|February 3, 2009 - Naughty Dog is a filthy tease. Yesterday, the folks behind the company met with a plethora of videogame journalists, went over the story and details of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and even played through a level set in a bombed out section of Nepal. Yeah, the gameplay looked awesome and the graphics were somehow better than the crisp stuff we saw in Drake's Fortune, but when all that was said and done, Naughty Dog kept talking -- about the possibility of a helicopter shooting out the foundation of a building and Nathan having to navigate his way out of the crumbling structure while the enemies around him try and do the same thing; about fighting on top of a train as it curves and careens through the environment and Nathan having to adjust his balance and shots accordingly; about picking to either run through the train cars or shimmy along the roof. The developers talked about these OMG moments, but they didn't show them.
Naughty Dog gives you a taste and leaves you hurting for more. It's criminal.
Uncharted 2 is going to drop Nathan into a quest to find Marco Polo's fortune. See, after spending about 20 years in the court of Kublai Khan, Marco Polo headed home with 14 ships, more than 600 people, and more treasure than you could shake a stick at. When Polo docked 18 months later, he had one ship and 18 passengers. The explorer, who many accused of telling ridiculous stories, would never speak of what happened during his journey. When Marco Polo was on his deathbed, his relatives begged him to recant his tales so he'd get into heaven, but Polo replied "I didn't tell half of what I saw."
Eerie story, mountains of loot, and a historical mystery? Sounds like a quest for one Nathan Drake. Set about two years after Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Among Thieves finds our hero down on his luck and running with the looters and pirates on the seedier side of life. Naughty Dog has been tightlipped about what exactly is happening in Drake's world, but we do know that Chloe Frazer is a major part of it. Described as a reckless and brash Australian explorer, Chloe and Drake have had a previous "relationship" and quickly find common ground with the Marco Polo case. Somehow, the duo finds out that Marco Polo had set out on a secret expedition to Shambhala -- also known as Shangri-La -- to find the Cintamani Stone, a massive sapphire that's the Buddhist Holy Grail and would be worth billions today. Of course, a paramilitary leader who just so happens to be a war criminal is out to find the stone as well, and his private army is going to stop Drake and Chloe however it can.
With that, the adventure is on and said to take Chloe and Nate from snowy mountain tops to cities packed with temples to murky swamps and beyond. My demo picked up with our girl and boy split up. They had known that the next clue in their journey to Shangri-La was in a temple in a Nepal, but that village was in the midst of a war. See, the bad guys knew the next clue was here as well, but rather than use their noggins to figure out which temple held the prize, they just rolled in and began ransacking the place. This got the locals in a tizzy, and the militia is now on the scene fighting the machinegun-packing masses at every turn. Chloe and Drake tried to sneak in via a Jeep and by dressing Nate as a reporter, but the bad guys saw through that pretty quickly, chased the vehicle through the city in their own armored vehicle, and fired a nasty turret whenever they got the chance. Navigating down a tight alley, Nate lost the foes but also ditched his ride. On foot and huddled behind a half wall of what used to be the interior of a building, the actual gameplay began.
Pressed up against that wall, Nate tried to eye a group of paramilitary personnel that was slowly walking a destroyed street -- there was rubble everywhere, household objects littered the street, the buildings were smashed and smoldering. Suddenly, a bus careened onto the scene in an attempt to take out some of the bad guys, but it only succeeded in crashing and blocking the road. With the bad guys distracted by the bus, Drake ran into the street, picked up some ammo with Triangle, and baseball slid into cover behind an oven that was packed in with some other junk in the street. From there, Drake popped out, grabbed a straggler, and broke his neck.
Two is the magic number.
Giving players a choice in Uncharted 2 is something Naughty Dog drove home during its presentation, and the choice between stealth and straight-up combat is at the forefront of that philosophy. Whereas you could sneak in a few sleeper hold attacks in the original game, that line of offense usually meant you were spotted by the nearly omniscient cast of pirates. In Among Thieves, Naughty Dog is giving you the tools to get your Solid Snake on and silently take down the bad guys if you wish. If enemies haven't spotted Drake, he's going to move differently than if they had seen him. He's going to slink along walls, carefully peek over cover, and move silently. At one point, Nate leapt from one floor of a building to the ledge of the next. There was an enemy standing guard on the rooftop Drake was hanging from, but the foe had his back turned when Nate made the leap of faith, so the jerkwad didn't know our hero was there until the bad guy walked towards the ledge, Nate grabbed the guy 'round his belt, and threw the guard to the pavement below for the instant knockout and/or death.
