Adding competitive online multiplayer to the last Uncharted came as something of a surprise. The focus on the story of the adventures of Nathan Drake didn’t immediately bring to mind squads of players trying to shoot each other and developer Naughty Dog wound up spending a lot of time simply reassuring fans that doing online shooter modes would in no way diminish the effort put into the single-player game. Multiple Game of the Year awards for Uncharted 2 backed that claim up rather emphatically. With multiplayer now an expected part of the package, then, for Uncharted 3 the goal is nothing less than to be the top online shooter for the PS3.
As many well-crafted games have learned, it’s tough enough just to rise among the crowded field of hopefuls angling for the crown, much less make a serious bid to seize it. Uncharted 3 aims to get there on the strength of its core shooting experience, bolstered by two primary enhancements. The effort starts by trying to bring more of the feel of the single-player adventure into the multiplayer.
Both the levels I played showed how the designers plan to do this by incorporating the dynamic, cinematic elements more often thought of as reserved for solo play. The more restrained of the two used the burned out husk of the chateau seen engulfed in flames during the previous single-player demos of the game. Here it sat at the center of the map and part way into the match a portion of the upstairs floor gave way, changing the interior space.
The other map was far more dramatic. It started with one team on board a cargo plane rolling down the runway to take off. The other team is in trucks giving chase. The pursuers try to jump from truck and seize the plane with the goal being to be on board when it takes off. Flashy as these events sound, that's it; they're all show. Neither has any material effect on the outcome of the match. The change in layout of the chateau alters a few tactics inside the house but most of the fighting takes place on the grounds anyway. And in the cargo plane level, both teams wind up at an airfield where the bulk of the match takes place; it's just a matter of how they got there.
The decision not to make these events skew the outcome of the match reflects the attention being paid to finding the sweet spot that keeps online play fun without undermining the sense of competition. It's the combination of systems they've put in to achieve this that the developers feel gives Uncharted 3 its other advantage against the competition.
One of the more interesting tweaks is the addition of "power plays." These wildcards kick in when one team starts to open up a lead on the other. When they do, the trailing team gains a brief advantage to help them get back in the game. For instance, one of the ones I saw put the leading team into elimination mode for a brief time, during which they didn't respawn. Other power plays did things like marking all enemies and multiplying damage done.
Uncharted 3 also includes a multilayered player customization system. Like many modern shooters, it features boosters to let players tailor little tweaks to suit their playing style. These boosters, such as moving faster while aiming down the sights or gaining ammo for consecutive kills also level up, improving their effectiveness the more they are used.
Then there are kickbacks. These more powerful perks are driven by earning medals in each match. While combat efficiency yields medals for things like consecutive kills, headshots, and so forth, medals also are earned by other actions such as avoiding explosions or even grabbing treasure spread throughout the levels. This helps make them more attainable for all players and avoid the perpetual beat-down scenario of the couple players at the top of the scoreboard being the only ones earning power-ups that make them even more dominant. Once ready to use, kickbacks provide brief stints with bonuses like not needing to reload, an invaluable little trick that won me more than one shootout when my opponent had to swap clips and I was able to put them down.
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All listed out, it sounds like a lot of new twists for Uncharted 3's multiplayer. When I played it, though, it felt a lot like playing Uncharted 2 multiplayer. Not that that's a bad thing, but I don't know whether it's enough to make this the definitive online shooter for PS3. The action takes a different pace than the typical shooter. The climbing and similar gymnastic adventuring moves significantly change the way players move around levels. There's much more opportunity to elude pursuers and turn the tables to surprise them with an ambush.
It takes a little time to get familiar with Uncharted's brand of multiplayer, including just getting acclimated to the slightly different controls. Neither of the two areas of design focus changes that. The addition of cinematic moments in the levels definitely mirrors the style of the single-player game, but after a few times playing a level I'm not sure their impact doesn't wear off. The newly adjusted player systems worked well at keeping the games fun but felt like a nice evolution of things many other games do. The big catch is that I only got to play deathmatch. The developers promised big plans for team-based modes, and that's where I can see the different combinations of boosts and kickback among teammates opening up a lot of possibilities. I'll be watching to see whether that's the secret weapon to put them over the top.
[This Uncharted 3 multiplayer preview is based on a hands-on demo of a pre-release version of the game played on PS3 test kits at an event in Los Angeles. Sony invited Shacknews to cover the event.]