One day some brave developer is going to include a competitive multiplayer element in its game without using the word "Deathmatch". While running around and shooting strangers may be fun (in a strictly virtual sense, right kids?) it's a gaming trope that has long since slid into hopeless cliché. The margarita pizza of online gaming, it's something you consume almost without thinking - we multiplay, therefore we deathmatch.
Deathmatch is certainly the least interesting part of the multiplayer side of the sublime Uncharted 2, Naughty Dog's triumphant restoration of the unfashionable action-adventure genre, but look beyond the obvious and the obligatory and there's a subtle, occasionally brilliant side dish of internet gaming to be found. As promised in our justifiably lascivious review, consider this a longer look at how the online side of the game fares, especially now that Modern Warfare 2 has stomped all over the internet and lured the fair-weather multiplayer contingent away.
Many of the criticisms are sadly the same as those raised during the multiplayer beta back in June. Certainly where competitive online play is concerned, there's no getting away from the fact that this is a single-player game engine forced to pull double duty. Though they're superficially similar, the difference between great solo play and great multiplayer is significant enough, and what made Among Thieves so compelling by yourself can count against it when your foes are fellow human beings.
Turning speed, climbing and melee combat are all areas that feel sluggish when removed from the linear, scripted confines of Nathan Drake's latest adventure. Our hero's acrobatic exploration may have been boiled down to single button presses, but even that's too much when multiplayer demands faster, more instinctive play. Pressing X to mount a ladder, then X again to dismount at the top, is one button press too many when a human sniper has you in their sights. The same goes for the sometimes-fussy active area surrounding new weapons or ammo. AI enemies can give you enough breathing room to find the exact spot to swap an AK-47 for a shotgun. Rank-hungry players are less forgiving.
It doesn't help that too many of the competitive modes feel perfunctory - tried-and-tested game modes with different titles but few fresh ideas. Plunder is Capture the Flag, Turf War is a zone-based capture mode, while King of the Hill is self-explanatory. The six maps, drawn from the main game and expanded into sprawling arenas, are filled with choices but none have that defining stroke of design genius that sets them apart. In the grand scheme of third-person multiplayer, it's enough to meet genre expectations but in a game that slyly reinvents so many single-player clichés, that never feels like enough.
Elimination is perhaps the most immediately satisfying of the competitive modes, boiling the appeal down to its barest essentials. Two teams, no respawns, last man standing wins. There's an aggressive simplicity to it that compensates for the lack of innovation, though it can also highlight the game's less-than-convincing attempts at balance. During one memorably punishing Elimination game, the enemy team was made up of players ranked at 38 and above, while we had four players ranked less than 10. It was, needless to say, an absolute slaughter.
The higher your rank, the more "booster" perks you have access to, as well as additional weaponry. All are purchased using money earned in the game, but since these desirable trinkets are unlocked in strictly linear fashion according to rank, you'll know immediately what benefits a lower-ranked player will have access to just by looking at the number next to their name. With higher-ranked players, the variety of options is far greater - including such treats as the ability to see through walls. You can counteract this using the Evasion booster, but that requires an even higher level. It's a decision that constantly tips the balance in favour of those who need it least, making the game pretty unfriendly to the n00bs.
So far, so typical: hyper-aggressive, n00b-baiting mayhem that really only becomes fun once you've poured enough hours in to earn the powerful toys. Where the multiplayer redeems itself is in the co-operative play. Most notably, it's here that the connection between the story and the online modes is felt most. Too much of the competitive play feels tied to Uncharted in only shallow surface details. The mechanisms are borrowed, but the character is missing.
At its most basic, the co-op mode offers up three mini adventures for three players. Each has checkpoints and objectives to meet, but skews towards gunplay and action, with ferocious pitched battles punctuating a quest for some sought-after treasure. Co-operation comes naturally, as Naughty Dog deploys all the signposting tricks from the single-player to ensure that players know instinctively what everyone should be doing. If one character gets to clamber up a tower, the other two provide cover. Once the climber reaches the top, there's a cache of sniper weapons so they can pick off enemy shooters while their teammates make the ascent.
The obvious comparison is Left 4 Dead, since the game is essentially supplying you with a vague scenario and a prescribed route to the end. The excitement is whatever happens to you and your friends along the way - last-minute revivals, bold heroics, desperate last resorts, all of which happen organically and are all the more satisfying for their player-driven narratives. Where it struggles is in the lack of maps - a fact which is sadly unlikely to change through DLC - and the scripted nature of each encounter. Once you've got the measure of a scenario, all that's left to do is to bump up the difficulty or keep grinding through the same firefights for easy cash.
That's not all for co-op though. Survival is a relentless gauntlet of spammed enemies, which thrills in short doses but quickly outstays its welcome. More entertaining is Gold Rush, a teamwork twist on Plunder in which three players swipe artifacts from swarms of AI soldiers. Again, the co-operative element comes naturally to the fore, with the player lugging the treasure reduced to one-handed pistol play and forced to rely on support from their companions to reach the drop-off point unscathed. You can throw the treasure, if you fancy trying to relay race to the score zone, or the other players can try to divert attention away from the carrier. There are limited depths here, and as the levels tick past the game becomes more and more unfair as it tries to break your winning streak. Eventually you're simply mobbed by grapple-happy armoured grunts and chaingun wielding super-soldiers, and all the teamwork in the world won't save you.
At the end of the beta phase, I said Uncharted 2's multiplayer was "inviting but flawed... 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". That's not far off what we've ended up with. The co-operative modes are more enjoyable than the brief beta glimpse suggested, but they also feel like a timid toe dipped into unfamiliar waters. Maybe with less time spent implementing bog-standard deathmatch features that fit awkwardly into the game, both thematically and mechanically, the promise inherent in these miniature jaunts into Nate's world would have been better realised.
It's still unlikely that anyone venturing into the online menu after completing the main story will feel too disappointed. Despite some clunkiness, Naughty Dog has at least augmented their glittering jewel with a multiplayer offering that expands the game's canvas in solid if perfunctory style. Here's hoping that Uncharted 3 builds on this foundation in the same way that Among Thieves turned the first game's agreeable adventure into something spectacular.