How does Naughty Dog one-up its game of the year award-winning Uncharted 2: Among Thieves? By creating a bigger, bolder, more human adventure for Nathan Drake (and fixing the problems maybe didn't think of as problems to begin with).
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, officially unveiled last week at the Spike TV Video Game Awards then demonstrated live on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, sends treasure hunting action hero Nathan Drake to the desert. Drake and his partner, Victor Sullivan (featured more prominently in the first Uncharted), will ultimately find themselves in Arabia's Rub' al-Khali desert, following the footsteps of T.E. Lawrence in search of their prize in the Atlantis of the Sands, alternatively known as the city of Ubar, Iram of the Pillars, and the City of Brass.
Deception's exploration of the Rub' al-Khali will feature "sand in all of its forms, drifting, blowing over the dunes, the displacement of sand, how it flows, sandstorms, mirages, heat haze - all that you would find in the desert," say its creators.
"Of course, we're not doing a whole game in the desert," says the game's director. "That's our ultimate destination."
Along the way, they'll face "a shadowy clandestine organisation and the occult treachery of its cunning and ruthless leader," according to Uncharted 3's official description, story details Naughty Dog did not touch upon during our demo.
During our eyes-on preview of Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception in Hollywood, we saw nothing of Drake and Sully's desert trekking adventures. Instead, we saw what leads up to those later-game events, learning what Naughty Dog wants to improve upon with the third Uncharted game for the PlayStation 3.
Priority one, according to the Santa Monica based developer, was to improve upon what Naughty Dog calls the Interactive Cinematic Experience.
"From the very beginning, our goal was really to embrace all the tropes and conventions of the adventure genre, so that we can faithfully capture the feeling of those classic action adventure movies that we all love, but as an interactive experience, with a contemporary hero," says Naughty Dog creative director Amy Hennig. "That's been the touchstone for every design decision we make."
Those improvements thread through the game's elements, from stunts to hand-to-hand combat to gun play to explosive set pieces, some of which we witnessed in a Naughty Dog-controlled demonstration. It teased a handful of Drake's new abilities in Uncharted 3, which include backwards climbing, brawl-style combat and contextual melee.
The improvements were often more humanizing, tweaks and touches to the way Nathan Drake behaves in the game world to further blur the line between virtual character and real-life action star.
Justin Richmond, Uncharted 3's game director, helped translate bullet point speak like "contextual melee" and "traversal of physics objects" for the group, explaining how they serve to improve the interactive cinematic experience.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves placed an important emphasis on improved "traversal gameplay" - essentially climbing on top of and over objects and architecture in a natural, flowing way, allowing Drake to shoot while climbing or perched upon a ledge. Uncharted 3 builds upon that base, letting Drake engage in gun play while climbing across balance beams or shimmying against walls.
Uncharted 3 also introduces the concepts of "environmental touch points" and "contextual melee". The former will make Drake's interactions with the world feel more tangible, as he'll, for example, touch a stair railing while running to steady himself or place his hands against a wall when running toward it to brake himself. The latter will address a missing action-adventure movie trope, Naughty Dog says. The "contextual melee" example Naughty Dog provided was one of a bar brawl. Should Drake be engaged in fisticuffs at a bar with, say, a liquor bottle nearby, he may grab it and smash it over an enemy's head.
Drake can also engage multiple enemies at once while slugging it out melee-style. There are specific animations for this scenario and in one scene from Naughty Dog's demo, Drake faced a pair of thugs with appropriate combat tactics, delivering punches to the front, elbows to the rear. After being grabbed from behind, Drake attacked the assailant he was facing with a double kick to the sternum, shaking off the other.
Another option for dealing with bad dudes is a leaping stealth takedown& - you may have seen this on Fallon - during which Nathan Drake can vault (stealthily or openly) onto his enemies from above, knocking them out.
And new to the Uncharted platforming arsenal is Drake's ability to climb on and traverse across physics objects. In the demo we were shown, Drake leaped from a rickety platform to a grand chandelier, which swung wildly when grabbed onto.
While new techniques and new methods for knocking thugs out cold are part of the fun, the cinematic experience isn't just about believable platforming and brawling in Uncharted 3. Naughty Dog showed off new visual tricks by throwing Drake and Sully into a burning building—an overgrown, dilapidated chateau in the forests of France - with smoke billowing, embers glowing and flames licking its ceilings.
The chateau, a "forgotten, ancient site that goes back to the Crusades," according to Richmond, wasn't burning to the ground when the demo started. Naughty Dog was careful to show the building being progressively consumed by fires set by enemies. As staircases collapsed and support beams toppled, the architecture of the chateau evolved, presenting new climbing challenges for Drake and Sully.
The changing structure of the world was akin to the twisting suspended train car of Uncharted 2, which fell apart as Drake scaled it, only this level transformed more dramatically, more organically.
Of course, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is not just a pretty technical demonstration of wall climbing, fist fights and great looking virtual flames - there's a layered story underpinning this thing. That fiction explores the relationship between Nathan Drake and Victor Sullivan, Nate's "lifelong friend, mentor and the closest thing to a father figure he's got," Hennig says.
"The bonds of this partnership are both explored and tested in Drake's Deception," Hennig adds, a sub-title that she says has "multiple layers of meaning." Expect a large cast of characters, friendly and not-so-friendly, in Uncharted 3.
Beyond that, Naughty Dog says it wants to compete "with the big boys" with Uncharted 3's multiplayer component, with cooperative and competitive modes returning in Drake's Deception. The developer didn't share specifics on multiplayer options, only promising it would "blow it out" for Drake's third outing.
We'll have more from out preview of Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception in the coming weeks. The PlayStation 3 is currently dated for November 1, 2011.