Like I said though, being quiet is just one half of the equation. After running from the oven to silently killing the straggler, Nate whipped out his gun and started a traditional Uncharted firefight complete with cover, crosshairs, and headshots. With the bullets flying, I did notice one small but welcome change. While the HUD is pretty much the same as the first game -- a tan rectangle featuring a picture of your gun and how many bullets you have left -- there is now a column of grenade slots on the left of the image so that you can easily see how many handheld explosives you're packing.
With the small squad out of the way, Drake advanced on the beached bus, but as he got close to it, the vehicle exploded and knocked the lead on his ass. Now, although the explosion was something of a movie (i.e. you couldn't run from the blast) it there was no loading or noticeable dip when the action stopped and the scripted event took over. It was seamless.
With that point of entry to the city cut off, Nate said "When in doubt, climb." Drake moved to a telephone pole, shimmied up the wood, leapt to some bricks on a building, grabbed onto a sign, and basically took all of his jungle antics into a cityscape. Naughty Dog's emphasis on player choice is parlaying into this climb/run mechanic as well. Nate's going to have more to climb in Uncharted 2, so it's up to you how or if you want to use it. Of course, some of these grab-able spots are old and crappy, so expect air conditioners to begin to fall off walls when you hang on them and signs to collapse under your weight if you hang out too long. Another interesting angle to this newfound ability to climb just about anywhere is that you can now fight from any position you find yourself in. If Nathan's clutching onto a thing of bricks, he can shoot from it, and if he's dangling from a sign, he can shoot from it -- Naughty Dog's calling it "traversal gunplay," and it seems pretty cool.
But, as a full-blown Uncharted nerd, the things I dug the most about the Naughty Dog demo were the little touches. When Drake made a big old leap from rooftop to rooftop, he flung his arms backwards and kicked out his legs as he flew. When this is happening, it's easy to see the new animation for his kicking feet and moving hands. When he was looking down a street, it was easy to see the detail of the marketplace at the end of the road. When Nate gets into a hand-to-hand scuffle, it's easy to see that he's now a badass.
In Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, I didn't use the melee attacks all that much on my first playthrough because I didn't find them super-effective. Sure, they killed the bad guys, but they usually took some time and left Drake open to attack. In Uncharted 2, that doesn't seem to be the case. After all the ledges and jumping, Nathan fell into another group of baddies. This time, one of them came at Drake with a riot shield. Our hero shot the top of the shield so that it would lean back at just a bit of an angle, ran up the makeshift ramp, and dropped behind the bad guy before breaking his neck. Nate then picked up the shield and used it for his own transportable cover.
This mix of shooting and melee carried on as Drake made his way through the town and eventually to an alleyway. Suddenly, the original enemy vehicle sped in to block the path and take out Drake with the turret. After Nate shot it out with the few army men who popped up around the vehicle, a rocket flew in from behind Drake and took out the enemies. Chloe was on the scene and taking names.
Now, Naughty Dog kept saying that Nate and Chloe had a "relationship" and "history," but no one ever expanded on the details. After the explosion, a cutscene began where Chloe jumped from her shooting point onto Nate's frame and wrapped her legs around him.
"Is that an ancient Tibetan ritual dagger in your pocket," she says all sexy-like.
"Well, maybe I'm just happy to see you," Nate replies.
Of course, it is the dagger. The knife has a symbol on it that Nate figures will lead them to the next clue in the temple that shares the same symbol. Upon explaining this to Chloe, she responds that they should go to a hotel she knows.
"Chloe, this is not the time," with a sly smile.
