It’s the ultimate teaser for what will surely be one of the best games of the year. The recently released Uncharted 3 multiplayer beta may well be low on content in terms of actual game assets (only two maps are available, with a third set to be unlocked imminently) but it still offers a wealth of different multiplayer modes and 25 levels’ worth of progression, including a large range of weapons, character customisation elements and gameplay-shifting boosters.
Alas, what it doesn’t offer is much in the way of hints on what we should expect from the single-player campaign mode, where Naughty Dog really pushes back boundaries with its superb set-pieces and innovative platforming gameplay. In this sense, Naughty Dog’s brilliant Uncharted 2 multiplayer beta did at least give us some co-op action that was a fairly close match to the single-player campaign stage based on the same level. Update: The final phase of the beta unlocked this mode. Check out a complete gameplay runthrough in this blog post.
Excited as we are about the new beta, it’s safe to say that from a basic technological level, the core rendering elements we see here aren’t that far removed from what we saw in Uncharted 2. Then again, short of optimisation efforts and the introduction of new visual effects, it’s difficult to see where Naughty Dog could have radically improved its existing tech in the way that it did between the first two games in the series.
As it is, we have been able to pick out a small range of changes and improvements from the slice of gameplay revealed thus far. To begin with, the 2x multi-sampling anti-aliasing has been removed completely. This is a good move on the part of Naughty Dog: the coverage we saw in Uncharted 2 wasn’t especially fantastic and by moving to a different solution the developers can free up precious memory and bandwidth. In its place is what appears to be a new form of post-process/screen-space anti-aliasing technique we’ve not seen before.
It is perhaps a less exhaustive or cheaper form of MLAA and it seems to be pretty good at smoothing off long edges, but it does seem to miss a lot of jaggies we would expect it to pick up on. Coverage is inconsistent, but where it is applied it does a good job, and the technique remains in place on the split-screen and 3D modes, which really push the Uncharted engine to its limits.
Other elements of the image make-up also appear to be refinements of the existing technology. The ambient occlusion was a little lacking in Uncharted 2, essentially radiating outwards on a firm x and y axis, giving a “plus” shaped look. The new effect in Uncharted 3 is significantly more refined. Similarly, the implementation of dynamic shadows looks to have been improved: the shadow cascade seems to be smoother than it was in Uncharted 2, meaning less noticeable transition points between different shadow resolutions as you move further into the scene.
Another element that stands out in the Uncharted 3 multiplayer beta is a revised take on Naughty Dog’s wildly innovative dynamic traversal system. This technology was showcased most effectively in Uncharted 2 on the classic train stage, where Drake moves between train carriages travelling at high-speed through the environment. In the beta’s Airstrip stage, we see players battling it out as a cargo plane gathers speed for take-off, pursued by multiple vehicles each travelling at a different speed. It’s a small hint of the kinds of new gameplay opportunities we hope to see expanded in other multiplayer levels and of course in the main single-player campaign.
While the basic rendering is perhaps best described as a more refined version of what we’ve already experienced in Uncharted 2, it’s clear that Naughty Dog has spent a great deal of time and effort in enabling its engine to run two game instances simultaneously, making this the first PS3 title from the developer to feature a two-player split-screen mode.
At this point, what is very cool is the ability to have two separate PSN accounts logged in simultaneously in what looks like an underlying OS improvement added to a recent firmware (the in-game XMB is utilised here in order to select the secondary account). This is essential bearing in mind the fact that Uncharted 3 multiplayer is geared completely towards customising the player’s appearance, load-outs and its own version of Call of Duty’s perks. Now two players can progress and level up simultaneously while playing on the same console, even if their accounts are registered to different PSN regions.
The make-up of the split-screen itself is curious. There’s around 838×358’s worth of resolution per player, meaning that the viewpoint is actually rather wider than the traditional widescreen aspect ratio of the standard game (around 2.33:1 vs. 1.77:1). Of course, there are drawbacks aside from the resolution deficit, most notably in terms of the level of detail – less complex models are employed for the characters and surroundings. However, the fact that the player window is physically smaller than usual helps mitigate the impact of this somewhat and where the game really succeeds is in the overall coherency of the world.
From what we’ve seen so far, there are no real issues with geometry pop-in and texture streaming, and movement between LODs is mostly unnoticeable. In other words, most of the issues we had with the Killzone 3 split-screen don’t appear to be a real problem with Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 3 implementation.
