Madagascar may be best known for its goofball cast of personified zoo animals, but some even bigger idiots are on their way to the enormous African island. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End will find protagonist Nathan Drake and his familial allies Victor 'Goddamn' Sullivan and Sam Drake exploring the outback in search of missing pirate Henry Avery's historical score – and we recently got to ride shotgun with the trio as we road tripped our way through 30 minutes or so of Naughty Dog's hotly anticipated PlayStation 4 exclusive.

The legendary developer's using lots of buzzwords like 'wide linear' to describe its latest game, but they all boil down to the same thing: this is the biggest entry in the Uncharted franchise yet. That's not to say that the spectacle's necessarily being amped up – the studio's talked about ways in which it wants to make the set-pieces more personal – but simply that the scale of the locations has been increased. Madagascar underlines this ambition perfectly because, while it's not fully open world, it's unlike any area Drake's plundered previously.

Enter the Jeep: a brand new form of locomotion that looks like it's going to play a pivotal role in the release. You drive this vehicle like you would in any other game: R2 accelerates, L2 reverses, while square acts as your hand-brake. It's not on-rails, it doesn't force you down a particular path – it's yours to control exactly as you desire. Basically, in the Madagascar chapter that we played, it's used as a means to traverse the environment as you wish, and while there are boundaries to where you can explore, there's plenty of ground for you to cover.

This, as you can probably imagine, changes the traditional Uncharted blueprint profoundly; it gives you even more incentive to go off the beaten path and poke around. Sometimes you'll be rewarded with an extra line or two of dialogue, other times you'll happen upon a stunning vista to stare at – there are even crumbled structures for you to conquer, many hiding treasures for you to add to your inventory. How do you scale the architecture when you're behind the wheel? Well, you can get out and travel on foot at any time. Game changer.

More familiarly, the writing's outstanding, as you'd expect; Sully and Sam extol the virtues of online auctions in one exchange, while a running joke sees the ageing ex-sailor complain about the cost of hiring a vehicle with a winch. This leads to lots of wise-cracks when the hoist inevitably gets used; you need to manually attach this to a tree in order to navigate one muddy ascent, while another sequence sees you using it to bring down a bridge in order to create a makeshift ramp that enables you to access higher ground.

It all sounds a bit Batmobile, doesn't it? Perhaps, but it brings a nice change of pace to the tried and tested Uncharted formula, which is necessary when a franchise reaches its fourth instalment. It's important to note that the Jeep is not half-baked, either – it's governed by its own impressive physics, and the muddy off-road nature of Madagascar means that it can get stuck in mud, spin out, and more. In other words: this is a fully-fleshed feature rather than a passing fancy, and Naughty Dog seems to have found a way to embed it into the main game in a manner that's additive rather than annoying.

Of course, the core gameplay blueprints haven't been ignored; the one firefight that we got to experience felt much more sandbox in nature. Drake can now hide in long grass, for example, and mark enemies, adding a bit more strategy to encounters. Metal Gear Solid-esque enemy alert indicators enable you to better stay undercover, but if you want to go guns blazing or use a mixture of espionage and action hero tactics, that's totally up to you. Mix in the grappling hook and inherent verticality that Nate's moveset enables, and you have lots of options in conflict.

It feels very fast and responsive, we must say. The control scheme – aside from the unorthodox mapping of reload to triangle – is very intuitive, and it seems built around the spontaneous nature of skirmishes that Uncharted executes so well. Low ammunition means that you'll constantly be discarding exhausted weapons, refreshing your arsenal on the fly and rolling to new points of cover in order to get the upper-hand against your aggressive foes. We didn't see as much of the combat as we'd like to, but enough to know that it feels good.

And that point applies to the demo as a whole, really: we sampled more than enough to feel encouraged ahead of the title's May launch, but it feels like Naughty Dog's keeping a lot close to its chest. The graphics, an element that we've glossed over, are as spectacular as you'd expect – but you'd always anticipate plenty of polish from a Naughty Dog game. No, it's the way that the studio's taking the series' staples and expanding upon them all over again that's most impressive here.

War may never change – but treasure hunting, it seems, does.

Are you eagerly anticipating the arrival of Uncharted 4? Are you excited by the inclusion of the Jeep? Attach your winch to the comments section below, and drop some thought nuggets for your fellow readers to loot.