Naughty Dog are a collective development marvel. It’s somewhat fitting that their company logo is embezzled with that of a paw print, as Naughty Dog have, and continue to, leave their iconic print and their acclaimed creative stamp on every generation of Playstation to date.
Their credentials speak for themselves. In three eras of Playstation they’ve masterminded three of the most recognisable and beloved of original Playstation IP’s. In the 1990’s they gave us the apple guzzling box mashing marsupial Crash Bandicoot, with the dawn of Playstation 2 we were introduced to wise cracking platforming duo Jak & Daxter and now, with Uncharted, we get Nathan Drake, the PS3’s witty intrepid roguish treasure hunting poster boy, the stubble styled star of 2011’s biggest PS3 exclusive, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. With such an incredible lineage in tow, you’d almost forgive Naughty Dog if they had something of an ego to bare or a communal creative chip on their shoulders. But these guys are the very opposite. We sat with Richard Lemarchard, co-lead designer on Uncharted 3, over a couple of evenings in Dublin last week and if he’s anything to go by, Naughty Dog are probably the humblest developers you could ever meet.
Richard treated TGL and the assembled media through a short Uncharted themed briefing, one that began with an outline of the company that created Nathan Drake and ended with a live demo of an exclusive and as yet publicly unseen level from Uncharted 3. It’s worth nothing that Naughty Dog aren’t just interested in selling their game and pitching its possibilities, their interested in people and the people who make these games possible first and foremost. It starts with these people and ends with them too. Throughout his briefing, Richard reminds us that Uncharted 3 would be nothing without the people who work so tirelessly behind the scenes at Naughty Dog. They’re in every piece of rendered sand, every simple exchange of dialogue between characters and every hand over hand climbing sequence. Richard affectionately refers to his team as his ‘Naughty Dogs’ and it’s this dedication to acknowledging the work of his creative crew, coupled with obvious advances in technology that compliment their co-operative adventurous development spirit, that allows Uncharted to be as great as it. This collaborative juxtaposition of recognition and a willingness to push the technology really works and based on what he showed us last week; Uncharted 3 is on course to best its predecessor and reinforce Naughty Dog’s standing as probably the best developer working on Playstation 3.
The Uncharted 3 specific briefing opened with a quick replay of Uncharted 3’s Gamescom trailer accompanied by narration from Richard. “We really wanted to express emotion, without ever tearing the player away from the action,” he quipped, making reference to one of the stalwart trademarks of this franchise, that being, just how seamlessly everything in game is integrated and interconnected. There’s no elongated cut-scenes, no indulgent CG sequences; everything is effortless and you jump from story to gameplay to cut scene without ever being tempted to put your controller down. Uncharted has always been an exposed experienced for its protagonists. Everyone wears their hearts on their sleeves. But now that we know Drake, Elena, Sully and co, you can expect new levels of emotional confluence between the characters and the most importantly, the player. This is most obvious in the Gamescom trailer. Drake jumps over a gate and tells Elena to stay behind. They wear their weariness and their separation anxiety on their faces. A little touch of hands tells Elena that everything will be fine and Nathan makes his way towards the runway where a carrier jet is taking off. But not without Nathan. “We try to think of new ways to add detail and depth,” noted Richard using the example of Drake making a run for the runway while jumping over rooftops before landing in a seemingly insignificant luggage pile. Nathan could have easily just landed on the tarmac, but that would be too easy. Naughty Dog are always thinking about new ways to do not so new things. It’s creative recycling and it never feels like you’ve been cheated.
At this point, it’s worth noting just how beautiful the game looks, even in the twilight of this sequence. Huge calculated set-pieces are another trade mark of the Uncharted games, for example, the train/helicopter section in Among Thieves. This carrier jet is another one. Drake, ambushed by the hired henchmen of his enemy, makes a dart for the plane before Elena, in a neat little nod to the previous games, shows up in a jeep to save Drake’s bacon. She aids in latching Drake onto the exterior wheel of the jet before it takes off and recalls its wheels, Nathan and all.
