|If Indiana Jones or Robert Langdon is your definition of treasure-hunting action-adventure, then either you watch too many movies or read too many books — or you haven’t met Nathan Drake, the hero at the center the blockbuster videogame franchise Uncharted, exclusive to the PlayStation 3 platform. Last year, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves garnered widespread critical acclaim, bagged bunches of major videogame industry awards, and sold over 3.8 million copies worldwide. Hollywood’s a fan: A feature film from Columbia Pictures — adapted by helmer David O. Russell (Three Kings), produced by former Marvel Studios honcho Avi Arad and rumored to be starring Mark Wahlberg, the headliner of Russell’s forthcoming Oscar-baiting drama flick The Fighter – should be shooting just as the next game in the series, entitled Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, hits stores late next year. EW recently visited the Santa Monica, California offices of Uncharted’s developer, Naughty Dog, for a sneak peek at the sequel, and we returned wishing “late next year” was right damn now.
Here’s what we can tell you: First off, obviously the title is not “Uncharted 3: World of Deceit,” as has been rumored here and there on the Internet. Still: Good guessing with the “deceit” thing. According to Naughty Dog’s creative director Amy Hennig, the theme of deception plays out in multiple ways throughout the threequel, from Drake doing the deceiving to Drake being deceived to some mysterious deception about Drake’s very identity. The story focuses on the hero’s relationship with his mentor and father figure, fan fave Victor “Sully” Sullivan, and has him searching for a legendary lost city that will ultimately take him to the Arabian Peninsula and the vast wasteland of the Rub’ al Khali Desert, also known as the Empty Quarter. (Said legendary lost city has been known by various names, including “Iram of the Pillars” and the “Atlantis of the Sands”; click the link for more backstory.)
Uncharted likes to keep one foot (or at least a toe) grounded in history (Nathan’s ancestor is the British pirate, explorer and Navy officer Sir Francis Drake) and the plot of Uncharted 3 draws more from Drake’s exploits as well as from the life of T.E. Lawrence — not from his militant days as the fabled “Lawrence of Arabia,” but rather the Brit’s early years as an archaeologist. The inspiration for the story, says Hennig, came from Naughty Dog’s desire to take on the challenge of conceiving and building out gameplay scenarios within a desert locale — “challenge,” because organic elements like water, fire and sand are technically difficult to credibly render with animation. Says Hennig: “When we first came up with the idea of sand, you see everyone’s eyes light up here and go, ‘Yeah, that’s going to be really hard — let’s do it!’” Adds Naughty Dog co-president Evan Wells: “We’re a bunch of nerds. We just look for something that will be a technical, artistic challenge, and allowed us to push into an area of the world and history we’ve never tapped into before.”
Uncharted 3 — which aspires to be an “interactive cinematic experience,” says Hennig, marked with character-driven storytelling — will also make more expansive use of motion-capture filmmaking techniques (think: the way James Cameron shot Avatar) that will enhance the quality of character performance. (In fact, Naughty Dog’s new Santa Monica digs includes its own mo-cap studio.) The execs at Naughty Dog walked us through one of the game’s levels, and while we can’t tell you anything about the locale (it actually wasn’t the desert), we can tell you that it was quintessential Uncharted, marked by dynamic camera work and gameplay that requires you to jump and climb through treacherous spaces that are in an almost constant state of change — or in this case, catastrophic collapse. Innovations? Several, including enhanced backward climbing and the ability to fight multiple baddies at once. Finally, Wells stressed that much time and effort is being lavished upon expanding Uncharted’s online multiplayer and co-op capabilities, too; expect more details to come in the coming months. Doing so gives the consumer more value for their entertainment dollar — especially in a weak economy, and especially among videogame consumers more prone to buying just a few games a year. It also creates a market for additional downloadable content for purchase (Uncharted zombie maps, anyone?), and cultivates an avid community of what Wells calls “evangelists” that can help create buzz future products. “We want to take on the big boys of the multi-player genre,” says Wells, no doubt alluding to multiplayer giants Call of Duty and Halo. “It has become something here at Naughty Dog that will become an important part to all our games.”
Naughty Dog is remaining cagey about the release date for Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, but expect it to drop around the same time that the first Nathan Drake novel, Uncharted: The Fourth Labyrinth, hits next fall. (According to Wells, 2011 marks the beginning of Naughty Dog’s push to make Uncharted a “transmedia” entertainment brand, with high quality, mythology-managed storytelling extensions of the Uncharted universe created for various entertainment media, i.e. Star Wars.)