Monday, July 18, 2011

Looking For That Special Something: The Uncharted 3 Multiplayer Beta

The Uncharted series and I have had a pretty, uh, complicated relationship in the past. I thought Drake's Fortune started strong, but went completely off the rails about halfway through, piling on unbalanced enemies and eventually ludicrous zombie/monster/things. I went into the multiplayer beta for Among Thieves not expecting much, and didn't find much. There was potential, for sure, but there were still "some significant issues to fix."

Mind you, none of that stopped me from beating Uncharted 2's mostly stellar single-player campaign in one ten-hour sitting later that year, but the multiplayer never managed to hook me. It had its moments, but eventually, I got bored and moved on. But that was two years ago. I just finished playing the multiplayer beta for Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception for two weeks. And you know what?

There are still some significant issues to fix.

The first thing I mentioned in my impressions of the Uncharted 2 multiplayer beta was how it took "far too many bullets to kill other players."

"Guns just don't feel powerful," I said, "and when there's as much cover as there is in the two maps included in the beta, it's too easy for opponents to slip away after taking half a clip." The game's developer, Naughty Dog, never quite fixed that in Uncharted 2's full release, and it's an issue that persisted even in Uncharted 3's multiplayer beta.

I understand the thought behind it, that making the guns do more damage would mean quicker deaths and potentially wouldn't be as fun. It's something that Twisted Metal director David Jaffe has spoken extensively about in regards to designing his upcoming game's multiplayer. He wants players to develop a relationship with their opponents before one prevails. He wants a chase. And that's a noble, applaudable goal in a car combat game.

But these are dudes running around in t-shirts we're talking about here. Time and time again in Uncharted 3's multiplayer beta, I found it far too easy to dash away and recover all my health in a few seconds if I felt outmatched. Having enough health to have the opportunity to dash away is great, but it recovers far too quickly; the game shouldn't completely reset the relationship between you and your attacker (or prey) automatically.

This is a problem that Jaffe and producer Scott Campbell seem to have nailed down for Twisted Metal. Here's what Campbell had to say about the subject to Game Informer:

One of the core mechanics that has made the franchise successful is the pickup game. When you’re running low on health, that becomes the mother of all pickups. Part of what many players will do, myself included, is explore the level and create kind of these high-speed battle circuits that incorporate where the health pickups are and just the satisfaction of getting in that circuitry and going into battle and going out to repair your car. I don’t know, I still find a lot of fulfillment when I’m a couple pixels of red away from dying and getting that last health pickup. I think it’s just such a core mechanic to the game.

Medal of Honor: Allied Assault from 2002 remains my all-time favorite multiplayer experience — a game without regenerating health. It forced you to kill other players to earn health pickups. Allied Assault was such a tense, yet balanced multiplayer experience, one where skill reigned and every encounter felt special. You didn't need "Perks" or "Boosters" or "Medal Kickbacks" to keep the experience fresh and exciting. It just was already.

I'm not trying to sound like Cranky Kong here, though. I just got a strong sense that Uncharted 3, like its predecessor, is caught somewhere between the classic style of having a health bar and pickups like Twisted Metal or Allied Assault, and the newer system of regenerating health that works best in fast, frenetic multiplayer shooters where you already have almost no health, like Call of Duty.

I'm not even saying that Uncharted 3 necessarily needs a health bar and pickups. There are modern ways of splitting the difference. Killzone 2, for example, got around this problem brilliantly by only regenerating a small portion of your health bar. In Halo, you have a shield that regenerates, but your health does not, forcing you to collect pickups. Uncharted 3 could really benefit from a similar level of forward thinking.

But that's not the beta's only problem, by any means. The melee combat system, for instance, is still the same incredibly clumsy mess it was before, sometimes allowing for really satisfying instant kills when you sneak up behind someone, but most often resulting in two players facing each other, mashing the square button, hoping to come out on top. Whoever started mashing first usually wins, but occasionally, both players end up killing each other. There's just no skill or thought to it, and I almost wish it wasn't in there at all; I'd much rather melee serve as a way to knock an opponent backwards instead.

There were a ton of different modes available in the beta, but nothing too outside the realm of what other modern shooters are doing. The most interesting mode to me was Three Team Deathmatch, a mode that pits you and one other player against two other teams of two players each.

