Also available on: N/A
Developer: SCE Bend Studio
Genre: Action Adventure
The PlayStation Vita's launch lineup has proven to be quite the treasure trove, and Nathan Drake's handheld debut in Uncharted: Golden Abyss is surely its biggest gem. It may only be a matter of months since the Indiana Jones wannabe last graced the PlayStation 3, but who better to showcase the capabilities of new hardware than Drake?
Series masterminds Naughty Dog have handed the development reins to Sony's own Bend Studio, but the game's only deviations from the established blueprint pertain to the PS Vita's unique hardware features. The addition of touch-screen controls and more prominent motion sensor support was a bold move, yet these mechanics complement Uncharted: Golden Abyss for the most part.
This story takes place before the events of Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, but is very much self-contained. We find Drake caught up in the affairs of a shady adventurer named Joe Dante, with reluctant love interest Marisa Chase in tow. The trio set out in search of a legendary lost city in Central America, and the usual cocktail of friendship, betrayal and a whole lot of shooting follows.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss is more character-driven than its predecessors, in the sense that the history lessons take a backseat. The new supporting cast settle into much the same roles as their forbears, but are not quite as likeable. Those snappy exchanges between Drake and Sully are sorely missed when Dante begins harping on in his Joe Pesci-esque tone.
The core gameplay remains largely unchanged. Once again it's a gratifying blend of acrobatic platforming, grand set pieces, gunplay and puzzle solving. The basic control system lends itself well to the PS Vita's dual analog stick layout, so anyone familiar with the series will pick up the fundamentals intuitively. Drake handles about as fluidly as he does in his PS3 outings. Movement is smooth and responsive, though the age-old gripe about the unreliably of the cover mechanic remains.
The optional Intu-Aim system, which enables players to aim their weapons via the motion sensor, is an innovative inclusion. There are bound to be players who prefer the right analog stick, but most will end up using a combination of the two when that extra precision is called for.
Bend Studios has attempted to harness as many of the PS Vita's capabilities as possible here. The touch-screen plays a fundamental part in the gameplay, used for melee combat, streamlined climbing and puzzles. Instead of traversing multiple footholds manually, players can map out a route for Drake to follow by tracing a digit across the screen. It feels like the lazy man's way of getting around, but there are certainly instances where it's beneficial.
Quicktime events, which crop up during hand-to-hand combat and some set pieces, can only be carried out through screen swipes, though this doesn't put the player at any kind of disadvantage. That said, the employment of the device's motion sensor to help Drake balance along narrow walkways is a feature we could have lived without. These segments are awkwardly pedantic, and usually result in a few cheap deaths or a needless setback.
Puzzle sections are largely tackled using the touch-screen. There are mini-games where the player must drag and drop scattered puzzle pieces to unearth clues that tie in with the over-arching story. It's the kind of thing that could serve as a casual mobile phone game in its own right, upping the novelty factor somewhat. The rear touch pad also comes into play during rope climbing sequences, as well as other mini-games, but it feels as though this feature was shoehorned in.
Drake dabbles in a spot of travel photography this time around, with players rewarded for recreating specific shots throughout the journey. Like most things in the game outside of running and shooting, the camera is touch-controlled. It offers a change of pace from what we have come to expect from Uncharted, but thankfully you get to do a lot more shooting with firearms than with the camera.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss might come across a little on the gimmicky side with its use of the Vita hardware, but the series magic is here in spades. The shootouts are intense, whether you're gunning down a small army using the cover mechanic, or taking out guards one at a time through stealth. Drake's death-defying leaps during platforming sections are no less thrilling on the smaller screen, and although the inclusion of fewer climactic set pieces makes this a more subtle entry in the series, it still has its fair share of memorable instances.
Nobody was expecting the game to rival Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception in the graphical stakes, but it doesn't fall far short. The backdrops aren't quite as awe-inspiring, but the character models and animation look of almost equal quality on the smaller screen. There's certainly a case to argue that this is the best-looking handheld game to date, and given that it's merely a Vita launch title, just imagine what we can expect from the system in the future.
As the Uncharted series is now something of a multiplayer favourite, the absence of any online gameplay here is hugely disappointing. There is a networking feature called the Black Market, where players can trade bonus items they have collected on adventures. It's a worthwhile inclusion, but certainly no substitute for a good deathmatch or co-op session.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss is a worthy addition to a series that has been setting the standards in its genre for several years now. Bend Studio has done a great job optimising the award-winning formula for Sony's new handheld platform, without making too many concessions along the way. If the Vita can deliver a few more titles of this scope, the platform holder has nothing to fear from the advances and competition in mobile phone technology.
> PlayStation Vita: Hands-on with Sony's new handheld