Sure, she explains that she only wants to go to the hotel because it's high up and has a great view of all the temples, but it's pretty clear that at one point Nate and Chloe were getting it on and that they might be getting it on again in this game. This of course leads to the question of what the hell happened to Elena, Drake's girl from the first game. Over in my interview with Naughty Dog, you can read Naughty Dog Co-President Evan Wells and Creative Director Amy Hennig dance around what's happening with the original love interest, but the most interesting piece of this "Where is she?" puzzle came when Naughty Dog played Claudia Black's screen test for the part of Chloe. In it, Nathan and Chloe strike up a conversation right after someone leaves the room -- although Hennig was quick to point out that we shouldn't draw conclusions from this clip and that the script's gone through many changes since this was filmed.
"She broke your heart," Chloe says trying to figure out the relationship.
"Maybe I broke hers," Nathan responds.
From there, the conversation goes on about finding the Marco Polo treasure, but an argument soon breaks out over letting "them" come along on the expedition. Nate wants "them" to come, while Chloe wants nothing to do with "them." Could these people only referred to in pronouns be Sully and Elena? Is Chloe a happy homewrecker? Where did Nate's relationship go south? Naughty Dog isn't saying, so we're left waiting.
Luckily, there's a lot more to talk about when it comes to this sequel. Greg Edmonson, the composer of the first game, is back to provide the score; Nate's going to have a handful of different outfits that'll pertain to his different environments; and you don't have to worry about tank top-wearing pirates eating an entire clip of bullets before they die. During the presentation, Naughty Dog broke the soldier enemies into three categories -- mostly light, mostly dark, and mostly badass. The characters in the lighter uniforms are going to go down from a few shots, but the characters in full-on armor and helmets are going to take a licking. On top of all that, Wells said that Naughty Dog listened to fans and lengthened this installment of Nathan Drake's adventures.
"It will be bigger and better than the first game," Wells said.
Sounds good, but now we have to wait.
|Released as a PlayStation 3 exclusive in late 2007, the original Uncharted had a lot to like. From a gameplay perspective, it played like a cross between Tomb Raider's acrobatic platforming and the cover-based gun combat that you'd find in a third-person shooter in the Gears of War mold. Its treasure-hunting storyline was propelled by a cast of likable and charming characters led by protagonist Nathan Drake, and the whole package was tied together with a tremendous level of cinematic detail. Fortunately, this proved to be an example of great work paying off, because Uncharted was able to win over the hearts and minds of the buying public enough to warrant the development of a sequel. And so it was yesterday that we paid a visit to Naughty Dog's Santa Monica studio to get our first look at the upcoming Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
On the surface, it may look to the pessimistic observer as if Nathan Drake has been plucked from one exotic locale and dropped right into another. On some levels, this is true: Uncharted 2 will trade in the lush jungles of the original game for snowy Himalayan cliffs and dense Nepalese cities. But its story and setting represent a different look at the game's main character, Nathan Drake. Uncharted portrayed Drake as a lighthearted, quick-witted treasure seeker who had a knack for getting in trouble but always meant well. Uncharted 2 will explore some of those personal faults in deeper detail by throwing Drake into some nastier situations that will tempt his desire for uncovering riches with more on the line.
Welcome to Nepal! Probably not your ideal tourist destination.
What's brought Drake to this corner of the globe is a forgotten chapter in the history of Marco Polo. Like the history-inspired tale of Sir Francis Drake from the first game, Uncharted 2 uses historical occurrences as a launching point for its own fiction. Marco Polo was known for thoroughly detailing his exploits abroad, but there's one incident that he never explained: the mysterious disappearances of more than a dozen ships loaded with treasure en route back from China in 1292. Naturally, our hero Nathan Drake is out to capitalize on this historical black hole.
Joining Drake in this quest for riches is a new female lead, Chloe Frazer. Her personality will be a marked departure from Elena, her counterpart from the original. Whereas Drake's relationship with Elena took on a subtle, will-they-or-won't-they form, Chloe is a much more forward love interest. She gets her hands dirty in the same circle of lawless smugglers and criminals that Drake does, so their relationship is one that will reveal some new sides of his personality. Naughty Dog tells us that a larger cast of characters will also be present to expand the story beyond the tightly knit trio of Drake, Elena, and Sully that we had in the original.