However, while the game is a visual treat in two-player mode, it does come at a cost – the frame-rate is rather inconsistent, ranging from anything between 20 to 30 frames per second, and probably averaging out between the two across the run of play. It’s still very playable but the fact is that control feels tangibly less responsive compared to playing the game on your own.
As you might expect, the addition of split-screen to the Uncharted engine is also a key element that makes stereoscopic 3D possible. The principles between 3D and split-screen share much in common after all: both require independent viewpoints to be rendered at the same time. Uncharted 3 uses the standard HDMI 1.4 protocol in that the PlayStation transmits a 1280×1470 framebuffer to the 3DTV (two 720p images, one per eye, with 30 “blanking” lines between them) but similar to Killzone 3, there are a number of compromises.
First up, there’s the basic matter of resolution. From what we can see, resolution appears to be fixed at 896×504 per eye. This is 49 per cent of the pixel load of a full 720p framebuffer, so similar in terms of fill-rate to the half-720p per eye we saw in Killzone 3. However, Naughty Dog’s approach cuts down on upscaled edge-aliasing to a certain extent because pixels remain square rather than rectangular as they were in Guerrilla’s horizontally scaled 3D mode. Scaling is also carried out in software, as opposed to using RSX’s hardware scaler, which seems to produce a higher-quality result. HUD overlays are rendered in native 720p for both eyes, so these persistent on-screen elements aren’t compromised by upscaling in the way they were in Killzone 3.
Video: Performance results in this Airstrip demo are generally rather good. Dips from 30FPS are more numerous but they don’t impact the gameplay experience too much at all. Note the lighting differences at the beginning – we found a couple of intermittent lighting bugs during Cinema mode gameplay playback which should be fixed in the final game.
On this page and the next you’ll find individual frame-rate analyses for each of the two levels currently available in the multiplayer beta. The Cinema option proved to be as invaluable as the Replay Theatre in Gran Turismo 5 in that it allows us to record gameplay and play it back in both 2D and 3D modes, giving us an unparalleled method of comparison – we’re seeing the exact same action being rendered in both display modes.
Generally speaking, the 3D mode manages to stick very, very closely to 30 frames per second with only certain sections causing performance issues. Also interesting is that the rare areas of the 2D game that do see the code frame-out see a slightly exaggerated performance hit in 3D. Par for the course perhaps, but it’s not a real issue during the run of play.
The overall perception we have from playing Uncharted 3 in three dimensions is that the game still feels good, running very smoothly indeed – tangibly smoother than the split-screen mode. Bearing in mind that this is a true stereoscopic 3D implementation – as opposed to one view reprojected to give the illusion of depth a la Crysis 2 – it’s a remarkable technical achievement.
So how do they do it? The 896×504 resolution explains away one of the challenges of rendering in 3D: the res reduction means that RSX doesn’t need to “paint” any more pixels than the conventional 2D mode. However, the game still needs to independently render the perspective of each eye, meaning that geometry needs to be processed twice. Thankfully, the work Naughty Dog carried out for split-screen mode proves to be equally valuable here, as the team has nipped and tucked at character models and environmental detail in order to reduce the vertex-processing overhead.
Bearing in mind that the exact same action is being rendered in both 2D and 3D modes, you might wonder why we’ve adopted a split-screen approach for our performance analysis videos (with our GT5 720p/1080p/3D head-to-heads, we simply used the standard 720p video as the main feed). Well, the purpose here is to give some idea of the compromises Naughty Dog has made in order to make stereo 3D work at an acceptable frame-rate. In a static screenshot comparison, the lower-LOD player models and missing level elements do stick out somewhat, but during the run of play it’s remarkable how close 3D mode looks to the standard 2D game – and that’s obviously not factoring in the benefits you get from playing with a true stereoscopic viewpoint. Similar to the split-screen mode, the overall sense of consistency is excellent too – there’s no texture pop-in that we could see, and no sudden jumps between LOD models.
Quite why 3D performs better than split-screen mode is an interesting matter for discussion. The 3D mode has a higher pixel throughput, so it’s clearly not about fill-rate. We can only imagine that rendering two entirely different views and processing two sets of game logic must put much more of a load on the engine than the 3D mode, where only one game instance is running and where the two viewpoints being rendered have so much in common. Update: Naughty Dog Lead Engine and Graphics Programmer, Pål-Kristian Engstad tells us via Twitter: “The reason split screen is more difficult than 3D, is that one can take advantage of the semi-fixed view frustra in 3D.”
