Me telling you that Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception looks as though it will offer a thrilling cinematic single-player experience is probably unnecessary. That's what Naughty Dog does. There's no identifiable reason to assume that Uncharted 3 would suddenly fall off the wagon, unless the team suddenly decided to take on a massive, collective drug habit. Fortunately, the representative developers on hand at E3 2011 appeared stone-cold sober during my demo of the game. Perhaps a bit hungover, but honestly, who isn't at this show?
So, again, none of what I'm about to tell you will be surprising. What it may be, however, is enticing. As if the level shown at Sony's press conference weren't enticing enough--with its impressive "On a Boat" physics and animation, intense gunplay, and insane water effects, that level more or less sealed the notion that, yes, Uncharted 3 was going to be another big, honking blockbuster action game. Then myself, alongside a theater full of other gobsmacked writers, found ourselves privy to a new, otherwise unseen level. That double-sealed the deal.
Snippets of this level could be seen in Uncharted 3's E3 trailer--specifically, the moment at the end when you see Nathan Drake hanging off the back of an airborne cargo plane all end of Air Force One style, and on the verge of a horrid crushing death via a massive cargo crate. Now, I can actually give you a little context for how that whole bit of life-threatening absurdity came about.
The scene opens with Nathan and series love interest Elena infiltrating a desert settlement full of gun-toting thugs. This marked a particularly emotional moment for the pair--an interesting juxtaposition to the action-heavy footage we tend to see of these sorts of games at trade shows. Nathan knows he's about to go do something incredibly dangerous and stupid, and after convincing Elena that he will help her over the fence into the compound after he climbs to the top, he instead opts to drop down and leave her on the other side. Nathan leaves her behind because what he's about to embark upon is borderline suicidal, and in an act of selflessness, he insists she leave in a nearby jeep, out of fear that he might lose her "again."
From a technical standpoint, this is actually a pretty neat look at, since it gives an indication of the improved facial animations (especially in the eyes) for each of the major characters. More importantly though, it was honestly one of the more effective attempts at emotional resonance I've seen anywhere in this series. Some of the dramatic beats in Uncharted 2 could, at times, feel a little strangely paced and overbearing in nature. Here, the scene delivers on the hoped-for impact. It reflects both in the technology, and the vocal performance.
But enough of that emotional garbage, as you undoubtedly want to hear about Nathan Drake smoking dudes and blowing shit up. Good news: he does a lot of that. Once Elena disembarks the scene, Nathan goes right to work, initially trying to stealth his way toward the plane, but after a short time, he's in the thick of battle against the nearby thugs.
One of the most impressive things this level specifically demonstrated is Uncharted 3's fluidity of combat. Let's face it: this has been the E3 of the quicktime event. And while a few of those are fine, a nonstop deluge of them can make a game's action feel mechanical and distancing for the player. Admittedly, I am saying this second-hand, as the demo I saw was developer-steered, but the impression I got from watching him play through this section was that quicktime events simply don't exist here, at least not in the traditional sense.
As Drake runs across rooftops to try and catch up to the plane, he takes down a variety of enemies in multiple ways--one he pulls over the edge of a rooftop via a stealthy move, and another he simply leaps down upon from a higher roof after a running jump--and the whole thing looked, dare I say it, effortless. There weren't a million button prompts, either. Drake wasn't running on rails, like the Need for Speed: The Run out-of-car sequences. This kind of fluid action is something that's always felt good in Uncharted, but here, it just looks incredible.
After a bit of acrobatic vehicular action--of which all I will say is that Nathan Drake has exceptional balance when riding on the hood of a moving vehicle--Drake works his way up into the landing gear of the plane. He begins crawling through a ventilation duct that runs underneath the floor of the plane, only to run smack dab into an area occupied by a rather hefty guard. This launches into one of the most impressive fight scenes I've ever seen in a game.
Drake is out-sized and outmatched handily. Recall the fight between Indiana Jones and the massive guard toward the end of Temple of Doom, and you'll have an idea of how this plays out. It's not just the size, either. The beats of the fight, the flow of the action, all of it recalls the great adventure movie fights. That's not something I say lightly, as I often compare fisticuffs in games to the classic robot fight between Rock 'em and Sock 'em. Not here. The way the camera captures the action, and the way the characters animate, it feels dynamic, like a properly choreographed battle between a hero and a villain. And no button prompts! None that I saw, anyway. This wasn't just a pile of canned cutscene animation--I kept looking back at the developer to check the controller and be sure he was actually playing, and unless he's a master of smoke and mirrors, he was most definitely playing along.
Where things go from there, you can logically guess based on that stinger from the E3 trailer. I've omitted a few key details from this recap as some of this stuff really needs to be experienced first-hand to be truly appreciated. Suffice it to say, Naughty Dog's E3 showing was incredibly impressive, and seems to indicate that come November 1st, we're all in for a half-tucked treat.