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Tech Analysis: Uncharted 2

DF humbled by Naughty Dog's coding power.

Flawed masterpiece it may well be, but Uncharted: Drake's Fortune remains one of the greatest games of this console generation. Even today, its technical prowess effortlessly outstrips the vast majority of games released on any next generation platform, but its superb appeal goes way beyond its expert utilisation of the PS3 architecture. Brilliant graphics, accomplished gameplay, interesting characters, excellent storyline... Naughty Dog's PS3 debut can be picked up for a song these days, and it's a game that deserves a retrospective purchase, if only to set you up for the magnificence to come. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves debuts in just a few weeks' time and already early reviews are hailing it a masterpiece. While the jury's still out on that until final release code is my hands, based on this week's demo release, I can well believe it.

This isn't the first time the Digital Foundry crew has taken a look at Naughty Dog's anticipated sequel. Our first taster of the game can in this single-player reveal, analysed by myself and DF contributor Alex Goh back in May. The generational leap in visuals over the first game was self-apparent but we had some issues in the form of mismatched textures, a couple of odd lighting effects and a "saw-tooth" edging to the shadows that looked pretty unattractive, taking the sheen off what was clearly an astonishing looking game.

The multiplayer demo released this week is truly something special. It's not often we say this, but every issue we had (along with many we didn't) appears to have been resolved. The level of polish in this demo code (presumably a subset of the full game, now that it has gone gold) is exemplary. It's this kind of work ethic and attention to detail that has made Uncharted 2: Among Thieves the most anticipated game of the year for Digital Foundry, so the chance to get our hands on the multiplayer demo opened up a range of opportunities for us in testing just how far Naughty Dog has come.

So what does the demo have to offer? The two competitive multiplayer maps from the original beta have been retained, joined by two more along with a comprehensive range of new playlist opportunities. The same co-op level (in itself based on the initial single-player reveal) is back, but this time even more refined.

Co-op gameplay from the new Uncharted 2 demo. The additional human element gives the formula a massive shot in the arm.

Uncharted was always a co-op style game, even in its original single-player guise. The inclusion of characters like Sully and Elena made sure of that. However, the co-op mode in the sequel, builds upon the great work in the original game, and the ability for three human players to get involved works brilliantly. The interaction between the characters is great too: check out the cheeky smack on the arse Chloe gives Nate during one of the co-op assist scenes.

It's here that we see the many changes made to the Nepal level since that first GDC reveal. Shadowing and motion blur have seen big, big improvements. HDR effects appear to be in. Lighting looks superb too. Take a look at the beginning of the co-op video, where Drake passes through a shadow – there's no simple flip between light and dark on the character, the effect is graduated as he passes in and out of the light. Just as it should be... Just as it isn't on a great many console games with rudimentary shadow models.

The screen space ambient occlusion effect (SSAO) is clearly in evidence and while most implementations on console are accompanied by some artifacting, it's very minimal in Naughty Dog's implementation. Character animation also appears to be hugely improved over the first Uncharted outing.

This is clearly Naughty Dog coming into its own on the PlayStation 3 hardware. In terms of the gameplay, there's little we can take issue with, and more than that, the competitive multiplayer modes are excellent too.

There are many different gameplay variations in the competitive multiplayer modes. Naughty Dog has even included CoD-style 'perks' too in addition to unlockable player skins.

As you can see in the videos, regardless of the load put on the engine, Uncharted 2 rarely misses a beat. Multiplayer maps usually stress the game engine more than the single-player equivalents, but in tests it appears that the competitive modes run marginally smoother than the co-op map (itself derived from the solo gamer mode).

Perhaps one of the coolest elements of the demo is the inclusion of the full game's Cinema Mode. Uncharted 2 records your multiplayer games automatically and dumps the data onto your hard disk. Every single happening, every single twitch of the controller, from every player: it's all there, and you have total control over replaying every single aspect of the gameplay. Here is where things start to get seriously impressive - not only can you switch from player to player at will, but you can also invoke a free camera. In terms of getting an overall view of the battlefield, nothing can touch it.