Developer: Naughty Dog
Release: November 1
You don’t get very far in the pulp adventure genre by erring on the side of caution. Indiana Jones would never have left his classroom, let alone revisited the spikes and poisoned darts to rescue his hat. Buck Rogers would have stayed in the 20th century, eating pancakes on his porch. Dan Daren’t doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. As for Uncharted – well, it’s called that for a reason. For the artists and engineers at Naughty Dog, building PlayStation 3’s biggest action game is a constant near-death experience.
“If anyone on the team makes a face like, ‘Oh, we’re fucked,’ then we know we’re good,” remarks co-president and former technical director Christophe Balestra. “We have to be uncomfortable. Three weeks before shipping Uncharted 2, we couldn’t even fit the game in memory. The day we have no solution for that, that’s going to be a real problem.”
The phrase “seat of our pants” is used several times during our visit to Naughty Dog’s new, spacious studio in Santa Monica. Most of the place looks like someone’s about to install a very large branch of Currys amid the exposed air ducts and concrete, but every now and then you’ll encounter an outlandish prop from some press junket or other, or a cabinet gleaming with crooked shards of glass, most etched with the words ‘Game Of The Year’. After the overwhelming success of Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, there are now so many that when you touch one of them you almost expect a hologram of Marlon Brando to appear.
The first Uncharted, Drake’s Fortune, was a diamond in the rough, always a game that would spawn a fantastic sequel. Brilliant in many ways, it didn’t do quite enough to untangle itself from the confusion of PlayStation 3’s youth, the influence of a resurgent Tomb Raider, or fashionable comparisons to the Gears Of War combat system. Sequel Among Thieves defined both itself and Sony’s platform, as much through what it didn’t change as what it did; rather than apologise for being a ‘cinematic adventure’, replacing its Hollywood tropes with game-isms, it took things to the next level. “It’s all about iteration,” declares Balestra.
Joining lots of pragmatic talk about working within ‘constraints’, iteration is a generational buzzword bounced repeatedly off of Naughty Dog’s walls. Few, though, are more qualified to use it. With its internal R&D department, the ICE Team, inventing vital PS3 libraries used by SCE, Epic’s Unreal Engine and a host of others, it’s learning the pros and cons of Sony’s console firsthand. The process, furthermore, is a joint venture between everyone at the studio, and its face is Nathan Drake.
In Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, the object of Drake’s desire is the lost city of Ubar, an Arabian trade capital known to many as Iram Of The Pillars. Romanticised by Arabian Nights folklore, this fabulously wealthy region was smitten by God for its corruption and driven into the sands of the Rub’ al-Khali desert, one of the most hostile and, dare we say it, uncharted places on the planet. A second Sodom and Gomorrah right on the border between fact and fiction – trade records mention it; NASA and the military have looked for it – it’s a perfect venue for all kinds of reasons.
For one thing, most Boy’s Own-style adventure stories involve a breadcrumb trail – not just regional legend but an expedition which, in many cases, can be just as mythical as its destination. The trail left by Drake’s supposed ancestor, Sir Francis Drake, continues to drive the events of Uncharted, but this time crosses another: that of archaeologist, diplomat, explorer and self-styled war hero TE Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. It’s his quest for what he called ‘Atlantis Of The Sands’, shared by the likes of Marco Polo, Bertram Thomas and Sir Ranulph Fiennes, which leads Drake and Sully into what creative director Amy Hennig calls “a nightmare of survival. It’s going to push Drake to the limits of his endurance, and threatens to conjure all of his deepest fears.”