Uncharted: Golden Abyss Review
Posted by Patrick Elliot
Full Drake or half-baked?
As the first portable entry for the Uncharted series, Uncharted: Golden Abyss sets itself apart from its console counterparts in a variety of ways. Firstly, the game isn’t directed by franchise creators Naughty Dog, helmed instead by Bend Studio, the team that brought Resistance Retribution to the PSP. Secondly, the gameplay the franchise is known for has been updated to accommodate the unique gyro and touch controls of the PS Vita. Lastly, the plot is set before the events of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, with new characters and a heavy focus on collectables linked to the plot. But with all these changes, does it still feel like an Uncharted game?
The quick answer is yes, it does. From gunplay to graphics and voice acting to script, this is an Uncharted adventure through and through. Journeying into the jungles of Central America, Golden Abyss sees Drake dangling off crumbling ruins, taking in sweeping exotic vistas and shooting his tongue off almost as much as his gun. Voice acting is top notch, and the characters’ endless stream of one-liners is sure to keep you cheery as you shoot dudes in the face and toss unexpecting bad guys off of cliffs.
The unique control options PS Vita brings to the classic Uncharted combat are definitely a welcome addition. The best of these features come from aiming: rather than gently pushing the analogue stick to zero in on a head shot, you can simply tilt the system a bit to move the reticule. This feels fresh and responsive, allowing you to shoot with precision in an immersive new way. Touch controls can be used to zoom in with the sniper rifle, pick up guns and ammo and — best of all — place grenade tosses with quick precision.
As for that trademark Uncharted platforming, the implementation of unique control schemes is a bit of a mixed bag. Using the touch screen to tap and drag a path for Drake works well, allowing you to navigate cliffs and daring jumps with ease. The game seems to be aware of this too, giving you long paths to swipe so you can soak in the scenery as Drake scales giant jungle cliffs. During time-sensitive moments you may want to return to the quick click of a button, and thankfully the game lets you actively switch between control options on the fly. Using the rear touch pad to pull up on ropes and tilting the screen to swing over gaps feels a bit forced, so it's nice to be able to revert back to traditional button controls whenever you wish.
Balancing with gyro controls however is required. Drake, whose frequent inhuman acrobatics make up huge sections of the game, struggles to cross almost every log or thin plank in his path, the ensuing balancing act requiring you to tilt the system left and right to keep from falling. The original Uncharted used similar controls via Sixaxis, but Naughty Dog removed it from the second game — here it just seems shoe-horned in to highlight Vita’s motion controls without adding anything new, and really just breaks up an otherwise smooth platforming experience.
Some of the other Vita-specific controls are a bit heavy-handed as well, like moving the system to snap photos or using your finger to piece together puzzles made of torn up maps and documents. You'll also repeatedly rub dust off relics or create charcoal rubbings using the touch screen. It's not all pointless though, as the former intertwines with the main plot while the relics provide insight into the back story. Still, all these frequent breaks in the action early on cause the game to suffer from a slow start.
Thankfully, around the halfway mark Golden Abyss really picks up the pace. Enemies start firing rocket launchers and Gatling guns, a beloved old friend arrives and the high-paced action sequences come one after another. You’ll be tilting the system to avoid rocks while rushing down river, narrowly escape exploding ruins on foot and frequently engaging in vertical shootouts. Best of all you'll be treated to some impressive touch-based QTE fights that map finger swipes to on-screen action.
As you might expect, the story revolves around an ancient mystery you slowly put together over the course of the game. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say that back in the day some Spanish dudes where looking for this super sweet place and didn’t fare so well. (Do they ever in these games?) Drake starts out merely helping his buddy Dante identify some artefacts, but soon he is sucked into much larger machinations, crossing a dictator and meeting Chase, a young local woman whose archaeologist grandfather has disappeared. The collectable trinkets scattered throughout the chapters help reveal more about the mystery, and by the end you may find yourself leafing back throughout your collection in order to gain a better understanding of the story.
With more than 300 collectable items in the game, it's impossible to gather all in a single playthough. In addition to the hidden treasures scattered throughout the 30-odd chapters there are also "bounties," treasures that randomly drop from fallen enemies. That brings us to another unique feature Vita offers outside of the controls: the Black Market. Syncing up with Near, the Black Market allows you to exchange items with other Vita systems by receiving "discoveries" from nearby players. You can request specific items, so, if you're in Near and see an Uncharted notification, be sure to click it, as they eventually expire. The Treasure Map DLC helps by showing you the locations of certain items, but whether you buy it or not, expect to be in for the long haul if you're planning on going platinum.
One thing many players will likely lament is the absence of multiplayer. Granted, the first Uncharted went without it and was still a success in its own right, and Golden Abyss can certainly stand on its own feet without it. But nevertheless, it would have been great to jump into Plunder or Gold Rush while on the go and see Chase and Dante face off against the conventional Uncharted crew.
Without a doubt, the most impressive feat of Uncharted Golden Abyss is the shear fidelity it achieves on a portable console. The long-view backdrops are stunning, lighting is superb and character animations are convincing and emotive. Combine this with top notch orchestral musical cues and grade-A voice-overs, and you’ve got yourself a cinema-level experience you can play while going to the bathroom. Now that’s the future.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss is an impressive feat, successfully translating the over-the-top action, beautiful locales and immersive storytelling of the Uncharted series into a portable game. The additional capabilities the Vita provides add in some welcome tweaks to gameplay, like motion controlled aiming and touch-based boss brawls, but also create some sluggish moments that slow down the action. Aside from the forced gyro balancing acts and gratuitous relic rubbing, you can always return to classic controls if you wish — a wise move on Bend Studio's part. While the game doesn't quite reach the level of bombast found in the console iterations, Uncharted: Golden Abyss sets a high bar for what portable gaming is capable of, setting a promising benchmark for what Sony's latest portable powerhouse can deliver.