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Uncharted: Golden Abyss hands-on preview

By the end of next month, PlayStation fans in North America will be able to carry Uncharted around in their pockets. Those pockets will need to be rather large and awkward, since the PlayStation Vita is a bit larger than your average smartphone, but don’t be a jerk about it. You know what I’m saying. The Vita is turning Uncharted into a portable adventure with Uncharted: Golden Abyss.

I picked up my imported Vita earlier this week and have been tooling around with the Japanese version of Golden Abyss which, it should be noted, comes fully equipped with English-language dialogue. There’s some Japanese text on the game case (which looks like an adorably micro-sized Blu-ray case), but it’s safe to say that the Japan version of Golden Abyss is identical to what you’ll all be playing come February 22. So with that in mind, how do things shape up?

Charted Territory For Uncharted

At the most basic level, I’ve run into nothing particularly new or game-changing in Golden Abyss. This is not a bad thing. You pick up your Vita, fire up the game and suddenly you’re playing an Uncharted game that looks ALMOST as good as it would using a PlayStation 3/HDTV combo. The physics of Drake’s movement perhaps aren’t as elaborate, but it’s faked very, very well. Putting aside the entirely optional touch- and motion-based controls (which I’ll get to), playing Golden Abyss so far feels to me like playing any other Uncharted game.

As Drake, you’re running through a lush, green jungle environment (South America in this case). Part of that time is spent jumping from ledge to ledge and shimmying along sheer rock faces. And the other part of that time is spent crouched behind a rock or a tree, popping up only to squeeze off a few shots at your gun-toting attackers. The platforming feels as smooth as it ever has and, similarly, the shooting feels imprecise and floaty. Like I said, it’s Uncharted.

The only thing I’ve noticed so far, after roughly three or four hours with the game, is that the level of spectacle feels dialed down. Those who played the second and third console games know what I’m talking about. Uncharted has evolved over time to fully embrace a sort of Hollywood blockbuster sensibility on the presentation side of things. Epic-scale set pieces that see Drake dangling from broken railings above raging infernos and trading blows with Bad Guys from the top of a speeding train.

You’ll come across moments that seem to be reaching for that level of spectacle in the early hours of Golden Abyss, but they feel muted somehow. Is it the smaller screen? Perhaps that’s it. To me though, it simply feels like things are dialed back just a little bit. There are brief flashes that remind me of the console experiences, but I’ve not yet run into a sequence in the Vita game that leaves my jaw hanging open. You could argue that the very act of playing Uncharted on a subway is jaw-dropping enough, and you’d be right to a certain extent, but Golden Abyss still feels in its early hours like it’s less of a blockbuster experience than the console games.

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Getting In Touch With Nathan Drake

I just devoted a lot of words to talking about how Golden Abyss is very much a re-creation of the console Uncharted experience that fans know so well. Now let’s look at a few of the differences.

The core gameplay may be unchanged, but the range of control options available for moving Nathan Drake around in the world have broadened considerably. With the Vita sporting four less buttons than your average DualShock — L2/L3 and R2/R3, specifically — a lot of what you can do is handed over to the Vita’s touch-based interface and built-in motion sensor. In most cases these controls are redundant with button-based solutions.

Reloading your gun, for example, can be done by either pressing the Down button on the directional pad or by tapping the weapon icon in the upper-left corner of the screen. Climbing along on handholds is similarly split between left analog stick movements and physically dragging your finger across the route you want Drake to follow on the screen. Either works, it’s simply a matter of which option feels right to you.

In practice, I’ve found myself relying on some touch controls and not others. The drag-finger-to-climb-on-rock works pretty well and feels cool, certainly less cumbersome than trying to figure out which way you need to push the analog stick to move Drake from A to B. Same goes for tilting the entire Vita to the left/right when Drake needs to lean out and jump from one handhold to another one positioned behind him. It feels perfectly natural to perform these actions. Is it a little gimmicky? Sure, but it also offers a better range of options than you get from just a button-and-analog-stick-based gamepad.

I guess what I’m trying to tell you is that, overall, this is very much an Uncharted game that makes good use of the Vita’s unique features. I’ll be back in a month and a half with a more complete account — known in some circles as a “review” — but fans of the series can perk and start getting excited now. The Vita launch is less than two months away, and by all appearances Golden Abyss looks like a game that you’re definitely going to want to play.