Q&A: Naughty Dog’s Bruce Straley
In Play issue 176, on-sale 19 February 2009, we go in-depth with one of the PS3’s most significant releases of 2009, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. As part of the feature, we chatted to various members of Naughty Dog but, due to time constraints, we had to cut an interview with Bruce Straley, Game Director of Uncharted 2. Still, here’s a big dollop of it for your pleasure. Enjoy!
You’ve opted to make Uncharted a series – what caused this? Were you all still yearning to explore this world once you’d finished the first game?
The sun has not yet set on Nathan Drake, that’s for certain. We’ve just started to get to know him in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and we wanted to learn more about who he is. Boy do we ever – in Uncharted 2, Drake has fallen back into his old ways and again is operating out in the fringes, one rife with mercenary treasure-seekers and thieves.
Can you tell us about the Marco Polo plot in Among Thieves?
As in Uncharted, the foundation for Drake’s new adventure is an unsolved historical mystery – this time surrounding Marco Polo and his doomed voyage home from China in 1292. After spending almost 20 years in the court of the emperor Kublai Khan, Marco Polo departed with 14 ships and over 600 passengers and crew – but when he arrived at his destination a year and a half later, only one ship remained, and only 18 of the passengers had survived. Although Marco Polo described almost every other aspect of his adventures in minute detail, he never revealed what happened to the ships that were lost.
Drawn in by the potential treasure to be found – but really most inspired by the intrigue of the historical mystery to be solved – Drake embarks on a quest to find the lost fleet. He soon realises that Marco Polo was hiding a much bigger secret – he had gone on a secret expedition on behalf of the emperor to find the mythical kingdom of Shambhala (otherwise known as Shangri-La) and to recover the legendary Cintamani Stone, the ‘wish-fulfilling jewel’ of Buddhist mythology. The Stone is described by Marco Polo as a massive raw sapphire – if it truly exists, it would be worth billions of dollars today.
This discovery sets Drake on a new course following Marco Polo’s 700-year-old trail through a diverse range of exotic environments to find out if the lost city of Shambhala, rumored to lie deep in the Himalayas, really exists. This quest also pits him against a new, more formidable adversary who is after the same artifact – a ruthless, rogue paramilitary leader with a private army and a relentless ambition to recover the Stone for himself.
Does the plot affect the setting in a different way to the first? Obviously, when Nate found out about El Dorado, there was only one location that he legitimately needed to explore. Judging from the trailer and early screenshots, it seems Marco Polo gives you more scope on where you can take Uncharted 2. Is this a globetrotting adventure?
Our desire to vastly increase the scale of the game, along with the rich storytelling opportunities we can leverage from the life of Marco Polo, provides us with the opportunity to throw Drake into a wider variety of dangerous locations and treacherous environments throughout his journey. However, given what portion of Marco Polo’s story we’re focusing on, we can tell you that Drake will find himself primarily travelling in many areas throughout Asia as he searches for the truth behind the lost city of Shambhala.
Which locations can you confirm make an appearance in Uncharted 2?
Drake will definitely find himself in the snowy mountains of the Himalayas, as shown in our trailers, and he will also travel through a war-torn Nepalese city, which you have also seen in the screenshots we have released. Beyond that… well, we’re not ready to reveal everything quite yet, that wouldn’t be any fun now.
How have you added to Drake’s range of physical abilities?
We’ve been making improvements and updates to pretty much every aspect of our gameplay, many of which affect what Drake can do. There have been major overhauls and fine tuning of almost every system in the game. Grabbing cover is better, moving in cover is more intuitive, we’ve made enhancements to how you throw grenades, added new traversal mechanics for Drake, new weapons, and have made a huge reworking of our AI systems – I mean, just about everything has been improved upon!
One of our major goals in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves was to do everything we could to ground Drake in reality. With this in mind, we examined our climbing mechanics and animation to see how we could improve upon it and make it look and feel more like what one would expect when climbing and exploring. What we’ve been able to do in the end is allow Drake to climb freely, hand over hand, on objects, and we extended those traversal mechanics to objects like monkey bars, ropes and so forth. We’ve also made improvements to our animation system overall, which not only increase how natural those movements feel, but also add more complexity to the layered animation states so that the player can see how Drake reacts to the changing environment around him.
