Skip to main content

E3: On the edge with Uncharted 3's single-player

It's Sony's big 2011 ticket for PS3, and what Alex Donaldson saw in LA yesterday left him stunned. Uncharted 3's single-player impressions and interviews with its director and programmer.

“We’re always on the edge,” Uncharted 3 game director Justin Richmond tells me minutes after showing Drake narrowly escape death from falling from a huge cargo plane – though he’s talking about developer Naughty Dog, not the company's intrepid adventurer and best-selling protagonist Nathan Drake.

Questioned on just how the studio seems to have managed the impossible and squeezed yet more power from Playstation 3, Richmond explains the evolution of the visual flair and look of the Uncharted series at Naughty Dog is simply about trying as hard as possible.

“For what we had available at that time, we’d pushed it all we could,” he says of Uncharted 1 and 2. “Yet, every game, we’re trying to find extra power and performance improvements and optimizing to get more on-screen, make it look better, refine it.”

Refined it is. Before sitting down to chat to Justin I’d been treated to the visual and audio feast that was a special E3 2011 closed-doors demo of Uncharted 3’s single player, and I left largely astonished by just how bloody awesome-looking some of the stuff Naughty Dog has lined up appears to be.

The demo saw Drake and returning companion Elena assaulting an airport in an attempt to board a large cargo plane. Details of why this is happening were kept under wraps, but at the entrance to the compound Drake tricks Elena to let him go it alone.

“It’s a million to one chance,” he says - and he doesn’t want to risk losing her.

“Right now, I think we still do it better than everybody else.”

With Elena reluctantly agreeing and heading off to a jeep to drive away, Drake climbs up and over into the compound and we’re treated to views of the impressive skyline off in the distance. A somewhat rare sight in Uncharted, it’s a huge, sprawling modern city that seems to go for miles, the night sky ablaze with the light from skyscrapers.

Of course, it’s not long before Drake’s spotted, and searchlights glare down on him and the desperate shooting and running begins. I’m deliberately talking a lot about light here – that’s because it’s a key improvement over previous games.

I see the light

Lead programmer Travis McIntosh was on-hand to explain exactly how the team has tweaked the lighting systems this time around.

“We’ve done a lot of lighting changes – post-processing tweaked to improve it, but we’ve also tried to design around the lighting. The cruise ship level, for instance, is designed specifically to show off the lighting.”

While we weren’t looking at the cruise ship – that was instead demoed live in Sony’s press conference – it was easy to see where that design philosophy was coming into play. Searchlights scan the darkened airport in search of Drake once enemies are aware of his presence, and it’s another thick layer of atmosphere onto the already heavy, movie-like qualities of the game.

While the shooting and combat looks similar to Uncharted 2, there are a few tweaks and changes here and there. At one point, Drake performed a flying takedown, jumping from above and landing on an enemy with a brutal melee attack that kind of reminded me of rooftop kills from Assassin's Creed. A silenced weapon was also used to try to take enemies out without drawing attention to Drake - a first for the series.

Watch on YouTube

The Syria co-op movie released for E3.

Being even a little stealthy, this demo was light on the shooting. Travis explained to us a little of what's changed with those mechanics as well.

“Last game when you shot, bullets could come out of your gun at a slight angle – that was kind of the way we implemented accuracy – but in this game we’ve made bullets always come out straight but we put camera shake on to change accuracy. We think that’s an improvement.

"It means now you’ll always know when you’re about to get a headshot – if the reticule is over someone’s head they’re done, whereas in the last game – maybe it’d hit, but sometimes it wouldn’t - it could diverge even if the reticule was there.”

That’s not the only area that’s been improved. There’s quite a bit of fast-paced climbing in the demo we were shown, as it’s a race against the clock to get to the cargo plane before it takes off. Rather than traversal, the game's movement is closer to parkour, Drake scrambling quickly across rooftops in an attempt to reach the plane in time. That, too, is another area of the game that looks the same but has been significantly improved by the team.