But for as much as Uncharted 2 will be a story-driven experience, we're still talking about a video game. And in that regard, the brief demo that we witnessed didn't disappoint. The chapter of the game that we saw was taken from the Nepal section, in which Drake has to fight his way through a dense mess of urban rubble engulfed in civil war. He begins by taking cover behind a small ledge as a bus careens into view, buzzes a few armed soldiers, and crashes into a distant building. Drake uses this as a distraction to hop out, pick up an assault rifle, slide into cover, and take them out from behind.
Nathan Drake will be joined by the Australian beauty Chloe Frazer.
With this immediate threat taken care of, the focus shifts toward Drake exploring this war zone to make his scheduled rendezvous with Chloe. If you venture too far in the wrong direction, the game will kindly let you know that you're going the wrong way with a cinematic bus explosion. Looking around a bit further reveals a collection of street poles, building signs, and balconies that stand out like beacons among the scattered bricks and chunks of concrete. The level of cinematic detail present throughout the game doesn't take any time off here: Signs bend under Drake's weight, balconies dip when he vaults onto them, and the general level of destruction and dilapidation is clearly evident as Drake platforms around the city.
It's in this platforming that Naughty Dog has made some of the biggest improvements to the gameplay. The climbing and shooting sections felt very distant from one another in the first game, like two halves of a whole that never quite met. This time around, those two elements will be fused with your ability to take arms at any moment--whether behind cover, climbing up the side of a building, or anywhere in between. If you're on a ledge underneath a rooftop guard, you can quickly peer up, pop him in the head, and continue on your merry way. But the opposite is also true: If you're sidling along a tall ledge and you see a guard below, you can take him out from on high without breaking your platforming momentum. It all looks very fluid, with terrific animations that manage to surpass the quality visuals that the first game boasted.
A glimpse at one of the snowy environments you'll later encounter.
A moment later, Drake was back on the ground and ready to approach a group of soldiers mulling around for what was sure to be a large firefight. But if you're careful, you can tip the odds in your favor by using stealth tactics against the first handful of soldiers. The ability to take on enemies via less aggressive means is a big focus for Naughty Dog, and that was evident in this demo. Drake managed to sneak up on the first few guards and quietly take them out before a watchful soldier caught him in his peripheral vision, giving you the choice of either scampering up a building and letting them chase you up (a new AI behavior) or just taking them on full-steam ahead.
The Naughty Dog employee in charge of the demo chose the latter option. The core of the combat remains the same, which is cover-based gunplay that rewards patience and quick timing. However, the way in which you'll be taking cover seems to have been expanded. During this brief firefight, we noticed a couple of interesting moments. At one point, Drake kicked over a table to gain better protection, and shortly afterward stole a riot shield from a hapless enemy to function as both mobile cover and a brutal melee weapon.
The demo then ended with a cutscene that showed Drake and Chloe meeting up, exchanging some witty dialogue, and deciding where to head off to next. The two voices seem like a nice pairing, and Naughty Dog went so far as to show us footage of the two voice actors interacting in person from an audition tape, just to make sure they had the right chemistry. That level of near obsessive-compulsion to make sure the presentation remains consistently slick was fairly evident in everything we saw: The animations, lighting, and every sound effect, right down to ricocheting bullets, was thoroughly impressive. It's clear that the work done to craft the game's Naughty Dog Engine 2.0 ought to pay off. We're especially looking forward to seeing how that engine handles the snowy environments.
Platforming and gun combat will be more closely intertwined with the ability to shoot while climbing.
Altogether, if you were a fan of the original game, there's a lot to be excited about here. The only thing that has us the least bit worried is that the connection between the first game and this one, in terms of story, seems almost nonexistent. Members of the development team we talked to were coy about wanting the sequel to have the power to stand on its own, and they avoided any discussion on whether the first game's characters would be entirely cast to the side. Although that question will remain unanswered for the time being, everything else we've seen about Uncharted 2 looks really good. We'll have more on the game in the months leading up to its fall 2009 release.
We see Nathan Drake...shooting up bad guys in an urban combat zone? This, and six things you should know about Uncharted 2.
