Hollywood is a logical place for Sony Computer Entertainment and developer Naughty Dog to throw an event to unveil Uncharted 3 to games press. The series has evolved into one of gaming’s best examples of the interactive medium taking on film at their own game. In fact with Indiana Jones’ last cinematic experience verging on self-satire, there’s merit in the argument that Uncharted protagonist Nathan Drake is a figure more sympathetic to modern times; the everyman adventurer.
The goal with Uncharted is to capture the feel of the classic action adventure movies but front them with a contemporary hero, states Amy Hennig, creative director. The 17 year-old games industry veteran has won recognition not just from games press but also awards from the Writers Guild of America for Uncharted 2’s storyline, and it’s clear from Uncharted 3’s presentation that the ND team is committed to continuing down the same path that saw Uncharted 2 move over 4 million copies to date and a slew of “best of” gongs.
Uncharted 3’s double “D”
The “Drakes Deception” subtitle, we’re told, has multiple layers of meaning. Apart from the obvious reference to the protagonist, it also refers to Sir Francis Drake – sea captain and buccaneer. This time around, Nathan and sidekick Sully start off in Europe retracing movements of the historic figure and find themselves on the trail of another – TE Lawrence, the studious archaeologist who was to later become known as Lawrence of Arabia.
Lawrence, we’re told, was obsessed with finding the “Atlantis of the Sands”, a legendary lost city in the Rub’ al Khali desert. When Drake joins the hunt, it’s revealed he’s up against a secret order, lead by a tyrant who manipulates through fear. The nature of the nemesis’s powers wasn’t explained by Naughty Dog save for noting Drake would be forced to confront his greatest fear, presumably not snakes.
With the backdrop in play, the actual gameplay demonstration begins in a large, dilapidated chateau in France. We’re told for narrative purposes that Drake and Sully believe themselves to be one step ahead of their pursuers, however in true Uncharted fashion (“Where bad goes to worse”, in Naughty Dog’s words), they’re wrong. It doesn’t take long for Drake and Sully figure out they’re not alone. Henchmen of the unnamed foe are trying to set fire to the building, lugging barrels of oil and conversing with each other in the oafish manner of cannon fodder since the dawn of entertainment. Trapped on the upper levels of the building with the enemy below, Drake does some acrobatic shimmying and leaping as rotting beams give way under his hands. Before long, gunplay enters the equation, as Drake and Sully race to exit the building before the fire at ground level takes hold.
No such luck of course. In keeping with “bad goes to worse” the remnants of the enemy force exit the building and taunt Drake as they close the doors behind them. What occurs next is a superb example of how revisitation in level design (retracing the same territory) should be done. As the conflagration builds into a fiery pit, Drake and Sully clamber and jump from foothold to handhold in a race to remain rare and not well done. Structurally, the architecture remains the same, however navigation is completely rerouted courtesy of the disintegrating, burning interior. It’s fitting the demo closes out with Drake left hanging over the inferno.
The dialogue we heard was also noteworthy, and for better or worse, clearly executed with an eye towards mainstream cinema. More often than not just when you would expect the sidekick to chip in with a warning or wisecrack the game obliges. There’s little extraneous or forced chitchat, and about the only verbal red flag we heard was Drake uttering “crap!” when faced with serious peril, which seems mild for a man facing the threat of immolation. That subjective note aside, it’s clear Naughty Dog are not taking past storytelling kudos for granted.
While we’re yet to see the desert stages in action, what we have seen of Uncharted 3 is vintage Uncharted – verdant greenery surrounding the chateau’s edifice of stone and wood. The sun streams through gaps in the ruined building, allowing shafts of light to illuminate the interior as well as the players. Once the chateau’s fire starts to grow, motes of flame swirl around crazily, flames leap, and the whole thing comes off more like a gorgeous tech demo than gameplay.
All this beauty is secondary to Naughty Dog’s main tech focus, which has been on bringing a realistic desert to life in Uncharted 3. Promised on the engineering side of the equation is modelling of sand displacement, dunes, mirages and heat haze. We did get a glimpse of a heat haze effect – the rippling distortion of superheated air above the flames in the blazing chateau – and it definitely looked a cut above the wobbly texture warbles gamers may have become accustomed to in other games. It looked like the real deal.
On the interface front, as could be expected, Naughty Dog has persisted with a clean and minimalistic style. It’s bare beyond a weapon icon and ammunition count that flashes up, a basic sight indicator when Drake is shooting (the game camera swings to over his shoulder when he does) and a button indicator when a quick time event (e.g spamming a button to perform an action) comes up. The design intent is clearly to bring the player closer to the action and less focused on glaring at health bars or waypoint indicators. Players are encouraged to gauge Drake’s well being by his posture and demeanour. In addition to what Naughty Dog describes as a very long ambient animation cycle, Drake will further hold himself differently at rest than in times of stress, hopefully making Uncharted 3 on game where the protagonist doesn’t sauntering casually through passages of potentially life-ending peril like they’re on a late night shopping mission at a supermarket.
Naughty Dog also is trying to tie Drake even closer to the game’s geometry. Drake will rest his hands against nearby surfaces if he stops for a breather, and his arsenal of moves in combat and negotiating the game world (Naughty Dog’s term: “traversing”) have also been expanded with more options for Drake to climb from A to B. Objects in the game world imbued with physics modelling (the example used: a chandelier) will now react in a realistic manner when Drake jumps onto them. Other objects lying within the game world will be able to be picked up in combat and used as weapons as well.
Drake will no longer get away with beating up on the bad guys once by one, a new brawl mechanic introduced means hand-to-hand combat can involved fighting multiple people. There’s also new stealth options, including an overhead takedown that wouldn’t look out of place in Batman: Arkham City. The application of these moves in multiplayer wasn’t discussed, save for a proise of a “massive multiplayer expansion” within Uncharted 3, which we read to mean as not a product, but rather an “expansion” of the role of multiplayer in this Uncharted.
It would have been good to see what the desert holds in store in Uncharted 3, but Naughty Dog and Sony are no doubt going to drip feed goodies to the public when they’re good and ready. About the only qualm we have with what we saw wasn’t the technical execution or even the storyline, which seems imaginative and fitting to ND’s classic adventure brief. It’s more reflective of the conflict game designers face as they try to tie players deeper to the characters in the game. On one hand Naughty Dog want to have the player empathise with Drake as a character who is essentially human, with the attendant frailties. On the other, Uncharted 3 will see players rack up an impressive kill count, often firing first. Uncharted 3’s likely strengths – uncanny valley-challenging presentation, terrific characterisation and a cracking yarn – are potentially undermined every time Drake pulls a firearm and kills a bad guy, often in cold blood.
We dug deeper into this topic and others with cinematic lead Taylor Kurosaki, the chap charged with bringing that storyline home to players. The interview will be here as soon as the media embargo is lifted on 9.00am December 28 (US PST).