“We’ve made a lot more improvements to the traversal elements – we’re using it in places where we couldn’t before,” Travis tells us, acting out some climbing animatedly with his hands. In the demo, Drake then reaches the plane. He climbs the landing gear, the gigantic slick-looking wheel inches from his body, and then the plane takes off, the gear moving to take him inside.

Inside the plane there’s claustrophobic air vents that Drake has to crawl through, ominously lit with deep red lighting – but then Drake finally makes it into the main hold. There’s a classic James Bond big-man to battle here – a Jaws or Oddjob, a hulk who's seemingly impervious to Drake’s punches and kicks. He hurls Drake about the cargo hold like a rag doll, and, desperate, Drake opens the aircraft's doors.

Jeeps, boxes, nets and more tumble from the back of the plane. So, nearly, does Drake. We didn’t see much past here, but this was the perfect chance for Travis to give us an example of how the tweaks to the traversal system work.

“For example, in the end of that airport demo you’re hanging on that net out of the back of the plane. We couldn’t have had you climb that net – we could only support vertical climbing. Now we can support any direction – even upside down – so now you can climb back into the plane.”

Everybody’s a game designer

The desire to do a sequence where Drake would climb into a plane mid-flight is how this entire level came about, Justin tells us.

“The cargo plane came up because one of the animators was actually doing a demo for himself and was working on some technology stuff – he thought it was cool, showed it to a designer, and we ended up mocking up this sequence. Seeing it, we were like, ‘Ah, we’ve got to do that.’”

That actually belies a lot of the design philosophy at Naughty Dog, he goes on to explain.

“That’s how it works – it’s really cool at Naughty Dog that it’s not just game designers – everybody is a game designer. A programmer or an artist can be, like, ‘This is cool!’ and we can get that stuff in the game.”

For a level that came out of a programmer’s private demo reel at first, everything we see looks fantastic. The demo ends with a scene glimpsed briefly in the E3 trailer, with Drake hanging on for dear life to the netting hanging out of the back of the cargo plane – a scene reminiscent for me to the James Bond movie The Living Daylights.

Asked about filmic influences, Justin believes it’s ingrained into Naughty Dog’s people more than anything else.

“We’re inspired by lots of movies – we’re moviephiles more than anything. We want to bring something original to it – we can do something Hollywood can’t do because you can play, you can experience it, but we’re obviously very inspired by film – I’m a film student myself.”

The team is quick to point out that even the cutscenes have been improved; with cinema sequences in-game now aided by the fact Naughty Dog has more time to work on them.

Even Uncharted on Vita will have the same kind of quality, and Justin reveals that the actors will return for that game too.

“We’ve refined those systems and that technology,” Justin explains, showing off the 3D E3 trailer which is packed with cutscene animation. “But we have our own sound studio now, which we never had last game – the mocap studio - so we have more access. We can record when we want and need to.”

Even Uncharted on Vita will have the same kind of quality, and Justin reveals that the actors will return for that game too.

“They’re using all the same actors there, too – we’re not involved but of course we feel very strongly about the franchise and are really looking forward to playing it – it looks like a great game.”

Story will play a larger role in the co-operative mode that’ll ship with Uncharted 3.

“It’s a totally separate story, but they’re all interconnected this time,” Justin tells us as a last-minute aside. “You’ve got to play them all to get the complete story there – it’s a very cool, separate experience.”

With the impressive-looking demo over, there’s really only one thing left to ask Justin as the lead designer – what he thinks of all the games out there beginning to ape the Uncharted cinematic experience, and if he’s feeling more pressure because of that.

“Even without that we feel a lot of pressure,” he laughs with a shrug, “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, more than I think the external forces do. But it’s flattering.”

“We won a lot of awards, we were very popular with the last game – it’s totally expected that people are going to try and do what we do. It’s hugely flattering – I hope those guys pull it off. We make these games because we want to play them – I want other people to make games like this.”

There’s a laugh and a pause again, but he adds a caveat: “Right now, I think we still do it better than everybody else.”

Based on Uncharted 3's E3 demo, it’s hard to argue.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception ships for PS3 on November 11.

Read this next