Surprises don't come often in this job. Whether it's down to leaks, or rumours, or press cynicism, or PR plans that slow the flow of information from a trickle to a drip - or just the fact that so many games developers so reliably do what exactly you'd expect them to - it's rare to see a games journalist raise an eyebrow, never mind gasp in shock. So it was with great satisfaction that Naughty Dog stunned a room full of us, from all around the world, with its Uncharted 2 presentation in baking-hot Los Angeles last week.
"Inside the studio we have a strong sense of theatricality, I think that's part of what makes the games as enjoyable as they are," smiles co-lead designer Richard Lemarchand a little later, every inch the Englishman abroad with his summer blazer and tidy hair. "We couldn't resist the temptation..."
Like all good theatrical surprises, it started with a feint: a video showing Nathan Drake leaping and scrambling up and over the tin shacks of a Nepalese village, much like what's already been seen of the game. Then he reached a rooftop, and the camera panned down to reveal a gaggle of enemies... with red nicknames over their heads. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves has online multiplayer.
In brief: there are two five-on-five competitive modes that we know about (more to come, we're assured), plus co-op campaigns for three players that are separate from the single-player story, but revisit much of it in tweaked form. We played all these modes. There will also be a "cinema" replay mode that captures full matches with free camera control, and a stat-tracking website. The feature-set seems to ape Halo 3's - hardly a bad role-model.
Online multiplayer isn't a surprising feature in itself, of course, but we never expected it of Uncharted. Although it did have its fair share of gun battles, 2007's Drake's Fortune cast itself as the PS3's romantic lead, a dashing yarn of light-hearted, ledge-hanging high adventure in the Tomb Raider mould. It had puzzles, exploration, treasure hunts and platforming ("traversal" is what they're calling it now, apparently). It was the very model of a single-player action-adventure. It doesn't seem an obvious candidate for online multiplayer.
"It is obvious!" disagrees Naughty Dog's co-president Christophe Balestra, a serious-looking coder with a French accent and close-cropped hair. "Looking at Uncharted, the first one, Drake is never by himself, there's always somebody with him. And we felt that we had the game mechanics to do it. We have a great cover system, and while you're climbing on walls you can shoot enemies... We thought we could use the verticality of the levels and do something unique, something new."
"Unrestricted combat" is Naughty Dog's buzzword for Uncharted 2. "We're extremely excited about the unrestricted combat," says Lemarchand. "We did a couple of important things - first of all, we made it so that no matter what traversal mode Drake was in, he could still grab his gun and take aim. Immediately that means that we can create a combat set-up anywhere in the game. The other thing that's just been very important for the single-player and multiplayer experience is that we've allowed Drake and his allies and enemies to do all of their traversal moves on any moving object."
Basically, this means you can take aim with your weapon and fire from any pose and any vantage point - clinging to a ledge, a ladder, a pole. Conscious that Uncharted sometimes felt like two games tacked together, a shooter and a platformer - "It has its own rhythm, but to us they felt slightly separate," allows Lemarchand - Naughty Dog has sought to blur the lines and blend them completely. You can shoot while climbing; you climb to shoot.
The result, in competitive multiplayer, is an extremely athletic, free-roaming and opportunistic variant of the third-person cover shooter. The strict frontlines, back-alleys and choke points of standard map design don't really apply. You don't need to learn where all the sniping points are when you can shoot from halfway up a wall. You don't need to seek the long way round to sneak up on a rooftop menace when you can clamber up and pull him off the ledge. You don't need to jump around like a hyperactive child on a trampoline when you can dodge fire with elegant, motion-captured dives.