By Thierry Nguyen 02/03/2009
If you has asked me what I'd expect to see in a demo for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, I might have said, "Probably a lot of Nathan Drake jumping and climbing rocks and trees, or ducking behind a log to shoot some guys." What I do not expect to see is Nathan Drake making his way through a city that looks like Black Hawk Down's Mogadishu combined with Uncharted: Drake's Fortune's splendid color palette. I'm used to Nathan ducking behind fallen pillars, or jumping across precipices -- but not seeing him unload a shotgun from behind a car onto some military dudes, or scrambling up an array of street signs or bombed-out apartment buildings. With that in mind, here're some of the other highlights that stood out during a hands-off presentation for Uncharted 2.
No. 1 -- The MacGuffin is Marco Polo.
Normally, a plot device isn't the most significant aspect of a game, but in Uncharted 2's case, it has a sort of trickle-down effect. Creative director Amy Hennig outlines the story by describing how Marco Polo left China with 14 ships and 600 passengers, and arrived back home with only 1 ship and 18 survivors. So in the same fashion that searching for Sir Francis Drake's body results in the finding of El Dorado, Nathan Drake's journey to find Marco Polo's lost fleet quickly becomes the search for Shambhala (the olde time way to say "Shangri-La") and the Cintamani Stone (a really fancy sapphire) hidden within. Oh, by the way, there's some heavy opposition -- Hennig describes the villain as a "ruthless, rogue paramilitary leader with a private army and relentless ambition."
How that directly affects your moment-to-moment experience is that the plot now allows for a refreshing change for both the enemies and the settings. Co-lead designer Neil Druckmann comments that the bad guys aren't just "pirates wearing t-shirts." During the gameplay demonstration, Nathan encounters military fellows --some clad in full body armor. "You'll be able to instantly recognize the varying types of enemies, and know how to deal with them. It's not just guys in shirts absorbing twenty rounds from an assault rifle," quips Druckmann.
For the settings, the team wanted to step away from creating yet-another-luscious-jungle, and Marco Polo helps in that regard. Polo's travels through the Silk Road provides a logical, internally-consistent reason for Uncharted 2 to have Nathan scamper and shoot about in locations like a war-torn city in Nepal, a murky swamp (a.k.a. the ugly cousin to the previous game's lush jungles), or a train zipping through the Himalayas. The plot context for the Nepalese city that was used for the presentation is that Nathan (and his opponent) are searching for a specific temple that is hidden somewhere within a city undergoing civil war, so not only will he jump and climb around an urban environment, but he'll have to contend with both invading, and rebelling, soldiers.
No. 2 -- Nathan Drake is now "dark", but don't be angry yet!
One interesting detail that Hennig discussed in her presentation is Nathan's "dark past." The first Uncharted only displayed hints of said past -- mostly in how Nathan talks with his buddy Sully, or his nonchalant manner in taking on assault rifle-toting pirates. There wasn't much room to explore how seedy contemporary treasure hunting is during the previous game. But with Uncharted 2, both the locales and the characters that Nathan deals with will show more of what kind of character Nathan is.
Click the image above to check out all Uncharted 2: Among Thieves screens.
Hennig re-affirms, "In this game, we wanted to see what it means to be a treasure hunter in the modern world. This isn't a retro story or period piece. What does it mean to be one, and who do you interact with? You're talking about a pretty black-market underworld of people who smuggle and steal things and break the law a lot. That's the world you operate in, and that's much more interesting a world to explore from the start than setting off in a more traditional manner."
Upon receiving questions about this "dark past", Hennig quickly notes, "[While] the idea of a sequel that goes darker is immediately pejorative, that's not at all what we're doing. We want to show that Nathan has more colors to him, and is a more interesting, complex, and contradictory character than what we introduced in the first game -- we only got a little bit of that color in the beginning, and then we were on the rollercoaster ride of adventure. We saw a little bit of potential dickishness in him, occasionally, but that's not 'darkness', it's just that he's a real guy, a flawed, fallible guy." Hennig concludes, "It seems to be happening across most media; look at The Dark Knight and Casino Royale, and note the tendency to take tried-and-true ideas of genre and make them contemporary. That's what we're trying to do, but not in some sort of emo way."
