Once upon a time, the beta stage of software development was kept firmly behind the velvet curtain of industry secrecy. Then some cunning soul realised you could get the customers to help test the game, and build some early marketing buzz at the same time. Now it seems like no multiplayer game with any sort of profile can make it through development without throwing beta keys around like candy.
The downside to this welcoming gesture is that it can build expectations a little too high, turning something into an event that would otherwise pass without comment until review time comes around. So it is for Uncharted 2, still several months from release, but already sharing a slice of its multiplayer component.
This isn't to say that Uncharted's dip into online waters is a bad idea, just that the result seems to be the sort of multiplayer experience that might extend your entertainment for another week or so, but nothing to make you gasp in astonishment.
The beta seems to be the exact demo build that we reported on back in April, boasting the same bite-sized chunks of both competitive and co-operative play, with two maps and modes for competitive, and one truncated co-op chapter. All benefit from Naughty Dog's fondness for cinematic polish and top-notch presentation, but there are still some quirks to be ironed out, mostly to do with balance and the transition from single-player action-adventure to multiplayer mayhem.
For those who just want traditional communal slaughter, we have Team Deathmatch and Plunder. Both feature teams of five - heroes and villains, drawn from the game's smallish cast - pitted against each other, either in the nocturnal ruins of The Plaza or the rain-sodden Village. There are few surprises in the modes themselves, with Plunder being a repainted Capture The Flag mode where the most notable change is the chance to throw the stolen treasure - either to a teammate or into the scoring zone.
Other than that admittedly clever twist, there's nothing in the competitive play that won't already be familiar from Gears of War, Metal Gear Online or most other third-person multiplayer bouts. Perks, or "boosters", are available to increase your accuracy with certain weapons, and improve your ammo capacity, but it remains to be seen which ones will be available to all at the start, and how many will be added to those who rank up.
The two maps are small but varied, and cram a lot of tactical opportunities into a compact space. Ground level rat-runs cross into deadly open spaces, with plenty of interiors and elevated areas for those who like to play a stalking game. There's limited use of Uncharted's acrobatic platforming mechanic, but the ability to scramble and clamber certainly loosens up the gameplay, at least initially. Neither map is exactly awash with vertical options though, with ladders and handholds generally leading to a small sniper-friendly rooftop but not much else. For these two maps, at least, it's very much a two-storey world.
When last we saw the game, Naughty Dog was insistent that the ability to shoot, even when climbing or dangling, would be a point of difference, and provide a thematic bridge to the environmental traversing of the solo game, but nobody seems to be making use of this feature at the moment. When the bullets are flying, the game simply moves too fast, and is too unforgiving, for such showboating.
Spawning feels clumsy at the moment, several times dropping me back into action next to a grenade or right in the path of an enemy bullet, resulting in instant death. On The Village in particular it seems that several players have already ranked up to level 50, having worked out the optimal circuit to take around the map, hitting spawn points along the way and mopping up n00bs as they go. Grenade-spamming is also a common sight and, while the weapon-set is fairly well balanced, there's a pervasive sense that unless things are tightened up in general, the game could become a closed shop of professional exploiters.
Such is the risk of any multiplayer venture, of course, and despite these concerns Uncharted seems on course to deliver an essentially fun entry in the genre, with a pick-up-and-play immediacy and just enough physics to sell the action. Grenades hurl victims through A-Team parabolic arcs, and cars explode into satisfying shrapnel when set ablaze. Aiming feels natural, accuracy feels reliable and everything is running - touchwood - at a smooth, lag-free pace. There are also moments where the gameworld acts against you, however, and we can only hope these frustrating quirks are on the list of things to smooth over between now and release.
Attaching to and breaking from cover feels a little sticky, and the decision to map the evasive roll to the same button leads to infuriating moments where your character will roll into open ground rather than snap to cover, or vice versa. The game has also inherited some outdated elements from its single-player sibling. Requiring players to press X to mount a ladder, and then X again to pull themselves up at the top, might be forgivable in a linear single-player adventure, but when flanked on all sides by human enemies such inconveniences can prove fatal. Elsewhere, the camera struggles with intimate actions, and close-quarters combat - so often the Achilles heel of any third-person multiplayer.
This is less of an issue in the co-operative mode, where a trio of human players run a gauntlet of enemy encounters and mild environmental puzzling to snag the treasure at the other end. This strikes a more agreeable balance between the thrill of interaction with real players, and the limitations of a game engine designed primarily for solo play.
Enemy troops are thrown at you from all sides, ensuring that teamwork is required to cover all angles of attack, and the pace is such that it's easy to create your own miniature action movie set-pieces. Downed teammates can be revived if you reach them in time, but the game only gives you three attempts should all three players die at the same time. At set points in the level, there are also moments where all the characters have to band together to get past some obstacle - bookcases making for popular ladders in this demo version - but the mechanism feels clunky, with characters lurching as they try to work around each other and button-prompts proving annoyingly elusive as a result.
Co-op also seems heavily scripted, with troops always appearing in the same numbers, at the same time, in the same places. Even from playing this small segment of the Nepal Warzone section four or five times, it feels clear that familiarity could quickly dull the appeal of co-operative play without some random element to keep experienced players on their toes. Ranks earned in co-op apply to competitive play as well, so there's a good chance some will decide to grind their way to higher levels by performing rote run-throughs of the co-op missions.
All told, on the strength of this beta build, this is shaping up to be an inviting but flawed multiplayer component; the sort of thing that you'll definitely want to spend time with once you've finished the single-player adventure, but unlikely to take on a life of its own and sustain the game for months past release in its current state. There's much to praise, but also much that needs work. The good news is that unlike certain other "beta trials" which take place days before the game is released, with a "Fall 2009" date promised, Naughty Dog still has plenty of time to add that extra spit and polish to its shiny treasure.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is due out exclusively for PlayStation 3 later this year.