Look past the big name and beloved action hero, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is your typical launch game. It's a safe franchise that everybody loves and shoehorns in all of the gimmicky functionality the system has to offer. It's not disappointing, but also not terribly inspired. It's the type of game that probably won't withstand the test of time. But even if that's the case, Sony's first portable Uncharted is a real winner that deserves to be in everybody's Vita library.
By now you know the formula. You play Nathan Drake, a quick-witted thrill seeker who adventures around the world searching for lost cities and hidden treasures. This time around our hero has been hired to advise on what seems to be a routine exploration through Central America. Things go south when Drake's partner, a real slime bag named Dante, double crosses Nate. Now it's up to Drake and a brand new female sidekick, Chase, to track down the bad guys, uncover the mysteries and locate buried treasure.
While Uncharted 3
was ready to take Nathan around the globe, Golden Abyss feels more isolated. Large portions of the game involve our team searching forests, large temples, small towns, cavers and more. Along the way you'll take scenic boat rides and snap pictures of the old religious symbols. It's not until half way through the game that you actually move from one significant location to the next, and even then it looks a lot like the rest of your Central American vacation.
Don't let the smaller scale fool you; there are still a lot of exciting moments sprinkled throughout this 34 chapter adventure. At the end of the game I felt like I had a full Uncharted experience, even if there aren't as many impressive set pieces as previous outings. Best of all, all of the funny writing and voice acting is brought into this impressive Vita launch title.
In a lot of ways the game mechanics are exactly the same. Your time is split between solving platforming puzzles and having large shoot-outs with a variety of bad guys. But don't get too comfortable, because there are a lot of new touch-based elements that show off the Vita's functionality. Quick time events that used to use button presses now require the simple swipe of the screen, items can be rotated with the back touch and even aiming allows players to use the Vita's motion capabilities.
Some of these touch-based mini-games work better than others. There are a bunch of puzzles that have you piecing together ripped up newspapers and maps. One of the large scale puzzles has you moving giant statues with your fingers. These are examples of this type of game being improved with a touch screen. Unfortunately, there is an even longer list of inane tasks that seem to pop up far too often. You'll use your finger to clean tools and weapons, pick up weapons with a simple tap, take pictures of landmarks, trace tombstones and more. It's there to show you what this brand new system can do, not enhance the overall experience of the adventure.
Thankfully most of the touch gameplay is option. The game shows you how to draw a line from one ledge to the next, but you can ignore all that and simply jump and shimmy like you would on a console. You also don't need to thrust your Vita sideways to make Nathan jump or pick up weapons by pushing the screen. However, you can if you want to. Most of the core gameplay has been left unchanged, which is the way it should be.
One addition that does work is the aiming mechanic. For many people, Uncharted: Golden Abyss will be the first time they've tackled an action game with dual analog sticks. The twin sticks feel natural and make a world of difference in this type of game. However, the developers have figured out a smart way to improve on the typical analog stick design. Now you can adjust your aim and zero in on an enemy by moving the Vita around. You use the system's motion capabilities to get accurate shots, something that works a surprising amount of the time. The movement isn't so sensitive that it will send the camera all over the place, but rather just subtle enough to get the perfect shot. It's a clever design choice that I suspect will be seen in a lot of Vita shooters.
Beyond the gameplay, the real star is the game's presentation. The graphics are absolutely stunning, nearly as good as what I've seen on the PlayStation 3. You can see some shortcuts here and there, but they don’t' take away from the lush backgrounds and detailed character models. The game also impresses on the audio side. The quippy banter between the characters is fun, especially when a familiar face pops up at the half way point. The game immediately reminds us why we love tagging along with these characters on their many adventures.
There is something to be said about being burned out on Nathan Drake's adventures. Golden Abyss has the unfortunate fate of coming out only a few months after Uncharted 3. It's impossible not to compare these two games, which certainly isn't fair to the developers at Sony Bend. This game simply lacks the spectacle Drake's Deception. You don't get epic scenes where you fight on a cargo plane. There's nothing in this game as jaw-dropping amazing as trying to survive a sinking cruise ship. These are moments you will never forget. Sadly, this first Vita doesn't pack the narrative punch you've come to expect from the Uncharted series.
On the other hand, I found the situation in Golden Abyss a lot more believable. Don't get me wrong, there are still plenty of "NO WAY!" moments, but the smaller scale seems strangely realistic. I can believe the motives of these characters without the suspension of belief. What's more, the villain here actually has a motive, something I can't say about Uncharted 3.
Unfair comparisons aside, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a strong launch game that shows off just about every function of the PlayStation Vita. The limited environments and lack of huge set pieces may disappoint some, but I enjoyed the intimate storyline and believable bad guys. The amazing graphics only add to this already enjoyable romp through Central America. It's not as good as the recent console installments, but Sony makes a convincing argument why Uncharted deserves to be on a portable system.