A couple of years ago, in the summer before the release of the second Assassin's Creed I found myself discussing the many things that were wrong about the flawed first game in the series.
Once in August and then again in September, senior people on Assassin's Creed II walked me through some of the many fixes they had planned for the sequel. Their plans sounded too good to be true, because, well, they all sounded so right. They didn't sound like hype or the marching orders of a focus group. They felt like surgically precise self-critiques. Sure enough, Assassin's Creed II was far superior to its predecessor. The game's creators had learned from their errors and crafted something great.
Last week, I had a flashback to those summer interviews while I was interviewing one of the lead creators of Uncharted 3. These folks also seem to know, better than I would, what needed fixing.
The previous two PlayStation 3 adventures of Nathan Drake, video game's modern Indiana Jones, were not as flawed as that first Assassin's Creed game. There were some problems, though. There were also, I learned, during an E3 chat with Uncharted 3's co-lead designer Jacob Minkoff, some opportunities that the series creators at Naughty Dog were not yet ready to seize.
First, there's Nathan Drake himself. He's been presented to us gamers as an everyman. We will learn much more about him in this new game. We'll find out what drives him, Minkoff told me. We'll learn more about his relationship with Sully and more about his past. We may also get a Nathan Drake who finally feels like a more consistent character. Players of the earlier games noticed that Drake seemed like an approachable, ordinary guy in the games' cinematic scenes but more like an action-hero/mass-murderer in the game's gameplay. Naughty Dog noticed that (even noted that in the finale of the last game).
"As it is, Drake never shoots first," Minkoff told me, conveying the ideal of the character if not the manner in which Naughty Dog has always portrayed him. Drake shouldn't go into a scene ready to shoot before being shot at, Minkoff explained, though the game creator acknowledged that, in the past, Drake sometimes was firing at factions of people (enemies), who hadn't shot at him at all—at least not in a while. That's not Drake and that sounds like we'll be getting more of the "real" Drake in the new game.
A shift in the portrayal of Drake sounds subtle, but more obvious will be a shift in the game's flow. Minkoff said that players of the second game complained that there there was too much combat near the end, especially in the monastery section. Minkoff said the problem was that the developers had created more gameplay than story and ran out of narrative material to intersperse with the interactive parts of their game. He promises a better balance in the new one, which, if it translates to a removal of some of Uncharted 2's late-game lapses into tedium, all the better.
The demo of Uncharted 3 that was shown behind closed doors at E3 was devoid of tedium, of course. There's no way to say if it represents the whole game, but the scene, set near an airfield, smoothly transitioned from Drake and series regular Elena discussing a plan to get on a huge cargo plane, to Drake splitting off to run across some roofs and tackle bad guys as the plane's engines heated up, then to Drake running on the tarmac to catch the plane, Elena driving up and letting Drake jump from the roof of her jeep to the plane's landing gear, some sneaking through the plane, a fistfight in its cargo bay and, at demo's end, our hero dangling from cargo that was falling from the plane.
As the Assassin's Creed developers had done, Minkoff surprised me with the nuance of some of the planned evolutions of the series. He noted that the puzzles of the previous game involved "too much transposition," a critique I initially didn't understand. He reminded me that the player solved many of the puzzles in Uncharted 2 simply by looking in Drake's notebook for a specific arrangement of symbols and then lining up similarly-marked symbols in the temples Drake was exploring. Too easy, Minkoff thought. "We want the player to feel that they have to figure something out," he said. If you're going to play the role of a clever treasure-hunter, he's saying, you might as well have to think like one.
As we've previously reported, some of Uncharted 3's upgrades will be technical. In this game, Drake will be able to climb on top of objects that are affected by the game's physics. The translation, in the context of a demo involving a large ship that was shown at E3, is that Drake might be left hanging from the side of a lifeboat that is suspended from the side of a ship rocked by a stormy sea. One of the ropes suspending the lifeboat might snap, knocking Drake down, but as the waves buffet the ship's hull—and as the lifeboat sways from its rope— Drake, controlled by the player, can still climb up. (Those waves, Minkoff proudly told me, will be procedurally-generated 90-meter swells that will be subject to the game's physics simulation and will continue to buffet the boat during the consequentially unpredictable gunfights and fistfights that Drake has below decks.)
Minkoff never hit a false note as we chatted about this fall's Uncharted 3 for about 15 minutes. Each correction or upgrade he described for the series sounded like smart progress. Whether it adds up to the series' best game remains to be seen, but I do get the sense it'll add up to at least one thing: a terrific in-game bar brawl. While Minkoff didn't want to confirm if or when a bar brawl will occur in the third game, he said that so many of the physics and animation systems that Naughty Dog has built into the series has led the Uncharted creators into a position where they can render a proper saloon brawl: they've got the ability to get Drake pushed back against the bar, to have him pick a bottle off the bar and smash it on another guy's head, throw someone through a table and so on.
The question for Uncharted 3 may not be whether there will be a bar brawl but rather, when there is one, is Drake the kind of guy who would punch first?
Look for Uncharted 3 on the PS3 on November 1.
(Note: The images for this story were captured from Uncharted 3's E3 trailer, which you can watch here.)