Uncharted: Golden Abyss

August 11, 2013

Sony’s latest portable console, the PS Vita, is now finally in the hands of the worldwide gaming masses, and the company is wisely placing Uncharted: Golden Abyss front and centre in much of the marketing and hype surrounding the shiny device. Golden Abyss not only looks gorgeous for a home console game, it’s almost unbelievable for a handheld, and promises to provide the same epic pulp-adventure experience that all of the main entries into the franchise have delivered so far. The only thing weighing down this PS Vita launch title is, well, the fact that it’s a PS Vita launch title. And that means it’s got to showcase all of the handheld’s features, even the gimmicky ones.

The Sony Bend studio has taken over the development reigns from Naughty Dog, and are tasked with making both a solid Uncharted title and a potential ‘killer app’ for the fledgling Vita console. They certainly get the first part right with aplomb. You’d never notice that this isn’t a Naughty Dog title as the production values are sky-high, with a sweeping orchestral score that’s just as good as its home console counterparts, intricately designed locations crammed full of detail, and the aforementioned beautiful graphics. The jungles of Central America provide a vibrant environment that showcases the Vita’s screen amazingly well, as you scale giant ancient temples, observe huge waterfalls overlooking vast landscapes, and descend into sinister and titular ‘golden abyss’. If you’re the type of person who likes to show off the AU $350 piece of kit you just bought to everyone you meet, then this is the game to do it with. If I had one complaint about the presentation, it would be those glowing ‘here’s-a-treasure’ markers, which appear in even in cutscenes and are really, really distracting.

The story is also top-notch, if a little familiar, sending Nathan Drake on yet another hunt for a mythical city of gold which will most likely ultimately turn out to have a dangerous or evil true nature. Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The game is a prequel, although it doesn’t have any major ties to the other games in the series, and is content to be its own standalone adventure. Drake and Sully are back and as likable as ever, with Nolan North and Richard McGonagle perfect as a double team of charming scoundrels. Many of the supporting characters are surprisingly well-drawn too, with a new strong female lead, Marisa Chase, who is actually able to take a liking to Drake without becoming romantically involved! Jason Dante, an old friend of Drake, has more depth to him than we were initially expecting as well, and antagonist crime-lord Guerrero is sufficiently menacing (if only for his habit of casually walking his subordinates to ledges – and then pushing them off). The game lasts about ten hours with over thirty chapters, which feels like a meaty experience for a portable device.

The two aspects of Uncharted gameplay formula – exploration and gunplay – remain largely unchanged inGolden Abyss. Much of your time in the game will be spent scrabbling around ledges as you eternally look ‘for another way around’, climbing up handhelds and along rails conveniently painted in yellow to distinguish them from the background. This still works quite well, as there’s plenty of near misses and death defying leaps that Drake must undergo as the environment constantly collapses around him. Gunplay is still a duck-and-cover affair, as you use your surroundings to hide from enemy bullets while quickly popping out for a headshot or two. In some areas you can use stealth to one-hit-kill your enemies, which is actually quite easy as you can run up to them and just whack them on the head as long as they aren’t facing your direction.

However, in addition to the regular face button and analogue stick controls, there are new ways to control Drake – namely the touch and motion controls. When exploring, the front touch screen can be used to ‘paint’ a line over climbable objects. The effect is quite cool, as it highlights a path which follows your finger, although it further removes you from the proceedings as you then simply watch Drake do all the climbing for you. The touch screen is also used for pretty iffy quicktime events – requiring you to swipe in certain directions to to cut through bamboo or cloth, melee an enemy, or participate in cinematic fight scenes. The screen just doesn’t seem to want to register your input sometimes, making the big quicktime fights near the end of the game pretty frustrating.

The best use of the touch controls is for puzzle solving – rubbing all over the screen to make charcoal rubbings or to wipe the dirt off collected items is simple and repetitive, but somehow satisfying, and piecing back together maps and posters is also pretty cool. The rear touch panel is hardly used, except for climbing ropes, zooming in with scopes and rowing a canoe you acquire later in the game. It seems like it may have been more obvious to use the rear touch panel for quicktime events, seeing as it would prevent your fingers from obscuring the touch screen. I found myself barely using the motion controls as well, as aiming using them is just more likely to interrupt the precision of the analogue sticks. Having to stop every so often while you’re crossing a bridge to ‘balance’ using the motion sensor is cute the first few times, but is never challenging and gets old real quick.

One really cool feature in Golden Abyss is Drake’s journal. Rather than just a hint-dispenser as it has been in past games, the journal is now a scrapbook of sorts, containing several ‘mysteries’ that you can keep a track of and complete as you progress through the game. For instance, one mystery might require you to take photos of statues around an area (using the new in-game camera), as well as take charcoal rubbings of several plates and collect a few objects. Your rewards come in the form of trophies, as well as further story and background insight. The other, kind of confusing, feature is the Black Market. Working with Near, I think the idea is for you to trade the various bounties and items you collect in the main quest with other people in your area, but it’s not very well explained, and requires you to switch out of the game into Near in order to get going. Also, just one final heads up for people who’ll be replaying the game over and over – if you choose to start a new game after completing your first playthrough and opt to overwrite your old save, be aware that all of your collections and progress will be deleted. So, you know, save in a different slot.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss looks and sounds better than any handheld game we’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something considering recent hits like Resident Evil: Revelations. The gameplay and story also hold up to the series’ best, as long as you ignore the touch and motion controls to the best of your ability. If you’re a collection-fiend, there’s plenty of reason to go back for multiple playthroughs, and overall it’s just a great, console-quality experience that can shockingly be played on the go. If there’s one launch title to pick up that will impress your friends and family and provide a hugely enjoyable experience to boot, it’s Uncharted: Golden Abyss.


Beautiful graphics | Engaging story | Lots to see and do


Iffy touch and motion controls

Overall Score: