The multiplayer in Uncharted 2 was a surprising addition to the title – especially in an industry that’s quick to shove competitive online action into titles that do not need it (we’re looking at you Dead Space 2). In the end, the basic Uncharted gameplay both bolstered and undermined the multiplayer offering. The franchise isn’t exactly known for crisp shooting mechanics but the verticality of the environments, as well as Drake-like skills for traversing the various arenas, made for a welcome change-up from the primarily ground-based match-ups in the online mega-hit Gears of War and Call of Duty franchises.

We went hands-on with the Uncharted 3 multiplayer offerings at E3 2011 to see if further refinements have been made to the enjoyable, albeit flawed, competitive and cooperative formulas – and, while we were pleasantly surprised, some issues still linger.

Naughty Dog was on the E3 showroom floor to give attendees a taste of the upcoming Uncharted 3 multiplayer offerings. If you weren’t able to attend the conference, you might not have to wait until November to check out the levels and modes we tested out at Sony’s booth – since, at least some, will be available in the upcoming multiplayer beta that launches on June 28th.

During our time at the conference, we had a few opportunities to get our hands on the game – experimenting with the improved competitive multiplayer as well as a tweaked capture-the-flag-esque cooperative mode.

For the competitive multiplayer, Naughty Dog showed-off a number of different features, and improvements, to the experience.

First-up, a robust character customization menu will be a much appreciated addition to the game for anyone who was frustrated by the one-note look of characters in the previous multiplayer offering. Players will select from a group of pre-made models but can then swap out clothing, color palettes, and gear. At times, it might be a little more challenging to tell who is on your team – but, the feature also makes it a lot easier to identify a particularly irritating (or skilled) opponent that the team might want to hunt down.

Uncharted 3 Multiplayer Customization

Level design also gets a heavy injection of trademark Uncharted set-piece action with a number of maps (we had a look at the Airstrip level) grounded in a “storyline” of sorts – for the purpose of unleashing explosive scripted events that permanently change the environment. In the Airstrip level, one team spawns inside a moving cargo plane with hostile forces firing from surrounding cars – while that might sound claustrophobic or limited, it is an Uncharted game so players can easily leap from one vehicle to another. Eventually the plane lands at the actual airfield – where more traditional “map” gameplay commences (though there are still a number of dynamic effects at play).

The basic Uncharted controls are alive and flourishing in the game – with the addition of a sprint ability. Returning Uncharted multiplayer gamers will remember that performing a string of evasive dives was the preferred way to move quickly into cover. The dive is still in the game but can now be saved for its intended purpose – since the sprint will get players out of harm’s way more effectively (and without somersaulting around the map).

Naughty Dog has also included the new action-melee mechanic into the multiplayer – with mixed results. It certainly allows sneaky (or overly-assertive) players a quick take-down but, in an arena where players can be shot half-a-dozen times and not die, it’s odd for a melee takedown to be an automatic kill. It wasn’t uncommon to find players running around the map, performing melee take-downs on two or three guys in a single area. In Call of Duty – one hit melees make sense, because mobility is constricted; however, in fast-paced and highly agile Uncharted gameplay, the mechanic can easily be exploited.

As mentioned Uncharted isn’t known for being the deepest or tightest action-shooter on the market, so it will be a long time before die-hard online combatants embrace the title as a serious competitive online offering. However, the controls (in general) are tighter and the animations are more fluid – allowing for a mostly responsive and satisfying experience.

Uncharted 3 Airstrip Multiplayer Demo

In addition to new moves and customization options, the game includes a number of enjoyable modes (“2v2v2” as well as “Overtime” were especially intriguing) and will feature plenty of improved profile features upon release. Medals and boosters will be returning.

We also had an opportunity to test out the new cooperative mode – which had two of us (though more can be added) face-off against an army of AI players. The mode is objective based and required at least two players to partner together in order to steal treasure from specified locations and deliver the items to various spots on the map – all while being attacked by NPCs at close range and from afar. Since there’s no campaign co-op, it’s a welcome, less intimidating, addition to the game allowing players to team-up with local friends (without the requirement of fighting against other competitors online). That said, it’s easy to imagine how the mode could erupt into all-out, and enjoyable, chaos – if enough people join-up for an online match.

If you’re still having a hard time picturing how the new co-op works, check out the latest Uncharted 3 multiplayer trailer.

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick and let us know what else you’d like to see included in Uncharted 3 multiplayer.

Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception is set to hit shelves on November 1 for the PS3. But remember, for those of you who don’t want to wait, the game’s beta will be kicking off on June 28.