Leaks and controversies regarding The Last of Us Part 2 aside, Naughty Dog is Sony’s biggest hitter. In the years since eighth-gen’s inception, studios such as Guerrilla Games and Insomniac Games have risen in prominence. Sony isn’t hurting for talented first-and third-parties, but Naughty Dog rises above them. No other studio developing PlayStation exclusives strives for polish and attention to detail to the same extent. Given the studio’s technical chops, their first PS5 project may usher ninth-gen in the same way Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and Quantum Break did for current consoles.
Entertaining the Rumors
Rumors dating back to 2019 claim the company’s next title is a steampunk first-person shooter starring two protagonists from different walks of life. One is a scientist whose fascination with space-time science leads to a massive discovery, whereas the other character is a runaway convict unjustly arrested for protecting his friend.
Naughty Dog typically creates new franchises each console generation, with the PlayStation 4 era as the only outlier. Both Uncharted 4 and The Last of Us Part 2 suffered from development issues, limiting the studio’s output. With both titles under their belt, Naughty Dog has the resources for an original property for PlayStation 5 despite voicing the possibility of an Uncharted 5.
They showed they could create Lost Legacy in a year with two-thirds of its studio. With all hands on deck, Naughty Dog is positioned to dig into its creative well. Entertaining the rumor as a possible avenue, it’s not outside Naughty Dog’s wheelhouse. They have extensive shooter experience with every title since Jak 2 featuring gunplay. The plot set-up also fits. It’s run-of-the-mill territory, making it perfect Naughty Dog material. They aren’t concerned with originality. They use generic settings and plots as tools to drive interesting character interactions forward.
Naughty Dog’s Past
Naughty Dog was once known for whimsical platformers. The Crash Bandicoot trilogy was as innocent as they come, emphasizing exaggerated character traits in the pursuit of humor. Jak 2 and 3 featured more mature themes than The Precursor Legacy, but that content never came at the cost of its underlying strength—cartoonish charm.
Many long-time fans want a return to Naughty Dog’s past, but it isn’t possible. The studio’s culture isn’t what it was in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Its founders, Andy Gavin and Jason Rubin, left in 2004, coinciding with a structural shift. 2004 was the year Jak 3 released. Naughty Dog’s next game, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, signaled a new direction. While it retained some of the studio’s whimsical charm, it became clear Naughty Dog no longer wanted to create family friendly platformers. Their new direction encompassed mature action adventure games with a character-driven focus.
Naughty Dog already dabbled with a Jak 4 concept, but abandoned it because their modern conception wouldn’t please fans. In Grounded: The Making of The Last of Us Naughty Dog president Evan Wells said, “We started to realize that it was not gonna do justice to the franchise that the fans had fallen in love with. It would be shifting it so far in a new direction that we felt that effort would be more justified in developing a new IP.”
Their carefree platformer days are over. Naughty Dog’s priorities have changed, as has the industry at large. A new Jak and Daxter game from Naughty Dog would satisfy no one. They should be commended for understanding audience expectations as opposed to crapping out a title for recognition’s sake.
The Naughty Dog Direction
Naughty Dog is one of Sony’s most predictable yet flexible studios. They’re not shifting genres with each property as Insomniac has in the jump from Resistance to Ratchet and Clank to Spider-Man. Even Guerrilla Games surprised audiences with Horizon: Zero Dawn after 13 years of Killzone.
They’ve stuck to the same general design principles depending on its management structure. Under Andy and Jason, they made humorous, family friendly platformers. The inventive level design afforded by the gameplay-centric focus and fantastical settings supported their end-goal—fun. The old Naughty Dog believed in traditional video games.
The Christophe Balestra (now retired), Evan Wells, and Neil Druckmann era introduced different priorities. This new management prescribes to modern sensibilities—immersive adventures prioritizing narrative over gameplay. Everything needs a purpose. It’s not about what can be done to make the game fun;it’s about what can be added or changed to craft a more cohesive experience.
The original Uncharted trilogy attempted a balance between fun gameplay scenarios and storytelling. By The Last of Us, that line veered more heavily toward the narrative camp with Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End following suit.
Through the company’s history, one element has remained constant in a sea of variables—strong characters. Crash Bandicoot suffered from a lack of variety. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune’s gunplay lacked the satisfaction of its contemporaries. Uncharted 4’s uneven distribution of its core pillars made it the least replayable Uncharted game.
Naughty Dog’s most flawed games retain strong writing. Even with characters pulled out of nowhere—looking at you, Sam Drake—the company’s characters are funny and endearing. Most of Naughty Dog’s villains are as equally likeable as they are threatening, sometimes more so. Listening to a modern Naughty Dog cast feels more like human beings bouncing off each other’s personalities than actors reading from a script. No matter the genre or setting, count on a Naughty Dog game to make gamers identify with its characters.
The Perfect Naughty Dog Blend
Uncharted 4 is one of Naughty Dog’s more flawed games, but it provides the best template for a possible PlayStation 5 title. The Last of Us, while an industry classic, isn’t fun to play. It can be daunting and intense, but “fun” is a better served adjective for Uncharted than The Last of Us.
Uncharted 4 contains the studio’s most accomplished combat to date with AI that makes for more varied encounters. Combining that with its excellent animations, expanding combat spaces and mobility culminates in gratifying encounters. Unfortunately, the game’s combat was hamstrung by poor pacing.
Every Uncharted is made up of three core pillars: combat, puzzle solving, and exploration. Uncharted 2 is often lauded as the best entry because its pillars are the most evenly distributed among the franchise. Each component is given equal time to breathe to prevent a single element from dragging.
Uncharted 4 spends so much of its time dabbling in exploration, the series’ weakest pillar, that it loses its luster far before the end credits. It’s a crime for a title with such strong combat and weak, automated climbing to feature so much of that exploration and so little of its strongest pillar.
Their first PlayStation 5 title needs a balance between The Last of Us’ grittier themes and older Uncharted’s more traditional sensibilities. Crafting a world that allows the same sort of intense human drama as The Last of Us, marrying it with Uncharted 4’s combat would make the perfect next-gen showcase. Fantastical settings aren’t outside the company’s experience, however, its writers operate best under more grounded settings with comedy acting as relief from the emotional highs rather than the focal point.
Old-school Naughty Dog games aren’t possible given the studio’s current management and culture. Rather than wishing for a return to the past, it’s best to embrace their current strengths.