an “Uncharted.” You can fight them the normal way, by whipping out your gun and blasting away, or you can take it “Metal Gear Solid”-style — “Uncharted 4” has added sneaking mechanics as a matter of course rather than just when the story dictates. And that’s fine. I tried sneaking around for a couple minutes, but then decided doing that was not a great use of my time and went guns blazing instead. And that’s also fine.

And that’s what this section of “Uncharted 4” was: fine. That’s not an insult. As a person who has played every “Uncharted” game and also has played many other games, it was a breeze to get into. That I didn’t find the new-to-the-series stuff to be some kind of mind-blowing revelation isn’t a big deal. That “Uncharted 4” isn’t some kind of mechanical video game revolution also isn’t a big deal.

What matters here, before we play the full game a month from now, is whether it felt like “Uncharted,” and has the sort of well paced movie-like experience we expect from a game by Naughty Dog. And it did.

“Uncharted 4” lands May 10.