As a showcase of what Sony’s new PlayStation Vita can do, Uncharted: Golden Abyss from Bend Studios is pretty much perfect. As a game cut from the exact same cloth as previous entries in the series from creator Naughty Dog Studios, it’s… well, it’s another Uncharted game. For better and for worse. There are a surprising number of reasons to own the Vita at launch — as a First Edition bundle this week for forward-thinking pre-order-ers, or as an a la carte portable game device purchase next week on February 22 — and this console-style launch title, for any of its flaws, is most certainly among them.
Uncharted, With A Twist And A Swipe
Golden Abyss is a prequel to the Uncharted stories you know. Nathan Drake is a little bit younger and a little more brash, but his skills as an expert treasure hunter and climber (and so-so shooter) are the same as they’ve always been. This latest adventure finds our hero following the 400-year-old trail of a Spanish expedition through a predominantly jungle setting. His longtime friend Sully is largely absent, but there’s a new love interest, a bloodthirsty dictator, a back-stabbing ex-con associate and a body count that piles up so high it might make even Sylvester Stallone blush.
In short, it’s an Uncharted game. That you’re playing it on a handheld device is, at first, a novelty. You can do things like trace your finger along a climbing route using the Vita’s touchscreen instead of fumbling with analog sticks to manipulate Drake’s shimmyings along precarious rock outcroppings. You’ll occasionally come across strung up tarps or thick undergrowth that require some slashes of the machete — simulated with finger swipes — to get through.
It’s not long, however, before the novelty fades and you get a real sense of how the genius design of the Vita has been leveraged to give you a full-blown console-style game. You have fewer physical buttons to manipulate on the handheld than you would on a PlayStation 3 controller, but a lot more flexibility thanks to the touch interface.
It’s not terribly convenient to tap the little fist icon that appears on the screen when a button press can perform the same act, but functions like weapon reloading, machete use, treasure collection and Drake’s camera are smartly mapped to the left and right fringes of the touchscreen. You extend a finger slightly and suddenly you’ve suddenly got another set of secondary controls to work with.
Weapon aiming gets a boost too, thanks to some clever implementation of the Vita’s built-in gyroscope. You’ll still hold down the left trigger to aim down a weapon’s sights and adjust that aim with the right analog stick. The twist is that you can also manipulate the Vita itself, tilting it forward/backward and left/right, to fine-tune your aim. The ideal control scheme involves mixing the two, using the analog stick to get your crosshairs close to your target and the motion controls to line up a headshot.
Then there are the puzzles. Uncharted has always had a focus on puzzle-solving, but the Vita’s touchscreen controls offer some of the series’ best yet, no question. You’ll assemble torn pieces of paper together to re-create documents, take rubbings off of rock carvings, move statues around… all sorts of things. You’ll also use the Vita to steer yourself along during a few on-rails sequences, such as a mud slide that was showcase in early demos.
It all works great in Golden Abyss, and it’s not long before the implications of what control tweaks like these might bring to other console-style games on the platform begin to seep in.
Everything Else Is As Expected
Vita-specific content aside, Golden Abyss is, as mentioned above, a fairly standard Uncharted experience. It’s a little back-heavy, in that some of the game’s biggest and most epic moments are reserved for later on in the game. More recent Uncharted games (specifically the second and third) did well at peppering set piece craziness throughout the story. While there are a couple of explosive sequences early on in Golden Abyss, the bulk of it isn’t seen until the final third.
Don’t assume that the lack of set piece moments means things come up short in the presentation department, however. Golden Abyss is easily one of the best looking launch titles for the Vita. Those who go looking for flaws will certainly find them; Drake’s movements aren’t as elaborately animated and the character textures and environments overall lack the details of the PS3 games. It still looks stunning on the Vita’s five-inch OLED screen, however. Anyone who complains about the graphics in Golden Abyss is merely looking for things to complain about.
You’re also going to get the same quality of storytelling that fans have come to expect from the series. The actual A to B narrative is great fun thanks to Drake’s snarky chemistry with Golden Abyss love interest Marisa Chase. His exchanges with the ex-con Dante are similarly entertaining. By the time a special guest puts in an admittedly awesome appearance toward the end of the game, you’ll be so invested that the noteworthy moment will be mere gravy on top of yet another compelling Uncharted adventure.
The biggest flaw is the same one that’s been dogging the series since its inception: the shooting is crap. Developer Bend Studios is the first Naughty Dog outsider to take on the Uncharted franchise. Rather than trying to improve on the flaws of the console games, Bend seems content to simply ape the central elements of the core series, for better and for worse. The motion-controlled aiming elements certainly help, but Drake’s inability to shoot straight continues to be a sticking point in Golden Abyss.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss is imperfect in all of the expected ways and perfect in all of the right ones. It’s not the sole reason to own a Vita as it hits stores next week, but it’s definitely a compelling one. If you’re still on the fence about picking up Sony’s new handheld, this game might not push you over the side. But if you already have every intention of drinking Sony’s delicious handheld Kool-Aid this month, then Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a definite must-purchase accompaniment for your new gadget.
Score 8.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation Vita on a copy provided by Sony Computer Entertainment)