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.
You do, however, need to think a bit about where and when to do your shooting. You won't be circle-strafing too often in Uncharted 2; shooting from the hip while running full-pelt is very inaccurate, and movement while holding L1 to sight your gun is extremely slow. This serves to slow the pace and halt the flow a little, at least while you're still unused to the slightly different rhythm of Uncharted 2's deathmatch march. With all the clambering and cover, the controls are on the elaborate side for a multiplayer shooter, with lots of contextual variation; but they're predictable and well-tuned, and the animation is fantastic.
We played rounds of team deathmatch - a self-explanatory race to 25 kills - and Plunder, a capture-the-flag variant in which teams track down treasure artefacts and try to get them back to their respective safe points. The latter encourages closer teamwork, as the heavy statues slow down and disarm their bearers, and force them into the open somewhat. Teams are split into heroes and villains, the former a cast of scruffy, bare-headed adventurers including Drake himself, the latter a shadier bunch of black-clad goons.
The Nepalese village map is a dense tangle of muddy roads and dilapidated buildings, littered with cover opportunities and signs to hang off one-handed. Weapons are honest, sturdy firearms in the AK47 vein, plus grenades, and there's a simplified and weighty melee that offers an instant kill from behind. Initial impressions are very Gears of War, very Metal Gear Online, but that's not exactly fair - conditioned by years of manipulating stolid soldiers, most of us just weren't thinking in terms of Uncharted 2's freedom of movement.
If the competitive multiplayer presents fresh mechanics in a standard setting, Uncharted 2's co-op is a more unusual proposition all-round. Three's a crowd by most standards, and the scenarios on offer sit somewhere between the complete co-op campaign of Resident Evil 5, say, and the map-based challenges of Resistance 2. They are self-contained mini-adventures that rehash parts of the single-player game but have been remixed for co-op play, light on the platforming (sorry, traversal) and heavy on the frenetic combat - at least, in the example we played.
In a gritty, but slightly more urban Nepalese setting once more, Drake, Sully and new girl Chloe fight through tangled streets, cloistered courtyards and ruined launderettes. Enemies pour at them from all directions, encouraging more movement and improvisation, and less rehearsed cover-flank-advance tactics. There's scoring to keep you motivated.
Fallen comrades stay alive for a little while and can be revived on the spot if you get to them in time, otherwise they'll respawn at the last checkpoint. Some of the stealthier enemies creep up behind players and grab them in a chokehold - a team-mate will need a very carefully-aimed headshot or well-timed melee to save them. It's not all cloak-and-dagger by any stretch of the imagination though, as later in the level you're faced with hulking, armour-clad, minigun-touting brutes straight out of Army of Two.
In fact, you could call Uncharted 2's co-op Army of Three, and the comparison is by no means an insult. It's robust, rough-and-tumble, contained and exciting action, with some neat co-op mechanics, marred only by a couple of ugly checkpoints with spawn-camping AI. The moments that require player co-operation to progress - gathering at a set point to give each other boosts over a fence, for example - seem to be rather perfunctory pacing devices at the moment, but we're sure Naughty Dog can come up with some more imaginative uses for them.
Naughty Dog went this route with the co-op because it wasn't prepared to compromise the true single-player adventure that fans of the first Uncharted expect. "The thing is, when we started work on Uncharted 2, we developed the story for the single-player at the start and then we decided to do co-op," says Balestra. "You'll be able to play three big sections of the single-player with different set-ups, so the enemies aren't exactly the same, you might need your friends to progress through the level. We still wanted to not take any shortcuts in the story just to make it work for multiplayer or vice versa - we wanted to make the single-player as good as we can."
These co-op set-pieces will be tied together with cut-scenes to give them a narrative thrust. "We created a bunch of original content for the new sections in terms of the in-game cinematic moments that tie the experience together," says Lemarchand. "They're actually very cool. It's almost like little glimpses into a parallel universe where different combinations of characters are taking on sections of the single-player experience in a completely original way."
They can even be mixed and matched with other multiplayer modes and each other, he reveals. "In fact, we've devised a whole bunch of different playlists, schedules of different combinations of locations and game modes that players can choose, and then play experiences that work really well."
Though neither he nor Balestra will be drawn on the possibility of downloadable content (other than to say "we're definitely very enthused, of course"), Lemarchand does reveal that Naughty Dog intends to keep these playlists updated. "Because of the way that the technology's structured we can create new playlists on the fly that are small bits of data that propagate over the network without the need for any kind of intrusive download. That'll let us do special events," he says.
New to online multiplayer - the only social game it's ever made was racing spin-off Jak X - Naughty Dog has clearly been doing its homework. Playlists on rotation, a website boasting stats and leaderboards, a currency system across the multiplayer modes to give you a little persistent encouragement: Uncharted 2 has everything the modern multiplayer game could need or want, including the cinema replay mode, aimed at machinima enthusiasts as much as exultant teabaggers.
Every multiplayer game (deathmatch, anyway - "we're not sure yet" if it will be supported in co-op, says Balestra) will be recorded to your hard drive. It can be replayed from any player's point of view or from a free camera, and broadcast online to anyone in your party. Characters' lips will even by synced with voice chat, allowing virtual movie directors to act out scenes.
Naughty Dog has thought of everything. But has it really thought about why it's adding online multiplayer to Uncharted 2? Has it thought about whether all this boisterous skirmishing is the right thing for these characters, this setting, this style of game, and what it might do to Uncharted's already delicate balance of carefree adventure and strife? Some might cynically claim that Naughty Dog has added multiplayer just because it can, because everyone else does, because it's what the market expects.
Balestra is firm. "No, absolutely not. Not pressure from the market, it's something that we've been wanting to do. One thing I want to say is that we added more people to the team to do multiplayer. We don't want to have less levels or worse storytelling in single-player because we wanted to do multiplayer. It's going to be a great experience in single-player."
We'll have to take his word for it for now - and since Naughty Dog's high standards are a matter of record, that's easy enough to do. After Drake's Fortune, it's easy to have confidence in the quality of the solo adventure. After playing the game and talking to Balestra and Lemarchand, it's easy to believe they have an equal grasp of what it takes to make a multiplayer hit - and we won't have to wait long to know for sure. Uncharted 2 has a public multiplayer beta lined up for June, and anyone who picks up Sucker Punch's inFamous in the US gets automatic entry. The surprise won't last, but hopefully, the smiles will.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is due out exclusively for PS3 this autumn.