Uncharted 3: Drowning in hype?
19th Aug 2011 | 18:30
Halfway through Uncharted 3's eagerly-anticipated E3 demo, Drake's world turns upside down - literally - but it's all the proof we need that things are going to be all right.
For all the hype and expectation surrounding the PS3-exclusive Drake's Deception - and the impossibly high standards set by developer Naughty Dog - the game's lost none of its capacity to surprise: on this occasion, by flipping an ocean liner using real-time visuals our brains didn't think possible on PS3.
The ocean liner's sinking, rolling over so the floor becomes a wall and then a ceiling as the ship's dragged into the deep. It's the collapsing-building from Uncharted 2 all over again, except this time it's in the middle of the night, and gallons of seawater are rolling in.
Advanced physics play a key part in this new adventure, and Uncharted's engineers make it all feel terrifyingly convincing.
"We keep pushing the technology harder," says Naughty Dog co-founder Evan Wells, when asked about the role elements - fire, water, earth - play in Drake's Deception. The effects really are impressive, and not just to look at. They're used in a way that's fundamental to the excitement.
"Uncharted's become these huge setpiece moments," says Wells, acknowledging its tightly scripted nature. "Here you actually get to play through them instead of watching them."
Pushing past the hulks of sinking cars, Drake surfaces to discover that the entire ship is falling apart. Stuck under falling machinery, he breaks free just in time to be blasted down a corridor by a huge wave... before we fade out, absolutely breathless.
UBAR AND OUT
Let's back up to the start of Sony's demo. Drake's Deception sees Nathan following once more in the footsteps of his famous ancestor as he searches for the lost city of Ubar, an ancient Arabian capital that God - apparently - blasted from the face of the Earth for avarice. Turn the other cheek, and all that. If you're assuming this means U3's all sand dunes and shoot-outs, however, you're wrong. This might be Drake's most varied adventure yet.
During the demo there isn't a camel in sight. Instead, it's a dark and stormy night and Drake's exploring the upper decks of a seemingly deserted ocean liner. The ship was once plush: it has swimming pools and penthouse cabins, while fairy lights are strung across walkways, swaying as an angry ocean tests the decrepit vessel. Is anyone steering this thing?
Drake emerges into a huge ballroom dominated by two massive, swaying chandeliers. It's the perfect environment to demonstrate new stealth takedowns: moving between points of cover, picking off the patrolling goons, Drake dodges the swinging lightpools that cascade from those huge crystal lamps.
Sneaking from the ballroom, Drake heads into the cabins, laying a steadying hand against a wall as the deck tips beneath him. It's a display of Naughty Dog's animation, which combines sexy-smooth technology with clever psychology. It doesn't just look good - it cements just how bad the storm is and how precarious the liner is. Actually, the design team is letting rip everywhere you look: in berths that rock with the waves, flickering lamps that cast Drake's shadow, in bottles slithering underfoot...
This area is for far more than just showboating, however (thangyouverymuch). The liner is bursting with bad guys ripe for a stealthy pummelling. Luckily, the tactical spacing of shadows wouldn't be out of place in Metal Gear, while Drake's finishers have a nose-busting force to them. As we work our way into the depths of the liner, carpeting gives way to bare wood, and wallpaper fades to sheet metal.
Eventually, we reach a dead end - the cargo hold. Like the ballroom, it's a vast, complex space. Cars and crates line up in rows, while columns reach from floor to ceiling, calling out for traversal.
The music swells ominously as Drake clambers down into the darkness to find...an ambush. But it's hard to get the drop on a guy like Drake. All he needs is a grenade for an explosive distraction, then he's off into cover.
Here's where we think the kind of tweaking you expect from a sequel is really apparent. Aiming's smoother, cover's quicker to negotiate, and - better yet - Uncharted's tentative fistfights have swollen into full-on brawls. Drake's finally able to square off against several enemies at once, using a range of headbutts and kicks, and he can use contextual moves too - grabbing a nearby bottle to club an enemy, for example. Ouch.
You can't chuck grenades on a boat without expecting trouble, however, and Naughty Dog is master of the cinematic pay-off. Right on cue, the sea erupts from the far side of the hold and the liner, weighed down as the ocean pours in, begins to capsize. Cars slide around, bouncing off walls and exploding, and by the time Drake's finished off a few stragglers - showcasing another new melee move that allows him to stun an enemy, rip a grenade pin off them and then push them away - the water's everywhere, thick and foaming. Which is where we came in.
The ocean liner has left us with plenty of tantalising questions - why is this huge ship deserted? What's Drake doing aboard? Who are the armed men guarding it? - but it also hints at a new emphasis on stealth: a mood shift based on new contextual grabs and takedowns.
The focus on sneaking is present in our much shorter behind closeddoors demo, too, in which we see Drake and Elena (sporting an engagement ring?) infiltrating an airstrip to board a cargo plane.
But while there's a bit of room for Drake to sneak around on rooftops, finishing off enemies quietly, things don't take half as long to start getting noisy this time.
Pretty soon, our massive shootout's giving way to a jeep chase as the plane taxis down the runway, and we're into one final fight with Drake up against a mountain of a man as the aircraft takes to the skies. It's another brutal glimpse of that melee system and it ends, in classic pulp style, with our hero hanging from the back of the plane as most of its cargo is ejected over the desert.
Both demos suggest Naughty Dog is drastically evolving the series' cinematic pacing and sense of scale, but what's even more astonishing is the degree of detailing the team's willing to invest in its numerous setpieces. When the lamps on the ocean liner are sent swaying, tiny shivers of dust spill from the ceiling, while a guard, patrolling far below, idly toes a stray cardboard box out of the way as he passes; when Drake makes that Commando-style leap onto the plane's landing gear, Elena's coaxing him on, fretting behind the wheel of her jeep.
These touches may not add much to the level design, but they work wonders when it comes to your sense of immersion - something that normally comes with only the best action films. We think they're just as important as the improved climbing, which now allows Drake to interact with physics objects: scampering up the plane's swaying cargo net, or scrabbling across flaming beams just before they collapse.
Drake's not just the nimblest of adventurers - he's also the most human. You see it as he steadies himself before a jump, you hear it as he panics when a grenade lands nearby, and you feel it as he interacts with Uncharted's cast. And while it's nice to have Chloe and Elena confirmed for Drake's Deception, the focus apparently lies elsewhere for this outing.
WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE
"We're constantly trying to draw different aspects of Nate's personality out by the characters we surround him with," says Wells. "This time around, the emphasis is on Sully. Their relationship is the mentor and protégé. You'll get to find out how long they've been together, how they met, what makes them tick... as you progress, we'll really test the boundaries of how strong that relationship is."
Sully's double-crossed Drake before - kind of, anyway, in the first Uncharted. Maybe he's still not to be trusted.
Rounding out the Uncharted package is an expanded multiplayer, with a new Hunter mode - two players fill the shoes of Drake and Sully going after treasure, two more join the AI pirates trying to stop them - slotting alongside the deathmatches and co-op mini-campaigns.
Naughty Dog's clearly hoping it can offer a cinematic alternative to the grim arenas of Killzone and CoD, which seems a good plan to us. The recent beta has been well-received, connection problems aside, with much more polished combat.
Ask the developers what they're most excited about, though, and the answer proves as predictable as it is welcome. "We just want people to enjoy the story we're telling," says Wells. "We put a lot into the technology, and the gameplay's important, but I think what we're doing with the story - and the emotion that we're drawing out - is uniquely Uncharted."
Uniquely Uncharted, eh? With its ghost ships, sandstorms and lost cities, Drake's Deception is shaping up to be exactly that.