Uncharted: Golden Abyss Review

Platform: Playstation Vita
Release Date: February 12, 2012

Uncharted games, while they have many interesting facets, have always been impressive due to their titanic spectacle. Death defying jumps, ridiculous explosions, gigantic lost cities, and that impressive half-tuck are not only fun to interact in, but have always been some of the most technically impressive showcases of the PS3 hardware. But what happens when that is scaled to a handheld console? One would assume some of the magic would evaporate, right? The Playstation Vita needed a game to show off what it could do and Uncharted: Golden Abyss is just that title. Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a captivating Uncharted game through and through regardless of what console it is on.

Before discovering Shambhala and Iram of the Pillars, Nathan Drake hadn’t really hit his treasure hunting stride yet. Stuck doing two-bit jobs for scumbags, Nate and Dante (Nate’s current contractor) are on a mysterious trail in what seems like hostile territory. However, this bit of land is also home to some ancient clues that Dante can’t decipher, leading Nate to each symbol in hopes that he can uncover their long, lost secrets.

Treasure, or even a shaky promise of it, has the ability to attract anyone, even some of Central America’s worst. It doesn’t take long for a revolutionary leader by the name of Roberto Guerro to notice that you are in his backyard messing up his lawn gnomes. Surprisingly, he doesn’t take kindly to this and adds another faction in the rat race to the unknown wealth that the clues might eventually point to.

Chase and Nate try to decipher an ancient puzzle.

This is an Uncharted game so this is obviously going to be another episode about exploring and treasure hunting. This topic doesn’t seem as worn as it probably is mostly because of how it shares the same strengths as its console brethren. I don’t intend to undersell the actual story, as I was constantly uncertain of future events and was eager to see how they would play out, but the characters and superb writing make for the most involving part. Both new and old faces join the journey and all share the same quality of being memorable. Drake’s performance easily matches his roles in prior games and new personalities meet that high bar as well. Chase (Nate’s female companion), Dante, and Guerro all have well developed personalities and quirks that surprisingly come close to the series’ astronomically high bar of personal interaction. The team at Sony Bend did a fantastic job of writing great, clever dialogue for each person, something Naughty Dog sets a fantastic example of. It must have been an incredibly daunting task, but they nailed it.

Drake doesn’t appear at his destination; mountains, ruins, and vegetation with conveniently placed handholds always lay within the path from A to B. Climbing about remains faithful to past titles complete with almost every other rock or platform breaking once Drake gets a hand on it. Besides the odd times where Nate just falls in the abyss, platforming is fairly easy but tension can be added when said platforms collapse or when other pressures are placed upon Drake. It also camouflages time for character development as they will constantly banter back and forth between bouts of monkeying around. An added touch like this can give personality to a gameplay mechanic that doesn’t always take the most brainpower to solve.

Drake is doing what he does best. Well, besides murdering pirates.

Instead, said brainpower will be used for uncovering the game’s many collectibles. Nathan Drake is a treasure hunter after all, so it makes sense that he actually carries a backpack that might house the trinkets he collects. While you can still find the traditional ancient valuables scattered about, there are a few more types that are strewn around the levels. Pictures can be taken and charcoal rubbings need to rubbed in addition to the normal collect-a-thon, but instead of being there to pad out the trophy count (of which there are a lot), they tell small miscellaneous anecdotes each with unique voice acting. Some require some light touch screen use, but even though they pop up frequently, they don’t become tedious or tiresome.

Random bounties have also been added as drops. Each level can possibly yield treasure from fallen foes. This feeds into the game’s Near functionality, as you can somehow trade them through that service. I say “somehow” because no matter where I went, I couldn’t get the app to function. Either no one was trading items or the Near functionality wasn’t working each time. Regardless, once (or if) these issues get ironed out, it will add a small community aspect to a solitary experience. All these treasure ideas are small, but welcome additions.

The touch screen is a different beast. Most functionality is completely optional from reloading to platforming (which is useful when deciding if a platform is within the play realm), but forcing it upon players causes issues. Some scenes rely heavily on swiping and are either gimmicky or just too much. Opening doors and rowing a boat requires multiple swipes and both are actions that don’t need interactivity. Fist fighting and platforming fall into the camp of just being unnecessary. In the middle of the slow motion brawling, counters are used by swiping the screen in a specific direction. Other Uncharted games have shown that countering fits well on a button, making it seem even worse that it is shoved in a place where it doesn’t belong. Balancing on tree trunks and making a last second save while jumping are just as superfluous. Most of the game’s actual puzzles benefit from touch screen usage, but the problems emerge when it is mandatory and feels tacked on

Do we have to swipe?

Button and touch screen controls can work in harmony, which is evidenced by the shooting. Using the second analog stick is great for broad movement and pretty serviceable for general shooting. However, for more precision, the gyroscopic aiming allows for more minute movements. By tilting the system, the aiming cursor can be slightly tweaked to go for that fatal headshot. I understand skepticism surrounding a mechanic such as this (believe me, I was definitely one of them), but it is a thoughtful addition that makes intelligent use of the technology crammed into the system.

Stealth is still an option in combat.

As for the shooting encounters themselves, I walked away satisfied. Enemies no longer pour in endlessly in every encounter and can even be thinned out by taking an initial stealthy approach. Whether it is a limitation of the hardware or Bend’s understanding that fighting an entire ruthless army isn’t fun, combat flows more fluidly due to the game’s lowered difficulty. Challenging confrontations steadily make their way into the game, but it was welcome because it wasn’t every damn firefight. The sticks require some adjusting because of the foreign concept of dual analogs on a handheld, but I quickly got a good grip on the shooting controls, benefiting the shooting as a whole.

Do you want proof that the Vita can pump out stellar graphics? Well, Uncharted: Golden Abyss is that proof. The expectations are high for a good looking Uncharted game as well as a good looking Vita game and Bend delivered on both. It looks comparable to the original Uncharted in a lot of respects, mainly due to the jungle and ancient ruin environments. The fact that I can even honestly say that is a testament of the game’s looks. In a similar vein of the original Uncharted, every locale looks appropriately lush or destroyed but beautiful nonetheless. Great lighting, animation, character models, and effects round out the package and never cease looking fantastic. It doesn’t set pieces similar to the scale found in Uncharted 2 or Uncharted 3, but, while they would have been much appreciated, aren’t needed to carry a game like this. If you are as big a fan of the first Uncharted as I am, you’ll understand. I’m already wowed at the technical chops the Vita is showing and the fact that it is a launch game is even more impressive.

For a bunch of ruins and leaves, it looks damn good.

Consistently through my long play time with the game, I constantly had to keep reminding myself of one thing: I have a full Uncharted game right in my hands. This isn’t a short, half-assed port or side story, but an actual Uncharted game through and through; it just happens to be on the Vita. With its length being comparable to that of its console counterparts, amazing visuals, traditional yet solid gameplay, and loveable characters, it was everything I expected and wanted. Not much is really added to the formula, but when it is done this well, I have little to complain about. It’s the same ol’ Drake, he’s just in your pocket this time.

+Stunning visuals
+Treasures and collectibles are a good addition
+Witty dialogue with a good mix of new and familiar characters
+Shooting and climbing feel right on this new system
-Forced touch screen controls are tacked on

Final Score: 9/10

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