“Lighting has always been significant and we have lots of new dynamic schemes in play in this sequence”. The man doesn’t lie. The next sequence is only a couple of seconds in length but the blood red lighting of the insular vent Drake suddenly finds himself in on board the plane is surely the best advert for how visually deep Uncharted 3 is. It’s beautiful. Really beautiful. Richard tells us that this sequence we are about to see is affectionately known in Naughty Dog HQ as “Drakes on a plane”. Brilliant!
Within seconds Drake is hauled out of the vent and finds himself brawling with a new enemy. Theres a new impetus on bare knuckle brawling in U3 and this is obvious in Drake’s mindless flailing limbs but somehow controlled swings, knees and lurches. The cargo bay opens and all of a sudden you’re inches from death. Drake climbs back into the jet and releases a strap on the assembled cargo that drags everything out of the back of the plane, enemy and all. Drake attempts to dodge the contents of the plane, now rolling out of the open cargo door, only to find himself dragged outside and clinging onto the cargo’s contents for dear life. The demo then ends. It’s a serious cliff-hanger.
These set pieces and huge sequences play a significant role in how the game is envisaged from the outset. “Those ideas for the big set pieces are often some of the first ideas that we come up with in the course of development. They do act like building blocks and stepping stones to help us find out the shape of the final game.” But this was only the beginning of Richard’s demo. With a Dual Shock in hand and a quick adjustment of the Playstation 3, we were treated to a live demonstration of Chapter 19 of the main game entitled ’Settlement’. This level has yet to be shown publically. It opens with Drake seemingly confused and frazzled, a victim of the overwhelming heat of his desert surrounds. Perched over a distant dune is the hazy outline of what seems like a small village or settlement. Drake quips that he hopes he’s not staring at a mirage and tediously takes to his feet and makes his way towards the horizon. It cuts into gameplay and the visuals here would leave you speechless. Even this deserted plain, this empty barren space with very little detail and very little context is simply mind-blowing. Richard ushers the camera around to reveal an agitated Drake scorched by the sun and struggling to stay standing straight. He grimaces forward, each step a staggered and opportunistic one. The animation here is wondrous. Drake wobbles and shuffle’s his feet forward, trudging his boots through the omnipresent sand. The environment is incredible. Sand is the new snow.
The demo then cuts to Drake close to the settlement. He angles his way down the edge of the last dune and finds himself at the front door. The settlement is dilapidated and seemingly abandoned. You can tell that Drake’s survival instincts have set in. He’s not trying to find a fight or a long lost treasure; he’s looking for a drink. He trudges through the layers of the settlement. As you pass through narrow corridors and open cloisters, you’ll inadvertently rub against walls, follow corners with your finger tips and fumble up staircases like a drunk making his way home after a night on the town. Richard makes Drake clamber down an empty well, only to find a small life saving source of water. After a quick sip, Drake is on the move again. But this time he has company. The next room reveals a small batch of burly enemy’s. Richard pops the neck of the first hoodlum, arms himself with a shotgun and starts to hold his own. It’s worth noting the environment here. We’re now in the dilapidated heart of the settlement. Pillars are broken, stones exposed and red timber faces frame the walls and head supports. As you get a shot away, stray bullets will make the surrounds crumble to the ground. Richard jumps straight into the action and shows us just how evolved the close quarters combat is this time out. It’s not as loose has it once was. It certainly looks a bit tighter but it’s hard to tell without actually picking up a controller yourself. Richard then ruins our fun and presses pause. No more Uncharted 3 for today.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception has it all, the looks, the personality, the emotion and all the excitement you would expect from a high octane action adventure game. But this isn’t just another action game; it’s a Naughty Dog action game. Based on what we’ve seen here, Uncharted 3 is on the cusp of doing the near impossible, out-doing Uncharted 2. That’s how good this is.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is available in Ireland on November 2nd