Uncharted 3: Playing with the big boys

By Matt Greenop

The freshly released PlayStation exclusive title Uncharted 3 is a perfect example of what happens when technical boundaries are pushed almost to breaking point. Photo / Supplied
The freshly released PlayStation exclusive title Uncharted 3 is a perfect example of what happens when technical boundaries are pushed almost to breaking point. Photo / Supplied

Not so long ago, a sandstorm in a videogame couldn't exist. A fire was a bunch of red, orange and yellow pixels chasing each other around a white one. The ocean was a blue blob that moved with all the grace of a pissed-up All Black in a tropical bar.

But games have become a valid artform, and while consoles like PlayStation and Xbox haven't got the graphics grunt to perform massive processing tricks like specialist PC gaming rigs can, it's up to artists and effects specialists to make them as spectacular as possible.

The freshly released PlayStation exclusive title Uncharted 3 is a perfect example of what happens when technical boundaries are pushed almost to breaking point.

There are multiple scenes that leave players agape - a dramatic escape from a burning mansion that collapses as protagonist Nathan Drake makes his escape; a pitched battle in a shipping graveyard with dozens of enemies shooting from boats and pontoons rocking with the sea's motion; gun battles on sinking ships; another on a cargo plane as it crashes in the desert; and a fast moving fight on horseback.

Trying - and succeeding - to make these high-paced, big action scenes look good on screen was Keith Guerrette, lead visual effects artist at Uncharted developer Naughty Dog.

"With some of our cooler tools, we've finally hit a point where the consoles aren't really limiting us," he explained to TimeOut while in Auckland recently. "We still have some limitations - the anti-aliasing, the realtime reflections, the number of dynamic lights - some of the really technical things.

"Once we can throw those into games, we can make things a lot better looking, but most people don't really notice a lot of them. So there's a lot of pressure on artists and tech guys to come up with really cool things. The hardware is not that much of an impediment anymore."

This seems to be a bit of an understatement - the shipyard scene in particular was one that just a few years ago would have been a technical impossibility, and even now took one programmer the full two-year development cycle of the game to complete.

But the tools developed for the famous train scene in Uncharted 2 have allowed the Naughty Dog team to make its sequel in the action adventure blockbuster even more impressive.

"It took a lot of programmers a lot of time, and we basically completely rewrote our engine and our physics engine to be able to handle that," he said.

"Just attaching Drake to a platform and having them both move through the world was hard enough, and one of the most complicated parts, something we still don't have the most elegant solution for, is how do you shoot from one moving platform to another and make the aiming system work?

"That's been a puzzle for us - we had to come up with different solutions for the ship graveyard - everyone's on their own rocking platform, so we had to come up with different solutions for that level than we did for the horses, because now they're moving through the world faster.

"And the cruise ship was a fun and really frustrating one for us because we attached the entire cruiseship to the ocean, so we had no way of controlling how it moved and we're basically designing around this ocean that does whatever it wants - it was interesting, that's for sure."

Tying these big effects to a story is one of the other challenges - the balance between storyline, action and the often-frustrating puzzles is a big part of what makes the Uncharted series continuously rate highly among reviewers.

Guerrette says that faffing around with the story, changing where the action happens and keeping the flow right is helped, and hindered, by Naughty Dog's lack of a restrictive corporate structure, a far cry from his previous job.

"In typical corporate style, they'd come and give you a compliment before talking about fixing something - at Naughty Dog it's more like 'are you done with that, because it looks like shit'. That way of doing things works really well once you pull your ego out of it. In a corporate structure, meetings will take a week to start being changed - we can have a conversation and be back working in five minutes.

"The story was changing even past our beta - we were still shifting it around.

"We're really adaptive because we have no management. We have no producers in house. If you and I sat down and said 'let's make a game', the level of communication that we would have is the same.

"We totally fly by the seat of our pants, and we're always trying to make it better - we'll see something and think 'oh man, it'd be awesome if we could do this'."

-TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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