In terms of the worthiness of the 3D effect in the multiplayer beta, we’ve tried to bring the experience to you in the best way possible: the 3D footage used in our performance analyses has been converted into a YouTube 3D compatible format, and you can check out both the Airstrip and Chateau edits using any number of 3D technologies: anaglyph, NVIDIA 3D Vision, side-by-side and polarised 3D displays are all supported in the player. YouTube is typically rather stingy with bandwidth, so we would recommend the 1080p version for the best possible image quality.
Our impressions of the 3D mode as it stands right now are a little mixed. Clearly, the hard work has been done in terms of running that engine at a great frame-rate, and the cutbacks to the overall image quality are acceptable. The 3D depth added to the scenery is great, the sense of immersion heightened as bullet-trails whizz past you, but there are undoubtedly some problems with the camera work and polygon clipping: characters moving between the camera and the player model allow you to see inside the polygon mesh, breaking the illusion somewhat. Should your character move closer to the camera, the 3D effect tries to push the model hard “into” your face, resulting in a poor 3D effect plus more clipping. There’s still a reasonable amount of development time left, so fingers crossed these issues will be resolved.
We’re still expecting great things from the single-player campaign mode running in 3D: the interactive set-pieces that are Uncharted’s forte should hopefully look spectacular. We’ve yet to see much beyond what was shown at Sony’s E3 press conference, but what we did see that was worthy of praise was the manner in which 3D was handled in the cut-scenes: not too flashy, but extremely effective. Similar to Killzone 3, it appears that Naughty Dog has independently rendered cinematics in both 2D and 3D to get the best effect for both modes. If you’ve got 50GB of Blu-ray space available, why not use it?
We kicked off this feature by describing the beta as the ultimate teaser and that’s exactly what the multiplayer beta is: a small, vertical slice of gameplay that leaves you ravenous for more, only offering the smallest of hints on what we can expect from the main single-player mode. However, what the beta does demonstrate is just how seriously Naughty Dog is taking on board the views of its community, and how it’s looking to expand its online userbase.
The various gameplay modes on offer in the beta are fresh and exciting to play, serving up Team Deathmatch options that satisfy the purists (including a new Hardcore mode) while offering objective-based variations that add a great deal of variety to the action. The Hunter co-op mode also serves up a new dynamic in pitting players against CPU-controlled bots as well as the opposing team, while customisation has been radically improved with fresh new boosters, weapons load-outs and far more control over the player’s appearance.
Major enhancements to the online tech include the ability to drop in and drop out of existing gameplay sessions, while the maps themselves have also benefitted from new events: the ceiling of the ruined Chateau can fall in on players, while airplanes whizz by overhead, strafing the gameplay arena with gunfire. Other new refinements are less ambitious from a technical perspective but make an extraordinary difference to the gameplay: the ability to partner up with another player encourages teamwork and allows you to respawn at your teammate’s location, while Power Plays add more variety to the gameplay while adding more challenge for a team that are dominating their opponents.
The Uncharted 3 multiplayer beta demonstrates an impressive range of improvements both from a technical perspective but more importantly in terms of the raw gameplay experience too. Multiplayer has been intelligently redesigned to offer more variety, more game types and an ability to reshape your character in such a way that genuinely benefits your own particular play style. The sense of community in the beta is impressive too: the simple inclusion of a streaming video feed (Uncharted TV) not only gives you a wider sense of what is happening in the world of Uncharted 3’s multiplayer game, but proves to be a nice distraction when you’re waiting for matchmaking to complete.
Uncharted 3 launches on 2nd November in the UK, one day after its US debut: that’s four long months until we get to experience the full game, including the all-important single-player mode. It’s going to be a long, excruciating wait. In the mean time, Naughty Dog plans to get the most from its current testing phase by rolling out a new map (Yemen) and hopefully some more game modes. If you’ve not played the game yet, the beta is now available to all PSN users, and it’s a highly recommended download.
Can’t get enough of the Uncharted 3 multiplayer beta? Check out our Uncharted 3 multiplayer beta preview for hands-on impressions.