Traveling the world in Uncharted 4's ridiculous photo mode

Snapping screenshots is as fun as mastering the game itself.

Timothy J. Seppala, Engadget

Aside from minor tweaks for brightness and contrast, everything in this National Geographic-inspired gallery was captured entirely within the photo mode of Uncharted 4: A Thief's End. And while the images don't contain any story spoilers from the first 11 chapters of the game, if you're looking to go in completely blind, you should avert your eyes.

Amazing visuals are part of the Uncharted series' DNA, and Uncharted 4: A Thief's End is no exception. The difference here is that the previous three installments didn't feature a photo mode when they debuted on PlayStation 3. And to be clear, this isn't even the first PS4 game with a photo mode -- that would be Infamous: Second Son -- but this is the first one that I want to keep playing. That's because taking screenshots here is as fun as working through the narrative itself.

Photo mode lets you pause the game at any time and play with camera settings like depth of field, motion blur, film grain and an assortment of filters. Imagine putting a DSLR and Adobe Lightroom into a video game and you're basically there. I found the opportunity to use almost every option at some point, all in ways that complemented the shot's composition. Yep, even the "blorange" filter, which, as the name implies, blows out the blue and orange hues in a given scene.

Photo mode has been included in each of developer Naughty Dog's PS4 releases so far (including Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection of new-gen remasters), and lead programmer Christian Gyrling says it's something the studio values for several reasons. For one, it gives people a different way of playing rather than just guiding Uncharted protagonist Nathan Drake around ancient ruins in search of long-lost treasure.

The problem is, I'm kind of addicted to it. If the in-game list of statistics kept track of how much time I spent adjusting stuff like field of view and camera angle instead of just overall play time, I'd probably be embarrassed. That leads me to the second reason Naughty Dog puts this feature in its games: Gyrling says that it allows players to further appreciate the work that went into making the game.

I'm inclined to agree. Making progress in the game has been a little slow for me, because I'm dropping into photo mode almost every time I enter into a new area or spot something cool. The game's absurd vistas seemingly stretch on for miles, and there's so much detail at every turn that I can't help myself.

While I'd love to have a completely user-controlled camera in photo mode and be able to position it anywhere I want, Naughty Dog says that isn't feasible. Things like mountains or other environmental objects were designed to be seen exclusively from the perspective of the gameplay camera to maintain the illusion that you're in a living, breathing world.

"If you have a free-form camera," game programmer Artem Kovalovs says, "you would be able to move the camera to see places that were never actually created, and be exposed to things like holes in the environment [and] ugly seams." In other words, it'd be like looking at a Hollywood studio's backlot. The camera limitation isn't all that restricting, though, as I was able to get creative with the field of view and zoom levels to achieve some truly gorgeous shots. All it takes is a little patience.

Despite the amount of freedom and options photo mode offers, though, Naughty Dog says there are still elements the team wishes it could have included. Chief among them: a Vine-style short-video tool that would allow you to capture an animation and play it back from any angle -- something like what last fall's Tearaway Unfolded offered. Kovalovs says that would have taken a "very large" engineering effort and simply wasn't doable.

So does photo mode cheat and pump extra processing power into the game's graphics when you access it? According to Naughty Dog, no. "We don't do anything special in photo mode outside of making sure everything is visible when you move the camera around," Kovalovs says. "We didn't write new rendering techniques specifically for photo mode."

Based on what I've seen, he's right. Shadows are still a little fuzzy around the edges (a typical tough spot to smooth out on consoles). Conversely, straight lines -- another difficult thing to render smoothly -- on overhead power wires and the like are free of jagged edges. In short, the game simply looks great at every turn.

"We don't expect our artists to make things that will only ever be seen in photo mode," Kovalovs says. "On the other hand, our artists tend to go crazy with the details regardless."