Saturday, June 27, 2009

PREVIEW - Uncharted 2 Multiplayer

Nowhere near the hook.

I wasn't alone when my blood ran cold at news of co-op and competitive multiplayer in Uncharted 2. Uncharted is a modern classic, one of the most beautiful, fun, challenging games of the high-definition consoles, and the thought of resources being pulled from the single-player portion of the sequel to work on a tacked-on multiplayer component seemed the height of idiocy.

Here's the good news: Naughty Dog isn't pulling a Resident Evil 5 and re-branding the game as a co-op experience (stripping away a lot of charm in the process). Thank goodness, the single-player and multiplayer portions of the game are entirely separate, and while the main campaign of Uncharted 2 will wait until Fall to be weighed and judged, the multiplayer portion has arrived via the closed Beta - and it seems anything but tacked-on.

It's hardly the whole schebang, but the Beta offers a very appetizing taste of Plunder (see: capture the flag), co-op and classic team deathmatch. It's perhaps best to ignore technical foibles that will, I trust, be ironed out come autumn - like the amount of time it takes for the system to find enough players for a game - and instead focus on how surprisingly solid the experience is once you actually pick up sticks and throw down.

Lag? Zero. None. Once you're in the game, it runs smooth as silk. I'm in Canada playing with a dude in Florida and a good 'ol boy from Tennessee, and the closest I came to a technical hitch was the Floridian reporting that an NPC enemy had instantly jumped four feet. Headshots are invariable with such negligible latency, and before long my team of Americans and I are a well-oiled grinder of NPC destruction. When heavily armored miniboss characters crash through the scenery, one of us would grab their attention with bursts of AK-47 fire so another could creep up behind the terrors for easy neck-snaps. Teamwork is essential to survival, and more fun than I had anticipated.

The co-op could very quickly become a bore (again, see: Resident Evil 5) thanks to predictable enemy placement, but the game seems to straddle the line between scripted events and a Left 4 Dead-style AI director that mixes things up. Examples like the enemy that busts through the wall are always present, but every game of the co-op portion plays differently thanks to the unseen director, and keeps the action clipping along with just enough challenge and variability to maintain the thrill factor.

The competitive portions are equally solid, and for some reason feel better - more fair, strangely enough - than any other shooter I've played, in my admittedly limited experience. Even with powerful items like riot shields and chain guns randomly placed about the arenas, what will win the day is always tactics, and - one example aside - I can't recall a death that felt cheap. It's always clear why the winner of a shootout deserved to win, and the result is a very satisfying experience. Even grenades - fiddly little bastards that they tend to be in shooters - are very easy to master, and have a strange tendency to go precisely where you want them.

There are certainly a few kinks to be ironed out here and there - random spawn placement can lead to popping up in a crossfire and surviving all of two seconds - but when small additions like the ability to throw objects (the Plunder objective, explosive canisters) works so well, when the gameplay feels so confident and comfortable, I find myself more than prepared to give Naughty Dog the benefit of the doubt. Really, the worst thing about the Uncharted 2 Beta is the worst thing about any multiplayer experience - anonymous internet douchebags, and their desperate quest to piss other people off.

I suppose I can let the final judgment of the Beta rest with the reaction of a kid I played a co-op game with. From the sounds of things it was his first day with a PS3, and his friend was constantly explaining button placement through their analogs on the 360 controller. Having spent enough time with the original Uncharted, I wasn't quite as thrilled with the ability to climb on an object and still shoot at enemies, or simply how gorgeous the game is, but at the very least I can agree with his appraisal that "this shit is off the hook."

-co-op is a lot of fun
-competitive always feels fair
-zero lag
-prettied-up graphics
-same great taste

-matchmaking can take a while
-i'll have to wait until this fall for a second helping

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