Gunplay is obviously a very important aspect of our game as well, and one that we wanted to give even more attention to this time around. We want to leverage the strengths of our traversal mechanics (in particular, our climbing mechanics) and how they interact with our cover-based third-person shooting mechanics, adding a vertical dimension to the combat spaces. As mentioned earlier, we also tackled the limitation in our first game where Drake was limited by his inability to fire his weapon from certain states and this time out we’re opening things up by allowing Drake to shoot at any time. Another important improvement is that we’ve added a whole other dimension to our combat by introducing an action-stealth element to our game. Players can choose to sneak up on their enemies and attempt to take them out one at a time without alerting the others in the area, or they can take a more aggressive route and run in with guns blazing. It’s a fast-paced, action-oriented style of stealth gameplay – not extremely tactical and slow – which really gives the player the freedom to assess an environment, size up their opponents, and play in the style that they want.
Of course this means our AI has to accommodate this new mode of play, so we’ve added investigating and hunting behaviours to our enemies which really starts making the combat spaces more interesting. If an enemy thinks they’ve seen Drake before combat has been started, they’ll investigate wherever they last saw him. This adds a beautiful tension to our set-ups and adds some fun for the player to maybe lure an enemy closer so they can kill him. If combat has already started, the enemies are constantly trying to keep a line of sight on Drake, but if the player was able to slip away unnoticed — that’s where the fun of the hunt behaviour begins. If no enemy has seen Drake for a few seconds, they will start to hunt around the area trying to find him. The enemy walks down an alleyway where he thinks Drake was, but meanwhile the player has climbed up to a rooftop and performs a surprise drop-down stealth kill on him! Mixing these AI behaviours with Drake’s new traversal and gunplay capabilities gives the player a fresh combat scenario every time they play.
The other thing we’ve changed with our AI is adding the ability for enemies to navigate the environment more realistically, like climbing up and down ladders or poles and jumping off of ledges or across gaps during combat. This means that the player is never really safe. There is the distinct possibility that you’re going to be flanked at any moment by a crafty enemy.
Our cover system has also been given an overhaul. The algorithm which selects which wall or cover point that Drake hides behind when the cover button is pressed has been greatly improved to ensure that the player’s expectations are always met. You can move freely into and out of cover without coming out of aiming your weapon. Transitioning around inside and outside corners in cover has also been improved, along with dozens of other minor tweaks that will most likely go unnoticed, but the overall improvement to the feel should definitely be satisfying.
We have also added an analogue component to our problem solving and puzzle spaces in the game by enabling Drake to pick up and carry objects around the environments. Different sized objects will have a different effects on Drake’s movements and abilities. A heavier object may take all of his strength and both hands, slowing his movement down a bit and leaving him more vulnerable. A lighter object will occupy only one of his hands, leaving the other available to use his pistol and only slightly altering his move speed. Some of the lighter objects can also be used for combat purposes. If there’s a propane tank or gas canister around, pick it up and place strategically, or toss it in the direction of a group of enemies, shoot, BOOM! There go four or five enemies at once! So adding the ability to carry objects to our list of Drake’s mechanics enables us to both improve on our puzzling components, as well as bring a problem solving layer to our combat spaces.
Something we’ve added in Uncharted 2 that people may not have known was missing from Uncharted is the ability for any character, Drake, his allies, and the enemies to perform all of their traversal and combat behaviours on moving objects. Adding this new tech is allowing us to achieve those big summer blockbuster moments from the movies the Uncharted universe is so inspired by, all in game! Fighting on a moving vehicle is a hallmark of the genre, let alone just really fun, and now it can played like never before. We’re not doing some scrolling background trick to make it look the vehicles are moving within our environments, we’re actually moving the vehicle model through the world! Now add Drake’s moveset, combat, and action-stealth capabilities to this new moving world and you’re onto something really unique. I think the player is going to really enjoy the range of big moments we’re getting out of this new tech.
This isn’t a criticism, but it seemed that the platforming sections were clearly separated from the shooting sections in the first game – is this still the case, or has a greater effort been made to integrate the two?
Our goal in Uncharted 2 is absolutely to fold all of the modes of gameplay together more seamlessly. To that end, we’ve enabled gunplay throughout Drake’s traversal moves so that combat can occur at any time, even during a climbing or exploration sequence. We never want the gameplay to become tedious, so we’re definitely putting a greater focus on integrating combat and exploration.