The simplest answer is that it takes place in the desert. Creative Director Amy Hennig says that Naughty Dog has challenged themselves to portray "sand in all of its forms," and Uncharted 3 will try to do exactly that, eventually taking its now familiar characters (as well as some new faces) into the Arabian Peninsula. The central chase of the game revolves around explorer T.E. Laurence and his search for an ancient city of Arabian treasure, alternately known as Ubar, Iram of the Pillars, or as it will be called in the game, the Atlantis of the Sands.
But outside of the new setting, Uncharted 3 is set to improve upon Naughty Dog's successful formula in a few other ways as well. Nathan Drake has never been more adept at fighting groups of enemies, more animated and active, or more grounded in his own environments than he is here. The big innovation in Uncharted 2, according to Lemarchand, was the traversal combat, "where you could pull out your gun no matter what you were doing, no matter what you were climbing on or hanging from." And those features are still there in Uncharted 3, of course, but Naughty Dog wants to push the limits of Nathan Drake as a virtual actor, giving him even more context-specific moves and actions as you go through the game.
"We've got really good actors doing these characters, so we're trying to capture every nuance of what they do," said Ruppel. "As Drake goes into different environments, he's going to have different reactions just like a real actor. If something's hot he's going to react a certain way. Rather than having a general set, they're much more specific now to where he's going."
In the gameplay demo we were shown, as Drake navigates the old, overgrown French mansion, he's attacked by the game's new antagonists. We don't know much about them yet -- Hennig said they're a "shadowy order with a cunning leader who manipulates through fear" -- but we know they've got cans of gas, which they pour on the mansion and then light up with Drake and Sully still inside. Drake is left to climb through the burning house with his old friend, and as he moves from room to room, you can see his animations change -- he bends over while walking to stay out of the rising smoke, looks at and shakes his foot when he steps in a flame, and touches a wall to steady himself as he passes by.
Those types of contextual movements carry over to the melee combat, which Lemarchand said has been expanded to pit Drake against more than one enemy at a time. "We've always focused on just Drake and his two fists when there isn't a gun around," he said, "so it was clear to us from the start that the first thing we should look at was giving Drake the ability to take on multiple opponents at once." When Drake comes upon two different opponents in the burning chateau, one grabs and grapples him, causing Nathan to kick the other and then wrestle free. Melee combat is also context sensitive now -- Drake can use environmental objects around him (like a nearby wall or a broken bottle) to attack the bad guys.
Another new feature: traversal objects with actual physics to them. At one point in the demo, Drake jumps off a wall to a hanging chandelier and, as he lands on it, it shakes with a real physical model in the game. As Drake leaps off again, it falls, and crashes realistically on the floor below. Ruppel hinted that sand will play the same part at times -- he and the art team went out to the Imperial Dunes in California for reference, and he said that they learned a lot about how sand works. "What happens when you fall in the sand, roll in the sand, and clambering up the side of a dune, how fast that caves in on you." Naughty Dog is using the same engine as the last game, but it's been updated. Water (which you can see Drake running from in the end of the trailer) now flows as a fully modeled object, and the lighting has been improved in places too.
There was, unfortunately, no sign of Elena in the gameplay we saw, and though we've confirmed that she's not gone (and we will hear more about her and other characters, both old and new, soon), Hennig said that Uncharted 3 is definitely a Drake and Sully story. Sully is a fan-favorite character and these guys are old friends. "Drake's Deception" (which refers both to Nathan and Francis Drake deceiving and being deceived) will see "the bonds of this partnership both explored and tested in this story."
Multiplayer will return, but Naughty Dog is saving details for another day, only saying so far that there will be "way more features" to play with. Lemarchand said that the team is thinking about the different ways people are playing online -- "some people are very oriented towards the flow through the level and just are constantly flowing," he said. "I count on coming around the corner and using the kind of blindfire, what we call the Steel Fist, melee combos to try and whittle away my opponents' health, and move around so that they can't get a bead on me."
Co-op will also be included, though not in the single-player campaign at all. And, of course, with a year away from release, the team hasn't yet started planning for downloadable content. While they'd like to do story-based DLC, multiplayer is a little easier to justify in terms of workload and budget demands.
Back in the French chateau, Drake and Sully have climbed further and further into the burning mansion, blocked from escape at every turn by their attackers. Drake's foot gets caught in a broken stairwell, forcing him to take out assailants while Sully helps him get unstuck. Finally, they spot a ladder, and Drake starts to climb up away from the roaring pit of flames beneath. Sully jumps across to join him, and just as the two are about to lose their grip and fall in ...
The title screen comes up and ends the demo. Stay tuned to hear a lot more about Nathan Drake and company's next big adventure.