There's a twinge of disappointment when you first start up Uncharted 3's multiplayer mode. It's the feeling of over-familiarity: the layout of the menus, the experience bar marking the progression of your ascent through the ranks of your online career and the emblem editor. It's the perk (sorry, booster) slots in which you assign upgrade bonuses that decrease your character's sprint recovery time or allow him to run silently in order to avoid detection and so on.
It is, in short, the Modern Warfare-ness of it all, and the feeling that Naughty Dog, one of blockbuster gaming's more creative voices, has borrowed a template instead of building one.
Of course, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's structural innovations to the multiplayer shooter have come to define the way a generation plays gun games online, and few would debate that template's enduring brilliance. But familiarity breeds contempt, and Uncharted 3's construction is oh-so-familiar, right down to the ladder of ‘finding player' messages that appears on the upper right hand side of the screen while the game hurries to match eight players up.
Besides, the Nathan Drake universe is all about Saturday matinee thrills, leaping from tall buildings, quipping while treading on an enemy's fingers as he hangs precariously from a ledge. As a myth, colourful Drake seems a poor fit for the dry, competitive machinery of Modern Warfare.
Video: Medal kickbacks are enhancements you can activate when you have collected a certain number of medals.
But as soon as you grab an AK-47 from the menu and head into the verdant jungle, it becomes clear Naughty Dog's tribute to Infinity Ward's work is limited to the meta-game and presentation. In play, Uncharted 3's multiplayer fizzes with brash creativity and humour. There are zip wires down which you slide like the Last Action Hero. There are loot drops from downed foes. There are relics that form collectible sets, unlocking new clothes and emblems. There are spawning treasure chests full of goodies that act like honey pots drawing everyone in to a focused skirmish midway through a battle.
Then there are the incidental interactions: you can hang from a ladder making headshots with a pistol. You can kick a man hanging from a ledge and watch him splat on the ground below to the ding of a medal. You can high tail it over a wall rather than waiting for an angry grenade to flush you out, and you can throw a grenade back at him while mid-roll. You can fist-bump a teammate over the prostrate body of a downed adversary for a cash bonus. Every time a bullet whistles past your head you can launch into a headfirst roll, dodging and weaving their attacks while giggling at your irritating mischievousness. There are even Street Fighter-style taunts: a laugh, a flex, a dance or an air uppercut to rile your foe.
So while Uncharted 3's multiplayer template may be borrowed, the content used to fill it is endlessly fresh and vibrant. This generous creativity is best exemplified in the Airstrip map, which features a pre-battle chase section in which two teams battle it out on high-speed trucks, chasing a cargo plane as it races down a runway. It's a scene plucked straight out of so many family action flicks, but never has the set-up been used like this before. The trucks (manned by AI) dodge and weave around the plane, players able to use their empty holds for cover, while each team struggles to dominate the lowered ramp on the back of the plane itself. After a few minutes, the plane takes off and the action shifts to a more traditional combat arena, albeit one drenched in the warm pink of sunset.
The arenas here are expertly arranged, with no dead ends to halt the churn of play around the environment. Each character in the game (in the Beta you can opt to play as a generic treasure hunter, Victor Sullivan or Drake himself when on the good guy's side, or as a pirate on the bad guy's side) is lithe and athletic. As such, height becomes a tactical consideration, with players vying for vantage points. In the second of the two maps on offer in the Beta, Chateau, moving between the brightly lit outside areas into the dingy ruins of a castle requires your eyes to adjust, one of several stylish touches that elevate the multiplayer above its sea of competition.
Almost every interesting action in the game is assigned a micro-reward, a medal that counts towards upgrading your selected booster, a competitive perk that must be purchased and equipped. In addition to ambient boosters, there are also paid boosters, purchased before a battle, which grant a temporary one game advantage. These paid-for boosters must be bought out of money from the same pot used to purchase weapon mods, so there's a question of whether to invest in the short term or long term. While the system is ideally suited to a short term Beta test, it does raise questions over the long game, as surely once a player has purchased all of the mods and upgrades they want they will be free to invest all of their funds into paid boosters? How the developer overcomes this challenge of economics while keeping the game fair and balanced over the long-term remains to be seen.
Video: Before each match two map options are presented, with all participants voting on their favourite.
As well as the innovative buddy system, which randomly assigns you a buddy at the start of every game, at whose side you have the option to re-spawn on death, there are a clutch of other gimmicky features. You can sign in to your Facebook profile, allowing you to play with acquaintances you aren't necessarily friends with on PSN. Likewise, the game records videos of all matches, and it seems as if there will be options to edit these. There's even the option to use the PSEye for a motion sensor grenade throw nestled in the option menu, although the usefulness of this feature is debateable (we couldn't test it ourselves). [Correction: This is, in fact, the existing Sixaxis motion throw - sorry for the confusion -Ed.]
Four months from launch and Uncharted 3's multiplayer is in good shape. The decision to borrow Modern Warfare's super structure is initially disappointing, but it's a creative decision that has allowed the developer to focus its creative energies into improving the moment-to-moment play, which is already pacey and exciting. If Naughty Dog can maintain the quality of level design across the other maps, and include some more white knuckle bursts of creativity like that of the truck chase at the start of Airfield, Uncharted 3's multiplayer may yet blaze a trail, rather than follow one.