After a spot of beginner's luck — winning our first game of Free For All with a deftly timed melee swipe to the face — we've lingered in the loser's half of every game we've played. We're even rubbish at co-op, consecutively getting less kills than our partners despite our greatest attempts.
It's not unusual for us to lose multiplayer games, but we also wouldn't necessarily consider ourselves poor performers. We typically occupy the top four or five spots in any multiplayer game we play, but Uncharted 3's learning curve is eclipsing us. That's not the game's fault of course, it's just made us realise how unique Uncharted is as a multiplayer experience. While our Call Of Duty skills perfectly translate into the latest "flavour of the week" first-person shooter, Naughty Dog's third-person opus is a distinctly different affair. And that's despite first appearances.
The first time you load up the Uncharted 3 multiplayer beta you are bombarded by progress bars, customisation options and load-out choices. Some big names like David Jaffe think that's to the detriment of the genre, but we sit on the other side of fence. The argument is that the fascination with unlocks and XP has replaced the need for good multiplayer gameplay, but we think it works as a compliment. Many would play Call Of Duty multiplayer regardless of whether the entire progression mechanic was stripped out, purely because it's a good first-person shooter. The fact that CoD (and so many of its contemporaries — Uncharted included) are so addictive and successful is because they marry confident, enjoyable multiplayer gameplay with hooks to keep you returning. Call Of Duty's multiplayer would be great without any progression at all, but it's life consuming with the bells and whistles included.
That's why Uncharted's up-front focus on progression does little to offend us. Naughty Dog's clearly put a lot of thought and effort into its latest multiplayer foray. While Uncharted 2: Among Thieves boasted a surprisingly impressive multiplayer component, it didn't necessarily stack up to the depth of its contemporaries, feeling more like an enjoyable distraction rather than a full-blown commitment. Uncharted 3 is Naughty Dog's attempt at leading the entire online shooter market on PlayStation 3.
In many ways, the Uncharted 3 multiplayer beta demonstrates a logical progression on Uncharted 2's basis. The theatrical, vertical third-person gunplay is in-place once again, and is buoyed by some ambitious map design that makes the gameplay feel so much more cinematic. The Chateau map is the less ambitious of the two featured in the beta, taking place in an open court-yard and ruined building. The fire effects ravaging the Chateau are particularly impressive, especially watching the flames spread and die as the game develops. The other map, Airstrip, is even more impressive, opening with one team aboard the back of a moving cargo plane, while the other chases on the back of speeding jeeps. It's super impressive stuff for a multiplayer mode, and demonstrates Naughty Dog's industry leading talent when it comes to epic video game set-pieces. Sadly the cut-scenes that break apart the set-piece and the actual multiplayer map — a flatter, industrial airstrip arena — feel a little contrived. The introduction of mini cut-scenes that integrate each player's custom character model are a neat twist though, and remind us of the more exciting Operations playlists from Killzone 3.
The gameplay itself is as solid as ever, though adapting to Uncharted's distinctive control scheme took a few minutes. Expect to find yourself throwing a few punches instead of reloading before you get back into the swing of things. The visuals are equally impressive, with Naughty Dog's staggering lighting model giving a distinct clarity to both maps, particularly the Chateau. The game's clearly still early, with some texture filtering kinks in need of reworking and general clipping glitches appearing here and there, but this is a beta after all. Naughty Dog's famous polish is evident, even at this early stage.
Customisation is a huge component of Uncharted 3, and it's brought front and centre by the game's menus. Here you can select a preferred character model for your hero and villain, as well as outfit them in a range of clothes and styles. While we imagine Naughty Dog will include a number of accessories and styles on the disc, we suspect this could end up being a big earner for Naughty Dog if it chooses to sell clothing packs via the PlayStation Network. We'll certainly be opting for a bikini get-up for Elena if it becomes available. Pretty tragic, huh? The game also allows you to create your own custom emblem, which appears on a flag behind your character model as you peruse the game's menus. These emblems pop up around the game-world during a match to show who's dominating. It's a completely contrived mechanic, but it's neat touch when you see your persona represented front-and-centre within the world.
What Naughty Dog's trying to breed more than anything with Uncharted 3 though is a more sociable environment. The party system is well integrated — though we wish a PSN message would be sent to our account automatically when a friend invites us — and that's without even getting opportunity to try the much touted Facebook features. All of the cinema options from Uncharted 2 have also returned, allowing you to save and edit your matches. Impressively, Uncharted 3 also boasts a new "Television" feature which runs in the background while you're browsing menus and waiting for a game to start. This essentially allows Naughty Dog to run trailers, advertisements and tutorials in-game, opening up huge communication possibilities. This is the natural progression of the "news-ticker" and will probably end up integrated into every massive multiplayer franchise in the future.
The Uncharted TV feature does help to draw attention away from Uncharted 3's biggest failing, which is the time it takes the game to connect to matches. Many games try to recreate the success of Call Of Duty, but most miss out on the game's biggest draw — lightning quick matchmaking. After being put off by Uncharted 2's drawn-out matchmaking process, we expected Uncharted 3 to improve on the flaw. While the multiplayer beta definitely gets you into matches much quicker than its predecessor, it's still far too slow. Connecting to a match takes a good 180 seconds on average, which is an unreasonable amount of time when Call Of Duty can filter you into a bigger match in half the time. What's worse is just how poorly Uncharted 3 keeps you connected to a game. In Call Of Duty, once you've selected a playlist you're kept in a match for the entirety of a play session while the game constantly rotates the coming-and-going players, but Uncharted 3 sends you straight back to matchmaking after a game has been completed. This puts huge intermissions between each match, rather than keeping the games flowing and it ruins the pace of the experience. If Naughty Dog takes one thing away from this beta, it's the need to improve its matchmaking system.
When you're in a game, Uncharted 3 implements some pretty crafty ideas. In Team Deathmatch in particular, Naughty Dog's implemented some really cool balancing features that give losing teams the opportunity to get back into the game. Marked targets or double damage can be countered by experienced teams, but also help to make the experience more inviting to newcomers. It's going to annoy teams that just want to steam-roll their opponent, but as casual players we can get behind any features that help to make the multiplayer experience that touch more balanced. Constantly getting your ass kicked in an online shooter has never been fun as far as we're concerned.
It's the little flourishes that elevate Uncharted 3 above its contemporaries though. Watching your team-mates rush onto your screen just before a match starts is neat little trick, as is taunting an opponent with a custom (but still purposely janky) animation. High-fives are another neat idea, allowing you to celebrate with your buddy in order to earn more XP. You can also earn and collect treasure on the map, unlocking new gubbins and presumably extending the multiplayer's replay value beyond the standard XP tropes.
The modes themselves are not all straight-forward either. While the likes of Team Deathmatch and Free For All are fairly predictable, new modes such as Three-Way Team Deathmatch are neat twists on established modes. The co-op mode included in the multiplayer beta is also an impressive mix of various staples, mixing territories, with capture-the-flag and horde-mode all in a neat little three-player waves multiplayer game-type.
Naughty Dog might have its work cut-out matching the success of Call Of Duty because Uncharted's multiplayer is a naturally less immediately gratifying experience. The controls and gameplay are much more sluggish than its contemporaries, and thus the game lends itself to a steeper learning curve than its peers. But without reinventing the wheel, Naughty Dog's crafted a multiplayer experience that encompasses the polish its renowned for in its single-player endeavours. Based on the evidence of this beta, Uncharted 3 is going to provide a compelling and addictive multiplayer aperitif to the game's primary single-player dish.
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception will launch on November 1st in North America exclusively on PlayStation 3.