Uncharted 4 has been a long time coming, but after years of development, several delays and stories of tumultuous back-stage politicking, Naughty Dog's latest is finally a reality. You can go right now to your nearest shop, slam down a credit card and purchase Nathan's Drake's last adventure. Like the three games before it, it's packed with thrilling action and pulsating chases, but the part that really enthralled me most was something altogether more tranquil.
It wasn't the daring jumps, stealth takedowns or gunplay that stayed with me. It turns out charging around a variety of exciting and beautiful locales pales in comparison to a few moments of calm spent in Drake's own New Orleans home.
[Warning: spoilers for Uncharted 4: A Thief's End fifth chapter follow]
It feels odd to say, because Nathan Drake is a goddamn treasure hunter. Here's a fact about treasure hunters: they're only usually exciting when they're hunting treasure. No one cares whether Indiana Jones does his own laundry or which Chinese takeaway is his favourite. The only time anyone ever cared about Croft Manor was while trying to lock the butler in the freezer.
Yet, somehow, Naughty Dog have managed to make a short domestic sequence Drake shares with his wife Elena one of the most exciting and engaging parts of the whole Uncharted 4 package. When you consider that this is a game where you travel the world looking for hidden pirate treasure in an effort to save your estranged brother, that's quite an achievement.
Drake's attic is a treasure trove in of itself, filled with his discoveries from earlier games. It might seem like fan service for those loyal to the series, and to a point it is, but it's really fan service for Nathan Drake. This game is set three years after the events of Uncharted 3, and Drake is functionally retired, no longer hunting for treasure but for valuable cargo as a salvage diver. However, despite now being a man of domesticity, Drake has surrounded himself with past glories.
The attention to detail is astounding. The attic, and indeed the entire house, is a masterpiece of environmental design and storytelling. Paint and gunk fleck the floor, even though this is the first and only time any player will tread these floorboards. Ragged and scuffed boxes of clues and treasures litter the place, some dotted targets and a toy gun hung in a holster show that Drake hasn't forgotten his former career, and hasn't quite grown up yet. While he might be committed to a life of drudgery now, he's not quite at ease with it.
If the attic shows that Drake misses his past, the rest of the house shows why he gave it all up. Based on all of the crap Nate and Elena leave lying around in their bedroom, and the towel hanging over the shower curtain in their scruffy bathroom, the couple seem pretty comfortable in each other's company.
Elena's study shows that she's missing the adventuring lifestyle too, but is embracing the calmer life better than her husband. She's writing travel guides from all around the world, and still spending her time getting out there, albeit perhaps with less immediate risk than she might have been used to. Charming Post-it notes adorn her Mac, telling her to fix photos or to cut a terrible paragraph. A digital camera on the shelf has a few photos of holidays the pair have taken together.
The player has free reign of the house, and it's an oddly human experience. I didn't know that I wanted to take a nose in Nathan Drake's recycling, or think I'd smirk to myself when I opened the refrigerator and saw boxes and boxes of takeaway. Dirty plates sit in the sink ready to be washed, a pet hate of mine that caused me to judge Nate and Elena appropriately. It's relatable though, and in turn makes the characters seem more real – enriching the adventure and peril to come.
Unfortunately, it doesn't really feel like Drake's kitchen. Drake's house is the attic, the rest of the home feels more like it belongs to Elena, with her travel books mounted on the walls. When you first see her she's sprawled across the sofa in a communal area while Drake taps away in the attic. Naughty Dog are showing us without words that Drake isn't happy here, he's more visitor than resident.
We also get a sense that he knows how to interact with people without killing them. His relationship with Elena is playful, and even with Aspergers it's clear to me that they adore each other. Theirs is a fast-moving but caring conversation, and the way they interact feels natural.
The obvious headline moment is Drake insisting he'll beat Elena at "that TV game" she plays, leading to Nate and the player to a faithfully recreated and playable level from the original Crash Bandicoot – while Nate and Elena narrate over the top of it. "Why wouldn't he just climb out of the pit," asks Nate after Crash plummets, losing a life. It's not just about the novelty of playing a PS1 game, in the proper aspect ratio and with the correct PS1 start-up noise no less – it's about showing these characters as human beings.
Before Nate becomes the cavalier adventure we know and starts mowing down an entire group of mercenaries later in the game, here we see he is capable of normality.
Drake's house is among Naughty Dog's finest design work to date. It presents us with a totally different perspective on a character audiences have known for nearly nine years. He's human, he's flawed, and in showing those flaws he becomes more believable.
It's a stark contrast to the rest of the game, where Drake jumps from ledge to ledge like a superhero as a series of ancient structures collapse around him like he's projecting some sort of localised disaster field. This moment of calm before the raging hurricane that Drake tosses himself into, tells us more about Nathan Drake than anything Naughty Dog managed before or after.