Just a day after unveiling the first trailer for Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception at the Spike Video Game Awards, Naughty Dog gave the gaming press their first look at gameplay. The press event hosted by a handful of the game's developers in balmy Los Angeles granted a tantalising first glimpse of the PlayStation 3 exclusive, due out next November.
Before the live demonstration, representatives from the Naughty Dog team provided some background on the game's plot, new features and the status of their development team. Community strategist Arne Meyer revealed that Naughty Dog had just moved into a new studio in anticipation of hiring as the game progresses. (When Uncharted 2 went into crunch time in 2009 their old workspace became overcrowded. Some folks had to work on card tables.)
The new Naughty Dog space has a small, on-site motion capture studio to aid in creating the game's uncanny character animations. Sony is providing a larger, fully-featured motion capture studio for the Uncharted 3 team in Culver City.
Creative director Amy Hennig – the scribe responsible for helping make Nathan Drake and his many friends and foes feel down-to-earth – lays the groundwork for Uncharted 3's plot. Based on the game's debut trailer it's evident that Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception will take the treasure hunter to the desert. He'll be following in the footsteps of T.E. Lawrence, the British army officer whose life story was told in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. But Uncharted 3 isn't as concerned with Lawrence's participation with the Arab Revolt in the early 1900s as it is with his archaeological interests.
Lawrence was fascinated with a lost city – a place he called The Atlantis of the Sands. He travelled the world looking for clues of a civilisation mentioned in the Qu'ran. Iram, the city of pillars, was once a centre of trade before, according to Hebrew lore, God struck it down and buried it under sand. Lawrence's life was cut short before he could travel to the vast and deadly Rub' al Khali desert to search for the city.
In Uncharted 3, Nathan Drake will pick up the trail with friend, mentor and father figure Victor "Sully" Sullivan. That means following in T.E. Lawrence's footsteps in search of clues, and that's how Drake and Sully find themselves in a rotting Chateau in France – a long, lost medieval site where Lawrence once trod in search of the fabled city.
The live demo of Uncharted 3 catches Drake and Sully just as the action begins to ramp up. They're deep inside the bowels of the wooden medieval ruins. The place has been overrun by ivy and moss. Shafts of light shoot through gaps in the roof and a four-post canopy bed is crowded by creeping foliage. The setting, as one would expect, is lovely – perfectly expressing the Uncharted series' strengths in recreating vivid ruins and out-of-control nature.
The pair have little time to breathe as they're quickly ambushed by villains. Amy Hennig notes that Drake's enemy this go-around wouldn't be just an evil warlord or a greedy dealer in antiquities, but members of an ancient order that uses fear as a weapon. She alludes to some of the players in the days of the Drake's ancestor Sir Francis Drake, particularly John Dee, the Hermetic adviser to Queen Elisabeth I. In addition to Dee's interests in mathematics and astronomy, the man also dabbled in magic and the occult.
How Drake's pursuers are connected to Dee remains a mystery for now. But it's clear that these men don't want Drake and Sully to live to find another treasure. Drake spies a pair of the gun-wielding thugs on a floor below them – they're pouring cans of gasoline, soaking the building's splintered timbers with fuel. Soon the place is ablaze and the chase is on. Drake leads the way, leaping across gaping chasms, scaling the decaying walls of the ruin in hopes of opening new routes that his less agile partner can use. Soon the action reveals subtle new tweaks to the way that Nathan Drake plays.
While climbing the walls of the French Chateau, Drake cosies up to an arched ceiling. In earlier Uncharted games this would be the end of the hero's ascent, but in Uncharted 3 Drake can propel himself upwards and backwards, making a daring leap that allows him to grab hold of an opening in the ceiling. Game director Justin Richman confides that this new ability would break half the climbing puzzles in the game's earlier instalments, but in Uncharted 3 the new, acrobatic moves give the player more ways to get in and out of trouble.
Richman also touts Drake's ability to traverse physics objects, meaning the hero will be able to climb, crawl and walk on things that are bouncing about willy-nilly in the game's world. This new ability comes to light when Drake makes a daring leap across a mutli-storey chasm onto a giant chandelier. The massive, dusty ornament swings with the momentum of his landing. Drake pulls himself to his feet while his precarious platform sways back and forth. His motion-captured movements, each reel or attempt to gain balance, feel real and organic.
One rule that holds fast across all Uncharted games is Murphy's Law. If Drake tries to climb on something, you can bet that it will come loose and plummet to earth. He jumps clear of the chandelier just before it plummets to the ground.
When Drake spies an patrolling enemy on a floor below he opts for a stealthy takedown – a new way to subdue unwitting enemies in Uncharted 3. Drake leaps into the air and lands atop the goon, instantly (and somewhat quietly) subduing the bad guy.
As the flames grow and smoke begins to fill the building, Drake's animations begin to change. This is all part of Naughty Dog's aims to further ground the game's characters in the world. New, contextual animations will see Drake touching walls and other in-game objects as he moves around in growing agitation. As the action intensifies he'll also make subtle changes to his stance. During the course of the demo's chase sequence he crouches lower and lower to the ground. Eventually he begins coughing at the billowing smoke. When he encounters an impassable wall of flame he reels, taken aback by the heat.
Drake also has more opportunities to open fire in Uncharted 3. While making the treacherous jump from one wooden beam to another he is confronted by a pair of armed goons. Drake pulls himself up onto one of the supports, draws his weapon and takes down his enemies.
Perhaps the most welcome tweak to Uncharted gameplay comes in hand-to-hand combat. Drake's fisticuffs will take on the feel of a brawl. Justin Richman notes that Uncharted games have never delivered a bar fight – a staple in action-packed movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark. He promises that Uncharted 3 will be able to recreate a wild, cinematic fight scene leveraging the environment to add flavour to the encounter. If Drake finds himself pinned against a bar, he'll be able to pick up a bottle and use it to brain his opponent.
During the live demo we see a moment where Drake is set upon by two assailants. One grapples him from behind and the other pulls his gun. Drake leans back and kicks his legs forward, sending the armed man spilling backwards. In another tight spot he fools a gunman into shooting his ally.
While navigating the burning building, Drake sprints from cover to go mano-a-mano with an enemy. The camera moves in closer as Drake pummels the guy, who falls back and – in the only glitch witnessed during the smooth, cinematic demonstration – comes to rest on a small bit of cover, levitating impossibly in the air. Strangely the technical gaffe only serves to accentuate how flawlessly the rest of the demonstration has gone. A layman could easily mistake the balls-to-the-wall action in Uncharted 3 as canned.
The demo ends on a cliffhanger. Drake and Sully, after surviving the near collapse of the Chateau – by now a smouldering inferno – make one final leap of faith onto a ladder. They see sunlight – a possible way out of the deathtrap. But the entire wall they're on shakes and crumbles. The demo cuts to black, leaving us with a taste of the fast-paced action set-pieces we'll experience late next year when Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception ships for the PlayStation 3 – and leaving us in no doubt we'll want to be there again for the ride.