PAX 07: Uncharted: Drake's Fortune Preview

I went hands-on with Naughty Dog's movie-emulating third-person action game Uncharted: Drake's Fortune at this year's PAX. Though the actual demo segments hadn't changed since my hands-on at E3, the developers had implemented some fairly substantial gameplay changes.

SCEA line producer Sam Thompson told me the game was about 80% complete, with the version I played nearly representing that level of completion. Naughty Dog did a mini-overhaul of the combat system, which actually led to much smoother gameplay overall. Hero Nathan Drake exhibits a ridiculous number of layered animations while exploring the jungle environs, making the adventuring gameplay ultrafluid. The last time I played, the combat felt like a jarring and stilted slowdown of the platforming action, so the improvements paid off.

The enhanced controls and targeting made firing from cover or otherwise much more intuitive and accurate, giving even the standard pop-out-and-shoot warfare at least enjoyability, if not an innovative feel. But the enemies did exhibit a weird resistance to death and fairly unrealistic responses to being shot multiple times in the chest or leg.

"We don't want enemies to just be hobbled and never come back to a full run, because then you could just knee-cap everybody and run through and be done with it," Thompson said. That may be true, but the way enemies were reacting to being shot--nursing their wound momentarily, then going into a full sprint toward my character until I shot them, and repeating the cycle--looked pretty unbelievable.

Naughty Dog still has about eight weeks to work on the game to make its holiday release, which Thompson swore it would do. Something not yet integrated in the demo was the destructible crates and cover, which will surely be a nice touch. I'm more hopeful about the title than I originally was, but I still have plenty of doubts. See what Thompson had to say in Naughty Dog's defense.

Shack: What motivated the decision to make Drake's character fairly generic, but not really an everyman or a Lester the Unlikely-type character?

Sam Thompson: Naughty Dog comes from a very iconic background where they had a very noticeable very known, pronounced character. Crash Bandicoot was obviously very recognizable. Jak from Jak and Daxter. Again, another very unique lead character. Very stereotypical--saving the world, heroic, master of all things, born a leader.

What we wanted, and what Naughty Dog really wanted when approaching this story is they wanted something that was a little bit more realistic, a little bit more humble. They were kind of tired of one man that saves the world and is very confident of himself. They wanted a fallible hero. Someone that you could relate to and say, this is possible, I could see somebody like this doing this.

Shack: I'd say he's still kind of a badass. I can't snap people's necks, maybe you can?

Sam Thompson: I don't know. We'll see after the interview [laughs]. I'll give it a shot.

Obviously with a fallible hero you get to situations in video gaming where you can't apply a real life template to that. He's going to do some extraordinary things. But we're going to try to make it somewhat believable and at least try to maintain the most amount of realism as possible in his execution.

Shack: In the demos I played, the traversal sections were fairly linear and didn't seem to require a lot of skill. You just moved Nathan from handhold to handhold and swung on a vine sometimes. How do these sections change later in the game?

Sam Thompson: So what we've done is, we've kind of taken each level as a set piece. And like in Hollywood action movies, each set piece has a unique kind of traversal mechanic or a unique kind of thematical thing about it that makes it similar but unique.

What we do is we look at the environment, we look at the set piece, and what he's interacting with, and the designers have created puzzles and traversal mechanics that are indicative of what you might find in the architecture. You're going to see a lot of variation.

Obviously Naughty Dog does puzzles very well. They're a platforming group by nature. So you're going to see some things that are very relevant in comparison to the way Jak and Daxter may traverse a level. But what we're trying to do is add a lot of variation to the way he does it.

Go to page 2 for the scoop on in-game cinematics, NPC interaction, and combat.


Shack: You've mentioned before that the game is supposed to be like a "blockbuster film"--how are the cut scenes being handled?

Sam Thompson: So the great thing is that all of our cut-scenes are rendered in real time thought the GPU. So there's no separation in graphical quality between what you see in the cinematic and what you see in the game itself.

There's going to be no loading times at all. It's going to be one seamless experience. It's going to feel a lot like you're playing a movie.

Shack: Are these cut-scenes interactive?

Sam Thompson: No. Everything in the cut-scene is going to be scripted out. You're not going to have any interactivity, but we are putting in a lot of things we call IGCs or in-game cinematics. Kind of like in the way Gears of War did where you're still able to traverse and move but have a conversation that's scripted.

We have some of those in place. Then we have some contextual moments where you have to do certain things. But for the most part, the cinematics are driving the story. At the heart of the game, it's still a story about Sir Francis Drake's lost treasure of El Dorado. And to maintain this story and to keep it moving in the right direction, we had to lock those cinematics in place.

Shack: How do you plan to make the combat more interesting than the usual take-cover, pop-out-and-shoot gameplay?

Sam Thompson: We have blindfire. We have the run-and-gun where you can just basically get out there and mix it up with all of them outside cover. We have the melee system. The melee system has several layers to it. It's your standard arcade fare, if you just want to engage an enemy in melee combat you can just jam on the square button and take him out.

We have a contextual melee system in place. If you time the square button press with the impact of your punch, you actually do more damage and throw fewer punches, and can finish with a contextual move, which is really cool.

We also have a variable melee system where if you've shot the enemy prior to engaging him in melee, you'll actually get to finish him with one shot, and it's going to be a different type of move from your normal melee encounter. And then we have the stealth kills that are in as well.

Shack: Do any of Drake's allies, like the character Elena, come into play during gameplay segments?

Sam Thompson: Absolutely. All throughout the game. We've tried to, again, go back to that whole big-time Hollywood action adventure movie. We have a lot of areas where either Elena will join you or [fellow adventurer] Victor will join you, and there's actually a ton of interactive puzzles throughout that area where you have to rely on them for help or you can't get through.

We're trying to make them as intelligent and as sentient as possible. So everything you do is going to be intuitive and they're going to contribute to you achieving your goal. There's areas where you have to keep Elena alive, there's areas where she's going to puzzle-solve with you.

Same thing with Victor. There's going to be moments of the game where all three of you are together. It plays out a lot like an Indiana Jones movie where you have people coming and going in the storyline but they're all meaningful.

Shack: Can you talk about some of the vehicles players will get to use in the game? How big a portion of the overall gameplay will these segments be?

Sam Thompson: There is going to be a jeep. We do have a few vehicles. I don't know whether I'm able to talk about them right now, but there is going to be some other vehicles that you're going to have some interaction with. Vehicle-based levels basically.

Shack: Both of Naughty Dog's most recent original IPs, Jak and Daxter and before that Crash Bandicoot, have both seen several more titles after their initial release. Has Naughty Dog been looking at Uncharted as an ongoing series from the start? Or is it definitely a standalone project?

Sam Thompson: I can't say yes or no. But I can say that, given the first two products you named, one might be able to make a pretty educated guess. I'm going to lead you to water, but I'm not going to make you drink on that one.

Shack: Will the game make use of the PlayStation Network in any way?

Sam Thompson: We're still kind of keeping that under wraps, but it's been a heavy consideration this whole time. Obviously, we're looking at the PlayStation Network and Home and what those afford. We are definitely considering all those possibilities.

Shack: When will we see a demo for the game?

Sam Thompson: We are talking about one, but the timing is yet to be determined. It's definitely something we would like to do, but if it's a decision between getting the game finished and doing a demo, we're going to devote the resources to getting the game finished. But it's something we'd like to do and are planning on doing if we can find the time.

Shack: Thanks for the interview.

Sam Thompson: No problem.

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