While in the standard Team Deathmatch mode, working as a team seemed almost optional, in Three Team Deathmatch, it's the only way you're going to stay alive. When I was paired up with another like-minded player, we had no trouble cleaning up the sloppy teams who couldn't work together. When I was paired up with a player who always wanted to do his own thing elsewhere, we both got picked off easily.

The biggest change to how you actually play the game were the Boosters and Medal Kickbacks, more commonly known as Perks and Killstreaks. They really are ripped straight from Call of Duty, and while the mere sight of them when I first loaded the beta caused me to give a long, knowing sigh, lamenting the death of individuality in modern games, I still couldn't help but get sucked right back into that "only one more match and then I can buy that hella awesome Perk" mentality that defined Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007.

Of course, that means that the game faces the Big Challenge of keeping all those perks balanced so that experienced players feel like that experience is rewarded, but not at the expense of the new players. So far, I don't think the game is doing an especially great job of that. I did noticeably worse against high-level players who had objectively better guns and abilities than me than against players at the same rank. Of course, a player with a higher rank has played longer and is probably more skilled already, but why, then, is it necessary to make their bullets do more damage, too?

Where the beta did shine, though, is in showing the potential for a multiplayer game that feels as much like Uncharted's single-player as Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood's brilliant, innovative multiplayer felt like its single-player. Brotherhood crafted a cerebral experience that forced a player to think and act like a true Assassin against equally dangerous human opponents. Instead of challenging the player's twitch reflexes or his ability to get headshots, it challenged his mind. It felt unique to the Assassin's Creed universe, unlike anything else on the market. Uncharted 3's multiplayer beta showed a glimmer of that.

The game's Airfield map starts out with one team inside a cargo plane trying desperately to take off while under siege by the other team, who leap fearlessly between speeding trucks barreling down the runway. It calls back to a similar sequence in Among Thieves' single-player campaign, and is every bit as thrilling, from either side of the cargo hold. It's exactly what I wanted out of an Uncharted multiplayer experience. But there's no objective, and it's over after a couple minutes.

The plane takes off and then BAM! Now you're in a truck, smashing into an airfield. Huh? You're back to traditional, static multiplayer, and you wonder what the point even was, then, of that whole airplane sequence. Or at least, shouldn't it have been presented the other way around, so that you start in the airfield, then the team with more kills gets to start in the cargo plane?

Either way, it's an incredibly unsatisfying conclusion to a revolutionary idea, punctuated by the fact that I just didn't like fighting in that airfield. I vastly preferred the beta's other two maps, a burning chateau and a Middle-Eastern city with dizzying verticality.

The beta's Co-op Adventure mode gave that same glimmer, but then again, it showed no real evolution of the formula established in Among Thieves. In fact, all it really did was make me wish Naughty Dog would spend less time making generic competitive multiplayer modes that don't particularly feel like Uncharted to me and instead build a separate cooperative campaign. With such a fantastic cast of characters, it seems like a no-brainer to make a cooperative side-story focusing on Drake and one or more of his globetrotting pals who he always seems to have a long history with. It's a rich, interesting universe, and the current Co-op Adventure mode feels like it's only scratching the surface.

Now that the beta's over and I've had a few days to process it, I feel like the conclusion I've come to is that, unless Naughty Dog decides to delay the game and massively overhaul it, Uncharted 3's multiplayer probably isn't going to be for me. But hey, if they can iron out how they handle player health, that might be enough to reel me back in. Generic competitive multiplayer isn't necessarily a bad thing if it's also really fun.

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is set to release this year on November 1 for the PlayStation 3.



  1. Go fuck yourself and play COD if you want instant kills. This is uncharted, the players do not die instantly and it is what makes the game fun. There is some actual SKILL involved in getting kills.

  2. Definitely never called for instant kills. What I was saying (guess it got lost in there somewhere) is that it's fine to have plenty of health as long as it doesn't just regenerate back up to 100% after a few seconds. If you injure me and I just barely get away, great. That's awesome. But if you catch up to me and I'm back up to 100% health, how fun is that, really? You should've had an advantage in that situation. You earned it. And if I manage to turn the tables on you, it should be because I barely scraped by while on the razor's edge of dying, not because my health reset and it's like you never shot me.

  3. I liked all of the words in this preview. Keep it up, Jack-O-Lantern David SarsparElla