No. 3 -- Chloe Frazer is not Elena.
Speaking of illustrating Nathan's character and the contemporary world of treasure hunting, that's how the new character, Chloe Frazer, steps in. She's not just Elena with a different hair color though; during the demonstration, her mannerisms and word choice are more like Nathan's, in fact. "She reflects a different aspect of Nathan that we haven't seen before," comments Hennig. Hennig elaborates, "She's his equal in every way, if not exceeding him in a lot of ways. But she's more impulsive and reckless than Nathan, which makes her exciting, unpredictable, and even more dangerous than he is."
Case in point: the first time we (as in the media at this Uncharted 2 presentation) see Chloe is when she uses a rocket launcher to blow up a car full of military dudes. A far cry from Elena, who's never really handled a pistol before.
Click the image above to check out all Uncharted 2: Among Thieves screens.
No. 4 -- The new buzzword is "traversal combat."
In terms the moment-to-moment gameplay, this perhaps the most significant change in Uncharted 2. Simply put: Nathan can defend himself at all times. Game director Bruce Straley comments, "'Cover-based' isn't 'ground-based', 'cover-based' is ledge-based -- it's sign-based. It's while I'm traversing and if an enemy comes out while I'm brachiating across, I want to be able to defend myself. It's knowing that when an enemy pops out, I'm not going to be completely defenseless-- I can pull my gun out and shoot him." Co-lead designer Richard Lemarchand quips how cool it is to have a Nathan hanging from a sign, and then be able to aim downward and pull off some headshots.
Straley points out that due to this new system, practically any surface that Nathan can either grab onto or sidle up against, is considered fireable cover. At times, he can even make his own cover (a few times during the demonstration, Nathan flips over tables or other large detritus to instantly make a cover point). The ultimate goal of "traversal combat" is to give players lots of options for combat, and not feel locked into a repetitive cover-combat grind. Which also leads to the next point:
No. 5 -- The stealth system is "action stealth", not "slow stealth."
This is another feature born out of Straley's desire to give players more options. But he doesn't want to turn Uncharted into a game of sneaking around tediously, or constantly monitoring light/sound/stealth meters, or failing when the baddies find you. "It's [just] another tool in the toolbox; if you want to go in guns blazing, have at it. If you want to go around the environment, get familiar with the layout, and figure out a new tactic to take them down quietly, then go for it."
Click the image above to check out all Uncharted 2: Among Thieves screens.
The "action stealth" as a system looks pretty subtle. It doesn't use any sort of HUD or "stealth mode" toggle, it's more of a gut-feeling kind of thing. If the enemies aren't aware of Nathan's presence, it's as simple as he crouches lower and moves a bit more cautiously. During the demonstration, Nathan quietly shimmies across a ledge to line himself up below some hapless guard, and quickly jumps up to grab said guard and pull him over the edge, resulting in a quick (and undetected) kill. Or a simple case of managing to make his way behind another guard unawares, and quickly grabbing him to quietly snap his neck. Another subtle change I notice during these stealth kills are that the baddies drop maximum ammunition and grenade drops -- generally making stealth kills a guaranteed profit when it comes time to managing your ammunition. No 6. -- It's an even more cinematic experience.
While there are a lot of changes and improvements to Uncharted 2, it still maintains that cinematic feel, which is one of the touchstones that Naughty Dog is going for. The dialogue between Nathan and Chloe still has that fast-paced, romantic/screwball comedy sense of timing. The technology has been beefed up to make it just look better overall; I don't understand all the talk of shaders and other gobbledygook when co-president and technology lead Christophe Balestra describes the new features of Naughty Dog Engine 2.0. But what I do understand is seeing just how good the snow looks, or seeing the colors pop off the screen during Nathan's gunfight in Nepal, or seeing the sun's rays refract when Nathan looks up at a helicopter. Wells displayed the original trailer from the Spike VGA Awards, but in real-time, to prove that the trailer isn't a typical "bullshot" one -- it does look that good running in person. Uncharted was already a pretty damn good game, and these changes, even though they were seen and not played, are already making Uncharted 2 look like another grand adventure.